Sunday, 4 April 2010

The Scottish Witch Trials - Part One - Folklore to Criminal Law

I have a longheld interest in the witch trials of Scotland as it touches on so many of my particular interests. This first part just thinks on the Scotland of antiquity and how the scene was set for the major period of the witch craze. While researching subjects such as this it is often the case that the 'history' is contradictory - such as most history, it rather depends on the personal viewpoint of the author as to whether they 'big up' the facts and figures or sweep them under the carpet. My little introduction here is simply my favoured balance of the available evidence.

Scotland has a long tradition of folklore and belief in the nature spirits (fairies and elemental beings), and although Christianity came to Scotland with St Ninian as early as the 4th century it was not a sweeping religious revolution. It was slow to take hold and thus rather than replacing the established belief system it blended with it, resulting in a somewhat unique cultural history. Unfortunately this is perhaps a contributory factor as to why the country suffered so much when the witch craze took hold in the 16th century, a belated revolution of proven godliness. The hag of folklore became the nextdoor neighbour – named and condemned.


Mention of witches as we would be likely to recognize them is rather patchy before the 16th Century, though it is possible to see a certain progress in the development of things to come and ideas eventually were becoming more accepted. In the year 697 King Kenneth, among the laws attributed to him, ordained that jugglers, wizards, necromancers and such as call up spirits “and use to seek upon them for helpe, let them be burned to death” . One often recounted tale from some 300 years later tells of how King Duffus suffered greatly at the hands of witches. In this a company of hags roasted his image of wax upon a wooden spits, soaked in a poisonous liquor. The women, when apprehended said that as the wax would melt, so the body of the King would decay likewise; that their words of enchantment would prevent him from the refreshment of sleep. The effigy was destroyed and the King’s health recovered. The witches, however, were burnt at Forres and their place of execution is now marked my a stone. Wax effigies were believed to be much used. The ‘poppet’ could also be made of unfired clay, which, instead of being melted over a fire, was placed in a flowing stream where the water would wash away the clay resulting in the same decay of its likeness.

Belief in the witch as a genuine, tangible being fluctuated. Many catutionary tales include a witch of some sort or other and not necessarily ever relating to a living person. From early on there is a legend of The Blue Witch of Rannoch Moor, in Perthshire. The hag is accused of luring travellers into bleak and dangerous territory on unkind winter nights and frequenting the fairy mountain, Schiehallion. Her face is blue with cold and her hair white with frost. However, she is a winter spirit; only casting her ill between Halloween and the onset of spring. She stalks the hillside and moor striking the earth with her forked staff to beat down the grass and harden the ground with frost; only stopping when the spring warmth made the grass grow quicker than she could beat it back. In contrast in the 12th century John of Salisbury judged the various kinds of belief in magic among folly and illusion. He mentions that women led by a night ‘Queen’, gathered at banquets at which they ‘most relished children stolen from their cradles’. But did not credit this as actually happening, rather that women, ‘being weak of mind, were just subject to demonical illusions and evil dreams.’Men, in his opinion, were stronger and so did not succumb! From this period there was a stronger idea that these stories went from being generally deluded females with wicked intent to women actually making a pact with the Devil and his work directly. However it was the period after the publication of the famous Malleus Maleficarum (’The Hammer Against Witches’) in 1487 that the persecution became more prominent.

When it comes to Scottish folklore, many of the common images associated with the witch did not apply in the cases of witches north of the border. The grotesque hag of the cautionary tale, with broomstick in hand and familiar by her feet is largely the stuff of myth. By the time we get to a period in history where actual people were being labelled as witches it was apparent that they looked the same as everyone else, save perhaps a mark of the Devil somewhere on their person. This was usually a birthmark or mole, but were supposed to be the point at which the Devil had touched her when accepting her into his ranks and would be numbed to pain. In Scotland professional ‘witch-prickers’ went from place to place, not unlike the witch-finders of East Anglia, touting for business. They used long bodkins to locate these places on the witches body. Broomsticks are rarely associated with Scottish witches and the idea of the witches ‘familiar’ is primarily an English preoccupation. The idea of a witch as a communal creature though is not so misguided. Although there is a notion that witches met in a group of thirteen, this a fairly modern phenomenon and the only sources for it from trial records are few and were probably obtained under torture. The groups could in fact number very few or very many. One legendary meeting in 1597, at which the Devil himself presided, no less than 2,300 witches were gathered at Atholl, in Perthshire – an area with many tales of witches in lore and legend. This where the extra Later on in history it is said that the Atholl witches also interested themselves in politics, for they are said to have presented Queen Mary with a golden deer’s horn as a token of friendship toward her.

In the next entry I'll look at some of those accused and the 'evidence' against them.

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