THE ONLY SOURCE OF KNOWLEDGE IS EXPERIENCE
Women’s History Scotland invite you to know more the Scottish Witchcraft.
The first workshop of the year was with Women’s History Scotland, who are an important partner in the Thistle and Dandelions project as they will support volunteers with their research around the walking tours.
In the Zoom meeting, we discovered the complex systems of the archives in Scotland. We talked about the importance of the sources when we are approaching research. It might be useful at the beginning to use Google and Wikipedia to slim down the topic and focus on the main goal of we want to achieve. The best thing in order to do successful academic research is to have an answer to the ‘5 Ws’: Who? What? Where? When? Which?
The archives that Women’s History Scotland had introduced us to were the following ones:
- Mitchell Library, Glasgow.
- National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh.
- The local history section in each civic library.
- Archives at the universities.
Because we will have to do our personal research during pandemic, it will be good for us to gain confidence with the following digital archives:
- The Glasgow story.com
- www.history .ac.uk
Hannah, Valerie, and Rebecca showed us a really interesting project from the University of Edinburgh about the Witchcraft in Scotland from 1569 to 1736.
They showed us the amazing sculpture you can see in this article. It is based in Prestonpans, East Lothian and it was made to commemorate the murder of women falsely accused of being witches in Scotland. The survey of Scottish witchcraft is an electronic resource divided in two parts: an interactive database, and a supportive web page. In the database there are all people known to have been accused to be a witch in early modern Scotland, while in the supporting material there is an introduction to Scottish witchcraft and further reading with a list of books and website about this really interesting topic. I found it useful that the introduction to Scottish witchcraft was made through 26 Q&As.
I can tell you that in the database there are 3837 cases of people accused of witchcraft in Scotland. 3212 are known, whilst 625 are unnamed. The database is not 100% complete; however it is fairly accurate. For the majority of the cases, we know just that the accused witch existed, but we don’t know where and if the person was executed. In most cases we have a record about an authorized trial.
In the database, we are aware of the sentence of a trial in only 305 cases.
Among these cases, 205 were executed, 52 acquitted, 11 fugitive, 6 excommunicated, 2 put to the horn, 1 put in prison and 1 was publicly humiliated, whilst 98 have fled from prosecution.
In addition, we can discover through this database also that that 84% of the people accused of witchcraft were women, the 15% were men, and just 1% was unknown. With regards to age, we were able to record that the majority were between 50/60 years old (31%), followed by 30/40 and 40/50 (22% each). The lowest percentage of people accused of witchcraft was from people over 70 years old (4%). We should remember that life expectancy was lower than nowadays, and that it is information not always recorded.
Another piece of information hard to say from the database is if the women accused to be witches were widowed or not. According with data, 78% of the women accused of witchcraft were married and 19% were widowed. But marital status is unknown for the great majority of those accused. The problem is that a married woman would be more likely to have her status recorded, because she had a husband with an interest in his wife's trial. An unmarried woman or widow did not need to have her marital status mentioned.
Most of the women accused of being a witch were from the Lothians, followed by Strathclyde and the west coast where 14% were recorded.12% were from Fife, 9% from the Borders, Grampian including Aberdeen recorded 7%, Tayside and the Highlands and Islands recorded 6% each, 5% were from Caithness, Orkney and Shetland, and 2% from Central region. The remainder came from unknown locations. The population of early modern Scotland was more evenly distributed than it is today, so the preponderance of witches in Scotland's central belt is really striking. The top county for witch-hunting was Haddingtonshire (East Lothian).
It is demonstrated by this database that the women accused of witchcraft were rarely midwives –only 9 cases. It is also really interesting to note that they were not poor for the standard of that time.
In comparison with England and France, Scotland had the same results as the percentage of women accused, whilst some parts of eastern Europe, like Estonia, Russia, and Finland, the percentage of men accused is as high, and in some areas, higher than women.
Torture is used to extract confessions. Four main types of evidence were used during trials. The first one was a Confession, often extracted under torture. Typically if a suspect was interrogated they would be expected to confess to making a pact with the Devil and to harming their neighbours by maleficent witchcraft, though one or other of these was often omitted. There was also neighbours' testimonies as evidence. Statements by neighbours usually ignored the Devil. They usually described quarrels with the suspect followed by misfortune they had suffered. Then, there was other witches' testimonies. When witches were interrogated they were sometimes asked about their accomplices. The people they named could then be arrested and interrogated. This was an effective way of increasing the numbers of suspects; it seems mainly to have happened during short periods of intense witch-hunting. Last but not least, the final piece of evidence was the Devil's mark. The Devil was believed to mark his followers at the time when they made a pact with him, as a parody of Christian baptism. A physical search of the suspect's body could find this mark—either a visible bodily blemish or an insensitive spot. The insensitive spot was discovered by pricking with pins, sometimes by the interrogators themselves and sometimes by itinerant professional witch-prickers (of whom about 10 are known to have acted in Scotland).
The database needs to be used alongside other kinds of sources. The Internet is full of poor-quality and downright misleading information on witchcraft, whereas there are some really good books.
We can suggest, for example, the following ones: Christine Larner, Enemies of God: the Witch-Hunt in Scotland (1981); and Stuart Macdonald, The Witches of Fife: Witch-Hunting in a Scottish Shire, 1560-1710 (2002), which is a regional study of witch-hunting that complements Larner's work and argues for the importance of church ministers and kirk sessions in orchestrating prosecutions.
I was fascinating by this topic and I think my next bit of research will be about the two people outlawed. I hope, with the help of Women’s History Scotland, to be able to write these stories to share with the other volunteers.