Transcript of Scottish witch hunts video

History

Transcript of Modern Collections Curator Nicola Stratton's filmed talk about the Scottish witch hunts material at the National Library of Scotland.

Hello, my name is Nicola Stratton and I work with the Modern Scottish Collections at the National Library of Scotland. To illustrate something of the range of material that we have in the Modern Scottish Collections, I'd just like to show you some modern publications relating to the Scottish witch hunts.

Over 3,800 Scots were accused of witchcraft during the period from 1563 to 1736 which is when the Witchcraft Act was in force in Scotland. Historians believe it is likely that two thirds of those accused were executed. But this figure is difficult to be sure about because we actually only know for sure the outcome of the trial in about 300 of the cases.

One of the things that makes this subject so interesting is that in order to understand the witch hunts, as well as studying the history of the period, you also need to learn about the legal procedures, religion, politics and folk beliefs of the era. It was all these factors that came together to make the witch hunts possible.

When reading about Scottish witches you may find yourself delving into a whole range of material — from academic histories to articles and legal journals and popular magazines.

Thinking about how the witch trials could come about, the authorities could not arrest and conduct criminal trials of people without having the appropriate laws and legal mechanisms in place to do this. And for these laws to exist and be workable there had to be a definite belief that witchcraft was real, dangerous and powerful both at village and elite levels of society.

Heinrich Kramer's 1487 publication 'The Malleus malificarum'  or 'Hammer of the witches' is one of the best-known works concerning the problem of witchcraft and what to do about it in early modern Europe. It was extremely influential in Scotland as it was elsewhere.

In 'The Malleus', Kramer explains the modus operandi of witches and advises witch hunters how to go about discovering and exposing witchcraft. It's very much a 15th-century 'Dummies guide' to witch hunting. This is a 2007 translation of 'The Malleus' by Peter Maxwell-Stuart, just sort of bringing it up to date, making it more readable.

King James VI of Scotland famously made his own contribution to writings on witchcraft with his 'Daemonology' published in 1597. In this, he lends his support and encouragement to witch hunting. This is a facsimile copy from 1924.

James VI had a personal encounter with witchcraft in 1590 to 1591 when the infamous North Berwick witches were accused of raising a storm in order to drown the King and his bride as they returned by ship from Denmark. The story of the North Berwick witches is sensationalised in the pamphlet from the time 'Newes from Scotland'. It is also discussed in many of the historical works and articles we have represented here.

At popular level belief in witches and witchcraft was tied up with various elements of popular and fairy beliefs. Of course this was a period when supernatural elements were frequently held responsible when crops failed or there was death or illness in a village or town.

For example, when cattle sickened and Neolithic arrowheads were discovered nearby, this was taken as proof that the cattle had been elf-shot and made ill by supernatural means or witchcraft. Obviously at this time people didn't know what the Neolithic arrowheads actually were so they believed they belonged to elves, fairies and also laterally they were used by witches.

In the confessions of witches which were often extracted under torture, many such examples of old fairy beliefs can be found. These works have significant content on fairy belief and folklore. John Gregorson Campbell's collection of superstitions, witchcraft and second sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland gives a real flavour of the folklore of the period in Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland.

There's a lot of regional variation in the Scottish witchcraft cases.

Around 32% of all witches came from Edinburgh and the Lothians, 14% from Strathclyde and the west. And about 12% from Fife. Only 5% were from Caithness, Orkney and Shetland. By far the most prolific area for witch hunting was East Lothian or Haddingtonshire as it was at the time.

It's interesting to think about why this might have been the case because during that period, the population of Scotland was actually more evenly distributed than it is today.

Historians have speculated that perhaps some local ministers were just more zealous in pursuing witches than others. And this might go some way to explaining why witch hunting took off more in certain parts of Scotland than it did in others such as Caithness. It also could just be because those areas were more geographically remote from the centre of power in Scotland.

Anyway, this is just a range of books that talk about witch hunting and witchcraft in different areas. So obviously you can see that it was all over Scotland, just in different quantities — East Lothian and North Berwick and Haddingtonshire. East Lothian in general was a real hotbed of witchcraft during this period. By far the most witches were tried there. But also the Borders, Forfar, Bute. Fife, there's a lot of witchcraft cases in Fife as well. So we can see that it is something that's taking place all over Scotland.

There are some references to Scottish witches shape-shifting and flying as part of that process. For example, the accused witch Isobel Goudie famously shape-shifted to take the form of a crow or a jackdaw and she flew as part of that process. But other than that we don't hear about Scottish witches using broomsticks as a method of transport at all. This is very much an idea that came from continental Europe. Witches' familiars - for example, the black cat - were also not a particularly notable part of Scottish witchcraft cases. During this period witches familiars were more associated with English witchcraft, not Scottish witchcraft.

So, were all Scottish witches female, accompanied by black cats and flying about on broomsticks? Well, no. However, it is true that in Scotland most witches were female, with about 84% of those accused being women, 15% men and 1% we don't know.

Unsurprisingly for such a fascinating topic, the Scottish witchcraft cases have inspired a huge range of creative works from poetry and plays to novels, children's fiction and music. Many of these are based on specific cases — for example, Scottish playwright Rona Munro's play 'The last witch'. This is based on the true case of Janet Horne who was the last woman to be executed for witchcraft in Scotland. Her execution took place in Dornoch in 1727.

Personally, I find the Scottish witch hunts a really fascinating subject. It just brings in so many elements of Scottish society and culture from the age. I just think it's really intriguing to find out what motivated people to accuse their neighbours of witchcraft and so on. And also indeed what motivated the authorities to not just dismiss this but go ahead and prosecute people.

So it's a fascinating subject and in the National Library of Scotland we have such a range of material. The items I've shown you today are in modern collections, but there are rare book collections, manuscripts and music as well.

Anyone's very welcome to come and look if they're interested in finding out more about the Scottish witch hunts.

 

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