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.
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.
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.
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.
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.