On international women’s day First Minister Nicola Sturgeon issued an apology for all those accused of Witchcraft in Scotland with a Scottish Witchcraft Pardon on the cards in the coming term. As someone who explores folk belief and practices this, to me adds more nuance to our understanding of the whole situation through a modern lens, well through the eyes of the legal framework. I applaud the work of the group Witches of Scotland to create a Scottish Witchcraft Pardon and all those who have backed the cause through the pandemic and kept these issues alive. However, I’m very interested as to what this means for those who ascribe themselves as witches in Scotland and beyond in the diaspora when the Scottish Witchcraft pardon is enacted?.
First a little background
Witches of Scotland is a modern campaign for legal pardons and historic justice for the thousands of people convicted of witchcraft and executed in Scotland between 1563 and 1736.
In Scotland the Witchcraft Act remained in law till 1736. Witchcraft was a capital crime and punished by strangulation and burning at the stake. 84% of those accused, tortured, and killed were women.
The campaign group draw upon historical data from the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft and lobby the Scottish Parliament a pardon, apology and a national memorial. Led by QC Claire Mitchell and writer Zoe Venditozzi, the campaign gained media coverage in 2021 and support from high profile writers who have researched or written novels based on historical stories. The podcasts published by the campaign include contributions from Carolyn Jess Cooke, Sara Sheridan, Julia Campanelli, Julian Goodare and Alice Tarbuck.
The campaign website describes how King James the VI of Scotland considered himself an expert in witchcraft and wrote Daemonologie. An estimated 3837 people were accused of witchcraft.
Claire Mitchell QC provides evidence that Scotland executed five times as many people per capita as anywhere else in Europe. “We absolutely excelled at finding women to burn in Scotland. Those executed weren’t guilty, so they should be acquitted.” A Scottish witchcraft pardon would change the status from oppressor to victims.
I’m wondering, what does this mean and what are its implications for those who ascribe to the term “witch’ today? What does it mean for those who embrace the historical version of witchcraft and the practices held within these records? What does this pardon do to our ideas of witchcraft and the reality of this then, and today?
I’m a psychologist and social worker and the idea of a storied self is very important to me. The stories we tell ourselves are equally, if not more, important than the reality we find ourselves in. When the Scottish witchcraft pardon goes through, in the eyes of the law, the crimes of witchcraft, levied against these people are viewed as miscarriages of justice. It, in a way starts to change the story. Legally stating these people couldn’t have committed these crimes they were accused of is powerful. These people weren’t involved in a practice that brought harm to anyone. They are not guilty of any wrongdoing. Does this legal pardon alter the reality of witchcraft?
Let’s look a little closer.
There have been many ideas that have informed the mythic stories around witchcraft through the years. I still hear witches were herbalists and midwives persecuted for their trade. We know this isn’t the case. A small minority of those accused of witchcraft were herbalists and midwives. That it was men accusing women of witchcraft when in fact it was as often women from their own communities or families, like in the case of Katherine Craigie who accused other women of witchcraft. Though, men were in the position to posit the horrific interrogation and punishment, lets never lose sight of that because they had access to resources and positions of power. That it was only women accused of witchcraft. We know that wasn’t the case (men accused of witchcraft in the trails ended up committing suicide in the jail house to avoid having the land and resources sequestered from their families at a guilty verdict others used their privilege as men and the access to resources to escape the trial).
As someone who explores the witchcraft trials in detail for evidence of folk practices, I’ve read many “confessions”. I understand the nature of how these confessions were forced, the politics and social issues at play at the time. The treatment of the victims of so-called justice was abhorrent. Even a not guilty sentence meant you were more than likely going to die as a label like this would mean you were ostracised from your community and its support. Some victims were disabled, suffering from mental health issues, argued against the church like Andro man, victims of abject poverty, othered in another way such as an outsider or disfigured in some way. However, some victim’s confessions, like Isobel Gowdie, were adamant what they did was witchcraft, gifted to them from the devil himself. She like many others were accused of using maleficium or maleficia (An act of witchcraft performed with the intention of causing damage or injury). This is what brought the charge of witchcraft and a death sentence.
In Isobel’s confession she speaks of cursing and killing various men who have wronged her through acts of magic. She speaks of this in abandon, gleefully even. Many in the Pagan, witch and traditional witchcraft community hold up Isobel as Witch par excellence. A historical example of Covens and the role a witch had in historical times. Personally, I have always concerns about Isobel’s confession. It has never really sat right. It’s an example of EXACTLY what witchcraft was viewed as by those seeking it out at the time. She hits all the notes people would expect, a perfect example of the Witch in a community, where none of the other confessions really speak to this idea in such florid detail. Why this is the case has given me a lot of pauses for thought.
I’ve fluctuated about her testimony. At times I’ve thought someone made up Isobel’s confession as we have no record of her death or burial (yes, false witchcraft trial testimonies exist, it would be naïve to think they didn’t). Over the last year or so I come to an appreciation of her reality as one of the great, if not often viewed in such a light, satirists of her time. My thinking in this regard is supported by the work of Emma Wilby and others. Isobel had A captive audience in the courthouse where she satirised people who placed her where she was. She had one last opportunity to destroy the reputation of the men and women who surrounded her through story, the oldest form of Bardic magic. A proto feminist for sure. Her last gasp at levelling a blow against the society she found herself in at the time. Hats off to you Isobel!
However, when the pardon goes through, legally none of what Isobel said in her confession will bear a reality in the eyes of the law. Legally, she will not have committed the crimes she confessed to. Legally, in today’s view, she was not capable of murder through acts of witchcraft and all the other charges. She was a woman who was a victim of the prevailing ideology of her time. A scapegoat for the hatred and paranoia of a community and no longer a Witch with powers at her command.
As someone who explores the witchcraft trails for evidence of folk practices, traditions, folk magic and community practices, I don’t find the Scottish witchcraft pardon will alter my approach or mean I need to reorientate my story on a personal, societal, and academic level. The Scottish Witchcraft Pardon for me allows for a deeper understanding and appreciation of the victimhood of these persecuted people. The idea Isobel’s and other confessions is not to be taken at face value sits ok with me. It serves to evidence something other than a literal truth, and I’m ok with that. Why am I ok with that? Well, I don’t research witchcraft, I research folk practices, but if you ascribe to this does this pardon mean “witches are as toothless as chocolate dragons?” as someone has mentioned to me. Does it remove the agency of those who engage with other than human relationships, because legally you are now “not capable of harm”?
What does this mean for you? What does it mean for people who view the confessions with different eyes? What does a Scottish witchcraft pardon do to the story we tell ourselves of our ancestors, or the stance we take of a storied witchcraft tradition through the years? Where does it leave us as a community who might ascribe to the term of Witch? What does this mean for the pagan community? How will this impact how others, who are still persecuted for their beliefs, view modern practitioners? How will this alter the view in the diapora?
I don’t know the answer, but it has certainly got me thinking. I encourage you to have a pause for thought. I encourage people to look beyond a factual reading of the trials and look for the nuance. The personal stories within them speak volumes but also, does this pardon remove the very element people seek in their practice? Does it legally remove the very Magic people seek?
When the Scottish Witchcraft pardon is announced we can come together to create a monument, not necessarily physical, to honour the victims of these crimes. We can honour these victims by ensuring we are aware of our storied beliefs and respect them with our new appreciation we carry forward.