The Portencross Witch – Another Myth

North Berwick Witches

On the 8th August, 1588 the El Espiritu Santo sank off the coast of Portencross. The Espiritu was a messenger ship sent out from the main body of the, soon to be defeated, Spanish Armada. The plan had been for Spanish diplomats to journey with Scottish Catholic Lords to meet with King James VI in Edinburgh, and persuade him to raise an army to invade the north of England, in support of the invading Spaniards from the South.

North Berwick Witches
The North Berwick witches meet the Devil in the local Kirkyard from the 1591 pamphlet “Newes from Scotland”

A West Kilbride local legend has it that a witch named Geils Buchanan stood on Portencross Auld Hill on that fateful Summer night, and caused a massive storm to arise, which then sank the ship not 400 yards from the rocky shoreline.

In my original book “The Portencross Armada Conspiracy“, I speculated that the identity of Geils Buchanan may have been a later resident of Portencross. Such a person does appear on the genealogical search sites, as a lady that moved from Greenock to Portencross. However, this was significantly later than the original wreck. It is possible therefore that the two names have become mixed up.

The Date of 1588 was not too early for a witch to be known in Scotland. It was, however, early for the weest coast of Scotland. Witch trials had started on continental Europe in the 15th Century (the Maleus Maleficarum was published in 1486) and had spread to Scotland by the late 16th Century. It is a common misbelief that James VI started witch hunts and trials in Scotland, whereas it was not until 1590-91 that his interest peaked. The Scottish Witchcraft Act came into legislation in 1563, some 3 years before James was born, and it is now reckoned that between this date and the eventual repeal of the Act, at least 3,837 known individuals were accused with at least half of these being executed (Lizanne Henderson “Detestable Slaves of the Devil”: Changing Ideas about Witchcraft in Sixteenth Century Scotland).

woodcut maleus malificarum
A woodcut from the Maleus Malificarum (1486)
Illustration of the torture of a witch
An illustration showing a witch being tortured in 1577

Early trials of people engaged in work with the supernatural included Janet Boyman (1572) who met the fairies, Bessie Dunlop (1576) and Alison Peirson (1588) who communicated with ghosts, and Christian Reid (1597) and Andrew Man (1598) who claimed to have met an angel.

In the winter of 1590, King James VI went to Denmark to collect his new bride, whereupon his ship was beset by storms. As a result, a number of women were accused and convicted of witchcraft in Copenhagen and of raising these storms. The whole process deeply impacted James and on his return to Scotland he became very involved in the accusation of a number of supposed witches at North Berwick in 1591.

One of the main North Berwick witches was named Geills Duncan. She was arrested and under questioning implicated many others. The full story of Geills Duncan can be found here. To a large degree the trials relating the the 200 or so accused witches (men and women) surrounded their ability to raise storms and have demons crawl up from the sea on to ships.

The whole story of Geills Duncan and her confessions were published in a 1591 pamphlet entitled “Newes from Scotland”, and so impacted King James VI he later published his own account in 1597.

In my opinion, local West Kilbride legend has attributed the 1588 wreck to Geills Duncan and at a later date the local name Buchanan and location of Auld Hill have been added to embellish the tale. The stories are so similar and the dates being one single year apart, it seems a little too obvious to be a coincidence.

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