Scotland Issues Formal Apology to Thousands Accused of Witchcraft

An estimated 2,500 Scots were executed as witches between the 16th and 18th centuries

colored illustration of witches being burned at stake
A 14th-century illustration depicts accused witches being burned at the stake. More than 2,500 witches were executed under Scotland's 1563 Witchcraft Act. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has issued a formal apology to the estimated 4,000 people accused of witchcraft in the country between the 16th and 18th centuries, reports BBC News. Charged with violating the Witchcraft Act, which was passed in 1563 and repealed in 1736, most of the individuals targeted were women. According to the University of Edinburgh’s Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, two-thirds of those accused (around 2,500 people) were executed.

Scotland’s witch hunts took place amid a wave of similar mass hysteria events in both Europe and further afield. In the United States, for example, the 1692–1693 Salem witch trials resulted in the deaths of 20 people. Other countries and regions, including Germany, Catalonia in Spain and Switzerland, have issued exonerations for victims of witch hunts in recent years—but Scotland only formally apologized for this bloody chapter in its history last month, notes Sarah Durn for Atlas Obscura.

“At a time when women were not even allowed to speak as witnesses in a courtroom, they were accused and killed because they were poor, different, vulnerable or in many cases just because they were women,” said Sturgeon in a speech on International Women’s Day (March 8), as quoted by BBC News. “It was injustice on a colossal scale.”

Lawyer Claire Mitchell and writer Zoe Venditozzi tell the New York Times’ Maria Cramer that they were “delighted” with Sturgeon’s speech. On International Women’s Day in 2020, the two launched a campaign called Witches of Scotland, which pushed for the Scottish Parliament to pardon and memorialize the accused. Last year, organizers submitted a petition bearing the signatures of more than 3,400 supporters to the Scottish government.

Mitchell and Venditozzi founded Witches of Scotland after partnering up to create a true crime podcast on an undetermined topic. As Mitchell tells Atlas Obscura, her research led her to the witch trials.

“I started looking at [them] … as kind of an academic, legal exercise to find out what were these witch trials about, how many of them were there, what was the evidence like,” she says.

The lawyer’s findings were disturbing. Confessions were often given under duress, be it via sleep deprivation, thumbscrews or iron muzzles. Professional “witch-prickers” were tasked with continually piercing the accused with a needle until they came upon a “Devil’s” or “witch’s mark” spot that didn’t bleed or elicit pain. Sometimes, these witch hunters stripped the accused while searching their bodies for signs of wrongdoing.

On their podcast, which launched on the same day as their campaign, Mitchell and Venditozzi interviewed experts and shared their findings on Scotland’s witch trials, focusing on events not typically taught in schools.

“In Scotland, the perception of witch trials is almost unknown,” Mitchell tells Atlas Obscura. “It’s only in the past few years that people have really engaged with the idea of talking about the witch trials.”

While the pair say they are pleased with the government’s apology, they still plan to push for an official pardon (which Member of Scottish Parliament Natalie Don is working to introduce as legislation, per BBC News) and a memorial.

“We want there to be a state national monument that will mark what happened,” Venditozzi tells the New York Times, “let people know what happened if they’re traveling to the country, and will stand for us to remember this terrible miscarriage of justice for many, many, many years to come.”