In 1563 in Scotland the Witchcraft Act was brought into law and remained in law till 1736. The vast majority of those accused, some 84%, were women. During this time witchcraft was a capital crime and those convicted of witchcraft were strangled to death and then burned at the stake so as to leave no body to bury.
When accused of witchcraft, people were locked up awaiting trial and tortured to confess. Torture in Scotland was usually by way of sleep deprivation – keeping people awake until they confessed.
We know now of course that sleep deprivation makes people confused and causes them to hallucinate so it is perhaps not surprising that it was a good method of getting “confessions” from people accused of witchcraft. Other methods of torture included “pricking”- the pricking of skin with needles and bodkins to see how the person reacted to the drawing of blood and whether they bled - and the stripping and examination of the body to see if any “witches mark” could be found on them. Often these torture methods were carried out in public. Torture by crushing and pulling out nails was also used.
Women were not even able to be witnesses in
their own right at trial because it was:
“ the uncontroverted lawe and pract’qs of Scotland woman no in civilibus and fare less in criminibus except in the caice of treason and some few excepted caices and occult crymes which are speciallie priviledged and as this is the undoubted law and pract’q.”
Taken from a debate in November 1674 as recorded in the Sourcebook of Scottish Witchcraft – see reading list
The signs associated with witches (broomstick, cauldrons, black cats, black pointed hats) were actually things those of “alewives” – women who brewed weak beer in medieval times, as a method of combatting the poor water quality at the time. The sign above their door was a broomstick to let people know they could buy beer, they used large cauldrons for brewing, cats were kept to keep the mice at bay and the black pointed hats were used to make themselves easily identifiable at market. Brewing was seen as “women’s work” it was not until the craft of brewing became a profitable business that women were ousted from the role. It may have been the very process of removing women from that role by making people suspicious of their “brews” that caused the link to be made with witchcraft and the brewery symbols to become those of witches.
King James the VI of Scotland (1566 – 1625) considered himself an expert in witchcraft
and he attended the North Berwick Witch Trials where one of the complaints was that witchcraft had been used to create storms to cause a bad crossing for James’ ship across the ocean. He was obsessed with witchcraft and wrote the book “Daemonologie” (1597) , which was a book about witchcraft and other occult matters. His obsession helped to fuel the Scottish “satanic panic”.
By 1736 it was recognised that the execution of people for witchcraft was wrong,
as indeed was the crime itself; the law was changed to “pretended witchcraft” and the maximum sentence on conviction was imprisonment for one year.
An estimated 3837 people were accused of witchcraft
and, if the known cases are to be considered a representative sample, two thirds of those were executed, some 2558 people. 84% of those accused were women and if those convicted were approximately the same split, 2148 women were executed and 410 men. Clearly these figures are an estimate, but they give an impression of how many women and men suffered this terrible injustice and lost their lives.
There are small memorials in some places in Scotland which remember those convicted of witchcraft, but like the Witches Well in Edinburgh they remember the witches, rather than represent an apology for those who lost their lives.
The witch trials of Salem are world famous : Approximately 200 people were accused and a small number, 30 were found guilty – of those convicted 14 women and 5 men were hanged. One man was crushed to death for refusing to plead and five people died in jail. Salem has, between 1711 and 2001 “reversed the conviction” of all of those killed as witches. In 1992 a resolution was passed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives honouring those who had died. In 1992 a memorial park was created in Salem for those who had died. Stone seats for each of those who were executed were set in the park.
To date, there has been no apology, no pardon and no memorial to those who lost their lives in Scotland.
It is Witches of Scotland’s campaign aim to bring what posthumous justice we can to those who were so cruelly and unfairly accused and tried as witches.
Witches of Scotland wants 3 things
Help us get justice for Scotland's witches
We want the Scottish Parliament to know that this is a campaign that is supported in the community. Please spread the word about the campaign and join us online on Instagram and twitter. Sign up below with your email and we will keep you up to date with the progress of our campaign.