This is an old blog that I started in 2006. I keep it because it has a lot of historical data and people still come here. As of September 2016, no new updates will be made here. All new blog posts and writing/publishing related news will be posted over on my new site at

Friday, May 21, 2010

Scotland's Burning of Heretics & Condemned Witches (1470's)

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

For the novel I'm currently writing, I'm researching the persecution of innocent souls who were condemned to be witches, heretics, or demonically possessed in 15th century Scotland. Even though Scotland is known to be a nation that was once deeply rooted in Celtic Paganism, they participated in these persecutions due to the influence of the Christian movement throughout Europe at that time.

When looking at the religious state of a country during a particular period in history, one must first consider the rulers in charge. King James III came to the throne of Scotland as a nine year old lad in 1460. His mother ruled as Regent until her death and Bishop Kennedy was guardian of Scotland. James III was a weak king and criticisized by much of the nobles of Scotland. They rallied his son against him, a lad of 15, who promised to help them only if his father wasn't harmed. In 1488, James III was killed and James IV harbored much guilt from it.

Christianity was introduced to Scotland in the sixth century when an Irish monk, St. Columba came to the Isle of Iona for his mission work. A generation later, Aidan, a missionary from Iona preached among the Angles between the present-day border of Edinburgh and England. St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, worked to spread Christianity among the lowlands of Scotland (d. 687). As you can imagine, some of the pagan rituals still existed in the highlands for much longer, but were eventually converted to Christianity--especially as a result of the persecution they suffered. If a person is given a choice between conversion and being tortured to death or burned at the stake--conversion was quite convincing.

As a Christian, I grieve for this part of our history. Jesus didn't go around beating non-Christians or torturing them or persecuting them to death. He gave them love and taught those who wanted to be taught, but he never forced His teachings upon anyone. God doesn't want puppets. That's why He gave us free will. He told His disciples that if they were not received in a city or house, to wipe the dust from their feet and when they depart, take their blessings with them. (Matthew 10:14)

By the 1470's, Scotland was deep into Catholicism and still clinging to the old feudal system and their long-standing alliance with France, a Roman Catholic country. The Church was very powerful and busy acquiring lands and material gains from the people. Tension and division rose between the clergy and the people. Since the Church always sided with the crown, people and even nobles, had no one to turn to for assistance in politics or to influence the country forward in new movements with new ideas.

In 1407, a follower of the John Wycliffe movement (or the Lollard Movement) pleaded for an open Bible and a more Christian daily life. He was condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake. Bibles were only available to clergy, and people were at the mercy of hearing what the clergy chose to read to them and teach them. Also, most Bibles were printed in Latin.

Here is a list of Witch Trials in Scotland from the 1400's to the 1700's.

Why was the most preferred method of torture and persecution burning at the stake? It's because of the old belief in baptism by fire. In actuality, when the Bible refers to baptism by fire, it is referring to a spiritual baptism, but people in their lack of knowledge and education back then took this meaning in a literal sense. 

I've listed links in the above texts, but I've also used James G. Leyburn's book, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History.


There were so many innocents condemned. Christ held his arms out and wept. I am looking forward to your new book.

Fascinating post. I struggle with research. I'm terrible at making sense of facts, so I'm always impressed with someone who knows their material so well. My series has Scottish Warriors but they're modern for the most part, and the ones who aren't are nineteenth century. I really appreciate the glimpse into a troubling past. I can't imagine living in those times. I'm a Christian and I agree, some terrible things have been done in the name of Christianity that had nothing to do with God. Thanks so much for sharing.

Jennifer, there seems to have been confusion over what the definition of a witch. The list shows several who had dealings with elves.

Like you, I grieve as I research. Right now I'm learning about medieval siege warfare and dealing with emotional fallout from the things I read. I'll pray for the protection of the Lord for you as you research and write.

Research is a fun hobby, but no, I wouldn't have wanted to live back then. I'd have been burned. I am a Christian, but I won't go into details of my thoughts of organized religion. Let's just say my thought stem from all the research I have done.
But it is difficult to do so much research and not get too involved in just that. It tends to pull you away from writing. At least it pulled me. So I try to figure out what exactly I need to know and spend a certain amount of time on just that and make myself stick to that topic. Oooh but how I want to follow-up on other tales. :D
Great job on the facts!

Wendy, I agree, I know Jesus wept for them.

Anita, I love research. I enjoy genealogy research when I get the chance. It gives me so many ideas for new stories.

Janalyn, I think they were confused about many things. Everyone was probably lumped into one category together. My character is going to have a simple seizure disorder. If they didn't understand it, they would try to reason it with superstition. Thank you for the prayers, I appreciate them.

Caledonia, I think lots of people from today would have been burned. I think you're referring to legalism in Christianity. I'm not into legalism either. God has worked on my relationship with Him about that. Legalism causes people to judge others and shut some out who God would prefer to teach and help.

I recently have learned that I am Scottish, my family being Hamiltons. While researching my family, I read that Patrick Hamilton was burned at the stake in 1528 for becoming a follower of Martin Luther. The offical "church" considered Luther to be a heretic and wanted to make an example of Hamilton. It breaks my heart to hear of it, but at the same time, lifts my spirit. He was quoted as saying, "I will rather be content that my body burn in this fire for confessing my faith in Christ, than it burn in @#!*% for denying the same." He was 24 when he died. I will be praying for you as you complete the next book, and that it will be used as a vessel for God's love through it!

Marion, It is so sad what happened back then. Thank you so much for the prayers for the writing ministry God has given me. I need all the prayers I can get.