Witch rings and the riddles at Mither Kirk

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ABERDEEN, Scotland — A recent archaeological dig at a church in Scotland has helped bring the public perception of Witches and the history of their persecution into sharp focus. A team of scientists in Aberdeen uncovered up to 2,000 bodies and a cache of medieval archives showing that the Kirk of St Nicholas Uniting was used in the 1500s as a “Witches’ prison.”

Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

One relic that has gripped the imagination of the public is an iron ring mounted on one of the walls (pictured below). It is believed to be where the accused were kept before going to trial. This, along with the rest of the finds, are a result of a 10-year project at the church, known locally as Mither Kirk, which is Scottish dialect for Mother Church. St Nicholas Uniting is the name of the Mother Church and Administrative Head Church of the city.

Through this find, on one level, a very vivid image of the persecution of Witches has emerged. The records that were unearthed demonstrate that details of the witch trials were painstakingly recorded by Church officials. Archivist Martin Hall said that those tried for witchcraft were “very frequently accused of healing diseases, usually using unusual methods”.

He added: “Janet Lucas (one of those recorded by the archive) is accused of taking threads from people’s clothes to heal or enchant them.”

In another example, a man called Andrew Mann was accused of “long-standing affairs with the Queen of the Elves” and “stealing a herd of cattle and leading dances through the countryside on All Hallow’s Eve”.

Those accused of Witchcraft were invariably burned at the stake, and the materials necessary to perform the burning, such as the number of tar barrels and the amount of wood, were painstakingly recorded.

General view Excavations in Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

General view Excavations in Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Parts of Mither Kirk date to 1150, and it currently still operates as a Church of Scotland site. The building’s eastern wing, which had not been in use for many years, was given the go ahead for development in 2003. When it was finished, the wing was opened up as a public facility for the people of Aberdeen.

Of the 2,000 bodies discovered during the dig, which began in 2010 in the Eastern zone’s old graveyard, only 900 bodies were considered completely or partially buried. The rest had been disturbed in some way, thought to be mostly due to placing new graves on top of existing ones.

A number of bodies were also found interred in the walls of the church itself. However, it is not yet known if any of those bodies are connected to the Witches’ prison, and it is also unclear why the story has only been covered by mainstream media now – long after the discoveries were first made.

Sensationalised coverage by the BBC placed a particular emphasis on the Witches’ ring. Project leader Dr Arthur Winfield admitted that he did not understand the media attention. He told The Wild Hunt: “It is only post-excavation work which is still ongoing, plus finding links to other information sources.”

“The [BBC] piece clearly focused on the use of St Mary’s Chapel as a prison for Witches in the 1590s,” he said. “There is a ring – which is quite insignificant – in the wall to which they were chained.”

Dr. Winfield also added, “I was rather sceptical but it seems that the city archives contain the itemised invoice for payment for putting the ring in place.”

Witch Ring found at Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Witch Ring found at Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University, who is currently undertaking a major research project on the history of Witchcraft, stressed the fact that, in terms of news, there have been no new discoveries. He said: “The finding of unrelated burials in the church has reminded people of the iron rings in its vaults where accused criminals, including alleged witches, were held awaiting trial and execution. We always knew about these.”

Prof Hutton continued: “Aberdeen had an especially vicious mass witch hunt in 1596-7, in which local cunning folk got swept up with socially suspect characters, and convicted on confession, probably after torture.”

As Prof Hutton explains, Scotland’s record on the treatment of Witches differs sharply from that of neighbouring England. He said, “In Scotland it was very difficult to avoid conviction of Witchcraft, unlike in England where the acquittal rate was 75%, because the people who arrested the person accused were empowered by the government to act as her or his judges.

“The mode of execution was, however, similar, as English victims of Witch trials were hanged and the Scottish were usually strangled. But in England the bodies were then buried and in Scotland they were burnt.”

As Prof Hutton and project leader Dr Winfield both highlight, while there is a definite link to the persecution of Witches at the site, the extent and full nature of that link remains unclear at present. The find at Mither Kirk represents a great opportunity to discover more, not only about this fascinating period of history, but also of the history of Witchcraft in Britain.

Remains found in the wall [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Remains found in the wall [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

It is often said that these Witch trials and executions, on one level, served as public entertainment. With that in mind, it would appear that the modern sensationalist spin on the story, as presented in the British press, offers up the victims in that very way. Additionally, the BBC’s focus on the more grisly details of such an archaeological find is in keeping with the tradition of mainstream British media sensationalising any news story remotely Pagan.

But Ashley Mortimer, a trustee at the Doreen Valiente Foundation and director at the Centre For Pagan Studies, feels the spotlight that has been shone on Mither Kirk can still be seen as a positive. Mortimer said, “I think it shows the Pagan community not to forget where it came from, that our history informs us and those outside of our community of how we came to be here.”

Mortimer continued on to say: “That bloody history records that people who describe themselves as Witches were far fewer in times past and those that didn’t describe themselves often found others doing it for them – with dire consequences.

Burials at Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

Burials at Mither Kirk [Courtesy Dr. Winfield]

“I think it reminds us that we occupy a place of equality in society now which we should treasure and value carefully, one we should remember was hard won over many, many years by those brave enough to stand up for our rights to do as we will and call ourselves what we will.

“Our ancestors deserve our gratitude and we owe it to our descendants to preserve the history – modern, ancient and in between – so that we may never forget where we came from and how we got to here.”

All of the details found in the archives will be put on public display, and the remains that were dug up will be reinterred in a specially built crypt in the church.

The true story of Mither Kirk’s Witches is still to be told, but for now we have been reminded of their presence.

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For more background on the Witch Trials in Scotland, Professor Ronald Hutton recommends Brian P. Levack’s Witch-Hunting in Scotland: Law, Politics and Religion by Brian P. Levack