Witchcraft north of the border

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EDINBURGH –  Scotland and its witches have once again been in the news this week with the publication of a map showing the location of people accused of witchcraft during the Witch Trials, and also news of a new monument in memory of Scottish witches.

The University of Edinburgh has done groundbreaking work on the Scottish Witchcraft Survey and the new map is connected to this project. Emma Carroll, an intern at the University, has spent three months examining the historical evidence and compiling the interactive map, which shows where 3000 of Scotland’s witches were accused, tried and in some cases executed.

Historian Ronald Hutton estimates that there were 1100 to 2500 executions and ‘there is no consensus there on […] the most probable result” (compared to 500 of the accused executed in England, and a definite 5 in Wales). People convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to execution were mainly hanged or drowned in the British Isles, rather than being burned at the stake.

Flag of Scotland [Public Domain]

Ewan McAndrew, Wikimedian in Residence at Edinburgh, says:

“The map is a really effective way to connect where we are now to these stories of the past. There is a very strong feeling out there that not enough has been done to inform people about the women who were accused of being witches in Scotland. There is still this Halloween concept surrounding them. The tragedy is that Scotland had five times the number of executions of women. The idea of being able to plot these on a map really brings it home. These places are near everyone. There does seem to be a growing movement that we need to be remembering these women, remembering what happened and understanding what happened.”

The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, which began in 2001, also has a database of people accused of witchcraft in Scotland between 1563 and 1736, which is available for download: you can explore it by name, location, or type of accusation, among other categories.

Records show that Haddingtonshire/East Lothian prosecuted 520 cases of witchcraft, Edinburgh 325 cases and Fife 280 cases. However, Haddingtonshire has a better survival of historic records than Fife does. Edinburgh’s prosecution rate was exceptionally high due to cases being referred to the capital from other parts of Scotland. A BBC report says

“It is possible that Fife accused and executed more witches than any other county in Scotland. Many more innocent victims were accused and executed than are represented in the surviving records of Fife’s 280 victims.”

In addition to the new map, a national memorial is planned in Fife itself, commemorating all those condemned as witches in Scotland during the 16th to 18th Centuries. The memorial is to take the form of a lighthouse – namely the Beamer Rock beacon. This was removed from the Firth of Forth in 2011 to make way for the Queensferry Crossing and if the plan goes ahead, it will be rebuilt on the coast at The Ness in Torryburn, Fife, where one of Scotland’s witches, Lilias Adie, died in 1704 as a result of maltreatment in prison. She had confessed to witchcraft and to having sex with the devil. As we know, many of these confessions were extracted under torture; Adie was in her sixties and suffered from disabilities.

Councillors Kate Stewart, Mino Manekshaw and Bobby Clelland told the BBC:

“We’d love to see the creation of a memorial at Torryburn, dedicated to the memory of Lillias Adie and more generally to the many thousands of (mainly women) persecuted as witches in early modern Scotland.

Women hanged for witchcraft Newcastle 1655 [Public Domain]

Like Ewan McAndrew, they add:

“It would help to re-positioning them away from the misguided modern ‘Halloween-style’ perception of fun they have become. They were the innocent victims of unimaginable injustice. The council has a potentially ready-made piece of monumental architecture in the form of the 1840s Beamer navigation beacon which has its own ties to Torryburn. It was designed by Stevenson, whose nanny for 20 years, Alison Cunningham, was born in Torryburn. We’re keen to gauge public opinion on its possible re-positioning and use for such an iconic role.”

Douglas Speirs, Fife Council’s Archaeologist says “Fife, and specifically Torryburn, the site of Lilias’ unique revenant grave, is a particularly good place for such a memorial given the sad fact that in Fife possibly more witches than any other county in Scotland were accused and executed.”

Kate Stewart has also called for public assistance in finding Lilias Adie’s skull. The skull was taken from her grave in the 19th century and its last known location was at the Empire Exhibition at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow in 1938. Adie was buried on the beach beneath stones, apparently to prevent her spirit from returning and harrying the living.

A memorial service for Lilias was held in August, by villagers and members of the Fife Witches Remembered Group. Historian Dr. Louise Yeoman says

“Lilias was cast out of this community and literally her body taken and buried on the boundary between high and low tide. Today it is like she has been brought back into the community in an act of remembrance. Do I think there should be a national statement that we think the witch hunt was wrong and we are sorry? Yes. Do I think there should be a national memorial? Yes, and local memorials.”

Fife deputy provost Julie Ford, who laid a wreath at the memorial service, said:

“It’s important to recognise that Lilias Adie and the thousands of other men and women accused of witchcraft in early modern Scotland were not the evil people history has portrayed them to be, but were the innocent victims of unenlightened times. It’s time we recognised the injustice served upon them.
I hope by raising the profile of Lilias we can find her missing remains and give them the dignified rest they deserve.”

And Kate Stewart supports this view, saying:

“Lilias is not forgotten, she has never been forgotten. We need to get her back. This has been a great injustice and we need to reverse that.”