The History of Leith

December 20, 2003

Morton & Witchcraft

After the brutal and bloody civil war between Leith and Edinburgh…revenge was wanted…whose blood would appease the Nobles?

With the fall of Edinburgh Castle the civil war between Leith and Edinburgh ended in 1573 and despite the hatred felt by the leading nobles toward the Regent Morton reconciliation was attempted in 1578.

This took place at the Cant’s Ordinary in the Kirkgate where Morton met with his chief opponents Argyll, Montrose, Arran and Boyd. Later on the same site was built Kinnards restaurant and the ceiling of one of the rooms in the restaurant called the Queen Mary’s room was a copy of the ceiling of its ancient predecessor. The Cant’s Ordinary was owned by William Can’t who came from a long line of seamen, Robert Kay was a ship master in 1739 and another member was captain of the Happy Janet that brought Mons Meg back from London in 1829. A plaque to the Cant’ Ordinary can be seen on the side of the building in the Kirkgate beside Trinity House. However the reconciliation didn’t work and within three years Morton was executed in 1581 for complicity in the murder of Darnley.

During the youth of James VI Leith was the seat of the Court of Justiciary and again in 1596. At this period there was great alarm of the spread of plague, which had been brought into Leith from Danzig in the ship William of Leith owned by John Downy. They were ordered to anchor of Inchcolm and were really left to their fate until most of the forty crew died. By 1584 leith become the Principal Port for Herring and other fish from the Forth. It was from Leith that in 1589 James VI embarked to travel to Norway to meet his bride Anne of Denmark.. The marriage being carried out by David Lindsay of South Leith Church at the Cathedral of St Halvard, Christiania and not at Upsala as is usually stated. On the return voyage they past through storms caused it was believed by the incantations of Witches from Berwick. This was the time of the witch trials; as the sixteenth century closed the records of the courts start to show increasing numbers of people being accused of Witchcraft. So we find 1597 Janet Stewart of the Canongate and Christian Livingston of Leith accused of casting Spells on Thomas Guthry. They were sentenced to be executed on the Castle Hill. In fact in Scotland over 3000 cases of witch hunting are on record with over a thousand executions taking place, mostly on woman. In fact in the Kirk records of South Leith there are many records of Witchcraft Trials taking place in Leith. This included the search for the devil’s mark on their bodies by a man from Musselburgh who had a reputation for finding these marks. The usual trial was to find blue or red birthmarks and to burn them with a hot iron or to insert a pin or needle. If the victim felt no pain then they were declared a witch. Suspected people were bled at between the eyes, which was supposed to make a witch powerless. If found guilty the victim was burned alive at the Blue stane” which still exists under the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. A monument on the Castle esplanade commemorates the victims on the Castle hill.

Why this happened at this particular time is not known but one can speculate. One possible theory is what we are looking at is the old religion of Celtic times coming to the fore due to the reformation. The Catholic religion having suppressed it but never actually stopped people believing in it. The point here is when a Celtic tribe became christianised it was usually because the chief or king become a Christian and the people just followed his example. So the old beliefs remained that is why you find for example the image of the Green man with plant tendrils growing from him at the St Triduana Chapel at Restalrig. So with the coming of the reformation these old beliefs come to the surface and were called witchcraft. So the old woman who dealt in traditional cures or the wise woman who helped in childbirth was wide open to charges of witchcraft. Numerous other factors came into play such as unprecedented political, social, and economic changes caused anxieties and society to overcome this tends to attack part of itself, which is considered different.

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