The Penston Witch Trials of 1649

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Date: 1649 to 1649
Location: Penston, Haddington, East Lothian, Scotlandmap
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The Penston Witch Trials of 1649

The aim is to identify the fourteen victims, their families, their accusers, the investigators and commissioners and any others involved in these witch trials.

Witchcraft in Scotland and East Lothian

Despite Scotland's population being estimated to be a quarter of that of England, some authorities believe that there were 4,000 to 6,000 prosecutions of alleged witches in Scotland, three times as many as south of the border. Some older accounts even put the numbers of accused as high as 30,000. 1,500 of those accused being executed with three quarters of them being women. Most of those condemned to death for witchcraft were strangled and then burned. [1] [2]

The University of Edinburgh's History Department database includes 3,837 individuals who were accused of witchcraft. 3,212 of these can be identified and 84% were women. The ages of the accused were varied with 7% being aged under 20, 8% aged 20-30, 22% aged 30-40, 22% aged 40-50, 31% aged 50-60 , 7% aged 60-70 and 4% over 70. (It should be remembered that at this time, average life expectancy was much lower.) [3]

While witch hunting was almost non-existent in the West Highlands, the county of Haddingtonshire (East Lothian) was a particular hotspot and recorded the highest number of accusations. Historian Roy Pugh believes that anyone with a Lowland surname has a good chance of having a distant relative or namesake who was executed for witchcraft. [4][5]

In the summer of 1649, no less than 14 people from the Penston area were executed as witches. [6] [7]

The de Ballioll and Baillie Barons of Penston

The Scottish feudal Barony of Penston is believed to have belonged to the Ballie or de Balioll family since before the accession of Robert the Bruce in 1306. Sir William de Balliol, cousin of King John Balliol, obtained a charter of the lands of Penston, which were previously his own from King Robert I. [8]

In 1649, the Baron of Penston was Sir William Baillie of Lamington (b. 02 January 1600 in Edinburgh d. 08 March 1668). Sir William had entered into a contract with the 1st Earl of Melrose (later the 1st Earl of Haddington) anent the Teinds of Hoprig and Penston, dated 30th September 1623". He later "purchased the Teinds of Hoprig and Penston, comprehending the lands of Whiterig and Templehouse, from the Earl of Haddington, by Disposition dated 28th November 1629, and recorded inthe Books of Council and Session 8th April 1637. He obtained a Discharge from the Earl of Haddington for the money paid for the Teinds of Hoprig and Penston, which is dated 2d December 1629, and recorded in the 1629. Books of Council and Session 14th February 1632 ; and afterwards a Charter from the Earl of Haddington of the said Teinds, to be holden of himself, and another to be holden of the King, 4th June 1630, on the former of which Infeftment followed on 28th June 1630. On 23d December 1623. Sir William expeded an Instrument of Resignation in favour of himself, and his eldest son William in fee, of all the Lands and Barony of Lamington, Penston, and Hoprig, with the right of Patronage belonging to the said Barony of Lamington, on 25th March 1624, on which he obtained a sign-manual from King James VI. of Scotland, incorporating them all into a Barony, to be called the Barony of Lamington, dated 26th March and signeted 13th April 1624. Charter of Resignation and Precept of Sasine followed on 26th March, and the Instrument of Sasine is dated June 1624. . [9]

Sir William Baillie of Lamington had been involved in witch trials before 1649. On 27 May 1632, Sir William purchased half of the barony of Coulter and the patronage of the kirk of Coulter from the Earl of Linlithgow. These included the lands of Nisbet and in 1640 Molly Watt of Nisbet was summoned by the Presbytery of Biggar and accused of witchcraft. On 03 March 1642 the Presbytery applied to Sir William, as Superior of Nisbet, or to Alexander Menzies of Culterallers Secundus, the Bailie, to incarcerate Molly Watt or to deliver her to the Sheriff of Lanarkshire. Note that this Nisbet was in the parish of Coulter in Lanarkshire and is distinct from Nisbet in the Parish of Pencaitland in East Lothian, where Margaret Dicksone lived in the early 1640s. [10]

Sir William's eldest son was William Baillie, younger of Lamington, who predeceased his father in 1652. On 08 July 1653 a precept for infefting Sir William Baillie in the lands of Hoprig and Penston was obtained, suggesting that these had been held by his eldest son untl his death. It therefore seems likely that the William Baillie who acted as a Commissioner in the 1649 Penston Witch Trail was William Baillie, Younger of Lamington. [11]

Penston village

The Village of Penston in 1799 with the ruined castle to the south east.

In 1863, the Ordnance Survey noted that Penston has been famous, since the 14th century, for excellent coal; yielded coal, in the time of Oliver Cromwell, under a yearly rental of £400; and, in 1834, when its old mines seemed to be near exhaustion, had a new pit sunk in another quarter . Penston Castle, caput of the barony of Penston, was described as: a strong old mansion, now represented by only the garden. [12]

In 1649, the small mining settlement of Penston was still part of Haddington parish in East Lothian in Scotland. On 13 July 1642 a proposition had been made to erect a new parish of Gladsmuir. On 16 January 1650 Edinburgh Presbytery approved the proposal and on 28 February 1650 a decreet to that effect was given by the Commission for Plantation of Kirk. However, due to the Bishops War and the subsequent Wars of the Three Kingdoms these recommendation were not followed through. A new church had been built at what was subsequently known as Old Kirk, and was ready for regular supply by 09 February 1660. The first three entries in Gladsmuir parish's Old Parish Register of Births & Baptisms were recorded on 10 January 1688. However, it was not until 18 November 1690 that the United Presbytery finally recommended that the Decreet should be made effectual. On 10 August 1691 Gladsmuir parish was disjoined from those of Haddington, Aberlady, and Tranent. On 29 July 1692 Gladsmuir parish was officially erected by the Commissioners of Teinds. A new church was built in 1695 at Gladsmuir (behind the present Gladsmuir church now ruined and known as the Old Kirk of Gladsmuir - not to be confused with Gladsmuir Old Kirk to the south east). The manse and glebe were not formally designed till 1723. [13] [14]

The number of inhabitants of the village of Penston in 1649 is not known, but it may have been around 300 suggesting that 5% of the inhabitants could have been executed in the space of three months. Almost fifty years later, in 1697, the population of Gladsmuir parish was believed to be under 1350. In 1793, when the population of the parish was much the same at 1380, there were 340 families, 59 on them living in Penston, suggesting a population of perhaps 340 for the village. In 1836, the population of Penston was stated to be 302. [13]

Margaret Dicksone

Margaret Dicksone of Nisbet in Pencaitland parish and Penston in Gladsmuir parish was one of those accused of being a witch and being found guilty, her punishment was typical; she was strangled to death an 23 June 1649 at The Sands in Haddington and her body was then burnt to ashes. [6] [15]

Some reputed witches such as Helen Guthrie claimed to have met individually with the devil at midnight. [16] Similarly, Margaret Dicksone declared that the devil had appeared to her in the likeness of a gentleman in green clothes at midnight. As with many other witches, she appeared to have been drawing on folk belief regarding fairies to satisfy her interrogators’ questions regarding the devil. [17]

New information marker to replace the old sign with errors at the Witches' Stone just outside Spott.


  1. Margaret Dickson Executed on 23 June 1649 at The Sands in Haddington. [6]
  2. Agnes Hunter Executed on 23 June 1649 at The Sands in Haddington. [6]
  3. Isobel Murray Executed on 23 June 1649 at The Sands in Haddington. [6]
  4. Helen Fairlie Executed on 24 July 1649 at The Sands in Haddington. [6]
  5. Barbara Purdie Executed on 24 July 1649 at The Sands in Haddington. [6]
  6. Helen Lawson Executed on 24 July 1649 at The Sands in Haddington. [6]
  7. John Weir Executed on 24 July 1649 at The Sands in Haddington. [6]
  8. Margaret Robertson Executed on 17 August 1649 at The Sands in Haddington. [6]
  9. Margaret Bartilman Executed on 17 August 1649 at The Sands in Haddington. [6]
  10. Agnes Broun Executed on 17 August 1649 at The Sands in Haddington. [6]
  11. Janet Burgane Executed on 17 August 1649 at The Sands in Haddington. [6]
  12. Margaret Paterson Executed on 17 August 1649 at The Sands in Haddington. [6]
  13. Jean Hunter Executed on 17 August 1649 at The Sands in Haddington. [6]
  14. Marjorie Nisbet Executed on 17 August 1649 at The Sands in Haddington.[6]

Tried but not executed?

  1. John Dickson [6]
  2. Marion Richieson [6]

The Accusers

  1. James Mill, farmer at Nisbet in Pencaitland parish. Witnesses claimed that Margaret Dickson hoped to God that Mill would be stabbed in a gutter like his grandfather. [6]

The Investigators

  1. John Baillie The barony baillie, acting for his brother the laird of Lamington. [6][15]
  2. John Eastone Probably an elder of Haddington kirk [6][15]
  3. Thomas Foulis Probably an elder of Haddington kirk [6][15]
  4. Robert Ker The Rev. Robert Ker had been appointed as minister of Haddington two years previously in 1647. He was the second son of Rev. John Ker, Minister of Prestonpans. [6][15] [14]

The Commissioners

  1. John Ayton [15]
  2. William Baillie It is not clear if he was Sir William Baillie, Baron of Lamington (02 January 1600 - 08 March 1668) or his eldest son William Baillie, younger of Lamington, who predeceased his father in 1652. He is not specifically identified as Sir William and William the younger is believed to have held the lands of Penston & Hoprig until his death. [15][11]
  3. John Cockburn Probably John Cockburn (born ca. 1620) the Baron of Ormiston. [15]
  4. Patrick Inglis [15]
  5. Patrick Young [15]


  1. K. A. Edwards, "Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart Scotland", in K. Cartwright, A Companion to Tudor Literature Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2010), ISBN 1-4051-5477-2, p. 32.
  2. S. J. Brown, "Religion and society to c. 1900", T. M. Devine and J. Wormald, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Modern Scottish History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), ISBN 0-19-956369-1, p. 81
  3. The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Introduction to Scottish Witchcraft
  4. John Gray Centre Witchcraft in East Lothian
  5. Roy J. M. Pugh, "The Deil's Ain: The story of witch persecution in Scotland" (Belfast: Belfast University Press, 2001), ISBN 0-9540465-0-1
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 6.16 6.17 6.18 6.19 6.20 6.21 6.22 The Grimsay Press. Wise Wives and Warlocks. A rogues’ gallery of East Lothian witchcraft compiled by David McK Robertson ISBN 987-1-84530-144-6, p 47
  7. Wise Wives and Warlocks East Lothian Courier, accessed 11 October 2020
  8. James William Baillie Lives of the Bailies Edinburgh, Edmonston & Douglas, 1874 p9
  9. James William Baillie Lives of the Bailies Edinburgh, Edmonston & Douglas, 1874 p36
  10. James William Baillie Lives of the Bailies Edinburgh, Edmonston & Douglas, 1874 p37
  11. 11.0 11.1 James William Baillie Lives of the Bailies Edinburgh, Edmonston & Douglas, 1874 p41
  12. Ordnance Survey of Scotland Popular Edition, Sheet 68 - Firth of Forth
  13. 13.0 13.1 Old and New Statistical Accounts for the Parish of Gladsmuir, East Lothian Written by Rev. Mr George Hamilton in 1793 and the Revd. John Ramsay in 1836.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Fasti ecclesiae scoticanae; the succession of ministers in the Church of Scotland from the reformation by Scott, Hew (1915) Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 15.6 15.7 15.8 15.9 Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database Margaret Dicksone (2/7/1649)
  16. R. Begg Burns (Ed), ‘Notice of trials for witchcraft at Crook of Devon, Kinross-shire, in 1662’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol 22 pp 191–192.
  17. Laura Paterson, The Witches’ Sabbath in Scotland, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol142 (2012), pp 371–412.

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