Witches in Scottish literature

Supernatural tales

Scottish writers have a rich tradition of placing nature, the countryside, folklore and historical and events at the heart of their work.

The sudden changes of light in the Scottish landscape, the lonely stretches of moor and hill, deep glens and forbidding lochs have inspired many supernatural tales.

Stories abound where female protagonists, commonly depicted as witches, are portrayed as being in league with malevolent forces and demonstrating otherworldly powers.

Superstitions and folklore

Belief in the supernatural and in the people who control it has been present for millennia in the Scottish psyche.

From fearful 16th-century monarchs to rational, scientific enquiry during the Age of Enlightenment, ancient superstitious beliefs have largely, though not entirely, vanished in Scotland today.

Despite this, witchcraft and folk beliefs still have the power to fascinate and have become part of much of the Scottish literature now familiar to us.

Today, witches and associated folk beliefs continue to be referenced in many novels, plays, poems and films.  Some examples of witchcraft in Scottish literature throughout the centuries are highlighted in this resource.

Sources

This resource looks at seven sources from the collections of the National Library of Scotland featuring Scottish witches.

The sources illustrate differing treatments of witchcraft in various genres of literature from the last 400 years.

The resource provides a starting point for further investigation whether using NLS material or the internet. Each source has accompanying questions for discussion which can be used for classroom or independent study.

 

Curriculum links

The discussion questions are mapped to the Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes in Social Studies, Religious and Moral education and Literacy and English.

Download the curriculum links information sheet (PDF) (902KB; 5 pages).

Historical context of Scottish witch hunts

Julian Goodare is Reader in History at Edinburgh University and Director of the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft project. In this video he talks about the historical context of witch hunting in Scotland.

You must have Flash installed to view video.

You can also read a transcript of this video.

Further reading

If you would like to learn more about Scottish witch-hunts, this reading list (PDF) (4 pages; 113 KB) provides a good overview on material available to consult at NLS.

 

Portrait of James VI of Scotland attributed to Adrian Vanson, courtesy of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

 

Source and activity 1

 

 

Literature and Language main page

 


Related material at NLS

Find out more about about witches in NLS collections:

 

Listen to Curator Nicola Stratton's filmed talk about items relating to Scottish witches.

 

'Tam O' Shanter' page in Robert Burns web feature.

 

19th-century broadside mentioning the trial and execution of alleged witches in Paisley in the 17th century

 

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