Scotland Considers Pardon for Thousands of Accused ‘Witches’

Advocates are calling on leaders to exonerate the thousands of women and men targeted in witch hunts during the 16th through 18th centuries

woodcut image on yellowed paper shows women brewing spells, a man taking notes from the devil and other crimes
An illustration from Newes From Scotland (1591), a pamphlet that publicized ongoing witch trials in North Berwick, Scotland, across Europe. Groups of accused women are depicted brewing spells to thwart James VI's ship (upper left), and a local schoolmaster is shown taking notes from the devil.  British Library

Officials have moved one step closer to pardoning the nearly 4,000 people accused of witchcraft in Scotland between the 16th and 18th centuries, reports Paul English for the London Times.

On International Women’s Day in 2020, the group Witches of Scotland launched a campaign asking the Scottish Parliament to pardon and memorialize the accused. Organizers submitted a petition bearing the signatures of more than 3,400 supporters to the Scottish government last year. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, voiced support for the bill in late December 2021, signaling that the country’s government may agree to issue a formal apology in the coming months.

Witch hunts swept across much of Europe between roughly 1450 and 1750. Fear of the devil, social unrest and mass hysteria contributed to the frenzy of accusations and trials, which often arose from local disputes and typically targeted unmarried or widowed women, per the National Galleries of Scotland.

Scotland in particular was a hotbed of supposed “witchcraft” during the early modern era, writes James Hookway for the Wall Street Journal. A 2003 University of Edinburgh report found that at least 3,837 people were accused of witchcraft in the country between 1563 and 1735—the years in which the Scottish Witchcraft Act was passed and repealed, respectively. Around 84 percent of those accused were women, and more than half were over the age of 40. Five large-scale witch hunts took place in Scotland between 1590 and 1662 alone—a much higher rate than in England, according to the British Library.

Speaking with the Times, lawyer Claire Mitchell, who leads Witches of Scotland alongside schoolteacher Zoe Venditozzi, notes that “[p]er capita, during the period between the 16th and 18th century, [Scotland] executed five times as many people as elsewhere in Europe, the vast majority of them women.”

“We absolutely excelled at finding women to burn in Scotland,” says Mitchell. “Those executed weren’t guilty, so they should be acquitted.”

In addition to requesting a pardon, the group’s bill calls for the creation of a national memorial dedicated to the people charged with, tortured and executed for the crime of witchcraft. Mitchell and Venditozzi host a podcast detailing the stories of some of the accused.

The cover page of a 1603 manuscript titled Daemonologie, in form of a dialogue
James VI of Scotland published this treatise on demons and witchcraft in the early 17th century.  Wellcome Collection via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 4.0

One of Scotland’s first major witch hunts broke out in the coastal town of North Berwick in 1590. As Caroline Davies explains for the Guardian, James VI of Scotland believed that the town’s residents had used witchcraft to summon storms that delayed the ship carrying his Danish bride, Anne. Sixty or so people were accused over several months, including the servant Geillis Duncan. (A heavily fictionalized version of Duncan appears in the Outlander novels and television series.)

Duncan was tortured and forced to implicate several wealthy, well-connected members of North Berwick society, including midwife Agnes Sampson and schoolmaster James Fian, according to the University of Glasgow. Scottish officials regularly used such torture methods as sleep deprivation, physical punishment and public humiliation to extract confessions.

Overall, researchers estimate that two-thirds of individuals charged with witchcraft in Scotland were executed for their so-called crimes. The majority of the condemned were strangled before being burned at the stake; some victims were hanged, beheaded or burned alive. But scholars warn that this figure remains largely uncertain due to the limits of the archive: Only a small portion of witch trial documents from the period record both the accusations and the final sentence.

Relatively cheap printed pamphlets allowed news of grisly witch trials to circulate far and wide, wrote Jon Crabb for the Public Domain Review in 2017. One 1591 item about the North Berwick trials, titled Newes From Scotland, even included woodcut images depicting James’ witch hunts.

In 1597, James himself wrote a treatise, Daemonologie, about demons and magic more broadly. He identified several signs of witchcraft, including the presence of a devil’s mark, interpreted loosely as any “marke upon some secreit place of their bodie.” The text amounted to a passionate defense for the punishment and persecution of witches, per the British Library.

James’ treatise became a bestseller. It even inspired playwright William Shakespeare to incorporate details from the North Berwick trials into his play Macbeth, which debuted shortly after the king was crowned James I of England and Ireland in 1603. Colloquially known as the “Scottish play,” Macbeth’s opening acts feature three witches who make prophecies, control the weather and incite powerful storms. As the Royal Shakespeare Company notes, the play was most likely performed for the first time in James’ court in August or December 1606.

The North Berwick trials took place almost a century before the infamous Salem Witch Trials broke out in colonial Massachusetts. The worst mass hysteria event in early American history, the trials resulted in some 150 accusations and 25 deaths.

Most of the Salem “witches” were posthumously pardoned by a Massachusetts law in 2001. But the law failed to account for at least one person: 22-year-old Elizabeth Johnson Jr. Last year, a group of eighth-grade students proposed legislation clearing Johnson’s name. Condemned to die in 1693 but granted a reprieve before her execution, she remains the only Salem “witch” still in need of an official pardon, as William J. Kole reported for the Associated Press in August.

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