Bo'ness Foreshore, Kinneil Nature Reserve, Nature reserve

When witches were burned at the stake

“Although witchcraft has been legally abolished, the cult of the witch is so dear to humanity that it is, in some aspects, prevalent today as it was some centuries ago.”TJ Salmon, 1913

December 23, 1679: five women and one man were burned at the stake at the glebe of Corbiehall (near the current Corbie Inn pub) in Bo’ness.

The six had been found guilty of the “abominable cryme of witchcraft”.

The court ordered that they were to be “wirried at a steak till they be dead … and thereafter to have their bodies burned to ashes”.

The six – Annaple Thomsone, Margaret Pringle, Margaret Hamilton, Bessie Vickar, another Margaret Hamilton and William Craw – had been held and tried in the town’s tolbooth in South Street. A building still stands there to this day, and is now run as a café.

Local historian TJ Salmon said the 1679 indictment made “painful, and in some places, revolting reading”.

The court papers accused the six of giving their “souls and bodies to the devil”, having “several meetings with the devil and with sundrie witches in diverse places” and eating and drinking with Lucifer himself.

From the mid-16th to the early 18th century, an estimated 4,000 people in Scotland—overwhelmingly women—were tried for witchcraft. Often the accused had simply upset those in power or looked a bit different.

Academics from the University of Edinburgh found records relating to 51 people accused of witchcraft in the Bo’ness area. You can see their interactive map here:

Historian Ian Scott, from Falkirk Local History Society, turned the 1679 Bo’ness witch case into a community play.

“We don’t have any evidence to suggest they were tortured, but that would have been the normal procedure,” he said. “It’s a pretty gruesome story altogether. They were strangled with wire before they were burned. So they were dead before they went to the fire. It shows a smidgeon of mercy.”

AUDIO: Listen to Ian Scott talk about the Bo’ness witches here

DOWNLOAD: Ian Scott’s play about the Bo’ness witches (republished here with his permission).


A stone marked “The Witches Stone” still exists in the woods at Carriden – a short walk south of the John Muir Way.

This content was produced in association with Sustrans Scotland as part of the Scottish Greenways Programmein partnership with Falkirk Council and Great Place Falkirk.

Sustrans is a registered charity in England and Wales (number 326550) and Scotland (SC039263) and a company limited by guarantee registered in England No 1797726 at 2 Cathedral Square, Bristol, BS1 5DD.