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North Berwick, Witches and Water therapy!


Witch Trials, North Berwick.

North Berwick, Witches and water therapy!

North Berwick had gained popularity as a holiday destination after the Prince of Wales paid a visit in 1859, and again in 1902 when he was King. The advertising slogan ‘Biarritz of the North’ was created in 1889. Notable families and ‘The Cream of London’s Society’ descended on North Berwick to enjoy the fresh salty sea air, sandy beaches, harbour and golf courses. In August and September, they would take up residence in their holiday homes, most of which had been built in York Road and Cromwell Road (which collectively was known as Millionaire’s Row by locals) with armies of nannies, butlers, housekeepers and footmen bringing valued trade to the town as the local grocers, tradesmen and merchants catered to their needs and requirements. Among these notable families were Robert Chamber the publisher, the Astor family, Alexander, Isabella and Barbara Keiller of Dundee (marmalade and jam manufacturers), Lord Advocate for Scotland and the Prime Minister, Arthur James Balfour. During the 1860s, the family of Thomas Stevenson, lighthouse engineer, would holiday in Anchor Villa in West-Bay Road, as did his son and grandson, author, Robert Louis Stevenson. It is understood that the island of Fidra inspired the book Treasure Island, and Catriona, the sequel to Kidnapped. Any one of the islands visible from the North Berwick coastline, including Craigleith and Lamb, not forgetting the imposing Bass Rock with the ruined covenanters’ prison could easily inspire an author or poet to write about them. Another famous piece of literature said to be inspired by North Berwick is Tam O’Shanter by Robert Burns.

“Coffins stood round, like open presses, that shaw’d the dead in their last dresses: And by some devilish cantraip slight, each in its cauld hand held a light.”

There has been a historic connection with North Berwick and witchcraft for hundreds of years. James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, became James I, King of England and Ireland from the union of the Scottish and English crowns on the 24th of March 1603. Until that union the kingdoms of Scotland and England were individual self-governing states with their own judiciaries, parliaments and laws. A bride was chosen for James to safeguard the new monarchy’s survival. Fourteen-year-old Anne of Denmark. Some accounts say that James had to seek refuge off the coast of Norway en route to meet his new bride when his ship was nearly shipwrecked in a violent storm. Others say that it was Anne who sought refuge in Norway whilst encountering the violent storms. Either way, violent storms were involved and caused James to have a re-think about witchcraft! Seemingly Anne’s ship had been forced to seek shelter off the coast of Norway by fierce storms. On hearing this, James gallantly and some say romantically, set sail from Leith with a 300-strong entourage to fetch her. The couple were duly married in Oslo before returning to Scotland. The newlyweds sailed from Denmark to Scotland on the first of May 1590. The fleet of ships once more encountered violent and dangerous weather, but it was noted by some that the King’s ship was abused and lashed by the sea more than any other ship. The admiral of the Danish fleet promptly blamed witchcraft as a cause for the storms. Up until this experience James had been quite lenient towards witchcraft but these events changed his views on the subject, and he began his persecution of witchcraft in Scotland. He wrote a book called Daemonologie which instructed his supporters and followers to prosecute and condemn anyone thought to be involved with witchcraft. On his return to Scotland, James attended the North Berwick witch trials which ran from 1590 to 1592. At least seventy so-called witches, some of whom were nobles of the Scottish court, were accused of holding covens on the Auld Kirk Green in North Berwick. A Tranent maidservant called Geilie Duncan was interrogated after arousing suspicion of witchcraft by displaying ‘miraculous healing ability’. Geilie vehemently denied any association to witchcraft and the devil but following prolonged and relentless torture and the discovery of a so-called ‘devil’s mark’ on her neck, she confessed to being a witch and admitted to being at a meeting in North Berwick on Halloween 1590 with over two hundred other witches, where the plot against the King was hatched with the devil presiding over the proceedings. She was tortured yet again until she named her accomplices which included Doctor John Fian, a local school master, who was accused of being a coven leader, and a woman called Agnes Sampson who was a respected midwife and healer within the community. Each person named by Geilie, was brought before the King and many confessed, while being tortured, to meeting the devil in North Berwick Kirk yard and devoting themselves to him by plotting to poison the King and his family and to sink his ship. Some confessions even claimed that on Halloween 1590, the witches were instructed by the devil to dig up corpses buried in the Kirk graveyard and to remove various joints and organs which were attached to a dead cat and thrown into the sea to create the storm which had nearly shipwrecked the King’s ship. The confessions extracted during torture, were suspiciously familiar in detail. Poor Agnes Sampson was thought to be examined by the King himself in Holyrood Palace. Accounts tell of her being attached to her cell wall by an instrument called a ‘witches’ bridle’ which had four sharp prongs which were forced into the mouth against the cheeks and tongue. She was not allowed to sleep, although how she could possibly sleep with that contraption torturing her the devil only knows! Eventually Agnes confessed to fifty-three charges against her. She was strangled and burned as a witch. Dr Fian was brutally crippled by torture. The rack was used, stretching and dislocating his joints. He had needles inserted into his fingernails before they were ripped out. Geilie was hanged as a witch in 1591. Today we can only estimate that between 3,000 and 4,000 people accused as witches were executed in Scotland between 1560 and 1707

The arrival of the railway line to North Berwick in 1850 not only boosted tourism, it boosted trade. Many new hotels were built to cater for the influx of people keen to enjoy all the pleasures and pastimes North Berwick had to offer When the Marine Hotel was built in 1875, an access road was required so Cromwell Road was created. It was fashionable for the gentry to book into the Marine Hotel for hydropathic remedies. Seawater bathing was encouraged by Victorian doctors and was thought to be therapeutic. Local children were often paid to fetch buckets of sea water for those unable to gain access to the beach by themselves. The hotel could offer guests salt and freshwater baths. Water was piped to the hotel from the sea and stored in large tanks. Fresh water came from a well in the grounds. The hotel also proffered putting greens designed by local golfer Ben Sayers and a bowling green. Ben Sayers was born in Leith, but he later moved to North Berwick where he opened a golf club manufacturing factory and patented several innovative club designs. He was also involved with the early manufacture of gutta-perch golf balls or ‘gutties’ as they were affectionately known. He was an excellent golf instructor and could pride himself in saying that he had taught George, Prince of Wales, later to become King George the fifth, and Her Majesty Queen Alexandra amongst other dignities and royals, to play golf.

Jacqueline Heron Wray .


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