Centuries Later, Will Witches Finally Rest in Peace?
© Royal Mile, Edinburgh - Photograph by Gianni Mastrangioli
Were they good? Were they evil? The truth is that the answers never mattered. Until now...
Throughout Scottish history, witches have often been perceived in one certain light; nasty, malformed and evil. Narratives referring to them are generally about magic specialists who used supernatural powers to communicate messages from the death. However, the majority of the accused were actually ordinary folks who died because of what they said or was said about them.
From child-eating witches tracking down the babblings of an infant to light-hearted characters like Hermione Granger - who deploys her magical abilities to great effect in the Harry Potter series -, fiction plays a role in people's construction of frameworks associated with witchcraft. Superstition is heavily embedded in our own contemporary mindset despite new technological innovations and the widespread of secular values in schools. Although there's no such thing as a witch, the process whereby society tends to approach uncertainty is still very much influenced by mystical knowledge.
However, when it comes to defining wizardry, the linkage between real life and imagination is not always necessarily taken for granted; in fact, several movements have been born across Scotland whose intention is to face the emotional hurdle evoked by such false, witchy tales.
One of these groups came to life after a conference held in Dunfermline in 2019, and it's called “Remembering the Accused Witches of Scotland” - which was initially named “Remembering Fife’s Witches”.
“The event showed that there was both a national and international interest in not only the historic events in Fife, but also the extent of the historic persecution in Scotland. And from this, the desire for a national monument”, said Mino Manekshaw, a group’s member.
He pointed out that, although his collective takes into account the fact that superstition was part of a belief system, the charges against those people were baseless. In the hope of bringing justice for those Scots who were caught up in allegations of witchcraft, the group has launched a campaign for a legal pardon, and a national memorial to be built. The idea behind such claims is to revendicate the circumstances surrounding witch trials as well as the victims’ demise.
Witchcraft became a capital offence soon after the Scottish Parliament approved the Witchcraft Act in 1563. That meant that Scots were legally entitled to hunt, slaughter, and kill anyone who was found in suspicious activities.
The persecution across the country increased when King James VI, who was Mary Queen of Scots’ son, returned to Scotland upon his honeymoon in Scandinavia. He believed witches provoked a magical storm in an attempt to sink the ship by which he and his bride, Anne of Denmark, were travelling. The monarch’s paranoia led to “the North Berwick witches”, the first major trial of witchcraft under criminal law.
© King James VI - National Portrait Gallery, London
Following the King’s revenge, persecution reached unthinkable levels. Tortures involved tightening a screw-like instrument to gradually crush the suspect’s thumbs. After they were convicted of something they were not responsible for, if not strangled, they were burned alive at the stake.
Support for an acknowledgement of the brutality of the Witchcraft Act grew within the public when a digital reconstruction of Lilias Adie’s face, the only accused woman whose grave has been found, went viral on social media. Adie's skeleton was discovered in 1852 by phrenologist Joseph Nail Paton, whose desire was to analyse the anatomy of a witch. Her bones were exhibited in 1938, after which they went missing. As of today, their whereabouts remain a mystery.
Historians have determined that she was in her 60s by the time she died. Akin to most people accused of witchcraft, Lilias succumbed to pressure from the authorities who thoroughly sustained she had had sex with the devil. Interrogations were intermixed with torturous sleep deprivation, at which point her health had already started to fail. Lilias' passing occurred while she was in prison; thus, a final judgement was never issued. Shortly after her death she was buried on a beach based in Five, with a large stone being placed above the coffin as people believed witches could rise from the grave to chase up the living.
© Animation of Lilias Adie - University of Dundee, Scotland
Plans for the creation of a national memorial are yet to be set up, and it's thought that such a monument would benefit Scotland’s economy in the same way as Salem attracts thousands of tourists to America each year. But profiting isn't what Scottish campaigners are particularly working towards; having a place exclusively dedicated to those forgotten for centuries represents the first step to heal the wounds left by history.
“The younger generation have grown up on a diet of "Sabrina, The Teenage Witch”, “The Twilight Saga", "Vampire Diaries” and Halloween stereotypes of witches as old hags in black with pointy hats, facial warts and black cats”, said Manekshaw.
“While these horrific events of the past are in the past and well beyond our ability to control, they are far enough away that any study can be dispassionate such that the lessons can be learnt and so translated to the present day”.