Killed for witchcraft, Scotland’s forgotten victims find a voice


Published on: Amended:

Dundee (United Kingdom) (AFP) – Claire Mitchell and Zoe Venditozzi fight for forgiveness for all those executed for witchcraft in Scotland, the vast majority of whom were women, and for a memorial to history’s forgotten ones.

“Between the 16th and 18th centuries in Scotland, around 4,000 people were accused of witchcraft,” said Mitchell, a lawyer who founded campaign group Witches of Scotland.

In total, over 2,500 people were executed for witchcraft in Scotland, four-fifths of whom were women. They were mostly strangled and then burned, after giving confessions that were often extracted under torture.

“People would take turns questioning them, keeping them awake for days and days and asking them questions about witchcraft,” Mitchell told AFP at a cemetery in the city of Dundee.

The victims were forced to confess that “they were dancing with the devil, having sex with the devil”, she added.

“And those confessions were used by the Scottish courts… to prosecute those women for witchcraft.”

They are recognized in the windswept 16th-century cemetery by a small column dubbed the “Witches’ Stone”.

Edinburgh Castle has been the site of many executions for witchcraft Andy BUCHANANAAFP

Passers-by often leave flower petals and coins in tribute to those executed, including Grissel Jaffray, who was strangled and burned in 1669.

On a city center street, a mosaic depicting a cone of flame commemorates Jaffray, the woman known as ‘Dundee’s last witch’.

Double work and trouble

Mitchell founded Witches of Scotland on March 8, 2020 – International Women’s Day – after discovering the harrowing consequences of the Witchcraft Act.

This law of 1563 approved capital punishment for those guilty of witchcraft and remained in force until 1736.

Witch hunts were enthusiastically encouraged by King James VI of Scotland, who also became King James I of England in 1603.

His obsession found a voice in William Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play”, featuring three witches who lead Macbeth to his doom.

Mitchell’s association is asking for three things: a pardon for all those convicted of witchcraft, an official apology from the authorities, and a national monument to the memory of the victims.

Co-campaigner Zoe Venditozzi, 46, said she knew “nothing” about the witch hunt until recently, despite growing up in Fife, a hotbed of executions.

She discovered that “anyone could be accused” and that it was “usually ordinary people, often poor people” who could not defend themselves or were considered strange in some way.

“People would take turns questioning them, keeping them up for days and days and days and asking them questions about witchcraft,” Mitchell said. Andy BUCHANANAAFP

“At that time, people believed really, really strongly in the devil,” she said, and that women were seen as “vessels” that the devil could manipulate.

The Devil’s Work

Natalie Don, MP for the Scottish National Party, the independence party that holds power in Edinburgh, intends to table a bill in the Scottish Parliament to obtain a pardon for all convicted.

“In several countries around the world, people are still being accused and punished for practicing witchcraft,” she told AFP.

“Scotland should lead the way in acknowledging the horrors of our past and ensuring that these people do not go down in history as criminals.”

Scotland was particularly prone to witch hunts, according to Julian Goodare, emeritus professor of history at the University of Edinburgh, who oversaw the creation of a database to record them.

Julian Goodare, professor of history at the University of Edinburgh, has compiled a database of people executed for witchcraft
Julian Goodare, professor of history at the University of Edinburgh, has compiled a database of people executed for witchcraft Andy BUCHANANAAFP

With 2,500 people executed out of a population of two million, the rate was around five times the European average, he said at Edinburgh Castle, the site of many public executions.

It was driven in part by Scotland’s estrangement from the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation, which saw a rampant ‘fear of impiety’, and accelerated after an alleged plot to bewitch the King James in the 1590s.

He also favors a monument to this history: “There is nothing we can do to change the past, but we can learn from it.”


Comments are closed.