EThey were accused of spoiling the crops, of turning into animals to commit their misdeeds, even of dancing with the devil. In Europe, between the XVIe and the XVIIIe century, thousands of women and, more rarely, men have been tried for witchcraft. Almost systematically, these trials resulted in a death sentence. Historians speak of 200,000 witchcraft trials and 50,000 to 100,000 women burned.
In Scotland, the witch hunt has been particularly fierce. According to an article by CityLab, published in October 2019, the number of people accused of witchcraft is “Four to five times higher than the European average”. Now, nearly three centuries after the Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1736, activists are on the verge of securing a formal apology on behalf of some 3,837 people – 84 percent of whom are women. – tried for witchcraft. It is estimated that around two-thirds of them perished at the stake.
Confessions obtained under torture
the Sunday Times report that after a two-year campaign led by the group of Witches of Scotland, a bill to exonerate the defendants has been introduced in the Scottish Parliament and has won the support of the government led by Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon. “It is right that this wrong be righted, that these people who have been criminalized, mostly women, be forgiven”, commented the deputy Natalie Don, at the origin of this text, which should be voted by the summer of 2022.
In 2001, a similar initiative enabled the Massachusetts House of Representatives in the United States to proclaim the innocence of victims of the Salem witch trials. Between 1692 and 1693, this series of trials resulted in the arrest of around 100 people as well as the execution of 14 women and six men.
In Scotland, the witchcraft trials began after the passage of the Witchcraft Act in 1563. Before that date, some judgments are attested, but they are rare. The first witch hunt began in 1590. The King of Scotland Jacques VI, who would later become James Iis from England, traveled by boat to Copenhagen to meet his future wife, Princess Anne, the sister of the King of Denmark. On the way back, the ship was caught in a storm. Various people were accused of attempting to sink the king’s ship. Eventually, over a hundred supposed witches were arrested in North Berwick, a port town in northeastern Scotland. Many confessed under torture to having met the devil and sought to kill the king. About 70 people were tried.
Jacques VI was particularly interested in the question. He even wrote a treatise, Daemonologie, in 1597, in which he encouraged the witch hunt:
“The disturbing abundance, in our country, in our time, of these detestable slaves of the devil, the witches and the enchanters, prompts me to write you this note (…) to eliminate the doubt (…) that such attacks of Satan is assuredly practiced, and his instruments deserve the most severe punishment. “
Over time, the king’s interest in the subject waned. Even so, several major series of trials unfolded during the remainder of his reign and well after.
the Guardian cite other well-known cases of witchcraft trials. That of Lilias Adie, for example, accused in particular of having cast a spell on a neighbor to cause him a hangover. Sentenced to death, she died in prison in 1704. Issobell Young, she was tried, strangled and then burned at the stake in 1629. A stable boy accused her of having turned into an owl and of having participated to Sabbaths.
The Witches of Scotland website points out that attributes traditionally associated with witches – brooms, cauldrons, black cats and pointy black hats – were also given to alewives, the name of the women who brewed beer. The broom was used to inform consumers that beer was on sale, the cauldron to make it, the cat to keep mice away, and the hat to distinguish them at the market.
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The victims of the witch hunts between the 16th and the 18th century soon officially exonerated in Scotland