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What 'Outlander' Didn't Tell You About Scottish Witchcraft

Outlander explores the complicated world of 18th-century Scotland, as Bonny Prince Charles fights for his throne and clan rivalries devolve into violence. Outlander's behind-the-scenes secrets reveal how devoted the show is to historical accuracy, but the show's treatment of Scottish witchcraft leaves out a few important—and gruesome—details.

The real witch trials in Scotland were obsessed with spells and supposed attacks on the king. In fact, King James VI of Scotland, the namesake of the King James Bible, wrote his own Scottish witchcraft book. The torture the alleged witches suffered was even more gruesome than Outlander could show.

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  • Witches Supposedly Had Teats From Which They Fed Evil Animals
    Photo: Thompkins H. Matteson / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Witches Supposedly Had Teats From Which They Fed Evil Animals

    In addition to the devil's mark, witch hunters also believed that witches had special teats to feed blood to their evil animal companions, called familiars. Women's bodies were publicly examined to find these hidden teats. They might be shaped like a nipple, or in some cases might simply look like a spot on the skin that had been sucked. A birthmark shaped like an animal could also be proof of a demonic pact.

    If a growth was found, it might be poked, squeezed, or pierced to see if blood came out. And because witches had a carnal relationship with Satan, during trials women's most "shameful" or "privy" parts were thoroughly examined for teats. After all, a witch was a sexually perverse woman who had intercourse with demons, so assaulting women's bodies during trial was nothing.

  • Women Were Stripped And Shaved In Court To Find Proof Of Witchcraft
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Women Were Stripped And Shaved In Court To Find Proof Of Witchcraft

    Locating a devil's mark on a suspected witch was a humiliating process. The first step was stripping the suspected witch naked. Sometimes the woman's body was shaved, so that no hidden mark would go unseen. Their bodies were thoroughly examined, by both men and women, to find any unusual marks. Sometimes the witch was stabbed repeatedly to find a spot that didn't bleed. And the whole process often happened in court, in front of the judge and jury.

    A skeptical physician, John Webster, said that the suspects "were so unchristianly, unwomenly, and inhumanely handled, as to be stript stark naked, and to be laid upon Tables and Beds to be searched (nay even in their most privy parts) for these their supposed Witch-marks." He called the process barbarous and cruel.

  • Scottish Witches Were Tortured Until They Confessed
    Photo: Outlander / Starz

    Scottish Witches Were Tortured Until They Confessed

    The women accused of witchcraft in Scottish trials confessed to all sorts of devilish crimes. One woman confessed to throwing a cat into the sea to raise a storm. Another created a wax likeness of the king to harm him. Another said she extracted venom from a toad and mixed it with urine in an oyster shell, a poisonous potion that was meant to harm the king. And in multiple cases, women confessed that they had sex with the Devil.

    One of the reasons accused witches confessed to so many outlandish crimes was torture. Scottish courts relied on torture to extract confessions from witches, even when it violated the official rules. Methods of torture varied. Some, such as sleep deprivation, were relatively mild. Others, however, were particularly gruesome. One very painful form of torture forced witches to sit on red-hot iron stools. In Outlander, Claire does receive lashes for talking back to the judge, but in a real witch trial, harsher torture almost certainly would have been used.

  • The King Of Scotland Tortured A Supposed Witch In His Castle To Make Her Confess
    Photo: King James / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The King Of Scotland Tortured A Supposed Witch In His Castle To Make Her Confess

    During the North Berwick witch trials, King James VI of Scotland took a very hands-on role. One of the accused women was Agnes Sampson. After hearing from another accused witch that the Devil ordered them to attack the king, James was anxious to stamp out the witches. During torture, one witch claimed that the Devil said "the king is the greatest enemy he hath in the world."

    King James was very involved in the trials after that point. He held accused witches in his own dungeon, and he personally examined Agnes Sampson at his palace. Agnes was tortured for days. She was fastened to the wall with a "witch's bridle," an iron muzzle with four sharp prongs pressed into her tongue and cheeks. She was not allowed to sleep. A rope was tied around her head. After enduring torture at the hands of James himself, Agnes confessed, and she was strangled to death. Her body was burned.

  • Scotland's First Major Witch Trial Happened When The King Thought Witches Were Trying To Kill Him
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Scotland's First Major Witch Trial Happened When The King Thought Witches Were Trying To Kill Him

    The North Berwick witch trials were Scotland's first major outbreak of witch hunting, and it all started because of a paranoid monarch. King James VI of Scotland wasn't very concerned about witches before 1590, when he sailed to Copenhagen to meet his bride, Princess Anne of Denmark. The storms on both voyages were so bad that James's ship barely made it back to Scotland, and James was convinced that witches were behind the attack.

    The witch hunt started when a young maid named Geillis Duncan was arrested for performing magical cures. Under torture, she confessed to selling her soul to the devil, and she eventually named her accomplices. In all, seventy people were accused of being witches during the trials. Diana Gabaldon borrowed the name "Geillis Duncan" from one of the initial woman executed as a witch in the 1590s.

  • Devil's Marks Identified Witches—But Women Rarely Confessed To Having Them
    Photo: Outlander / Starz

    Devil's Marks Identified Witches—But Women Rarely Confessed To Having Them

    In Outlander, when Geillis Duncan wants to convince the court of rowdy Scots that she is, in fact, a witch, she pulls down her shirt and flashes her "devil's mark"—a smallpox vaccine. Outlander gets this fact right. Devil's marks were considered one of the most reliable ways of identifying witches at the height of the witch trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

    The devil's mark, or witches' mark, was supposedly a physical mark on a witch's skin where the devil left behind a sign of their pact. According to witch finders, it might look like a wart, a mole, or an extra nipple. It could be any discolored or swollen patch of skin. And since just about everyone had some suspicious mark on their skin, examining a suspected witch for the devil's mark was a surefire way to prove that someone was a witch. Of course, in most cases women didn't show off their marks, as Geillis did—the process of finding a devil's mark was often cruel and invasive.