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In Context: A pardon for witch-hunt victims

'Maggie Wall burnt here 1657 as a Witch': The Maggie Wall memorial in Dunning

In Context: A pardon for witch-hunt victims

In a debate marking International Women’s Day in March, the First Minister raised the “age old” issue of misogyny and offered a formal posthumous apology to all those accused, convicted, vilified or executed under the Witchcraft Act 1563, something she referred to as an “egregious historical injustice”.

The move comes after similar apologies were extended to gay men and miners following their experiences of persecution by authorities for their sexuality and involvement in the bitter 1980s industrial dispute, respectively.

According to academics, around 2,500 people were executed in Scotland for witchcraft between 1563 and the repeal of the Act in 1736. A further 1,500 were also accused under the legislation. They faced torture and ill-treatment and an estimated 85 per cent were women.

Is this a Scottish problem?

No, but the detection and persecution of ‘witches’ is, in the words of Claire Mitchell QC, an area in which Scots “excelled”.

It was Mitchell who established the Witches of Scotland campaign in 2020, later bringing a petition calling for an apology and pardon to the Scottish Parliament. Signed by around 3,400 people, it also seeks a national memorial to witch-purge victims.

The persecution seen in Scotland was mirrored elsewhere in Europe, but there were five times as many cases here. Execution levels in Scotland were 15 times higher than those of England, relative to population.

The Salem witch trials of colonial America may resonate most strongly through pop culture, but Scotland was, in the words of Cardiff University historian Jan Machielsen, an “epicentre of witch hunting”.

It was, Sturgeon said, an “injustice on a colossal scale, driven at least in part by misogyny in its most literal sense – hatred of women”.

How was the apology received?

“Those who met this fate were not witches, they were people, and they were overwhelmingly women,” said Sturgeon. “At a time when women were not even allowed to speak as witnesses in a courtroom, they were accused and killed because they were poor, different, vulnerable or in many cases just because they were women.”

Sara Kelly of Remembering the Accused Witches of Scotland (Raws) called the statement “massive”. Mitchell said there remains “lots more to do” and doubled down on the calls for a pardon because this would mark a “legal status change”. “It’s important for any human to be properly recorded in history,” she said.

SNP MSP Natalie Don has begun a separate bid to secure a pardon for those affected through a private members’ bill. 

But some have pointed out that Sturgeon’s apology was directed towards female victims, and that an estimated one in six were male. Misogyny wasn’t the only driver of the purges, Machielsen says, with economic inequality and community tensions also key factors. “The deep misogyny of the witch hunts is not in doubt,” he wrote in an article for The Conversation, “but the workings of the patriarchy were (and are) complex.”

Meanwhile, the apology was branded a “meaningless gesture” in a tweet by sports commentator Dougie Donnelly.

Where do we go from here?

Mitchell’s petition remains under consideration and a consultation on Don’s private members’ bill is expected within the coming weeks.

Raws seeks both national and local memorials to the victims and champions the research now being done by community groups to find out more about the witch trials carried out in their areas. Meanwhile, there is work ongoing on Edinburgh University’s Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, which is among the most comprehensive such databases in Europe.

If a formal pardon is to be issued, it will follow similar actions in Switzerland and Catalonia. And it will come 20 years after the Salem witch trial victims were awarded their posthumous pardons.

The issue is as much about the present and future as the past, it is said. “There are parts of our world where even today, women and girls face persecution and sometimes death because they have been accused of witchcraft,” Sturgeon said in her International Women’s Day speech.

“While here in Scotland the Witchcraft Act may have been consigned to history a long time ago, the deep misogyny that motivated it has not. We live with that still. Today it expresses itself not in claims of witchcraft, but in everyday harassment, online rape threats and sexual violence.”

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