Menu Close

Witchcraft in the Scottish Highlands: Good or Bad?

A Birlinn or Galley similar to Iain Garbh, which was sunk by witchcraft
A birlinn or galley, like Iain Garbh’s which was sunk by witchcraft–supposedly

Witchcraft: Black & White

Two types of witchcraft were known in medieval Scotland: white witchcraft which dealt with the art of healing and black magic which caused harm. These beliefs originated in pre-Christian religions and evolved in villages throughout Europe. The aristocracy shared the beliefs of their tenantry in many cases. But in the late 16th century, the influence of religious writers began to spread the idea of demonic witchcraft, that is, that witches acquired magic because of a pact with the devil. 

King James & Witchcraft

James VI and the Scottish Privy Council in Edinburgh had great power and influence in the Lowlands, but much less in the Highlands. As a result there was little persecution and no execution of witches in the Highlands except in the Inglisch-speaking burghs (towns) nearby. 

The Scottish Witchcraft Act, passed in 1563, made witchcraft, or even consulting with witches, crimes punishable by death.

Careful records of those accused of witchcraft were kept. Included were the burghs where the women (and a few men) were accused as well as notes about their confessions. Most were likely healers.

In the burgh of Dornoch Janet Horne was accused of riding on her daughter to meet the devil. After they were condemned to death, her daughter managed to escape, but Janet was smeared with tar and burned in a barrel. After her horrific death the Witchcraft acts in Scotland were repealed.

Witchcraft & the Demonic Pact

Four women present small images to be cursed by the devil
Four Women present two cursed images to the devil

The devil and the demonic pact did not enter Gaelic folklore as it did English and Lowland folklore. In Gaelic, the word for a witch is buidseach. They were always thought to be malevalent or at least tricky in Highland tradition. The equivalent of a white witch was called a fiosaiche (knowledgeable one) or wise woman (or man).

Buidsichean were believed to cause the death of important men such as clan chiefs. But not fiosaichean.

Witchcraft & a MacLeod Chief

Iain Garbh (Rough John) was the 4th chief of the Macleods of Raasay, an island east of Skye. He helped MacKenzie of Seaforth to drive the English garrison out of Stornoway about 1655 during the Cromwellian occupation. He married a daughter of Ruairidh Mòr MacLeòid (Rory Mor Macleod) of Dunvegan (1573-1626).

He was drowned in April 1671 while returning from a christening in the Isle of Lewis. According to one story a storm came up and three ravens settled on the mast of Iain’s galley. Very unlucky. Then one settled on the gunwale beside him and he drew his sword to kill it. He missed and the sword split the gunwale right to the keel where the sword stuck. Then the birlinn of Iain Garbh turned over and sank into the sea with all sixteen men of the crew lost.

Another version of his legend mentions the devil, but in every version there are witches. It was said that his stepmother (muime) employed several witches (buidsichean) to raise a storm; their by-names were Spòg Bhuidhe (Yellow Foot) of Màiligir in Skye, Gormshùil (Blue Eye) from Cràgaig in Skye, and Doideag Dhubh (Black Hand) from the Isle of Mull. When the witches got sight of Iain Garbh, they set a miosar beag (little vessel) in a miosar mòr (large vessel) filled with milk. The witches started their incantations and the milk became agitated and eventually the miosar beag turned upside down and sank. 

Apparently Iain Garbh was a popular chief and mourned by many. Patrick Mòr MacCrimmon composed a lament on the pipes for him, and several song poems were composed in his honour.

The following lament is still well known among Gaelic singers, and it’s also a pipe tune. Links to performances are below.

Cumha Iain Ghairbh – Lament for Stout John

This is a sung by Fiona MacKenzie.

The lyrics in Gaelic are slightly different from the lyrics below.


Ronald Black, ed, John Gregorson Campbell: The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005 Gillis, Anne Lorne, Songs of Gaelic Scotland, 2005 Goodacre, Julian, ed, The Scottish witch-hunt in context, Larner, Christina, Enemies of God: The Witchhunt in Scotland, 1981

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *