Memorial planned for the historic victims of the Orkney witch-trials

Liz Williams —  September 27, 2018 — Leave a comment

UNITED KINGDOM — In the islands of Orkney, a memorial is planned for the victims of the witch trials. The site will open in 2019.

The inspiration for the project came when Professor Liv Willumsen of the University of Tromsø gave a talk at Orkney College in 2012. Professor Willumsen made a comparison between the witch trials in Scotland and those in Northern Norway, and she also mentioned a memorial to witches in Steilneset in Finnmark, Norway.

Orkney [pixabay].

Over 100 people were tried in that region, an unusually high number for Norway, with 91 people being burned at the stake. The memorial, a 400 foot wooden structure was designed by artist Louise Bourgeois and architect Peter Zumthor. It opened in 2011, and it was the prestigious artist’s last major work.

Helen Woodsford-Dean, one of the people behind the new memorial, says that she knew that Orkney could not fund something on that major of a scale, but she was also aware of other memorials recently erected elsewhere in Scotland, such as Paisley and Forfar.

Elsewhere in the country, the Pendle witch trials have also been commemorated with a statue to Alice Nutter, who was murdered by hanging. Woodsford-Dean said in the press release for the memorial:

In 2013, myself and Dr Ragnhild Ljosland (‘Raggie’) first proposed the construction of a memorial to the historic victims of the witchcraft trails in Orkney. We felt that the undeveloped area at the top of Clay Loan, known as Gallow’ha … would be an ideal location; our preference was for the installation to be sited directly within the circular area of box hedging which marks the site of the town gallows in the past.

…We both favoured a sun-dial because of the combined symbolism of sunlight as a natural, positive image, together with time as a healer. We pictured the sun-dial as being made of a single piece of blue-grey Orkney sandstone, shaped like one of the Standing Stones of Stenness, inscribed with ‘Just People’, or similar wording, perhaps rendered in Orcadian dialect. The sun-dial would be of a vertical wall type with the gnomon being a horizontally projecting short metal pole.

Woodsford-Dean and Ljosland began a project of awareness via Orkney Radio and local press. They received sympathetic responses from Kirkwall and St Ola Community Council, the Orkney Heritage Society, and the Orkney Archaeology Society, who agreed that a memorial would be unlikely to disrupt any existing archaeological work. They also received support from local MPs.

With this encouraging response behind them, and support from the Orkney Tourist Guides Association, a ‘Kirkwall Witchy Walk’ was set up along Victoria Street; it was developed in 2015 by Fran Flett Hollinrake in conjunction with the UHI Centre for Nordic Studies.

Recently, Woodsford-Dean and her colleagues have contacted everyone in the local area to inform them about the memorial. Feedback from various faith groups, including Pagan associations and the Minister of St Magnus Cathedral, has also been positive.

Orkney Islands Council, to whom the land belongs, was supportive, however council members raised health and safety concerns about an eye-level gnomon, so the original plan was modified in order to satisfy any reservations.

“Our revised suggestion is to exchange one of the existing flag-stones, leading up to the circular box-hedging area, with a carved flag-stone. This flag-stone to be a single piece of blue-grey Orkney sandstone. This met with approval…” notes the designers.

While the sundial remains central, it is now somewhat more abstract. The design was taken from the grave-slab of Patrick Prince (who died in 1673), in the south side of the west end of the nave of St Magnus Cathedral. The Orkney Heritage Committee set up a sub-committee and funding options were examined. The result of that work was that the committee was awarded £1000 to cover the install, a creative day, and inauguration events.

From the beginning of the project, we have been keen to make reference to the cathedral as much as possible, mainly because many of those historically accused of witch-craft may have been tried and imprisoned there. We approached the cathedral’s stone-mason (now retired), Colin Watson, to procure a suitable stone, shape it, and carve our design upon it.

The carving was completed in August 2018. Orkney Builders Ltd have offered to complete the install for free, and are aiming to do so in February 2019. A day of creative workshops and inauguration events is planned for October.The MacGillvray Room at the Kirkwall Library and Archive has been booked for October 30 2018 – a deliberate choice of Samhain.

Organizers said:

We will lead a day of creative and reflective activities around the whole concept of witch-trials, perhaps making this more contemporary by reflecting on how societies still ‘blame’ others. It is intended that there will be music, story-telling, drawing and sketching, meditations, acting and role-plays, creative writing, and poetry – with the hope that we will be able to produce material to go into a time-capsule to be buried under the new paving-slab. The day will finish with some time at St Magnus Cathedral towards the end of the afternoon.

Further events were planned for International Women’s Day in 2019, but are now likely to be taking place a day later March 9 2019 – a time that is more viable for most people. Organizers said, “…the focus of the day is likely to be a reflective processional walk from Marwick’s Hole, south transept of St Magnus Cathedral, up to Gallow’ha. Afterwards, at the St Magnus Centre, there will be talks from academics on the historical trials, performances, readings, music, and story-telling.”

Finally Woodsford-Dean comments:

We have been keen to stress from the inception that this memorial is not meant as a religious monument, nor to seek any act of contrition from any other parties. Rather, our intention has always been to install a positive memorial with the message of ‘never again’ and to commemorate an important episode in Orkney’s history.

We have always believed that it is appropriate, viable and desirable for Orkney to have its own memorial to the victims of the historic witch-trials. This memorial will give a clear and positive message that Orkney society is free of prejudice and optimistic about continuing to be so in the future. It will also be an additional, albeit minor, tourist ‘attraction’ for Kirkwall and will highlight a fascinating part of Orkney’s history.

Liz Williams

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Liz Williams is a professional writer and, with her partner, runs a witchcraft supply business and bookshop in Glastonbury, England. She has written for the Guardian and other publications on pagan themes, and is a member of various pagan organisations, including the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.