Could the real Geillis Duncane please stand up

If you’ve read Diana Gabaldon’s Cross Stitch series or watched its television adaption, Outlander, then you’ll be familiar with the character Geillis Duncane, who was in fact a real person accused of Witchcraft.

In the small Scottish village of Trenent, Geillis Duncane worked as a housemaid for the town’s Deputy Bailiff, David Seaton.  She was young, pretty, and a healer, and she drew the suspicion of her master when she continuously snuck out at night and appeared to heal illnesses that should have been beyond her.

17th-century thumbscrew, Märkisches Museum Berlin

Her fingers were crushed within the Pilliwinks and her head was bound with rope or cord which was then pulled tight effectively squashing and/or fracturing the skull and facial bones. Still Geillis would not admit to witchcraft.

Next her body was stripped and searched for the mark of the devil. This mark could be anything from a mole, to a skin tag, to a birthmark. Seaton and his men found their mark on her throat and after having suffered torture and humiliation this was the thing which broke Geillis. There are those who believe this mark may have actually been the mark of a lover, which would have fit with her disappearing in the middle of the night, but whatever it was it was enough that Geillis confessed to being in league with the devil and then named others who were supposedly a part of her coven.

Over the next two years roughly 70 men and women were implicated in the witch trials that famously came to be known as the North Berwick Witch Trials. Aside from being the first major witch trials in Scotland, Geillis’s confession was the first recording of a Scottish witch working with the Devil. These trials were also heavily overseen by King James VI Scotland, a significant occurrence seeing as Monarchy usually stayed clear of law proceedings.

Finally, in 1592, two years after her torture began, Geillis Duncane was led out of The Old Tolbooth Prison in Edinburgh and burnt at the stake for a crime she had been accused and found guilty of, Witchcraft.

You can read an account of the trials in Newes from Scotland, declaring the damnable life of Doctor Fian, a notable sorcerer, who was burned at Edenbrough in Januarie last, 1591, a pamphlet printed in 1591 by order of James VI.

For more information about Witchcraft in Scotland between 1590 and 1727 visit The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft.



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