Call for memorial for executed Scottish women
MEMORIALS should be created across Scotland to mark the deaths of thousands of women executed during the witch trials, say leading feminists and academics.
Calls to acknowledge the “genocide of Scottish women” include a network of plaques at sites in Scotland where women were held, tried, tortured and burned at the stake. It is estimated that about 2,500 women in Scotland were executed for witchcraft between the mid-16th and early-18th centuries, yet there is no large-scale public memorial.
The calls mirror those urging Scotland to build a memorial or museum to acknowledge the nation’s shameful role in the slave trade. Women who were burned at the stake, hanged or strangled included healers and local wise women as well as those considered rebellious to the Presbyterian cause, including many who continued to practise as Catholics.
Others targeted included those thought of as “different”, or even women singled out by rivals during neighbourhood disputes.
Edinburgh University historian Dr Julian Goodare, who is calling for acknowledgement of the injustices, claims the few existing memorials are inappropriate, insignificant, inaccessible and unknown. He notes that one tiny plaque at Castlehill in Edinburgh – where one in 10 were tried – is not only tucked away but depicts a serpent and a foxglove, indicating that the women killed had magic powers.
Others, he says, are “embarrassing” in their historical inaccuracy, like the Maggie Walls memorial in Dunning which commemorates witches that did not exist, or the Witches Stone in Forres, where it is claimed witches were rolled down Cluny Hill in spiked barrels – an idea not backed by historical records. “I would like to see a memorial,” he said. “I enquired whether the Scottish Government would be inter- ested, but they replied that they have a policy of not paying for memorials so there would have to be a fundraising campaign.”
Rosie Kane, a feminist and politician turned actor, who will next weekend perform in Seraphina, a play about the Paisley witch trials, agreed with the call. “It is a huge part of Scottish history,” said Kane, claiming the need for a memorial was brought home to her when the cast of the play went on a site visit to a piece of waste ground where Paisley witches were burned.
“We all fell silent and started quietly looking for a plaque or a marker that held some kind of apology, but there was nothing,” she said. “It’s important that after a war or a battle or a genocide there is breathing space and then there should be a physical remembrance.
ITHINK that in every place that something happened there should be a plaque with the names – if they are known – and there should be something that joins those together and tells the story. Each area should take responsibility for that. It may help us talk about the sexism that we’re seeing now in Hollywood, in politics, in sport. If we say someone is a witch we are still insulting them.”
Rachel Jury, creator and director of Seraphina, which will look at the perception of witches today and make comparisons between the persecution of witches and modern “slut shaming”, added: “One man asked me: ‘ Why do you want to bring all that up again?’ If I was writing something about the First World War it would be obvious why that was important.
“Well, this is my war and it’s important to women and it should be important to every man too. It would be fabulous to see a more widespread recognition of this.”
Professor Lynn Abrams, chair of modern history at Glasgow University, said that the lack of memorials to those executed for witchcraft echoed the “dearth” of visible monuments to Scottish women more generally.