Witches of Scotland
- Publication Date
- Professor Niamh Nic Daeid
- Professor Julian Goodare
- Dr Louise Yeoman
- Dr Zoe Venditozzi
- Dr Claire Mitchell KC
Who are the witches of Scotland and why do their stories matter?
The Scottish Witchcraft Act remained law for nearly 175 years between 1563 and 1736. During this time, anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 people are estimated to have been accused, with 84% being women. For those accused of witchcraft, their fate was brutal: execution, preceded by torture – often sleep deprivation – with their bodies burned at the stake so they could not be buried – the ultimate disrespect. Some evidence suggests that Scotland executed five times as many people per capita as anywhere else in Europe. This panel will unpack some of the stories of those individuals accused of witchcraft and executed – examining the role of gender, law, the Scottish context, the monarchy and religion. We will also delve into the recent campaigns for acknowledgement and justice on these people’s behalf.
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This transcript has been automatically generated and may feature errors.
Good evening to you all. That was very loud, I apologise. Good evening to you all. Welcome to everybody joining us online, fáilte. And it’s brilliant to have you all, there’s over 300 of you joining us online, coming from just looking at where you’re from, from Minneapolis, from Denmark, from New York City, from England and all over Scotland. And you’re incredibly welcome to join us this evening at the Royal Society of Edinburgh for our event about witches and witchcraft. The first thing I’m going to do is just give you a little bit of a brief around safety. So for those of you in the audience here, if you hear a fire alarm, then it’s real, and our staff will help you exit the building. The meeting point is the dome outside on George Street. Let me give you a little bit of information about the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The RSE, as it’s known is an academy and National Academy of Scotland. And it’s a little bit different from other National Scientific academies. We were born out of the Scottish Enlightenment. And the difference between the Scottish Enlightenment and the enlightenment in other places is that the Scottish Enlightenment was for everybody. And what we did was we brought together everybody into conversations, and our society here reflects that. So we’re made up of scientists and engineers, medics, legal colleagues, lawyers, judges, artists, poets, writers, musicians, as well as industry. So it’s a beautifully enriching environment within which to be involved. And we host meetings like this, so that we can bring that knowledge into the public arena. So you’re all very welcome to us this evening. A little bit about the Curious festival. So it’s just up and running. Started on Monday, and it’s running until the 17th of September. So look at the website for the RSE and you’ll see other events that are free to attend, where some of the world’s leading experts will give you the benefit of their knowledge and answer your questions. This year’s programme includes talks, panel discussions, outdoor events, and comprises of group discussions and all sorts of other things that you can get involved in. I’m not going to do any more preliminary other than begin to introduce ourselves, which of course I should have done at the beginning. My name is Niamh Nic Daeid. I’m a professor of Forensic Science at the University of Dundee, and I’m a Fellow of the RSE and I’m the director of the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science, which is an interdisciplinary research centre based on that topic. It’s a real privilege to be able to chair this meeting this evening. And to introduce our fantastic speakers to you. What we’re going to do is let the speakers have the floor for about 10 minutes per group. And then we will take some questions for those of you online, please put your questions into the chat. And I have gadget right in front of me where I can read them. And we get through your questions as well if we can manage it. And once we’re finished with the presentations, then have your have your questions ready, start thinking about them as we hear the presentations, and then we’ll take as many as we can, and have a really interesting discussion, I hope as the evening progresses. So I’m gonna start with introducing the people that are here in front of you. And I’ll start with Professor Julian Goodare who’s here to my very, not very good, but left and right to my left. Julian spent most of his career at the University of Edinburgh, and he’s now an Emeritus professor of history. He previously taught at the University of Wales, and at the University of Sheffield. He’s been a visiting professor at the University of Nanjing in China. And His books include the European Witch Hunt, and his recent edited books include the Supernatural in Early Modern Scotland, and the Demonology. Of and witch hunting in early modern Europe. And he is the director of the online survey of Scottish witchcraft, which I’m sure many of you have interacted with. To his left is Dr. Louise Yeoman. Louise is the co director of the survey of Scottish witch witchcraft, and has previously curated early modern manuscripts at the National Library of Scotland. Her research interests lie in early modern Scottish piety and belief. And she is the author of the book Reportage, if I’m pronouncing it correctly, Scotland, which has been sorry, and has been a radio producer for nearly 20 years, and she produced the BBC Radio Scotland’s podcast, whit hunt. Immediately on my right is Claire Mitchell, and Claire is King’s Council. She’s one of the people who established the witches of Scotland campaign. And she’s the past president of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association, and has a strong appeal court practice, particularly focusing on constitutional human rights and statutory sentences. And then over on my on Claire’s right, is Zoe Venditozzi. Zoe is an accomplished writer and teacher and has the other side of the witches of Scotland campaign, and has worked tirelessly with Claire producing the witches of Scotland podcast, which many of you may have listened to. So that is our panel. I’m going to ask Louise and Julian to kick us off and turn the floor over to you.
Thank you, Niamh. I’m Louise Yeoman when I started out in public history in Scotland as a curator in the 1990s, the witch hunt was a slightly dirty word. The first great full length modern workers scholarship on the Scottish witch hunt, Christina Larner’s ‘Enemies of God’, had been published in 1981, and academic interest was rising, but in popular outreach, the subject was still considered a bit dubious. When I suggested an exhibition on the topic at the time, I was quietly told that people weren’t too keen on it, because it was seen as being associated with Satanism, and might offend or worry Christians. It was the same as latest 2012 with some of the earlier suggestions for memorials to Fife witches. In places where traditional types of evangelical Christianity were strong, there was still a tendency to see sympathy for accused witches as sympathy for the devil, a devil who was still really believed in as a dangerous force for evil. We’d not quite left the world of our witch hunting ancestors behind and in some places, we still haven’t. Now, attitudes began to change more from the 1990s on. Academic work picked up pace, a survey of Scottish witchcraft went online, in the public sphere interest in memorials and partons grew. In terms of zeitgeist, Scotland had become a more secular place, and witch hunting had become more salient as a feminist issue, especially as the extent to which women were targeted and the Scottish witch hunt became more widely known. So over the same time, there was a relevant trend in Scottish tourism. The first Edinburgh ghost tours began in 1985. By the year 2000, the Edinburgh dungeon had arrived, and the Harry Potter boom then began to make an impact. It was a more American style focus on Halloween, as a time when you might dress up as a witch at a party, or pitch which related stories or events for PR. So there was a kind of entertainment focused trivialization of the stereotype of the witch, at the very same time, as the grim realities of the witch hunt, involving sexual abuse, torture, misogyny, and mass execution of women for an imaginary crime became more salient. So if I quickly sketch the Scottish witch hunt for you, it took place officially between 1563 and 1736, when the Witchcraft Act was enforced, however, we know there were earlier pre reformation cases, and that the idea of satanic pact had made it to religious houses in Scotland by 1540, from Catholic intellectuals on the continent, its likely though that popular belief in witches with the demonic pact had existed for hundreds of years before that, with the coming of the Witchcraft Act, and the extraordinary administrative feat of the establishment of the Protestant Reformed Church of Scotland, with its hierarchy, of courts the Kirk sessions with the elders the presbyteries with the minutes with the minister’s ministers, as we go up in the Senate, and the General Assembly, you might all remember that we still have general assemblies. So with that hierarchy of Kirk courts, witch hunting, stepped up, stepped up several gears, because the mechanism of the new church court system was increasingly in place. And with it, the will was strong to create a godly society, pleasing to the Almighty, which repressed all sorts of sin. This urge, which led to the prosecution of fornicators, and adulterers, and Sabbath breakers, also included the hunting of accused witches for the same reasons. They were seen as sinful and ungodly. And the Bible, as it was understood then, was thought to say so. So the result was the accusation of at least 3200 individuals and the execution, was something like 2500 people across 170 odd years. Now, 84% of these people were women. And I’m also going to add in 64% of accused witches in Scotland, were over 40. So I don’t know why I said that. So the accused witches of the time of the witch hunt, were falsely believed by their contemporaries, to be people punching destructive holes in the fabric of society around them, and using powers that only rightly belong to God to do it, who were believed to be able through a pact with the devil to supernaturally smite those around them. This pact supposedly involved renouncing their Christianity, that Christian baptism, in order to receive powers from satan to do evil to harm you and your children, the blite crops to raise storms to harm animals, and to interfere with household processes, especially dairying – yeah, they could spoil your butter. So yeah, big thing in the early modern house. Yep. And the beer. So, so it was sometimes believed that witches had perished to help who they wished. But when you come down to it in an early modern society, all this power was being wielded by people who especially in the case of women, were meant to be subordinated in a strict social hierarchy. It was seen as illegitimate, ungodly, unaccountable power. So these are modern term, accused witches were not just seen as punching up, endangering lords and ladies, and nasty men, but as punching down on the good subordinated people around them, who knew their places in the social hierarchy, and who didn’t deserve this. The community looked to their superiors and institutions for protection from what they genuinely saw as the witch mennace, which they truly believed in. The accused were believed to be dangerous to society, traitors to God, disrupters of the correct social harmony and hierarchy and of gender roles. They’re supposed crimes were impossible and fictional to us, but they the accused were all too real. And we’re subjected to actual torture by sleep deprivation, witch pricking and just general brutality before execution. In, which happened if they were tried and found guilty. Torture in times of peak witch hunting led to those apprehended naming other people who were also tortured. This wasn’t the primary mechanism which drove the witch hunt. But it’s one to be aware of. The primary way in which accused witches gathered a reputation for harmful magic was what we call quarrel, followed by misfortune. Women quarraled with someone she was thought to be of ill will to them, and then a misfortune happened to that person. It didn’t happen every time. People could have reputation stretching back decades for this sort of thing. But sometimes enough people in a community whose word was believed, would turn on someone and accuse them as a witch, and it was taken seriously by the courts. Julian Goodare sat night next to me, in his work, Women and the Scottish Witch Hunt, considers this question of how it affected women. Their sexual identity made women vulnerable. It was linked to the nurturing role which was expected of usually older women. To be socially accepted, women had to keep the dangerous sexual side of their natures under control, but keep the nurturing side constantly in view. Since the two were so closely intertwined, this was a difficult balancing act. Any woman who got the balance wrong ran the risk of acquiring a reputation as a deviant of one kind or another. Now I also think of the work of Dr Sierra Dye, as to how misogynistic stereotypes about speech played a large role in this. If you were female, and seenand heard as a disruptor of social harmony with your words. Those actions like quarrelling or cursing were real and observable. Curses were believed to have power and your gender made them worse behaviour. Now, Julian considers the witch hunt to be at least a forceful admonition to women to modify their gender related behaviour. Now, I would add to that the philosopher Kate Mann’s insight on misogyny, she wrote of how women were still expected to be selfless human givers who are disproportionately attacked for any perceived lapse in caring that nobody would care about if it was done by a man in a similar role. She is explored by women who take public roles, which society still sees men as being entitled to, are disproportionately and savagely attacked and pilloried in a way that men are not you see this in the papers. Even today, you’ll see the witch archetype on social and legacy media being deployed against women who are seen to threaten powerful men. And sometimes you’ll also see it abused by those who want to punch down on minorities who label any pushback they get for stoking dangerous moral panics as witch hunting. Now, when we reflect on these questions, we might ask ourselves in general, who are the targets of moral panics today, the witch hunt, which led to being strangled and burnt at stake, are dead. But witch hunts which seek to uphold society’s values by targeting those who trouble our categories and hierarchies are still very much alive. And that’s part of why we need to make and keep this history visible.
Well, yes, how can we follow that? Add to it, but yeah, it’s a pleasure to be here, I was pleased to be invited. Thank you, to Niamh for introducing us to the Royal Society of Edinburgh for putting this event on. And thank you to everyone for coming. It’s a grim topic. But it’s an important one if we want to understand human behaviour. And I want to start by trying to put early modern Scotland in a much broader context and get you to think about this initially, globally, and then I’ll try and zero down a bit. And witchcraft, you know, what is this thing witchcraft. And so some people sometimes think, well, there is this word. And so there must be a thing. Theres a word, so there must be a thing, look it up in the dictionary, stare at it for long enough, eventually, you get to the actual true meaning. And this is what it really means right? No, because words mean different things to different people in different contexts. Sometimes there isn’t really a thing attached to the word at all. And it strikes me that witchcraft is one of those very plural words and it’s meant over years all sorts of different things to different people and still does. And, you know, some of the entertaining things that Louise was alluding to, you know, the fun that you can have dressing up as a kid. No, that’s, that’s real. And it’s, it’s just a bit different from what we’re talking about. And there are two main things that I want to draw to your attention or two main types of witchcraft and Louise has already alluded to them, but just to sort of separate them out conceptually. Now, globally, the most common concept of witchcraft is harmful magic, the idea that there’s a person who will secretly harm their neighbours in some way, certainly through getting why they would do it, but possibly through revenge. But then their motive for harming them, their neighbours, is a sort of secondary issue. But the fact is that some people have got some kind of supernatural powers, and they use them to harm their neighbours, and but word witchcraft can be used for that idea. Now, we find that globally, in most traditional societies, by traditional society, I mean, a society where knowledge is validated and passed down orally, in the kind of societies, that anthropologists study today. And the kind of society that early modern Scotland was, at least in part, that there was an educated literate elite. But most of the peasants were not literate, and their knowledge was handed down. So globally, today, and in most of the societies that we’ve ever been able to find, most of those societies seem to have believed and still do today in harmful magic, and you can call that witchcraft in English of that kind. So there are people who are secretly out to get them. And that idea is useful. It helps people explain misfortune in a why did this bad thing happened to me? Oh, well, it’s because I offended so and so and someone says, getting their revenge by magic. And it provides a sort of course of action. Now, not all traditional societies do this, a few explained misfortune through angry spirits or evil spirits. You can’t prosecute them, and you have rather different ritual approaches to them. But you know, anthropologists are never surprised when they find witch beliefs. And we do find which police of that kind in early modern Scotland. So that’s a sort of global context. And we find it all over Europe in particular, but in early modern Europe, just to narrow the lens a little bit, let’s just talk about just the whole of Europe this time, and, and the early modern period, 16th 18th centuries, that’s when most of the witches in were executed. The peak is probably about in about 1620-30, you know, that’s when the the highest number was being executed, there’s an upward trend up to about them, and then that seems to be very slow. But anyway, in early modern Europe, there is also a second idea that again, Louise has already talked about the idea of the witch who makes a pact with the devil, the demonic witch, and the witch who sells her soul to the devil, and I’m using gender pronouns here. Yeah. Come back to gender in a minute. But neither actually the demonic witch nor the village, which they want to use uses harmful magic neither of them are necessarily gendered, they don’t have to be. And most of the societies that have believed in either kind of witchcraft, it’s, it’s usually both men and women, usually mostly women. But I’ll come back to that, perhaps, if we have time. But the the idea that there was a secret conspiracy, or a conspiratorial group of people who was secretly worshipping the devil, and that is an idea that you do not find in all traditional societies or in most traditional societies. And it’s an idea that seems to be specific to early modern Europe. And it originated, as far as we can tell, in the early 15th century, in the western Alps, in the French speaking Switzerland, of you know, regions around that, where writers start to say, there is a specific sect of heresy. heretical sect, who are not just wrong kind of Christianity, but really the worst kind of Christianity, you know, they’re actually worshipping the devil himself. They’re not just worshipping God in the wrong way, but actually given their allegiance to the devil. And so, clergyman, and theologians and judges and other people start looking for these heretics, and they copy off one another, and it goes viral, if you like. And let’s say it begins in the western Alps but spreads over the whole of Europe and we can certainly see it in Scotland by the way early 16th century. It’s a sort of theoretical idea. And it’s very hard to pin on individuals without torture. One thing in common that the demonic witch and the harmful village whitch have that they’re both wicked, and they’re not things that you call yourself, except under torture, only people who said, “yes, I am a witch,” are the people who were interrogated under torture and were forced to say. So, there’s sometimes a modern idea that there are good witches or white witches is, or witches as sort of magical practitioners of some kind. But if there are people like that, well, there are people like that, in early modern times but they don’t call themselves witches, because of witch is bad. You know, once you are a witch, you are bad. So nobody thinks themselves. But they get forced to confess, through torture, or the courts decide that they’re, they’re witches. So this happens all over Europe, and the authorities start to worry about it. And it is the secular criminal courts that do the actual gathering of evidence, we might hear more about courts later, I don’t know. The actual gathering of evidence and the actual convicting and executing, and Louise has mentioned the church courts, the Kirk sessions presbyteries and so on. And in Scotland, we see them often doing the preliminary evidence gathering, but they can’t execute anyone, they have to turn it over to the the criminal courts of the state. And so in Scotland is the criminal courts of the state that actually do this. And it is important to realise that the witch hunts and the executions, this is a legal process. These are not lynchings, this is not sort of village justice, where people just go around to the witch’s house and kill her. You know, this happens in courtrooms and you know, literate educated people consider the evidence in we hope, a considered way. Just a few more things before I wind up. This isn’t particularly then a distinctive Scottish thing, when I start to think: what’s distinctive about the witch hunt in Scotland? There’s not much perhaps, you know, a greater interest in pricking of witches. And the idea that the witches mark is a particular form of evidence that you can use to prove that someone’s a witch. And the witches mark is an insensitive spot, you can prick them with a pin, and they didn’t feel anything, or you say that they didn’t feel anything. But it’s not exclusive to Scotland, there’s really nothing that’s exclusive to Scotland, you can find these everywhere. But what, if anything is distinctive about Scotland is that there are these quite high numbers, and 2500 for a population that Scotland has, it’s about five times the European average per capita of population. Some countries execute more witches is some execute fewer witches. One of the reasons we set up the survey Scottish witchcraft is so that we could do numbers better, and actually have a more accurate idea of numbers. And in 2019, we were very glad that our wiki data colleagues added an interactive map, which some of you may have seen, and you can sort of pinpoint the witches on it. And it would be great if we could do this for all the witches in Europe, and we could then have a better sense of where where the witches were. Now, I’m often asked, you know, is Scotland the most intense country, you know, or even told, you know, Scotland is worse than anybody else? Well, not really. And you can’t really do a league table. Because different countries have different populations. It’d be like a football league where all the teams have different numbers of players, it wouldn’t work. So, you know, you can’t put countries of different sizes on a on a table. A lot of this is regional rather than national. Even within Scotland. There are a huge variations. A few small regions have very high numbers per capita, others have far fewer. Ideally, what would one would want? I think, from a statistical point of view, those of you who are not interested at all in statistics can pause for about a minute would be, you know, not only to pinpoint each accusation on a map in the way that the the interactive map to add to the survey does, but also modify that author orthographically so that we would have equal areas for equal amounts of population. And then you’d be able to see at a glance where the hotspots were, but you it would take a lot of orthographic modification and data gathering of a kind that we don’t currently has. I’m corresponding at the moment with a colleague interested in Polish witchcraft, who wants to do a survey of Polish witchcraft rather like ours. In a maybe eventually we will have something like that over the whole of Europe and we’ll be able to analyse these better. But why Scotland is particularly intense. And I’ll just end with a couple of thoughts on why Scotland is particularly intense. It’s very hard to explain, but the intensity of the Scottish reformation does seem to be part of it. The Kirk sessions and the presbyteries do in quite intensely engaged with the population and gain a lot of popular legitimacy in doing this because they’re preaching the word of God, which people like, and they are engaging with and solving people’s genuine social problems, you know, they’re providing poor relief, they’re doing a lot of things that people can see is good. And so when they also say, Thou shalt not do this, or that people go wrong, well, maybe we shouldn’t. So. So this gains them legitimacy. And solving people’s problems is something that that the authorities do they do it in their way. I don’t see popular demand for witch hunting in the same way. One of the things I should have mentioned this earlier, one of the things that I do see about village witches and about the common folks approach to witches, is that if you believe if you’re a villager, who believes that you’ve been bewitched, you think, oh, yeah, this quarrel with or Mrs. So and so. And then, you know, my Catherine became ill, and it’s clearly her witchcraft that’s causing this, your response isn’t, ‘burn the witch’ your response is, ‘I better go around to her and get this sorted out.’ And we see this time and again, in the records of witchcraft trials. And, you know, this is after the person has been accused, she’s on trial for her life, but time and again, ‘yeah, you know, she bewitched my cattle, and then we went round, I went round, and we sorted it out.’ And at the time, that reconciliation was meant to be lasting. And those reconciliations are probably more common than the actual witchcraft trials that the only the trials that shed a light on them, so that’s only how we know about them, but the normal village response to witch is negotiate and deal with it, and not burning, so the executions, they’re a state thing. Witchcraft today, there are people killing witches today. Most of them are not states, most of them are lynchings, and we see them in various places in the world, Sub Saharan Africa, there are various hotspots in Sub Saharan Africa. And these are village witches, if you like. They’re not offenders against state ideology. And the lynchings are unofficial and mostly disapproved of by the state. There’s one country in the world that is executing witches today that’s Saudi Arabia, and they’re doing it, and it is transgression against religious ideology that the witches don’t have to have done harm in the community. The numbers I should say, are very small, if that makes you feel any better about it. And it’s not thought to be a conspiracy in the way that the witch hunt in early modern Scotland, you can see time and again, you know, when you met the devil, who else was there give us more names. That’s not happening. But witch hunting, we’re historians, but it’s not simply history.
Claire and Zoe, tell us about witches of Scotland
I feel slightly fraudulent sitting up here because like Julian and Louise are the people on which we base a lot of what we’ve done on we’re absolutely not historians, or academics – our areas are very different. So really, where we are coming to this from is very much our human rights campaign and very much a feminist campaign. And although we absolutely recognise that it wasn’t only women that were executed, it was mostly women are executed. So a lot of our focus is on that. So what I’ll do if it’s okay with you, is I’ll ask clear some questions. Is it okay to do that? Okay. Hi, Claire.
Hi, how are you? I’m doing well. Good to see you here and enjoy enjoying my fan.
This is so exciting. This may become like an ongoing thing. No, it’s actually really warm in here, isn’t it? It’s not just me, is one because I can’t tell anymore. So Claire, you were the one that actually started the campaign. So please tell us where it first kicked off for you.
So I’ll try and give you a potted version of this. And first of all, I should sayas Zoe has recognised that any work that I did, and then subsequently Zoe and I have done really as as a result of the work done by Julian and the work done by Louise and the work done by Larner. And all the previous historians who gather together the information for us to use informed to find out about so I am a lawyer who hitherto specialised in appellate court work I know just do public inquiries, but for for for two decades, I worked in the Court of Appeal in Edinburgh. So as I go through the day, I filter my mind looking at justice and miscarriages of justice in the same way that I suppose, you know, economist looks at the economy or we have ways of looking at the world. So I looked at the world in that way. And I was aware of witchcraft trials, but nothing that I’d been taught at school or, or anything like that it was really only my own interest. And I started looking at the stories of women convicted of witchcraft, men convicted witchcraft, and tried to educate myself a wee bit about it. And it was when I was doing a piece of work, looking at the Bloody McKenzie, former Lord Advocate in Scotland, who is a prosecutor, the main prosecutor, the most senior prosecutor in Scotland, during the time of the witch trials, and I thought, well, I wonder what he thought about the witch trials. So I started looking to see if I could find any references that referenced the Bloody McKenzie and witch trials. And what I found out about him was was he was slightly sceptical about some of the witch trials, he did think there was perhaps quite a lot of just people complaining, not really sure if they were witches. But fundamentally, he absolutely believed that people were communing with the devil, that people were witches, and that it was a proper crime and had to be stamped out. So although he was sceptical about some for the vast majority, he wasn’t, and it was as a result of listening, reading about a case that he was involved in when a woman was being tortured. And this poor woman was being spoken to by the senior people in the Kirk and she was being examined, she was being kept awake watched and read for hours on end, days on end. And she was just totally discombobulated. And she she asked the people who are telling her it was a witch, can you be a witch and not know it? And suddenly, I felt absolutely. I connected emotionally with the the upset of someone in that circumstance who just did not understand why they were being accused of witchcraft. And it was at that point, I thought, well, I want to do something with this. But it wasn’t until some point later that I was walking through Princes Street Gardens, and I’d read a great book,
Sara Sheridan’s book, Where are the Women? Yeah, so I’d read a prompt to you. No, no, no.
I read this great book Where are the women by Sara Sheridan which reimagined Scotland is a place where all the street names are named after women. All the statues are named after women. And it’s an absolutely brilliant book, go get it paperback and hardback, we’re not on commission. And it’s a fantastic book. And I’d read that recently, and I was walking on Princes Street Gardens, and it was kind of storming around with my two dogs, and I saw the statue of the dog, unfortunately named bum the dog, which was given to us I think, San Diego, I think maybe had given it to us. For as a nod to wee Greyfriar’s Bobby. And then I got to the top of Princes Street Gardens, and there was a full size statue of a bear called Wojtek the Soldier Bear who did great things during the war, and no statues of women, none. And I thought, this is absolutely ridiculous. There’s a statue of a bear. I know what he did during the war, there’s a statue of bum the dog, I know his story. But I don’t know the story of women. Women’s History is not being recorded in public spaces. And my eyes hadn’t been open to that I looked up above Wojte’s head as you know. And I thought I know that hundreds of women were put to death, right above the castle esplanade, in the most brutal miscarriage of justice Scotland has seen. 1000s of people, mostly women, killed as witches. And at that moment, I decided to do something about this. I would like I would like it recorded that those people were not witches. And therefore I stormed back to the house and wrote down the witches of Scotland campaign aims which are
I liked the way you punctuated with my fan. On Wojtek’s head, I said I swore
I think this giving me a fan has been a bad idea. I’m worried that’s gonna turn up in court. We don’t get gavels that’s a misnomer.
It would match your wig also in court. So at that point, you decided there was going to be a campaign with three aims. So the first aim was to receive seek an apology from the Scottish Government for those that had been accused of being witches. The second was to I’m holding up three fingers. The second was to seek a pardon for those that had been executed. And the third was to somehow memorialise, those that had been accused and executed. And that’s that’s basically where you went from there. And then you and I met, didn’t we? At lovely Mel, and I suppose Drew’s wedding. No Drew’s perfectly nice. I really hope he’s not here. He’s a lovely man, I’d love her. And we met at their wedding and inexplicably hadn’t met before, despite having friends in common. And we got talking, as you do when you first meet an adult about you know, like, Oh do you like podcasts? And we talked about how we both really like true crime podcasts. And Claire I think, at that point kind of went, well, this woman can talk. I know that and she’s interested in crime and Claire said, “I’ve got an idea for something Do you mind if I get in touch with you?” And I thought, yeah, she’s cool. I’d love to go to touch. So sometime later, Claire got in touch to say, right. I’ve got a proposal bear with is going to sound a wee bit bonkers, but okay. And she told me about the idea of the campaign and said, I’m thinking about doing a podcast with it and wondered if you wanted to co host it. And I knew nothing like literally nothing at all about what happened with witches and the witch trials in Scotland, despite the fact that I have lived in Fife since I was five. And that was a hotbed like Fife, really were into it. I’ve got some theories about why the Scots and Fifers in particulars were so into the which trials but maybe won’t share that at this stage. But I knew nothing about it at all, like literally nothing. And I’m a teacher. I’m an English teacher, by trade. I’ve taught Macbeth various times. That’s literally what I knew. I dressed up as a witch for different Halloween things, no real concept of it. So when Claire and I first got together, and we’re working on this, and Claire had shared with me things like the survey, and I started read into I was absolutely shocked by the numbers in Scotland. And the fact that I think it was still even even three years ago, as you were saying, Louise, it was still quite stigmatised. People still weren’t talking about it. And there was still an idea. And I don’t know if it’s because of the age that I am. And I remember, you know, like the satanic sort of trials in Orkney and so on, that there was still a lingering, ridiculous superstitious idea about the devil and about how you didn’t want to be a Satanist. However, I got over that quite quickly and clear. And I decided what we were going to do with the podcast,
Just like just get over that Zoe. So yeah, I just moved on fairly
quickly. Because we’re both what I would describe as as PB feminists like pre Barbie feminists. We already knew about that before we watched the film. So we’re both I think looking for a cause, I think to get involved with. And so Claire, and I decided to launch the campaign, which we did when?
Yes, so we launched the campaign on International Women’s Day 2020, which was the 8th of March 2020. And if anyone worried about the possibility that we may be considered witches, we’re like, we have a campaign. We want to launch wants to tell people about this. And then two weeks later, we were all setting it in our house, not telling anyone about it, because lockdown had begun. So we shipped we shelved things, because quite frankly, we are we are above all realists. And we do understand that whilst we think definitely there’s a place for a campaign to properly remember people and to restore them to properly what they might be, we don’t necessarily think that that it was appropriate at that time. So we shelved it till September, where upon we started up trying to try to start what’s been described as very kindly as a cultural conversation about the history of women in Scotland a bit why you are not properly recorded them about why we don’t talk about our history of witches. And we started the podcast of which we’ve had. We have had your good self Julian, and Naimh has agreed to come on and talk about burning burning of witches. Yeah, but we’re up to episode 70. And we’ve got all these experts that speak to various different things, things that we couldn’t possibly have thought of writers, academic scientists is actually like a kind of a small RSE because we take people from all over the world and talk about this, but one person particularly struck me, which was Rachel Christ, of the Salem witch Museum, the director of the Salem Witch Museum, who we spoke to, and she said that people from Scotland came across and said, We want to know all about the witch trials. You know, we read the crucible. And she said, do you not know that your own country has had, as Julian said, five times per capita over a period of time, more witch trials than than other places, basically, a hotbed of witch trials. And it was against that background that we tried to start this conversation speaking to as many people as possible, and we are delighted to see that after a lot of campaigning. And two years down the line we wrote to the First Minister of Scotland, or then First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and we asked whether or not an International Women’s Day 2022 She would consider providing that apology. Now, the reason why we asked for an apology and not a pardon is, you can only pardon People who are convicted. But a lot of people were accused and the lifes were utterly ruined, or they died having been tortured. So we wanted recognition, not just for the people that were convicted and perhaps lost their lives, but also for all the people that were accused. So I’m delighted say, you can Google that International Women’s Day 2020 when discussion was over the misogyny bill, which is currently in fact, now going through discussion again about how to deal with that in our law. She gave that first formal state apology to all those that had been killed as witches and recognise that. So we are there with the apology, we can tick that off our box. Yes, we are halfway there
with the pardon. So with the pardon, the the way that that process works, and I think a lot of us, myself included, view pardons through an American filmic lens, you know, the idea of like, a last minute pardon, or, you know, Presidents going out in some of these parts. And on the way out, I realised quite different to that. So we often have to explain that to people. So we’re not looking for pardon that says, or you did something wrong, and you know, we’ll let you off with it. It’s more sort of rewriting their legal status. So that’s taken away against these people’s names. Because we recognise that there’s no such thing as witches, you know, there’s no, there is no such thing. It’s a nonsense law that no we look at, and this gets into thorny area where some people kind of like, will leave the past alone. It was hundreds of years ago, haven’t you got anything more serious to be involved with, but as has been touched on here, that this is still ongoing. Okay. And one of the, I think two episodes, in fact, we’ve got, we talked to a colleague, who is called Dr. Leo Igwe, who’s a humanist who works across several countries in Africa, including Nigeria, where he’s from, but also Malawi, Kenya and Ghana, I think possibly more places because it seems to be growing, unfortunately, where as already been explained, it’s sort of neighbourhood sort of disputes, and often things where somebody dies, and the family doesn’t want to accept that it was natural causes or just an unfortunate accident. And then there are unscrupulous people who will say, I can tell you the grieving family who was involved in witchcraft that caused the death of your nephew, your son, your auntie, whatever, and then points out the person they of course, get paid. And then that’s, it’s a business in some in some places, but it is still something that’s happening is often older women, often children, and you’ll probably know yourselves that in Ghana that are there, witch camps where women go, and they’re isolated. So it’s still it’s an issue. And that’s just within some countries in Africa. There are other countries where it’s happening, too. We had a case recently that we talked about on the podcast, which was in perhaps actually, unsurprisingly, in America, no offence love, Americans don’t have an issue. But there was a really intense church, where the minister stood up and said, My wife tells me that in her prayer group, she has identified several witches, and they’re here today, you know, pointing out into the into the people in the church. Now it doesn’t take much I don’t think for something kind of febrile and dramatic and intense like that, to then spill over into into lynchings. You know, even social isolation that happens, you know, we know how difficult that can be in in modern day. So it’s something that we think that is still there. We’ve got evidence as well, you know, there was mentioned that of when women take roles that are actually men’s roles, and they are then called witches. Nicholas Sturgeon is like the best example of that. So when she was first minister, I would occasionally Google or I would look on Twitter for what was being said about witches. And always, always, always Nicola Sturgeon was the top pips, like the witch, horrible, wee witch, the nippy witch, all that sort of thing. It’s still got so much power. And at the same time, she was called the witchfinderGeneral. And I was kind of like, guys, let me remind, you know, we’re going for here. But I think, again, it’s that idea that women are getting above their stations. And it’s a really easy way that we have completely embedded like, culturally, that that’s how to get rid of women. And then we’ll see people like the orange one saying that he’s been he’s been the victim of witch witch hunts Boris. Mr. Johnson was the victim of witch hunts, any anybody that stands up, because they’re actually being held to account often will say, Oh, it’s a witch hunt to sort of lessen it. And it’s ridiculous. It makes me angry. So that’s the ire, that still there that’s helping us kind of move forward, that it’s not unfortunately, a dead and irrelevant concern is still something that’s very much there. So what’s next clear, what about the memorial?
So, understandably, we currently live in times where there’s very, very little money sloshing around for a public memorial. So Zoe and I, through speaking to people’s because politicians, it’s speaking to interest groups throughout Scotland are trying to members whom are here today, what we’re trying to do is come up with some sort of idea and cost memorialization process. And we are hoping very soon to have a meeting with all those groups to try and get us together to work out what that would be in relation to the party. And I’m pleased to say that Natalie Doran and MSP who’s known in the cabinet, but before she was in the cabinet put forward a proposal for a private member’s bill to partner who was convicted of witchcraft. We’ve already had a public consultation on that that public consultation, we understand were very well, there was a lot of response, and the vast majority of this response was positive. But she then went into the cabinet. So we have to find someone else who would be interested in putting forward the bill. And we’re currently in discussions with that about it. So that’s still currently under
process, but we know that it’s got cross party support we do. So we’re hopeful that that okay, what are we moving forward?
So we do we absolutely understand that if you hear we want to pardon witches, we absolutely understand some people’s first response might be, do not have better things to do with the modern day? And the answer is, we absolutely have a lot of very important things we need to do in the modern day to assist people, and particularly vulnerable people who are accused of things that they haven’t done now, however, as Louise is fond of saying, we don’t just need to do one thing at a time. We can do a number of things at a time. And we think it’s very important that we properly recognise what went wrong with these people that there were vilified for something that we didn’t do that many of them lost their life in the most brutal way. And when we remember that and reflect back on it, then we have an opportunity in the future, hopefully, when we see that happen to call out, and maybe just maybe we won’t repeat yesterday. Thank you.
So ladies and gentlemen, now it’s your turn to ask your questions. And I’m gonna put my glasses on so that I can see I’m going to go to the lady in the middle at the back there first with the glasses on our heads. Yes, you. Just waiting. There’s a microphone, I think coming towards you. I hope maybe not. Yes, there is. Just lady just here in in the middle.
Hello, thank you all very much. And I’m delighted to hear progress on the memorial. I wonder what should be done with the existing memorial at that site of mass extermination on the castle Esplanade, in which we have this very ambivalent statement? Which is an insult to the memory of those people. What can be done about that? I mean, I don’t think it’s good enough to just simply make an memorial adjacent to that mean, that’s misogynist and insulting? What do you think what you’re
referring to? Well, isn’t it up by up by the castle, which has got a quote I suppose on it, which basically kind of goes, yeah, some of them use their there’s their like, spells for good somewhere for bad, you know, it’s very kinda like, whatever they were witches, it doesn’t it doesn’t recognise really, that the people that executed were, were just regular people
suffering human beings who were murdered.
Yeah, I mean, I mean, we certainly can’t go up there and just remove it. Obviously, at least that was, although now you say or no, we could obviously can’t remove it. I’m not sure really who that would be up to, you know, I think it’s an interesting kind of piece of history. In so much as it shows how far we’ve come in actually quite a short amount of time since this most recent kind of discussion about memorialization has come around, I think we’re focused very much on creating something that would be fit and appropriate. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the memorial that exists in Steilneset memorial in Nortway, Vardøy, because that, to me, is that’s what I’d really like to see happen. But that’s, you know, that’s extremely big money. It’s amazing. It’s definitely worth looking up. I’d like to see something that’s quite imaginative that shows, you know, what we have in Scotland in the way of artists and what what we can do, I’d like to think outside the box, so to speak a little bit. But you’re right. That’s it’s not a fitting memorial. You know, it’s it’s not appropriate. But I think we’re very much focused on what we could do going forward and creating something, aren’t we?
Yeah. So, I mean, there’s, there’s that whole debate of should, should that remain there so that people can see what the contemporary view was, and we would obviously go to the historians for being ambivalent about you know, we just had this debate here in Edinburgh about Dundas didn’t we and, and how to deal with that. So it’s a really, really interesting question. And there’s also some people who go there with flowers and with tributes and put things there. So people have kind of repurposed it in their, in their own way, and perhaps ignoring what it says. So,
I don’t know. I’m gonna take another question in the room and then I got to go to one online and then come back into the room. Okay, gentlemen.
Thanks very much. So this hopefully Claire will be able to answer this if it’s not subjudice yesterday at the High Court in Glasgow, 11 people. This is a headline from BBC Scotland yesterday 11 on trial over child sex abuse and witchcraft in Glasgow. Do you think the legal profession should be takening this up with the BBC?
I can’t comment on it. Because it’s an ongoing trial
No, no, no, we can’t. Sorry. Let me go to an online question, then. I know it’s lady here in front as well. So this one is for Louise and and Julian. So it’s quite a technical question. So I hope I read it out correctly. What proportion of Commission’s requested by the Kirk sessions were granted by Privy Council and then went to trial or execution? Do you know?
I don’t think we know but it’s not always the Kirk sessions during the requesting. An awful lot. I mean, I cannae answer this in statistical terms. But one of the things that I find interesting, I find it really interesting with Claire sitting there is because somebody said to me, do you ever see witches is being rescued? I thought the way witches are rescued when the rescued accused witches through the legal system, is through, you know, lawyers, and through lawyers who know how to write a petition to the Privy Council and say so this has not been carried out according to law. It’s true, you know, judges like the Earl of Dumfermline who says right, you want to try this woman as a witch? Well, it will be tried in my regality court, and I’ll show you how to try it. And amongst other things, he bounds entire presbytery you’ve already tried her, or you can get a second bite. So you know, one of the interesting things because it’s a legalistic process, as you know, you do see lawyers sort of, you know, doing some good in things. There you go Claire. Maybe Julian to get into the digital side. Yeah. Just
Just briefly, if we take the question of, you know, what, how what proportion of requests for Commission’s was granted? I mean, it’s almost in inherently unanswerable because when the the Privy Council heard a number of requests, you know, Can we can we have a commission to try such and such a witch? And if they thought, yes, they granted the commission, they wrote it down. If they thought, no, they go, no, go away. But they didn’t write anything down. So we did. So there are no records of refusals. And the only time when we find a refusal is when the the local people then come back to the locality crestfallen and go, they wouldn’t give us a commission. But that’s pretty random, you know, so we can’t run statistics on that. But you certainly can see the central authorities, they’re not always going Yes, burn all those witches. They’re sometimes thinking for just a minute, proper legal procedures, and proper legal procedures tend to mean fewer convictions.
Thank you very much. That question was from Caroline online. So thank you for that. Just you’re at the front, I’m gonna get to you.
I’ll stand up for the benefit. Of those at the back. This is my full height. So it doesn’t get any taller than this. My name is Linda. I’m a tour guide with Merkat tours. And we’ve developed a tour all about which is based on your evidence. No cauldrons are involved, new pointy hats, none of that. And there are a few points that I think are really pertinent because your point about, you know, what do we do about the memorial because my tour ends at the memorial. And it’s it’s awfully mealy mouthed, that’s very ambiguous. And I think the whole idea of this retain and explain it with Dundas that they’ve done in St. Andrews square is a great idea. Keep it, explain the context and explain why we think it’s wrong. You know, so that’s the first thing. The second thing to address your point, Louise, is to say, I would suggest that the modern day witchcraft equivalent is the the attitudes, the attacks on the trans community in Scotland. Now, that’s not to say that isn’t a discussion to be have had about the biological reality of gender. But the idea about how gender is presented in society that’s absolutely the source of witchcraft at the moment and witch hunting. And the other thing really is a question for the whole panel, which is when I read Christina Larner’s book to inform my studies as well as your own work, and what really struck me, looking at the map that was provided in her book, Enemies of God, was the geographical distribution in Scotland. So can you give a word about why there seems to be, I understand of course, population wise, much smaller population and the north and the west, but why in the Gaeltacht? There were so few prosecutions. What’s that about? I’m gonna get very excited about
you first. I just did a talk on this. And I’m gonna do another one on it.
We’ve never met before that wasn’t a set up! (laughter)
I’ll pass you the gin later. No. So one of the interesting things is if you look at the parish map of Scotland, you will notice these great big parishes up in the Gaeltacht. Okay? Now, if you then look and you’ll find, you know, some garlic speaking areas that have got bouroughs you know, you’ll find that they tend to have quite small parishes, anywhere, you’ve got a borough you’ve got a borough court and you’ve got kirk session and you can get witch trials. So ithere was a witch trial and Stornoway for example, and you know, the witch trials in places like Pein, and later on, you know, you see witch trials in places like Dornoch and such like can often Caithness. Right. But those big parishes right now consider you’re in a wee parish in Edinburgh. The elders all have their beat, right? So the old ken, you know, Mrs. Mrs. McGinty comes and says, you know, rag, you know, Mrs. Sanders has been having McAndy, and it’s oh right. Okay. Well, you know, right, you Kirk session, right? So they can police people more. Okay, so they can police people more than hearing more of these quarrels. They’re acting on them. big parishes in the Gaeltacht. Big parishes and language barriers sometimes because it can be difficult getting clergy who are fluent gaelic speakers. Okay. So you see, to me, that’s part of it. You just don’t have the elder breathing down your neck. And I think that opens things up for people. If you look at Gaelic charms, there’s a lot of apothropaeic charms. That’s a big one for warding off evil. And you know, tie a red thread in the Coos tail and the witch will nae spoil your your milk from the butter and make the Coos stop getting milk. So, you know, if you don’t have the older breathing down your neck saying, ‘stop this at once that’s not in the Bible. You You with the red thread seeing the charm, stop it.’ You know, you’re gonna you know, yeah, right. Okay, can you stop giving me Yeah, that was hard, wasn’t it? Or that was right. Okay. All right. Number one, we’re going to tie the red thread and say the charm. Coos still ill, darn it right? We’re gonna have to bring in a specialist now. Well, you know, okay, you know, so I know this guy. McDougal, in the next village, he’s quite a specialist. You know, hello, McDougal. I’ve got cheese for you. Can you tell me who is doing things the Coo? He has to think about it. And he says is your brother in law, its him who fell out with you. Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’ve got this lovely ritual, I’m going to bring the salt and all these threads, and we’re going to throw them in your fire. And your cows is going to be okay. So basically, you have DIY remedies. It’s like Julian was saying about the reconciliation? You’ve got that as well. You know, it’s like, yeah, I know, I annoyed the brother in law. He’s never been happy with me since I stole his hen or get kicked his dog, you know? So I’ll go to the brother in law. And I’ll say I’m very sorry. Will you pray for the cows health? How can we be friends again? So I think in this big parishes, you just sort it out reconciliation, use of charms, go and see a specialist sometimes. And you very rarely go on to the Kirk session and say, you know, yeah, I think I’ve been bewitched, because that’s a long way to go. And then the Kirk session might, you know, have a lot to do, because it’s a big area, or they might just not be that interested in it. So you know, I think it’s a combination of these factors. That’s my guess.
Julian, do you want to add no
happy to leave it at that?
We had one episode where we had on an Irish expert essentially, she came on and spoke. It’s not called witches of violence. And it was ages ago was like three years ago, she came on and she spoke about the fact that in Ireland, there, there was less of a fear of sort of like thin places and have more kind of supernatural events, that there was a kind of a general understanding that there were fairies and things like that. And people were little people who were less scared of, of that kind of thing and soaw it as just part of life. And I find that quite interesting.
Yeah, we’ve wondered, we wondered why you’re looking at the map. If you look to the whole of the UK and then and you looked at Ireland, which was just across the water my family from Donegal. why there were so few witchcraft accusations? And the answer was that he said, “Oh she’s in league with the devil’ and the’d go, “oh, aye yeah.”
they lived with the stories of the little folk and the witches and the fairies and you know, that that went on. Indeed, you know, even like, my grans time, you know, the little people and stuff like that.
But fairy belief doesn’t stop you having witch hunts, you find lots of faries in the lowland witch trials. Yes, true.
That’s true. But their social
setup, of course, was different too in Ireland, things the same way. And there weren’t Of course, still witch trials in Ireland. There’s what’s called Islandmagee. Yeah. Yeah. Which is, yeah, interesting.
That doesn’t mean there’s a witch trial on just now
some academics, and we’ve got an episode with the Dr. Andrew Sneddon who’s just said who came on talk to us about the work and the research they were doing in that area. And they are doing some really interesting stuff, but memorialization just now and they’re using things like graphic novels and sort of modern technology in a way of bringing it to life, which is really interesting. So there were cases of this – it’s not that they were like, “Oh, we love fairies and witches and the devil,” that’s all fine. It wasn’t that. But there there may be weren’t as quick to, again, my theories about Scotland. I’ll share with you later.
A very patient person up back here with our hands straight up. I got to next.
I’m a Fife-er So I want to ask you about Fife.
We should talk privately, I don’t want to get driven out of my village.
I’m a psychic medium for radical feminists. And it’s just to this lovely lady here who said the modern witch hunts against some groups, I would argue, when I’m doing my psychic mediumship to raise funds from my little radical feminist groups. We feel very aggrieved as well, because we can’t keep our jobs and stuff. But I did want to ask you about your theory was about Fife. When I was at school. We did the 13th. member. And that was in Methilhill in 1982. Yeah, but we did Methilhill 13th member anyone. It’s about the Prestonpans, which is 1982. So in Methilhill, which isn’t the east nook, even we knew about witches And I’m really curious, I don’t understand why you’re saying you’re not gonna tell. I’m really curious.
I mean, it would, it would just be silly. It’s not. I’ve got no serious academic rigour about this. This is just my old stupid opinions about things. That’s why I probably wouldn’t share it with everybody. But I’ll tell you afterwards, I just think people from Fife are strange. I am one of them. So I would just say it’s just, it’s just Fife, but I think that it’s very dependent on it was very dependent on and it still is, who your teacher is and what your teachers interests are, you know, we know that now that we have teachers that I mean, I as I said, I’m a teacher, so I teach the stuff I’m interested in, we don’t have a super strict curriculum in Scotland. So we’re not you know, there are obviously set things within history and so on. But when you’re teaching the younger, the younger age groups, it’s up to that teachers interest areas. So if you’ve got an interest in that you’re going to do it but if you don’t, you probably won’t. So I think that that’s often why we weren’t taught it and I went School in St. Andrews, the comprehensive rather than the private school just need to note to you and loved history. But I could tell you at one point loads about the American Civil War can tell you anything about Scottish history,
I could tell you about the healing clearances, but from the perspective of the cheviot sheep, which was a comprehensive in Govanhill and Glasgow was extremely useful. Yeah, as to how to how to leave my land fallow for that is changing
now that I think that there’s much there’s much more interest in learning about our own Scottish history than there used to be. And I think that there’s definitely a growing group of teachers partly because of things like the campaigns and things like Louise’s podcasts and things like the survey where people who have gotten interest can actually go and find really good, straightforward, true things that they can then go and teach. There’s lots of really good resources being developed. We have teachers getting in touch with us all the time saying we use your podcast, I’ve given talks in schools, I’ve given talks on my own school. So the interest is definitely growing. And I think with anything, if you know the truth of something, it’s going to be to for goods and I really liked the beginning even you’re talking about bringing all these different strands of area together it can only make us better as a nation. If we understand each other and where we’ve come from. And that’s really a big part of our campaign is understanding our past. As Claire said, we don’t repeat mistakes. But also we’re just better that we’re just better people, which I think ultimately is what we should be striving for.
Thank you very much. I’m going to have a question here, and then the lady here. So we go here in the front row first, and then we’ll come to you afterwards.
Hello, Simon, Richie. And I’m from Peebles in the borders. And first of all, thank you, for such a kind of mind blowing and interesting and talk tonight. I just wanted to kind of take it back to the human level. Ultimately, I think that’s what it’s all about. And one of the stories that struck me and as, as you will know, Claire and Zoe, my colleague and Elisa Smith and I who can’t be here tonight, we’re so proud to be behind the campaign to memorialise the victims in Peebleshire. And one of the stories that really struck me during the course of our research was a woman who I think we can now say with confidence, discovered penicillin. Centuries before Alexander Fleming, a middle middle aged white middle class, man claimed to have discovered it, and was applying it to people with injuries. And Claire you mentioned earlier on the story that really touched you, which was the the poor woman who was being tortured and tried and asked, Can I be a witch without knowing it? And I wondered, really faced was such a notable panel on this topic. And I wonder, what’s anecdotes or stories or examples, any of you have come across that really, really touched you in addition to to that one there.
Julian Louise, do you want to
I’ll kick off the case that really moved me and I came across it when I was editing a vollume of Privy Council commissions. It was the case of Anna Tay in Haddington and Anna was trying to put an end to her own life by hanging herself with the strings of her headdress. And she was of course, because people saw killing yourself as being demonically inspired a very terrible way of looking at things. In the 17th century, they saw it as a sin. Okay, she was immediately taken in for questioning and the obviously, to get the stuff that came into the commission unless I let her find her trial. They must have immediately started asking her again, when did the devil suggest this new and they must have maltreated her in the way witches were normally maltreated by sleep deprivation. And Anna then told the story in which you know, she said that she had tried to get an abortion for her daughter with white wine and salt and her daughter had died. And that was why she was trying to kill herself. She also confessed to having committed adultery. And having murdered her first husband with foxglove leaves poisoned to marry her second husband. It’s you know, quite quite a confession. And, you know, they basically took her into, she was bashing her head off the bars or the stocks they were holding her with trying to kill herself again in prison. They took her into court and she was asked if she wanted anyone to defend her. And she said none but God in heaven above. And of course, she was burned. And I suppose this probably resonates maybe with things Claire sees today. I mean, there was an awful lot of things in what Anna was seeing an awful lot of things she would see because she was tortured. There is a phenomenon where people, if they realise they’re going to be tried as a witch, they sometimes confess things that you you think there may be trying to make the peace with God by confessing it because they’re going to be executed anyway. But you think, how did she get into that state? There was nobody to help her. And you know, in the end, she’s just there alone with her whole community against her saying, you know, do you want anyone to defend you? No, no, nobody but god in heaven above I don’t want the defended. I don’t want the defence, and that her story has always stuck with me.
I’ll tell the story of Elspeth. Yeah, so she was also executed for witchcraft. She’s what I think of as a visionary and and she also suffered trauma. She’s a young woman originally from Caithness, then I think sent by her family to Larbert and then to Speyside long distances, she must have walked. And she had various visions where she experienced, you know, a man in green or two fairy men and a man in black as well as the details, there’s there’s so many details that mixing up in my own mind. But she has a relationship with this guy that then breaks down and leaves her with this baby. We never hear any more about this baby, whether this baby is still alive at the point where she confesses at trial or not, we don’t know. But anyway, she is left as at the age of about 14, I think, with this illegitimate baby, and at this point, she has a vision of a fairy, who says that he is her kinsmen. And he is neither dead nor living. And she experiences having sex with him. So sex with a ghost. And you might be inclined to laugh at this except for the you know, the ending is not funny. And I think she is, you know, this is a genuine experience. So, you know, what we’re hearing in some of these confessions is pretty weird stuff. And but she then experiences an inability to speak after, after this vision. She just cannot speak. And then the you know, the clinical psychologists got a name for this, it’s catastrophic mutism. And, you know, people can diagnose this today. And her brother beats her up to try and make her talk, but she still can’t talk. But she makes a career out of this because there’s a tradition of mute healers. They may not be able to speak but they are considered to have other powers. She has these visions. And so she can presumably by signs tell people’s fortunes and she lives for a while doing this. She then ends up in Orkney. How she got to Orkney? I don’t know, I think probably, she was in Speyside. I think she probably was just trying to go home to Caithness. But when when she got to Caithness people said, No, we don’t want you to get out. And so she went a little bit further and went to Orkney, got caught up in the OrkneyRebellion of 1614/15. And got another boyfriend who with whom she was pregnant again, what happened to that baby? We’re not quite sure. But he’s a historical character. He is one of those who was involved in the rebellion, she made prophecies for the Rebels saying this isn’t going to end well. And indeed, it didn’t. And she was one of those executed for witchcraft. I don’t know how old she was, at that point, possibly still in her teens. But you know, the combination of weird fairy belief, visions, like psychological trauma, and witchcraft as an explanation for all this is, it’s a heady mixture.
Thank you very much. I think it shows us the the power of that historical record and the importance of acknowledging it. Lady at the back very patient. Thank you.
Hi, my question is to Louise and Julian. And you covered the role of Kirk in accusations and basically bringing the cases to trial. But do you agree that essentially the scale of the victims and executions is due to the failure of the legal system in Scotland, because all almost all of the trial not all, but majority of the trials were conducted by people who were not trained, not legal professionals, as it was in England. And they were way too close to the trials to be objectives, objective, their accusations that people who falsely accused the person was not prosecuted, they will not prosecute it for these false accusations. And there are a lot of other details in legal system in Scotland that are very different from other countries, example of grand jury in England that most cases would never get to trial. And in addition, the majority jury in Scotland was is that the whole jury need to sort of agree on the verdict. So do you see it as a key sort of, sort of point that led to the scale of the the chant in Scotland?
shall I do with this? Because this sort of addresses the great good debate, doesn’t it? Yes, that this this, whether you whether you’ve been reading, Brian Levack, I don’t know. But if you have, that’s a very good thing to do, because a great scholar, but Brian Levack is another scholar who’s written a lot about this. And he’s certainly argued, yes, you know, these are amateur courts. They’re close to the people and proper legal procedures would have stopped a lot of this. There’s a lot of truth in this, but I published a paper a while ago, which said, yeah, there’s a lot of truth in this. But we have to remember that it is not just these local courts close to the people that are doing this because you cannot execute a witch in Scotland without going right to the top, you need a commission from the Privy Council, you know, roughly the equivalent of the modern cabinet, the coordinating body for the government as a whole, you can’t do it unless you have got their attention. And unless you’ve persuaded them that, that your case stands up, and we do see them making various different decisions. I said earlier, we don’t know how many requests they rejected, but they do reject some, or sometimes they modify some, you know, we’ll give you a commission, but you can only interrogate you can’t actually try them and so on. Or we’ll send it for trial in the High Court in Edinburgh instead, where there’ll be professional lawyers present. And they’re the ones where they grant the commission, it seems to be because they think the paperwork isn’t all in order yet. That’s, that’s fine. So it’s, it’s the top level and the local level. And these are both elite levels. These are local elites, property people, they’re not people who walk up and down behind an ox. So So yeah, there is there is something in the idea that the closeness of the courts to the people leads to a higher level of trials. But it can’t just be that because there are all sorts of places in continental Europe. You know, I don’t want to spend the whole evening on continental European comparisons. But England is not the only comparator for Scotland, guys. All right. And there are plenty of places where there are courts close to the people, but there are very few witch trials. So it’s not the only explanation. Part of the problem is you can knock down any simple explanation if there’s a whole multiplicity of factors. Perhaps I should perhaps I should stop there.
Claire, I don’t know if you want to make any comment about
them. I was I was about to find myself coming to the defence of the legal system. And like, you know, we’ve been there the legal system that killed women is, which is I think, one thing that we learned from Julian and from Louise and others was to stop seeing things like the Satanic Panic that tour through Europe, because there was no panic about it. These were proper legal accusations that were made in court witness statements were obtained. expert witness, witch prickers were brought to court, you sometimes had a judge deciding whether or not they were satisfied with the evidence, sometimes a duty. So if you have the belief system that witches are amongst us and are doing evil, if that exists as a belief system, then you can put that into a criminal court process. And all of the processes of a trial can be fear. But a person who is innocent can be convicted of witchcraft, because the process is just that it’s a process. Do we have witnesses? Do we have experts? Do we have a jury that’s properly told how to apply the law, all those sorts of things are procedural safeguards to ensure a fair trial. But what a trial can’t do is to say the devil doesn’t exist, there isn’t any such thing as witchcraft. That’s a societal belief. So trials are only as good as the beliefs in society that we have to provide a fair trial, I suppose. And that’s why that’s why in countries you can have people having trials where the the belief system underlying it is, is is wrong, and people are convicted of things which we wouldn’t recognise as a crime.
So I’m going to we’ve got a couple of minutes left, and I’m going to do two questions, both of them from our online audience who are still with us, the first one to Julian and to Louise, what got you interested in this space? Why this topic? is really, really shortly.
It’s really just a coincidence that I was working in what was then Scottish Record Office. The a reader came in and said, I think I found a witch trial somewhere, let’s it shouldn’t be. And this was my friend, Michael Walzer. And the witch trial was witch trials, Julius Johnston in the Earl of Dumfermline and it was a big, thick, fascinating witch trial, which involved a family feud between the Johnsons on the and the Varners. And I just became absolutely fascinated with it.
Yeah, well, this is when I was still doing my PhD in the 1980s, which is on government and parliament and government policies and not and I read Christina Larner’s book Enemies of God, but it was sort of on the edge of what I was doing. But I was working in the then Scottish History Department at the University of Edinburgh, and this woman came to the door. And she had got a commission from Channel Four to make a drama documentary about a witch trial. And she got put on to me because I was the only person who could read 17th century handwriting which is what she thinks One thing led to another
reading 17th century handwriting, it’s the gateway drug.
Thank you for that advice. don’t quite know how to follow that one for Zoe, Claire. In since setting up the campaign, what has surprised you the most about the development of the campaign over these last few years?
I think that the international appetite for it the the amount of international news sources that have come to us and said, we want to do an article on this, particularly France, the French sort of can’t get enough of it. And we’re getting interviewed by French Marie Claire in a couple of weeks time, which as you know, my 14 year old self is just like so cool, I’d actually my 14 yourself does exactly. So I think that it’s really interesting how, how much interest that is for Scotland and how we are seen as being like the most bonkers for that, I think so it’s really interesting to be interviewed and then to say to people, here’s, here’s the truth. Here’s the idea that you’ve come here with and here’s what we’ve learned from people such as yourselves that have researched it properly. I think to me, that’s the most interesting thing.
I think the most interesting thing is the fact that people are willing to listen to the true story of people that were accused of witchcraft and don’t after overly a modern take on it, that these a lot of people we’ve heard about historically, we’re like, no, no, these people were witches. And I thought we would get a lot of that kickback. But we haven’t anything, but people are very, very do get
do get the odd person it’s usually a man who has got an issue with it. And there’s one person who I wouldn’t name. He’s from Fife. He writes a makes part of his living through it, who always says whenever there’s an article that he weighs in on when our local press, I say press he he always says we can’t pardon them, because some of them probably were murderers. Were kind of like, yes, but that’s a separate thing. We’re talking about the conviction for witchcraft. So that is irritating. That’s not really interesting.
Thank you very much. We’re at the end of our evening, which I hope you agree has been really fascinating discussion from all of our speakers. And I’d like on your behalf, to ask you also, to thank Zoe and Claire Louise, Julian for their input. It remains for me to thank all of you for attending in purpose. Sorry, here, attending here in public, and for unusually for Scotland, for bearing with us with the warmness of the room. It was it was quite a surreal to see all of the fans going inside here. But thank you for your attendance. It’s been really great to have you with us this evening. And thanks, everybody, for being online for your the chat, which has been going all the way through. I’m sorry, I didn’t get to more of your questions. But thank you very much indeed for all of your kind comments. I would like to also say that we’re at the beginning of the curious festival. So there’s lots more happening both here in the building and elsewhere that the Royal Society of Edinburgh is putting on and you can look on the website www.rse-curious.com and that will tell you what else is going on. There are some feedback forms, which will be fantastic if you would like to fill them out. And there is a big eye out a curious eye out in the foyer with post it notes. So please tag a few posted notes onto that with some comments about this evening. Good night. Thank you for your attendance and safe home.