The women fighting to pardon Scotland’s accused witches

6 mins read

The Witches of Scotland campaign seeks to secure a legal pardon for those convicted of witchcraft in Scotland between the 16th and 18th century.

The Witchcraft Act of 1563, a bill which defined witchcraft as a crime punishable by death, resulted in nearly 4000 people being tried in Scotland and over half of them executed. Of this number, 84 per cent were women. To this day, witchcraft trails are taking place around the world, with witch-hunting being particularly prevalent in India, Papua New Guinea and Sub-Saharan Africa. These trials are almost always violent, and often fatal. The usual victims are children, those who are elderly or, more commonly, women.

Spearheaded by author and teacher Zoe Venditozzi and Queen’s Counsel Claire Mitchell, the campaign has three main aims. Firstly, a legal pardon for those convicted and secondly, a public government apology. Lastly, the campaign hopes to encourage the government to erect a national memorial in memory of those accused and convicted.

Credit: The National

Recently, the campaign has gained support From MSP Natalie Don, who plans to propose a Private Member’s bill. The support from Nicola Sturgeon’s government has inspired new hope that the campaign will reach its goal of obtaining an official apology for International Women’s Day 2022.

“We do consider the witch trials and the Witches of Scotland as a feminist campaign.” Claire Mitchell said, “The Witchcraft Act 1563 to 1736 is gender neutral in that it does not specify whether or not the person that is doing witchcraft or consulting a witch was a man or a woman, yet 85 per cent of the people accused were women.

The reason for this was because the view at the time was that women were inferior intellectually and morally, and therefore easier for the Devil to win over.”

The persecution of witches in Scotland, as with the rest of Europe, resulted in thousands killed and tortured to the point of confession. Most of the victims are un-commemorated, resulting in a large piece of Scottish women’s history being lost in the larger witch-hunt narrative. Violence against women remains a prevalent issue in all countries. An official pardon and apology from the Scottish government shows that they are not only committed to women’s equality both past and present, but also to demonstrating their support of the cause to other countries.

Methods of torture included sleep deprivation, drawing blood from the victim with needles and the crushing or removal of fingernails. This was often done publicly and in front of a victim’s community. The atrocities carried out would weaken an accused individual physically and mentally until they finally gave a false confession.

Credit: Joseph E. Baker

The campaign started when Claire Mitchell read Sara Sheridan’s book, ‘Where are the women?’ and noticed how few statues of women resided in public spaces.

“I thought – we are not recording women in history for the good things that they have contributed to society or terrible things that happened to them. That is when I decided that the women and men who were killed as witches should be properly remembered in a memorial, pardoned, and given an apology, so that history properly recorded them.

We think that we should reflect on the way we treated women, a vulnerable group at the time and now, and properly record it. They were people who suffered a terrible miscarriage of justice.” Mitchell told Brig.

Recently, some individuals have taken to social media to voice their complaints. Among them are those who believe that taking this matter to the government is a waste of their time. However, campaigners for the Witches of Scotland organisation believe that their demands will not take much time out of the government’s schedule, as the length of the legislation itself will be limited.

Claire Mitchell responded: “We think that a memorial, whilst costing money, is worthwhile to record the history of Scottish women. So much of our history has been recorded from a male perspective, it does not seem much to ask that women’s history be given some prominence.”

Credit: Undiscovered Scotland

The campaign has set up a public petition to the Scottish government asking for the pardon and memorialisation of those convicted under the 1563 Witchcraft Act, which sits at 3,400 signatures as of late January 2022.

For International Women’s Day 2022, let’s remember the victims of the witch trials as more than a piece of history, but rather as real people who suffered a terrible fate at the hands of those around them. Let’s shift our perspective of these victims from “witches” to women.

To learn more about the Witches of Scotland campaign and their progress, visit their website.

Featured Image: BBC News

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Journalism student at the University of Stirling. She/Her. Twitter & Instagram: @DeannaDawnn

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