Nearly 3,000 people were executed in Scotland between 1563 and 1736 after wrongly being accused of witchcraft. But a campaign to achieve pardons for them is gaining momentum – and making people reassess what they consider a witch.
Margaret Atwood dedicated her epic ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to one. Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman have portrayed them in Hollywood movies. And Hermione Granger from Harry Potter is a hero to millions.
Witches have become a staple of modern culture, but there’s a more sinister side to their history, which a pair of campaigners are seeking to highlight.
Claire Mitchell and Zoe Venditozzi are behind Witches of Scotland (WoS), a group which is seeking pardons, apologies, and a memorial for those accused and convicted under the country’s Witchcraft Act of 1563 to 1736. It’s not widely known, but Scotland executed five times more witches than anywhere else in Europe.
According to WoS’ conservative estimates, nearly 4,000 people were accused of witchcraft and more than 2,500 convicted and burned. By way of comparison, the renowned Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts saw only 300 accused and 19 handed the death penalty.
Novelist Venditozzi explained, “It’s not so much that Scotland was an epicentre for witchcraft – it’s more that it was an epicentre for witchcraft accusations.”
Neither she nor Mitchell believes in the occult.
“In the times of the witchcraft trials in Scotland, people were Christians and they would have been horrified to be described as witches,” she continued.
“There’s been a kind of historical revisionism … saying that some of these women were herbalists, healers or midwives and that they were witches, and the patriarchy stamped on them because they were doing these special feminine arts. But that’s not really the case.
They were Christians – they absolutely did not view themselves as witches.”
One of the driving elements of the WoS’ campaign is a desire to highlight how women have been marginalised over time. Mitchell, a QC who specialises in miscarriages of justice, is based in Edinburgh, and it was while walking her dog in the city’s Princes Street Gardens that the idea was hatched.
She said, “You wouldn’t be able to tell women existed – there’s a statue of a dog, a statue of a bear, but there aren’t any statues of women. Not only is history not recording the great things women do, but it is also not recording when terrible things happen. I know as a lawyer and someone who is interested in history that thousands of people were put to death as witches in Scotland, [and] none of them was guilty of that offence.
“I thought it really sad that nowhere in Scotland do we have a national memorial to it. Nowhere do we have one central place where people can come and reflect upon the fact that thousands of people were put to death as witches.”
So many were found guilty because they were tortured by sleep deprivation to force confessions. What was deemed “witchcraft” was also wide-ranging then, due to the superstitious culture. One woman, for example, was accused of turning someone into an owl. Others were blamed for poor crop harvests or illness that befell their neighbours.
Mitchell said, “Then, as now, a confession is such a powerful statement against your own self-interest. People can’t get their head around the idea that some would confess to things they didn’t do.”
Once a confession was made and a conviction secured, the witch suffered a horrendous fate, as Venditozzi explained. “They were strangled and their bodies were then burnt, so there was no physical remainder left,” she said.
“That meant they didn’t get a Christian burial, and these people really believed that they needed to have that in order to join their families and loved ones in heaven … to be on ‘the right side of God.’ It was an incredibly cruel eternal punishment they suffered.”
Along with a confession, further “proof” was secured in some cases from professional witch-prickers. Venditozzi added, “They would jab them with needles and they would bleed – and [then] they would go ‘you see, they are witches.’ It was a complete set-up. There must have been an absolute climate of terror across Scotland that you could be accused.”
Another piece of supposed “definitive” evidence was being labelled a “quarrelsome dame.”
Venditozzi said, “Straight away if you went, ‘No, I’m not a witch,’ they would go, ‘you see, you’re a quarrelsome dame.’ There is not a lot you can do with that, as they didn’t necessarily have legal representation.
“There were some cases where women were accused and could afford legal counsel and were not convicted, as they had somebody powerful arguing for them. But the vast majority of women didn’t have that.”
The specific targeting of women was particularly apparent in Scotland. While only 16 percent of those executed there were men, in Europe that figure was higher, at around 20 percent.
Moreover, men tended to only be dragged into proceedings if they were related to a female who was deemed a witch.
Mitchell said, “The idea was women were intellectually and morally inferior, so it would be easier for the devil to get them on his side – to break with their Christianity and to renounce their baptism – than it would be for men, who were more morally upright and more upstanding.”
The WoS campaign, which was initially launched on International Women’s Day 2020, appears to be succeeding; in March, a petition was submitted to the Scottish government.
Now, MSP Natalie Don is to bring a private members’ bill before parliament, and if that is voted through, the legislative process can begin. Mitchell said, “We’ve had a lot of cross-party support from a lot of politicians behind the scenes, so we’re very, very hopeful that we can get that pardon.”
The next stage would then be to build an appropriate memorial, so none of those who lost their lives are forgotten. But the campaign isn’t only about correcting past issues.
Venditozzi continued, “It is pertinent today as there has been an increase of people being accused of being witches. Again, it’s the more vulnerable members of some societies. There might not be access to [Covid] vaccines in some communities, [so] people look for an explanation. Someone dies very quickly and they say it must be witchcraft. There are still current cases of witchcraft accusations and executions and banishments that happen in some countries.”
As an example, the United Nations recently highlighted the rise in witchcraft killings of people with albinism as a response to the pandemic, as some believe their body parts in a potion brings good luck.And in the eastern South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, murders of women accused of witchcraft have surged. According to reports, in September alone, eight women were burned to death or lynched, while five were taken away by so-called self-defence militias.
Another facet of the WoS campaign is a desire to eradicate the use of the word as a slur applied to prominent women, as has been seen in the past with former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and more recently Scotland’s own First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
Venditozzi said, “She [Sturgeon] is constantly called a witch with people saying she should be burned at the stake. It’s really easy in a fairly misogynistic society to say women are witches and I don’t think that will change anytime soon. But my hope would be that in time we would be a less misogynistic and a less patriarchal society, and we might think a little bit more about these easy slurs we have, particularly against women.”
Venditozzi also feels strongly about the depiction of witches in TV shows and movies.
Images of pointed hats, black cats, and broomsticks have no relevance to the actual people convicted of being witches.
She said, “When an article comes out about our campaign, it’s almost always accompanied by a picture of a hot witch or a crone. It is super irritating as they weren’t like that; they just dressed like anybody, they were just ordinary folk.”
But attitudes change over time and the pair are hopeful that their campaign can raise awareness and revise perceptions, as has happened with ethnicity.
Said Venditozzi, “As a society, we wouldn’t do the racist characters that we might have had [before] like in the Black and White Minstrel Show or blacking up – we’ve changed our attitudes with that.
“Claire and I both feel quite strongly that this is a similar situation where people don’t really understand the history and need to understand the history, so we can be a more evolved and civilised society.”