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

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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.

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