As a Scot, I’m more than familiar with the harrowing tales of Scotland’s persecution of ‘witches’ (mostly women), which hit its peak between the late 16th to the early 18th century.
However, it was only recently that I learned of Lillias Aidie’s grave; the ‘only known named witch’s grave in all of Scotland’. To keep the trolls at bay, I might add that this was heavily disputed in my TikTok video comments. However (I am told), the explanation for this claim was that it is the only one that
a) had a body
b) was confirmed to have a body in it
c) had a name attached to it.
In this article, I’ll be covering Lillias’ story and a few other key points about her grave that, in my opinion, deserves more recognition than it receives:
- Unraveling the history: Who was Lillias Aidie and why is she remembered?
- Is Lillias Adie still buried at Torryburn Beach?
- Where to find Lillias Adie’s grave: A guide to the location
- The history of the witch hunt in Scotland
- Preserving history: Efforts to protect and maintain Lillias Adie’s grave site
Unraveling the history: Who was Lillias Aidie and why is she remembered?
According to some reports, Lillias Adie was a healer and herbalist who was unjustly accused of practicing witchcraft. Others say she was just a 64 year-old woman going about, minding her own business, in a time where self-sustaining women were something to be feared.
It is said that a neighbour of hers felt delirious after an evening of drinking one night in 1704. Her conclusion? Lilias summoned Satan to cast a spell on her. Now, while we aren’t giving any props for (what was quite clearly) a night on the bottle, it is so be noted that many ‘accusations’ in this period began as grumbles. The church, the key influencers at the time, often heard a rumour of witchcraft (or received a complaint by someone who had been slandered by being called a witch) and instructed any witnesses to come forward. In many cases, the witness was not a willing one.
After a month of torture, Lillias ‘confessed’. During her confession, she was forced to name other witches, and while she gave the names of those already sentenced, she proclaimed she couldn’t identify those who hadn’t already been located as they were masked by their powers.
Lillias was sentenced to death, her end was to come by flames or by drowning, but she died in prison before it was carried out. The locals feared that (since they didn’t burn her soul), she would return from the dead. And so, her remains were some of very few (known) buried ‘witch’ bodies – piled into a simple wooden box in a spot between the shoreline. It was belived that her position between high and low-tide would keep her in limbo. For added measure, a large half-ton rectangle slab was placed on top of the box to stop the Devil from reanimating her. The slab still stands in position today.
Is Lillias Adie still buried at Torryburn Beach?
In short, no. In 1852, grave robbers looted her grave – scattering a lot of it’s contents across Fife (and possibly beyond). It has been reported that Phrenologist Joseph Neil Paton had paid men to open her grave, and (according to Douglas Speirs, the Archeologist who discovered her grave), he kept her remains in his personal museum and proclaimed her “animal-like” as all witches before her.
When her skull was removed, it was reported to have been found with a good set of teeth still in place, and stayed in the private museum of the Dunfermline antique collector for some time. Following its leave from Paton, it was displayed in a number of places, before being taken to the museum of the University of St Andrews. Photo documents from the University team show Lillias had prominent cheekbones, a nose with a high bridge, and white teeth. The photos are now held at the National Library of Scotland.
It’s documented that in 1938, her skull was moved again to the Empire Exhibition at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. And this, is where the story goes cold. Her skull dissapeared, and has still not been found to this day.
Where to find Lillias Adie’s grave: A guide to the location
Lillias Adie’s grave stone sits on the shoreline between high and low tide at Torryburn Beach, Fife, Scotland.
Before going, we thought a quick Google search would help us hone in on the exact spot relatively quickly (there’s tons of articles about it). However, all the photos we came across made it difficult to identify where it was along the tideline. The Google map spot is also a little off.
We’d heard a lot about how you could only get to it at low tide, so we were anticipating a real shlep out into the mud, but her stone is actually really close to the walkway – so much so that my friend initially refused to believe we’d found it!
We parked in Torryburn Beach carpark and followed the path to the right towards the bridge. You’ll come to her stone before the bridge. Look for a large, perfect rectangle with a hollow circle near the middle (it’s reported this is where an iron ring was). I’ve added a few photos here to try help you narrow down the spot.
If you’re still struggling, there’s a coin memorial on the pavement that walks under the bridge. This coin is before the bridge, directly in line with the stone. The memorial reads, “Lillias Adie, 1640 – 1704. They feared she would rise from the dead – how oculd she as she was an ordinary woman accused.”
The history of the witch hunt in Scotland
Lillias Adie’s story takes place during a tumultuous period in Scottish history known as the witch hunt era. Scotland’s persecution of ‘witches’ hit its peaks between the late 16th to the early 18th century and it is estimated that between 3 and 4 thousand people were tortured and executed.
In the 1590s, King James VI Scotland’s fear of witchcraft began stirring up national panics. From the late 16th to the early 18th century, accusations of witchcraft spread like wildfire throughout Scotland, leading to numerous trials and executions.
Most trails were authorised centrally, a governmental operation run by men. Stuart MacDonald states that the populace did not initiate hunts, the church took the initiative; they heard a rumour, and called for witnesses to come forward – some were willing, some very reluctant.
During this period, a pervasive fear of witchcraft and the supernatural gripped society, resulting in a frenzy of accusations and trials targeting individuals, predominantly women, believed to be involved in dark magical practices.
Accusations of witchcraft also arose from envy, personal vendettas, or misinterpretations of natural occurrences. Suspects faced grueling trials that were highly prejudiced and rarely provided a fair chance for defense. Many innocent lives were tragically lost, as alleged witches faced brutal interrogations, torture, and ultimately execution, often by burning at the stake.
The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft identifies that 468 men were accused, vs, 2702 women.
From 1590-1662, the proportions of men & women remained consistent, but the likelihood of women being executed increased.
The witch hunt epidemic left a lasting impact on Scottish culture, fostering an atmosphere of fear and distrust, while also inspiring enduring folklore and legends surrounding the accused witches and their alleged powers.
Preserving history: Efforts to protect and maintain Lillias Adie’s grave site
I’m going to be honest, this site has not been given the proper markings I believe it should have. There aren’t any nods to it on the information board on the beach, despite this board listing some facts about the nearby ‘Witches Rock’. There’s also nothing to highlight the grave stone.
The only thing in the area that marks her story is a tiny coin-like plaque that sits to the side of the pavement, in direct line with her stone. We had to hunt for this thing for a fair while before we spotted it – the first time, we walked right past it! To find the plaque, follow the pavement along the main road, on the beach side. You’ll come across the memorial before you reach the small bridge that leads you out of Torryburn.
It is a stroke of sheer luck that St. Andrews University photographed Lillia’s skull before it was displayed. As part of attempts to piece together her story and encourage her memory, Christopher Rynn, a Forensic Artist at the University of Dundee, used the photo to reconstruct her head in 2018 with 3D virtual sculpture tools. It has been noted that this sculpture is the first face of a Scottish woman accused of witchcraft that anyone has ever seen.
In addition, in remembrance of a dark chapter in history, a memorial service was held for Adie in Torryburn on August 31, 2019. Exactly 315 years had passed since her tragic death. Gathering together, the community sought to honour Adie’s memory and pay tribute to all the women and men who had endured witch persecution during those harrowing times.
Sources for this article:
Men and the witch hunt in Scotland
The Witchs Skulls: The Search for Lillias Adie’s Reains – Cunning Folk
Read more about Scotland’s history with my blogs: