THE TRUTH ABOUT SCOTTISH WITCHES
It’s October – the Season of the Witch – so to celebrate the Sunday Herald is investigating everything spooky and Scottish until Halloween. This week Karin Goodwin explores the history of Scottish witchcraft
WITH her highpitched cackle, the witch of our collective imagination has a pointed hat, hooked nose and rides a broomstick, a stereotype of the fairy tale baddie. In truth, though, the witch in history is much maligned – as many were ordinary women, often with a knowledge of healing, who found themselves on the wrong side of laws written by men who were religious zealots.
In fiction, too, Scottish witchcraft holds a unique fascination. From the whirling dervish Cutty Sark (a nickname given to the witch Nannie Dee seen by Tam O’Shanter in Robert Burn’s spooky poem) to the three sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, these witches are as intoxicating as fumes from a cauldron. But while today’s Pagans might see the witch as a healer in touch with nature, there is a far darker side to the story. Between the 16th and 18th centuries Scotland tortured and killed thousands of ordinary women accused of witchcraft, creating a devastating climate of fear that to this day goes largely unacknowledged by memorials or official epitaphs.
According to Dr Julian Goodare of Edinburgh University’s history department, who set up the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft and has studied Scottish witch hunts for decades, the idea that witches were women who had sold their souls to the devil first began to take hold in Europe in the 1430s and gradually spread. The Scottish Witchcraft Act was passed in 1563, making both the practice of witchcraft and consulting with witches capital offences.
The women identified as witches and hauled in for questioning were not, as was once thought, those who identified as Pagans, he says: “Modern witches identify as Pagans or Wiccans and so forth but this was not the case in early modern times. In pre-Christian times groups might be described as Pagans, there are connections between the Celts and Druid traditions for example. But people in Scotland at the time of the witch hunts would identify as Christians. They might, of course, be involved with rituals that the church might not approve of.”
Some he said, would have referred to themselves as “charmers” and offered services like fortune telling or spells, rituals or prayers (known as charms). “There were undoubtedly early modern Scottish women who were healers,” says Goodare.
They may have offered help for those who were sick, love potions for those abandoned by their sweethearts or even information about lost or stolen property. Others were accused on the basis of paranoia, some fell foul of political conspiracy, while later women were strangled and burned at the stake as a result of petty neighbourhood disputes. The first mass trials of the North Berwick witches of 1590 were those accused by King James VI – who was obsessed with witches – of summoning stormy seas that stopped him from bringing his 14-year-old bride, Anne of Denmark, to Scotland.
His suspicion first fell on Geillis Duncan, a local maid seen practicing healing (and the inspiration for the witch character in the TV series Outlander), but soon tens of women – and some men – from across East Lothian and Edinburgh were implicated including Agnes Sampson, Agnes Thompson, Robert Grierson and Barbara Napier, who confessed to witchcraft under torture. The trials ran for two years and implicated 70 people in total. “These are real people and they are burned at the stake,” says Goodare.
While most were strangled first, some were burned alive. “It’s a particularly brutal punishment, even for the time,” he adds. “It’s estimated in Scotland about 2,500 were executed for witchcraft. It also created a climate of real fear. In Scotland the extent of our witch hunts were about five times the European average.”
While some men were indeed put through the same ordeal, the overwhelming majority – 84 per cent of an estimated 3,837 people accused of witchcraft in Scotland – were women. Professor Liv Helene Willumsen, of Norway’s University of Tromsø, another expert in Scottish witches, says: “Women in Scotland are targeted during the witchcraft trials in Scotland. The prevailing ideas [are] that women are weak, disposed for evil deeds and easily tempted by the devil to enter into a pact with him. The connection between a woman and the devil – not a man and the devil – is seen all over Europe.”
Most were tortured to make often outlandish confessions. Sleep deprivation, sometimes secured by the help of a “witches bridle” – an iron instrument with four sharp prongs forced into the mouth – was the most popular, which could lead to wild hallucinations.
Trials continued, in intense bursts, right up until after the Revolution of 1689 when a now more secular state lost its need to “prove its godliness” by executing witches. The Scottish Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1736. Goodare says: “What we can learn from looking at this period is what happens when we adopt a totalitarian, black and white view of the world.” Many would say there are parallels to be drawn between the persecution of women as witches and other great crimes in history such as slavery.
However, as yet, we have still not acknowledged the wrongdoing.