Burn the witch!

Photo by Kayla Maurais on Unsplash

It’s Halloween today and it seems perfectly natural to be talking about witches and the supernatural. It’s a day of fun for a lot of people – young and old.

That said, to call someone a witch – specifically – a woman, would likely be regarded as an example of misogyny or hatred of women. It would be intended as an insult.

Several hundred years ago, in Scotland, you would not be dressing up as a witch or a warlock (the male counterpart). There was a very real fear of witches and their ability to carry out evil deeds against well doing members of the community.

These sorts of beliefs may seem very strange to modern readers, but Scotland was a very different place some 400 years ago. Even the American colonies were susceptible to claims about witchcraft e.g. the Salem Trials (1692-93) which the playwright, Arthur Miller so marvellously and disturbingly brought to life in The Crucible. In Miller’s play, the authorities cynically use the trials to extend their control over the populace (it was no coincidence that the play was written at the time of the McCarthyite Anti-Communist witch hunts in fifties’ America).

European and American Society was markedly more religious in its outlook. These were pre-Enlightment times after all – before science and reason was in the ascendancy. Everything was either the handiwork of God – or his sworn enemy, the Devil. The evidence of this eternal struggle could be seen all around: a good harvest would be a sign of God’s favour, whereas times of famine would be a portent of evil stalking the land.

The Devil (or Deil in Scotland) was omnipresent and always on the lookout for followers to advance his agenda. This is where witches, warlocks, covens and familiars enter the story.

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live

The Book of Exodus, in the Old Testament, was particularly strong on the issue of witchcraft:

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

The above verse – tellingly – comes from the King James Bible (chapter 22 verse 18). I use the word tellingly because King James (VI of Scotland and I of England) had a special interest, not to say primal fear, in and of witches.

There were similar exhortations in other books of the Old Testament (e.g. Leviticus, 19:26 & 20:27 and Deuteronomy, 18:10-11 about the consequences of practising witchcraft.

In 1590, James was convinced that some 200 witches had cast spells against him in an attempt to sink the vessel he was travelling on when he returned from Denmark with his new bride, Anne. The ship had run into a serious storm and the crew and passengers were lucky to make landfall safely. Only divine intervention, so it seemed, had thwarted the malevolent designs of the coven who had set out to ensnare the Royal couple.

https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/history-and-civilisation/2019/10/royal-obsession-black-magic-started-europes-most-brutal-witch

Fears about witchcraft in Scotland did not begin with James. In 1563, the Scottish Parliament had passed the Witchcraft Act which made such practices a capital offence i.e. practitioners of the dark arts could expect the death penalty to be imposed. The guilty parties (and there were rather a lot of them) would first be strangled and then burned. For the pious executioners this punishment was merely symbolic because eternal hellfire was the real and awful fate awaiting the newly deceased.

During his reign, James – who fancied himself something of an expert on the subject – would take the campaign against witches to a new level. Rooting out the followers of the Devil would be officially sanctioned by the Church and the State (which were really one and the same thing) according to Claire Mitchell QC. In fact, the King went so far as to record his thoughts on the occult in his Treatise called Daemonologie.

The Witchcraft Act would remain on the statute books in Scotland until 1736, but it would claim thousands of victims.

Pardoning the victims?

Claire Mitchell QC is one of the driving forces behind a campaign to have the existing Scottish Parliament issue a pardon to the estimated 3837 victims of the witchcraft trials. Most of the victims were women. As Claire explained, during an interview with Jeremy Vine on BBC Radio 2 last week, we have an idea of the numbers of victims and their profiles because of the existence of Parish Records and the records of witchcraft trials from the period.

Claire became aware of this gruesome period in Scottish history when:

Doing research in the Advocates Library on ‘Bloody Mackenzie’, a Lord Advocate during the Witchcraft Act, I read a quote from a poor woman who had been convicted of witchcraft. She was so confused that she asked, ‘Can you be a witch and not know it?’ I was very angry and decided to find out more about Scotland’s witches.

For more information about Claire Mitchell’s campaign, click on the links below:

https://scottishlegal.com/article/claire-mitchell-qc-seeks-posthumous-justice-for-scotland-s-witches

https://www.witchesofscotland.com

The issuing of general pardons by Parliament to redress historical miscarriages of justice are not a new development. Just this month, the Scottish Government published a Bill which aims to pardon people who took part in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike in relation to three specific criminal offences.

For more information about this issue, please click on the link below:

https://www.lawscot.org.uk/news-and-events/legal-news/miners-strike-pardons-bill-brought-to-holyrood/

In 2018, the Scottish Parliament passed the Historical Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act which issued pardons to all those men who had been convicted of the offence of same sex activity. Homosexual activity – even between consenting male partners – was unlawful in Scotland until 1981.

Opposition to the pardons

Despite the above precedents, some legal commentators are not as enthusiastic about a general pardon being issued to the victims of the Witchcraft Act. Professor Douglas J. Cusine was firmly of the view that such gestures were using up valuable parliamentary time which could be concentrated on more pressing issues. In some respects, the pardons for gay men and the proposed ones for the miners are more logical and can be more easily justified in that many of the victims are still alive – or at least the injustices took place within living memory.

A link to a letter submitted to Scottish Legal News by Professor Cusine can be found below:

https://www.scottishlegal.com/article/letter-witch-pardon-risks-making-a-mockery-of-holyrood

That said, at time of greater awareness of violence against women and general misogyny, perhaps Professor Cusine is missing a trick (no pun intended).

For some recent stories about generalised misogyny, please click on the links below:

http://news.sky.com/story/johnny-depp-libel-trial-star-called-amber-heard-a-witch-in-text-messages-court-hears-12024026

http://news.sky.com/story/nhs-scandals-review-women-verbally-abused-by-clinicians-after-raising-concerns-12024212

Conclusion

We live in very different times when someone who says that they are a practitioner of witchcraft or the occult might well cause some curiosity on the part of his/her listeners.

Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 may, arguably, now protect such an individual on the basis of their philosophical beliefs. We also have a far greater respect for a person’s private and family life in terms of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In the 16th Century, individuals who seemed to be a bit left field or eccentric would not have appeared harmless or endearing to most members of the community. The stereotypical old woman who lived alone in the woods and who was a healer, could very quickly become the subject of communal hostility. It might even cost her her life.

For information about a modern witch or a pagan practitioner, please click on the link below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-58852476

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 31 October 2021