Scotland’s ‘witches’: Learning the truth about this imaginary, historic crime can help us understand equally absurd modern conspiracy theories – Lawrence Normand

We need to learn about why women were labeled witches, tortured and killed over three centuries in Scotland (Picture: Julie Howden/Stirling Council)

Their demands go further, though, for official pardons, a program of education in Scottish schools, research into local witchcraft cases, and a memorial to the people who endured terrible suffering from witchcraft accusations.

All this begs the question why witch-hunting in Scotland – the most intense in Europe – has not become part of Scots’ knowledge of the past. There are many academic studies of Scottish witchcraft but the task for historians now is how to turn this knowledge into mainstream cultural understanding.

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A number of obstacles lie in the way. Firstly, people don’t know whether to believe in witches and if they had magical powers, and some would quite like to. The memorial plaque by Castlehill in Edinburgh refers to ‘witches’ as if they were real. And near that plaque is a smart hotel called The Witchery, a name that just ignores the fact that this was a place of public execution for those convicted of witchcraft.

Witchcraft exists mainly as scary images from children’s stories with brooms, cats, pointy hats and hook noses. The challenge for historians is to ignore witchcraft kitsch and turn witchcraft into accounts of actual people and real events.

An accurate version of Scottish witch-hunting taught in schools will involve disenchantment and even disappointment, for witchcraft is not a thing at all. It’s an imaginary crime, and there are no such things as witches.

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What will have to be taught is the painful knowledge of how conspiracy works and how it finds its victims. And this is a history that is disquieting or even shameful, and a long way from bonnie Scotland. Perhaps another reason why coming to terms with witchcraft in Scotland has been difficult.

Conspiracy theories like QAnon or witches plotting with the devil to use magic to harm others and destroy society may seem absurd and outlandish but they make perfect sense to those who believe them.

Creating witches involves a matrix of social forces, including gender and religion, many of which are still alive and kicking in our minds and society. As a result we are still caught up to some extent in this web of forces even as we try to identify and understand them.

The Witches of Scotland campaign acknowledges #MeToo as a motivation, and misogyny runs deep in witchcraft accusations. For 16th and 17th-century Christians, women were intrinsically inferior to men because Eve ate the apple in Eden, and this was a foundational belief in witchcraft accusations.

However, as Nicola Sturgeon said in the Scottish Parliament in March 2022, fear and hostility to women still flourishes in Scotland even though it no longer depends on this idea.

Scottish witch accusations and trials may also have been neglected because many of them involve brutal treatment, torture and sexual violence inflicted on suspects. In 1591 a Scottish pamphlet was published in England called News from Scotland that deliberately sensationalized the torture and violence involved, and dwelt in detail on the sexual abuse of suspects when their bodies were searched for the devil’s mark in a way that was meant to be titillating .

Male witch interrogators were finding a release for their prurient desires when they investigated the bodies of the accused, and similar motives may underlie the fascination of some of those who are curious about witches today. This can make witchcraft an uncomfortable, equivocal subject to explore.

Some campaigners also want an apology from the Church of Scotland for its part in past injustices. The post-Reformation Protestant kirk abolished almost all religious magic but insisted on retaining the devil as a free-wheeling spirit who might be encountered any time stalking the fields and streets of Scotland.

And it was women whose weak natures made them more likely to fall for his offer of magical power, and to seal the pact with sexual intercourse. Ridiculous as all this seems now, stories of women and men pledging allegiance to the devil served the purpose of providing that society was constantly threatened by hellish powers.

It was useful for the kirk to imagine so-called witches because they represented the starkest opposition to the kirk’s drive to create a remodeled modern society of social purity and godly discipline.

By 1590 when the Scottish Reformation was hitting its stride, the kirk joined with the sovereign in the North Berwick witch hunt in promoting the belief that the devil was threatening the entire political order.

The kirk provided the intellectual underpinning from European witchcraft theory for the process of scapegoating witches who embodied everything that was most feared or prohibited.

Kill the scapegoats and we kill the things we fear, until, of course, they come back to haunt us again. And yet it is striking even today how much talk of the devil still appears in the ordinary speech of Scots, and, presumably, our minds as well.

If the campaigns for education in schools about Scottish witch hunting, and research into local witch trials are successful, they will bring a real understanding of witch hunting into mainstream Scottish culture.

Then we will have to face the fact that these terrible events have helped make us what we are. We can’t stand outside the witch prosecutions of the past because some of the beliefs and feelings that brought them into being are still animating us today.

But it’s better to have done with ignorance and misrepresentation even if we then have to recognize that, in witch hunts, Scots made scapegoats of fellow Scots and treated them mercilessly in pursuit of a mere fantasy.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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