The context of the Scottish witch-hunts

Transcript of a filmed talk with Julian Goodare, Director of the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft project at the University of Edinburgh

I'm Julian Goodare and I'm Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh. I've been asked to say a few words about witch hunting in Scotland.

Witch hunting is actually a European phenomenon. It happens in mainly the 16th and 17th centuries at the time of the Reformation and counter-Reformation. Both Protestant and Catholic countries are rivals of each other. Each trying to prove they're more godly than the other. Each trying to stamp out ungodliness and build a godly state to prove that they're better than the other lot.

So Scotland after the Reformation is a Protestant country and so Scottish witch hunting is a Protestant affair — but, you know, both sides are at it. So in Scotland, witch hunting is quite severe. They're quite serious about the Reformation, I suppose. And from a population of about a million in 16th and 17th centuries about two and a half thousand witches are executed. Considerably more accused, but there seems to have been about two and a half thousand executions, which is about five times the European average, so it's a country with severe witch hunting.

What they think witches are … There are two ideas which are quite different in their origin. The idea of the common folk is that a witch is someone who harms their neighbours by magic. And, you know, people have magical powers — they use them for various purposes. People who use magical powers for good are known as charmers, folk-healers, and that's okay. But, you know, if you harm your neighbours by magic, if you're vengeful and quarrelsome, that's a bad thing.

The common folk don't seem to particularly want witches to be executed. What they would much rather have is a reconciliation with the witch, and try and persuade them not to commit crimes any more so that they can trust them again.

But when the authorities are interested in executing witches, you know, witches get named to the authorities. And the authorities' own ideas of witchcraft kicks in. They tend to assume that a witch is someone who makes a pact with the Devil, who sells their soul to the Devil, if you like.

The common folk know about the Devil, but are not particularly thinking the witches' powers come from the devil. Their powers come from themselves, I think. But, you know, according to the elite, the witch herself or himself doesn't really have any power, but the devil gives them power. And so this is part of a conspiracy — this is a sort of secret heretical group who are worshipping the Devil. It's a conspiracy against society. So it's really the most evil thing that they can imagine.

So the elite idea is that you find witches in groups: it's not just one witch who harms their neighbours, it's part of a conspiracy. So, you know, when they find one witch — and, you know, the common folk will give the name to the authorities — the authorities may well think 'Ah right, who are this witch's accomplices?' And if they interrogate the suspected witch and ask them about their accomplices, they may get names of other possible witches, particularly if they use torture, which they often seemed to do. The most common form of torture in Scotland is sleep deprivation. If you're deprived of sleep for three or four nights you will start to co-operate with your interrogators- and that's what most of them seem to do. So they can then get the names of other accomplices- and- you know- these people can be made to tell a credible story about witchcraft.

Women's curses seem to have been feared more by the common folk- and the popular idea of a witch- as I mentioned- is someone who curses their neighbours, someone who harms their neighbours by harmful magic. Someone who is vengeful.

So witch hunting, because it's thought to be a conspiracy, it often happens in a mood of panic. People suddenly become convinced there's a conspiracy. And instead of just getting one witch, they will get a whole lot of witches in a particular locality. Or sometimes not just in one locality but in a series of localities over Scotland. The graph of numbers of witches in Scotland has little spikes, but then you get a huge spike where there's a panic that engulfs the central government and will continue over a number of localities.

The first really big panic is sometimes known as 'the North Berwick panic'. It's associated with King James VI in 1590, 1591. Some of the witches are supposed to have conspired against the king. And they're supposed to have held a meeting in the church of North Berwick at Halloween 1590, which is where it [the panic] gets its name. The witches were from various places — Edinburgh and various places in East Lothian. The King's involvement politicises witchcraft and you get several panics after that. The last really big one is in 1661, '62. For the next half century after that you get smaller panics.

Gradually people become less interested in witchcraft, or the elite become less interested in witchcraft because the authorities are no longer putting in so much effort into creating a godly state. They're not so interested in the divine right of kings so the Government is not sort of trying to prove its divine legitimacy. It just becomes an old-fashioned thing. There are more modern scientific ideas which don't necessarily contradict witchcraft, but just marginalise it, and so the excitement goes out of it. People lose interest in it and it gradually fades away. The last witch known to be executed was in 1727.

The Witchcraft Act, which made witchcraft a punishable offence, was repealed by the British Parliament in 1736, which is mainly actually an English initiative and then they go 'Oh, there's a Witchcraft Act in Scotland as well, let's repeal that'. After that, nobody can be executed any more.

The common folk still believe in witches as people who curse their neighbours, but, as I've said, they haven't particularly demanded witches being executed. So they just have to cope with them in ways they had presumably done for centuries before the witch hunts start — and witch hunting just fades away and is forgotten.


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