The representation of the devil seducing a woman.

Scotland’s Most Intriguing Historical Witchcraft Confessions in the County Town of Fofar

The unnoticed county town of Forfar was the stage of the most scandalous event the town had ever experienced. In 1660-61, during a national panic (a massive witch purge), more than twenty accused witches were put to death. Nowadays, there is a stone in a Forfar public park with the following inscription: The Forfar Witches, followed by twenty-two dots forming a circle (representing the twenty-two witches killed) and, finally, the sentence Just People. This stone is a memorial erected by the Scottish couple Mark and Marie Cashley, who, not so long ago, found out about this disturbing seventeenth-century incident. They believed these victims deserved some public recognition for the injustice they lived – a reflection of those times when witches were considered heretics who had betrayed God and allied with the Devil. This memorial is a window for the powerful belief system that prevailed at the time. One that controlled our ancestor’s fears and allowed the murder of hundreds of human beings for their assumed, yet ambiguous, ‘wicked’ power.

The Forfar Witches Memorial
Image source:

Historical Background

In 1661, the small farming town of Forfar, east of Scotland, experienced a witch-hunt initiated by the town minister Alexander Robertson. In this trial, more than forty alleged witches were arrested in the town’s tolbooth.[1] The ministers, attended by a notary, visited the suspects in prison, asked questions, and the notary would write down the confession. If the points stated in the notary’s document matched the main aspects of witchcraft – demonic pact, meetings with the devil, renunciation of baptism, maleficium, and harmful deeds done to others – the witches were condemned and executed, usually by being strangled and, then, burnt.[2]

Nowadays, scholars have access to these trials’ documents, and ‘witchcraft confessions’ are the most interesting and captivating sources to explore. It opens doors to a completely different mental universe that might sound unbelievable and impossible when seen through our lens.

Representation of a witch trial.
Image Source: ScotClans

Helen Guthrie, the Forfar trial main character

In the Forfar witches’ case, the most intriguing character was the accused witch, Helen Guthrie, whose trial began in September 1661.[3] Surprisingly delivered in a cooperative tone, her confession is the most descriptive and detailed of the trial, a statement that mingles from maleficium to communal sorcery and demonological notions. Even though we cannot be sure if torture was used, the suspect was undoubtedly under pressure. It is well-known today that in Forfar existed the bridle, an instrument of torture used in trials. Indeed, Helen could have made up her confession merely to avoid further torture or to gain time. Or perhaps, she really believed in the reality manifested in her confessions. All a twenty-first-century spectator can do is facing it with an open mind and acknowledging the gap in time is more than generations vanishing and modernity arising. It also determines entire mentalities, which transform and reinvent themselves, gradually renovating their social organization and, consequently, their whole reality. Witchcraft was, undoubtedly, a seventeenth-century reality.

The Bridle: : an iron band put around the head of the prisoner, and into their mouth, preventing the prisoner from eating, drinking or sleeping.
Image Source: Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

A witch’s maleficium

Right at the beginning of her first confession, Guthrie sheds a light on what it meant to be a witch. She admits being “a very drunkensome woman, a terrible banner and curser and of a very wicked life and conversation”.[4] Gossip, alcohol, swearing, and rudeness were associated with witches. Moreover, Guthrie did not hold back in naming her powers and making herself useful for the interrogators by declaring she could tell whether another person was a witch within 24 hours. All she needed was to throw three bloody papers on the suspects, and then, she would know! When the interrogators asked her to see these papers, she was prompt to reply: “she will never part with them until she goes to the fire (…) And that if the minister would take them from her before her going to the fire that he would wrong himself and the burgh and country about”.[5]

Even though maleficium was already strong enough to consider someone a witch, the interrogators would not be satisfied. They were, obsessively, looking after something specific: the devil. After all, witches were criminals because they abandoned God to make a pact with the devil. The ultimate goal of the interrogators was to explore demonological elements the best they could, they wanted to know their heretic enemy as deeply as possible. Luckily for them, Guthrie’s narrative was abundant and meticulous, not sparing anyone the details of her allegedly devilish experiences.

Helen told the interrogators the devil came into her cell, lifted her body, and tried to release her. The watchmen, with their swords, prevented the escape.[6] It is impossible to know if this story was a product of a hallucination, perhaps due to the lack of sleep, or if she consciously invented it. Strikingly, in the confession document, the notary commented the following: “the truth of this last confession was testified by three men which were on the watch that night (…)”.[7] Considering that imprisoned witches were, usually, guarded by neighbors paid to watch them, it is credible that the watchmen testified the truth of Helen’s story.[8] People were afraid of witches and wanted to exclude them from society. The watchmen could have lied only to get rid of Helen Guthrie and the danger she represented.

The representation of the devil seducing a woman.
Image Source: Cardiff University

The devil’s meetings

Helen Guthrie confessed once again on the 28 of October 1661, which means she was in prison for more than a month.[9]  In this confession, Guthrie is, once more, engaged in the process, giving detailed information about demonology, communal sorcery, and evil powers. It could be that she was a knowledgeable woman in these topics since demonological narratives crossed social boundaries and were accessible to people through means such as pamphlets, images, leaflets, among others.[10] Another possibility would be Helen getting this type of information in prison or during the interrogation, since “the courtroom and the prisons offered venues for oral circulation of knowledge”.[11]Either way, these stories, whether real or imaginary, had to meet the interrogators’ expectations and their beliefs.[12]

In her confession, Helen depicts in detail three meetings with the devil.

In the first meeting described, happening in the Forfar churchyard, Helen confesses that the devil was “in the shape of a black iron hewed man” and tells the interrogators they all danced together and the “ground under them was all fireflaughts”.[13] A blind man was able to dance like any other present, they sang, and the devil kissed them all “and for herself, the devil kissed only her hand”.[14] The devil’s kiss was an interest of the inquisitors and a strong collective belief since it symbolized the pact with God’s enemy. The second gathering was described in a similar structure: they danced a while together until they were scared by some people passing by and, then, they “fled suddenly”.[15] Julian Goodare claims the idea of flying “seems to have been a motif in its own right”, associated with the mountain top sabbat, a very distinct place from the meetings described in trials, which were quite accessible and common localities.[16] Flying witches, a fantasy we still hold today, was a reality for seventeenth-century people. Finally, in the third meeting, the witches gathered in a house of one of them, drank with the devil, and planned a communal maleficium against a man named John Benny.[17]

In sum, these meetings were festive events, where witches gathered with the devil, and, together, they drunk, ate, sang, and danced. According to the historian Christina Larner, reunions of a certain number of people under one roof were already forbidden in seventeenth-century Scotland, which means these parties, – witchcraft and demonology aside, – were, in themselves, illicit.[18] Devil’s meetings were the common denominator of all suspects’ confessions in Forfar. Although described differently, encountering the devil was a mandatory requirement to dictate if someone was an actual witch.

Illustration of witches kissing the Devil's anus.
Image Source: The Obscene Kiss, an illustration of witches kissing the Devil’s anus from Francesco Maria Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum (1608).

Communal sorcery

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Helen’s confession is her descriptions of communal sorcery practiced with the devil and other Forfar witches. She describes the desecration of a grave of an unbaptized infant, near the church wall, from which “they made a pie thereof that they might eat of it, that by this means they might never confess (as they thought) of their witchcraft”.[19] Here is manifested the belief in cannibalism (even though this example was not, exactly, it), which was quite rare in Scottish witchcraft tradition.[20] Moreover, the corpse of an “unbaptized” child stresses the antagonism between witchcraft and Christian values.

Adding to this, Helen tells the interrogators that, together with the devil, they destroyed an important bridge at Cortachy by raising supernatural forces (“extraordinary great windy”).[21] And that they sank a ship in Carnoustie harbor. In this last episode, the devil was transfigured “in the shape of a great horse”.[22] Transfiguration was not only performed by the devil, and witches were not only women. Helen’s confession includes an accusation against the alleged witch John Tailzeour, who she claimed to have seen in the animal shape of a pig (“todde” and “swyn”).[23]

This incredibly detailed confession is a riddle to anyone who dares to read it. How could Helen Guthrie tell such a complex narrative on trial? And how was she able to do it under pressure and, probably, under torture?  The psychology of false confessions might have credible explanations for these doubts. However, discarding Helen’s confession would mean discarding a whole mentality. Whether real or imagined, Helen’s confession was believable enough for the interrogators to condemn and execute her.

As Christina Larner asserted: “witch confessions represent an agreed story between witch and inquisitor in which the witch drew, through hallucination or imagination, on a common store of myth, fantasy, and nightmare, to respond to the inquisitor’s questions”.[24] Whether Helen was hallucinating or deliberately imagining her stories, the narrative of her confessions unveils how witchcraft was imagined by these people’s minds, shaping them intensely enough to lead to the execution of thousands of alleged witches. Once accused, one of the two ends would happen: either they were executed, or, if released from prison, they lived the rest of their years as outcasts, whose destiny was solely one: vagrancy and loneliness.

Illustration of a meeting with the devil.
Image Source: Film Daily

Anthropology: Then and Now

Modern psychology can now explain some elements once considered magic. Sleep paralysis, for instance, is associated with some accusations of witchcraft. People had (and still have) mysterious experiences during sleep and assumed they were being cursed by a neighbor. Perhaps nowadays, Helen Guthrie would be diagnosed as prone to fantasy personality, as a psychotic mind, or any other pathology. Nevertheless, many aspects of these narratives remain without an explanation. There were those, at the time – especially intellectuals and physicians – who considered witchcraft complete nonsense. Yet, myth and superstition were vehicles held by many to explain the ineffable and give some sense of clarity when facing the unknown. Only with the gradual spread of the Enlightenment ideas in Europe and across the Atlantic, did witchcraft and superstition give space to another dominant system of perceiving the world – modern science – according to which only what is mathematically determined and scientifically explained can be considered reality. Nonetheless, the belief in witchcraft was not entirely extinguished, magic was not completely discarded, and superstition still manages to prevail in so many modern psyches. They are windows that link ‘then’ and ‘now’, and, regardless of how unbelievable and unrealistic they seem, they are an inevitable part of us.

An episode of sleep paralysis.
Image Source: Wikipedia: The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1781) is thought to be a depiction of sleep paralysis perceived as a demonic visitation.

[1] Joseph Anderson (ed.), ‘The confessions of the Forfar witches (1661)’, in Proceedings of the Society

of Antiquaries of Scotland, 22 (1887-88), 242,

[2] Ibid., 243,245.

[3] Ibid., 246.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Christina Larner, Enemies of God: the witch-hunt in Scotland (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 106.

[9] Ibid., 252.

[10]Rita Voltmer and Liv Helen Willumsen, ‘Introduction: Demonology and witch-trials in dialogue’, in Demonology and witch-hunting in early modern Europe, ed. Julian Goodare, Rita Voltmer and Liv Helen Willumsen (Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2020), 6,

[11] Ibid., 8.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Anderson (ed.), ‘The confessions of the Forfar witches (1661)’, 253.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Julian Goodare, ‘Witches’ Flight in Scottish Demonology’, in Demonology and witch-hunting in early modern Europe, ed. Julian Goodare, Rita Voltmer and Liv Helen Willumsen (Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2020), 162,

[17] Anderson (ed.), ‘The confessions of the Forfar witches (1661)’, 253.

[18] Larner, Enemies of God, 153.

[19] Anderson (ed.), ‘The confessions of the Forfar witches (1661)’, 254.

[20] Larner, Enemies of God, 151.

[21] Anderson (ed.), ‘The confessions of the Forfar witches (1661)’, 254.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 255.

[24] Christina Larner, Enemies of God: the witch-hunt in Scotland (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 136.

One thought on “Scotland’s Most Intriguing Historical Witchcraft Confessions in the County Town of Fofar

  1. I love this story! I would really love to read your take on witch trials and modern-day false confessions.

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