Profiles of Courage

The Real Geillis Duncan in Outlander was a Young Healer Accused of Witchcraft

Outlander/Starz Image acquired via Starz Media Room



“You aren’t being a proper woman; therefore, you must be a witch.”


Geillis Duncan, the famous witch of Outlander, was based on a real-life story of a young healer accused of witchcraft in 16th-century Scotland.

Over 3,800 Scots were accused of witchcraft between the period of 1563 and 1736. It was a time when supernatural elements were blamed for everything that could not be intellectually or scientifically explained. Demons and/or witches were blamed for bad crops, illnesses, or death in the village. Around 32% of witch cases from Edinburgh and the Lothians. The passing of the Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563 made witchcraft, or consulting with witches, capital crimes.

Being accused of being a witch was an accusation you could not recover from. It was the absolute opposite of Godliness in the middle ages and the closest thing to sin according the malevolent and sinister witch hunters.

Were women ever not society’s scapegoats? Handmaiden Geillis Duncan became modernly famous on the tv series Outlander as the time-traveling witch and political activist Geillis Duncan. I admit that I have watched the entire series so when I read that Geillis’ character was based on a true story, I had to investigate. As I read Gellie’s unjust trial and execution, I decided to raise her voice again and feature her as a profile of courage.


Witchcraft pamphlet: Newes from Scotland, 1591
Witchcraft pamphlet: Newes from Scotland, 1591



















Geillis was from the county of East Lothian, eastward of Edinburgh. She was the maidservant for David Seton, a very paranoid and violent local deputy with legal powers. Young Geillis would disappear at night without giving any reason. It soon became suspicious to Suton. While the creepy Seton was suspecting Geillis of doing witchcraft at night, she would go and heal sick people in around her village. She was able to make all sorts of ailments disappear. Through her knowledge of herbs, she was able to heal some people and that was seen as “miracles” to the seventeenth-century superstitious, chauvinist local authorities.

During those times of puritanism, men refused to believe that God could work through the vessel of a female, uneducated, nonetheless. Because God did not choose women to be preachers and teachers of God, Geillis had to be working through unnatural and ungodly means.

Seton, without any legal warrant of arrest, was able to arrest and interrogate Geillis in the privacy of his own home. He asked her by what means she had managed to treat and heal such severe illness cases. Unsatisfied with her answers, he tortured her using thumbscrews to crush her fingers and twisted cords around her neck to get a confession out of her. The only ground of her accusation of witchcraft was her deep knowledge of herbs and her ability to quickly heal people from illnesses. He managed to extract names of other women who were alleged accomplices in witchcraft, one of them being Agnes Sampson, a healer and midwife.

At the time, there had been witch trials going on for at least of couple of years in East Lothian. It somehow got to the ears of King James the VI (the son of Mary Queen of Scots) and the rumors of local cruelty around 1590, he was told that a whole group of witches was trying to prevent his Danish bride, Queen Anna of Denmark, from coming to Scotland. When the time of her formal arrest came, Geillis consented to be an agreeable witness. She was in prison for over a year, and it wasn’t until she was led to the stake, on a winter afternoon on the 4th of December 1591, that she was able to share her truth. That she and the women she had accused were innocent, that she had been persuaded to make false accusations. She was strangled and burnt. As the skies darkened on that dreadful December day, one could see the dark smoke around her stake go up to the skies.

In the late 1500’s, King James the VI became the royal evil-hunter, interrogating himself women who were accused of witchcraft. 67% of accused witches were burnt by fire during the witch trials of Scotland between the witch trials in Scotland that first started in 1589 and went on until 1736 when the witchcraft act of 1563 was repelled.

To extract confessions, tormentors used cruel devices. One of them was the breast ripper. “A device that did exactly as it sounds. It consists of 4 pronged levers that would encase the breast of the accused ‘witch’ and then tear it from her chest with a considerable amount of trauma.” The town’s religious prosecutors used another barbaric method to prove the suspected woman’s guilt or innocence: they would throw her into the water, and she would show to be guilty if she floated, and innocence if her body sank. Regardless of the heinous verdict, she was dead nonetheless.

Back in 2004, the court of the town Prestonpans in Scotland declared each succeeding Halloween would be a remembrance day for the 81 witches of Prestonpans executed during the witch trials.

The real question remains…why were people always so afraid of witches? Which archetypal aspect did the witch reflect within themselves that caused so much fear that they were willing to burn and hang them, even when there was no substantial proof of demonic guilt. Even the word “witch” still gives chills. It still scares both men and children alike.

What is interesting is that most witches that were haunted were women that were relatively independent. They were usually unwed, they did not have children, and they lived for themselves. They were the only cast of women who did not define themselves through their relationship to a man. They defied the codes imposed on women by society and rejected the narrow, oppressive roles that were ascribed to womankind. Perhaps, they were just feminists that were born before their time.

To strengthen its forces, a group must find a common enemy on the outside, a classical defense mechanism also called scapegoating, a psychic process still trending in our modern times. The false idea that woman must be contained…into the role assigned to her…into the accepted looks assigned to her. Into the silence assigned to her. Into the only status deemed acceptable by society for hundreds of years: submissive, pretty, quiet, agreeable, discreet. The displacement of guilt and disownership of feminine instinct is still a staggering ego mechanism that places the patriarchy in the camp of holy men and the women that refused to be conventional into the camp of villains.


“La Sorcière”, Jean-Francois Portaels Vilvoorde, 1818.


Onward women!

En avant les femmes!

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