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In a medieval woodcut, the devil, rendered as a horned man with wings and rooster feet, gives dolls to four old women witches while strange winged beasts fly around them.
Photograph: Wellcome Library / Public Domain

Why witches killed in medieval Scotland have finally got an apology

The ‘Witches of Scotland’ group also wants to arrange legal pardons and a national monument

Erika Mailman
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Erika Mailman
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For more than 400 years in Europe – longer than the USA has been a country – witches were hunted, tortured and killed. Scotland was notable for its violent embracing of the ‘duty’ to exterminate them, in large part because of King James VI’s 1597 publication of ‘Daemonologie’, a study of demons, witches and shape-shifting creatures. In 1603, when he became King James I of England, the book was reprinted and may have influenced Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’. (In other Persuasive Book News, this is the same king who sponsored the King James version of the Bible). Fast forward four centuries, and a campaign launched by Witches of Scotland has made headway with an official posthumous apology for those who were killed, but they still seek two more goals: legal pardons and the erection of a national memorial.

The Witches of Scotland was formed on International Women’s Day 2020 by Claire Mitchell QC (Queen’s Counsel) and author Zoe Venditozzi to provide ‘justice for people accused and convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1563–1736’. They filed a petition that year with their three-armed request which thousands of worldwide residents had signed. Movement was slow, but on March 8 – International Women’s Day – one aim was met. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, offered the formal apology desired by the group and pledged to start the pardon process. Natalie Don MSP (Member of Scottish Parliament) has already undertaken the cause, planning a member’s bill to extend a formal pardon.

The group notes that 84 percent of the accused persons were women and estimates that 3,837 people were killed during the 200-year timeframe of the Act. Tortured into confession, convicted witches were strangled to death, and then burned at the stake since witch lore included the fear that if a body was not destroyed, the witch would still, with the help of the devil, continue her chaotic acts. (Other countries did not necessarily kill the witch before her murder at the stake.) ‘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,’ reads the group’s website.

Throughout the lush land of Scotland, nearly 20 places of death are known for 124 witches; an interactive map by the University of Edinburgh marks them. Sometimes the spot offers simply a small sign or pile of stones. A national memorial would be a more fitting way to remember the thousands who were killed sometimes for the crime of just being a woman.

It’s important to note that in many places around the world, women, men and even children are still being killed for being ‘witches’. This is not a comprehensive list but in 2020 alone, people were killed in Somalia, Ghana, India and Zambia – and last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo – often by mobs of people. Deutsche Welle, a broadcasting group in Germany – another hotbed of medieval witchcraft trials – even named August 10, 2020 the ‘World Day Against Witch Hunts’.

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