As It Happens

Scottish county wants proper burial for 18th-century woman accused of witchcraft

Scottish officials are hoping to find the remains of Lilias Adie — an 18th-century woman who archaeologist Douglas Speirs says was accused of witchcraft and buried in grave that would stop her from returning.

Lilias Adie deserves 'the dignity she never received,' says archaeologist Douglas Speirs

A reconstruction of Lilias Adie made from the details on her skull generated by Dundee University. (Fife Council/University of Dundee)

Read Story Transcript

Before Lilias Adie died, she was accused of being a witch.

That was over 315 years ago. But on Saturday, in Scotland's county Fife, people from the community gathered at a beach to remember her — and plan to try to right that historical wrong.

It's believed Adie was buried on the beach under a large stone slab so that she couldn't rise from the grave. 

But eventually, Adie's remains went missing. And now, officials have launched a campaign to find them. 

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to county Fife archaeologist Douglas Speirs about Adie and plans to give her a reburial if her remains are found.

Here is part of their conversation. 

Douglas, how hopeful are you that the remains of this woman, Lilias Adie, can actually be found?

I'm actually quite confident.

Certainly, I think the skull is probably in a museum collection, but it's just been misplaced or mislabeled.

I think it's very likely that her other bones — her ribs, and femur, and so on, and leg bones — are probably hidden away in lofts, and so on, in houses in Fife. The owners just don't appreciate their significance or history.

Archaeologist Douglas Speirs removing seaweed from what is believed to be the slab of stone that sat atop Lilias Adies' grave. (Fife Council)

But why were the bones taken in the first place? 

The grave was opened in 1852 at the request of a local antiquarian. This chap, Joseph Neil Paton, was a great collector of antiquarian items and Scottish curios and features and facets of Scottish history.

But he was also a very keen phrenologist. He believed strongly in the emerging science, as it was considered then, that you could infer much about an individual's character and their traits from the study of their skull.

So he was very keen to obtain this skull of a known witch, so that's why it was opened.

What do we actually know about Lilias Adie and how she came to be accused of being a witch?

Essentially, all we know of her is contained in the court session minutes for the period July 1704 to September 1704.

In these minutes, it's recorded that a couple of local village women fell ill with some kind of summer illness. They accused Lilias of causing that malady through witchcraft.

She was taken into custody. She was maltreated. She confessed to a whole range of things.

As part of these confessions, we can infer a number of things about her. She was probably in her late 50s, 60s, or possibly, even her 70s.

She does not appear to have been married, or if she was married, she was a widow by this time.

She appears to have been a vulnerable individual, very lowly status, of the labouring landed class, at this time. So she was a very minor player, a small time individual in a little and otherwise unknown hamlet.

An image of Lilias Adie's skull, taken in 1904 when the skull was in the St. Andrews University anatomy collection. (Fife Council)

She confessed to being a witch, presumably after being tortured to do so. What does the record say that she actually confessed to?

The records are quite lengthy because over the period of about a month, 29 days which she was actually incarcerated, she was interrogated seven times, and paraded in church to confess twice. And minutes were made of these confessions.

Essentially, the main accusations against her were that she had caused the illness of two individuals.

But [in] the confessions, which were extracted from her principally through sleep deprivation, she confessed a wide range of things.

She was in cahoots with the devil. She confessed to having renounced her Christian baptism, having gone through a Satanic ritual of baptism, having had sex and carnal relations with the devil on many occasions. She describes his black, swarthy skin, his cloven feet, and his hat and so on.

But there's no real substance in terms of the accusations of her doing anything bad or anything, other than her cohorts, essentially, with the devil.

Speirs says a heavy slab of stone was placed on top of Adie's grave because people genuinely believed she would rise out of her grave. (Fife Council)

The tradition was to burn so-called witches at the stake. How did Lilias Adie die?

We're not exactly sure how she died. The last entry of the court session minutes talks about her a few hours before her death — that she was weak and that her eyes were fading and so on. So we believe she simply passed away after that.

Relatively quickly, within three days, she was buried in the intertidal zone, on the shore nearby, in a most elaborate revenant burial ceremony.

She was taken out at low tide. Her body was locked in a makeshift wooden chest. It was buried and on top of this was placed a large, heavy sandstone slab. And these were all attempts to stop her rising from the grave.

They were genuinely worried about the real prospect of her physically pushing her way out of the box, pushing up through the mud, pushing the stone off and actually rising from the grave in a very real and physical sense.

Good Heavens. Of course, Lilias Adies was not the only woman who was accused of being witch. There are thousands of them in Scotland, right?

The preservation of written records in Scotland isn't terribly good. We have big gaps in all of our records.

But if we collate the known records, we have actual real written evidence for about 3,600 accusations or cases of witchcraft. We can definitely see of those 3,600 cases about 1,400 led to executions.

But what we can't say is how many are not represented in the missing records or how many led to executions where we know that there was an accusation but we don't have the records telling us what the outcome of the case was.

Members of the local community at a wreath-making workshop for Lilias Adie. The wreaths were made to lay at her grave. (Fife Council)

But in this case, having a grave makes Lilias Adies somewhat unique. So what are the plans if you're able to recover her remains? What will the county do with them?

It is very unique, as you say, because the vast majority of witches were strangled, garroted, and then burned, and then they were unceremoniously buried next to the fire pit.

We knew of very few real authenticated graves of witches so that really does make Lilias' grave stand out.

The plans for the return of her bones are under consideration.

If they are secured then it's likely, or the hope is from the local community, that they will be reburied in the local parish cemetery and given the dignity that she never received in life.

Written by Katie Geleff and John McGill. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?