DALKEITH, Scotland – The history of witchcraft in Scotland is increasingly being explored by historians and archaeologists, and the lives of women unjustly put to death during times of persecution are being recognized.
TWH has reported on a number of these initiatives, including the memorial in Kirkwall in the Orkney islands dedicated to 72 men and women who lost their lives under witchcraft prosecutions.
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Dr. Ragnhild Ljosland, a lecturer at the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands, co-editor of the New Orkney Antiquarian Journal and an expert on witchcraft in the islands, says that “The punishment for witchcraft was the harshest imaginable…It was death, but it was also burning. Coupled with the Christian faith this was a punishment that took not just your life but also your afterlife: you can’t be resurrected; it was death and eternal damnation.”
‘Witchmania’ was particularly rife in Orkney, directed mainly at vulnerable individuals who perhaps suffered from mental illness or who were otherwise outcasts: many of these people would not have been practicing any form of magic.
However, witch trials took place across Scotland and were significantly more extensive than in some other parts of the UK, such as Wales, where few witches were executed. King James VI’s treatise of witchcraft, Daemonologie, marked the start of this brutal trend and Scots keen to prove their loyalty to the Crown did so by informing on their neighbors. Numbers are difficult to estimate accurately as records have been destroyed in the intervening centuries, but overall, around 4000 people were accused, the majority of them being women.
Increasingly, however, the lives of those who were persecuted and executed are being remembered, in ways such as the Orkney memorial, but also in law. Claire Mitchell, QC, has revealed that there is a move underway to petition the Scottish Government’s justice committee in order to secure an official pardon for everyone who was accused and convicted of witchcraft.
Around 30 women were tried in the town of Dalkeith, and 6 of these, who were put to death, are now being honored in a series of portraits commissioned by Dalkeith Arts.
The portraits were produced over lockdown, with the aid of Scottish Government community funding via Dalkeith Arts. Mary Blair, representing the latter organization, says:
“It is hoped that they will make a powerful statement of the continued commitment of local people and groups throughout this difficult time to improving Dalkeith town center and honoring its history. This is a reality check, it is not just a gruesome story. These portraits are also a memorial to what took place in a very turbulent economic and political climate and how a certain group of people became the target of everyone’s anxiety.”
Great news for our historic town. Dalkeith Arts, in association with One Dalkeith, secured some Covid funding. We…
British Paganism supports these new art projects and we asked individuals for their views:
“Well they were women, with gumption and skills in healing and midwifery; so of course they needed killing. And a lot were old, so were obviously guilty! I remember a documentary that mentioned a Scottish woman who was put to death as a witch, because she alleviated the pain in childbirth of local women. Apparently that went against God’s will and so she was obviously evil. I’m sure it had nothing to do with male pride and the fact that this woman was highly respected because of her skills as a herbalist.” – Rose, a Pagan living in London
“I think highlighting stories of individuals like this brings the witch trials to life. these were real people, with families, our ancestors. I really like the work being done to document the trials and the cases against each person too. It is so important that these people are not lost to history.” – Saorsa Tess, Pagan in Scotland
Beatrix Leslie is one of the six women whose face is featured in the Dalkeith Arts project. Leslie was in her eighties at the time she was executed, she was a herbalist and healer, accused of the collapse of a local coal pit.
Christian Paterson was another: a widow who apparently gave a confession in which she stated that she had changed the devil from an animal to a man in order to have sex with him (as we know, confessions were often forced). Issobell Fergussone, Jenet Davidson, Janet Cook, and Katherine Casse are also represented.
Various stories were attached to Janet Cook, for instance: she had a row over stall placement at a local fair with a merchant from Peebles called James Ritchie. She told Ritchie that he would repent coming to the fair; the merchant then lost his goods, became ill, and remained unwell for the next six months.
Cook had another conflict with a local woman who sold curds to Cook’s daughter, but who was abusive to the girl. On milking the cow that night the curd seller, Agnes Sandie, found that the cow would only produce blood, and the animal died soon afterward.
In addition to this, Cook had a further altercation with a man over money he owed to her and was punched in the face. It would, she promised, prove to be “a dear bleeding.” The man then returned home, vomiting blood and losing the ability to move along one side: it was claimed that Cook had lain on him in the night and “bruised the heart out of him.”
Cook was subsequently tried, and on being declared guilty, was strangled and burned, a customary punishment in Scotland. Her execution took place in 1661.
Janet Cook’s case is typical of ‘witch’ persecution in Scotland. She appears to have been a feisty woman, capable of standing up for herself. Richard Heygate and Philip Carr-Gomm, in their work A History of English Magic, comment that “competent, middle-aged, middle-class women were more often picked on, usually because they had a reputation for a hot temper and a sharp tongue.”
Janet Cook sounds as though she fits this description, and moreover may have admitted to some practice of magical powers.
According to Margaret Bititci, vice chair for Dalkeith Arts, the artwork depicting the six women, a man who was an accuser, and three historical buildings, is scheduled to begin installation tomorrow. Each panel is approximately 8 ft, and they expect the installation on the outside of the One Dalkeith Building in Dalkeith, Scotland to take all or most of the day.
Bititci is also the artist who created the rendering of Beatrix Leslie that is part of the exhibition. Bititci said of the project, “…it has been a real labour of love, a project we have wanted to showcase for years.”
Bititci said that more information on the installation would be posted on their Facebook page, and their new website as the project progresses.