Geillis Duncan: the true story of witch trials and the patriarchy

by Ellie Barlow

Characterised in popular fiction, in novels and television series, as a flame-haired teenager Geillis Duncan was a maidservant to bailiff David Seaton in 1589. A poor but well-known folk healer, she was one of the first to face the deep-rooted sexism of witchcraft accusations. Both her and her case represent a legacy of women invaluable in communities for their uncredited experience and wisdom in therapies for the sick. Her story is simple, yet echoes loudly through centuries: one of many scapegoated and persecuted for not fitting male criterion on the role of women.

Geillis Duncan (left) portrayed by Lotte Verbeek in the TV series Outlander
(Image: Sony Pictures Television)

The work of women as healers during the Middle Ages remains little known or appreciated. European universities systematically excluded women as students, resulting in a male monopoly on the practice of medicine. Ineligible as healers and excluded from academic institutions, female healers of the Middle Ages had little opportunity to contribute to the science of medicine. Instead they worked as herbalists, midwives, surgeons, barber-surgeons, nurses, and traditional healers noted for their devotion to the sick under the most stressful circumstances. 

This was not without opposition. Male physicians often discredited these women as incompetent and dangerous. This predisposition was compounded by campaigns, promoted by the church and supported by civil authorities, to brand women healers as witches. The result was many peasant women were brutally persecuted in this period.

Geillis Duncan was accused of witchcraft in 1589 by her employer after he observed her curing the ill. He alleged she was belligerent, stole from his home and was ‘often absent’, allegedly sneaking out to attend sabbats (witchcraft gatherings) involving drinking and music – often on boat trips lasting up to 2 days.  Seaton, in severe financial difficulties, was convinced that his problems were the result of ungodly acts committed against him. Duncan was poor and without support, so when accused was unable to afford legal protection or the chance of a fair hearing. Due to contemporary political and legal structures her case was unable to be heard in an imperial court, instead she appeared in a local regality court, dictated and controlled by David Seaton and other land owners. 

Arrested and tortured before her trial, Duncan suffered from excessive use of ‘Pilliwinks’ (an instrument used for squeezing the fingers), sleep deprivation and isolation, after the discovery of a “Devil’s mark” on her neck. Modern-day academics have described her initial ‘examination’ as tantamount to rape, a reflection of the worst extremes of a patriarchal society. She was coerced to name other ‘witches’ she had met but, to Seaton’s surprise, she refused. Unfortunately, her silence only allowed Seaton to continue his use of torture until eventually she admitted to meeting with the Devil and named up to 70 others such as “The Earl of Bothwell, Agnes Sampson, Richard Graham,” who she had gathered with in the Auld Kirk at North Berwick.

Illustration by F. Armytage of Geillis Duncan on trial before King James VI, demonstrating how she played a tune for the Devil
(Image: Mary Evans Picture Library)

Sadly, a vocalised confession was all that was needed to justify her execution. King James VI took a personal interest in the trials after allegations surfaced that a coven of witches was plotting against his life, even demanding to see her and have her play the mouth harp to him at court. She was frequently re-questioned following her first arrest – until May 1591 – but was not mentioned again in the surviving records before her execution on 4 December 1591.  

Duncan’s case is significant as it represents the discrimination, societal and educational, experienced by women in medicine – as well as legal injustices at the time. This reflects socio-economic patriarchy arguably still evident today. Seaton’s failure to take responsibility for his own financial misfortune and insistence of Duncan’s guilt manifested his greed and insecurity; he needed (and was willing) to save himself at her expense. Is this classism and sexism at play today? #EveryonesInvited and #Metoo would suggest degrading talk, abuses and inaccuracies still exist and protect male power in many guises. Modern experiences may not be the illegal torture or public dehuminising that Duncan experienced but through gender pay gaps and workforce imbalance women in medicine still undoubtedly experience the patriarchal legacy in how women are paid, employed and promoted. The experiences of ‘witches’ 400 years ago might seem a long way from my modern teenage life, but we have a lot to learn from the trials and tribulations of these women in more ways than one.


About the Author:

Ellie is a Year 12 student who lives in Brighton, studying Early Modern and Medieval History, English Literature and Language combined and Fine Art. I am keen to further my education through a degree in either Law or History, when I’m not busy studying, I enjoy playing hockey and visiting art galleries, and eating avocados! 

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