At dawn on International Women’s Day, a silent circle of well-wrapped up, mostly women gathered on top of Edinburgh’s Calton Hill. At the centre, a disarmingly lifelike female figure, head bowed, wrapped in a shawl. As the sun began to rise visual artist Laura Graham introduced ‘The Exoneration of Agnes Samson’, took a torch and set the figure alight.
By the time the sun set, a posthumous apology to people accused of witchcraft would be made in the Scottish Parliament, a significant step towards raising the names of the accused and convicted from the ashes of history.
The Witchcraft Act was introduced in Scotland in 1563, at a time of much societal change. It remained law until 1736, and claimed the lives of 2558 people, with around 4,000 accused and many more lives marred by the shame and fear of association with the victims. Of those accused, around 84% were women, roughly the gender balance of those on Calton Hill that powerful morning.
To extract ‘confessions’ sleep-deprivation was used as a form of torture, as well as piercing the skin and public stripping, searching for marks on the body. Witchcraft was a capital crime and the punishment was strangulation (sometimes called ‘worried to death’) followed by being burned at the stake. This campaign of state-sanctioned murder for an impossible crime, was galvanised by King James VI of Scotland who was obsessed by the idea of witchcraft, even writing a book called Daemonologie in 1597 and taking part in trials, including that of Agnes Samson. The period has been referred to as a time of “satanic panic”.
Claire Mitchell QC and Zoe Venditozzi launched the Witches of Scotland campaign on International Women’s Day 2020. This campaign had three aims: an apology, a pardon and a national memorial to honour the memory of those accused of witchcraft. Two years later, after a long legal campaign, public petition and by bringing together academics, historians and experts on their popular podcast series, the first of these aims was achieved.
In the Scottish parliament Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged this “egregious historic injustice,” saying, “Those who met this fate were not witches, they were people, and they were overwhelmingly women. 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.” Sturgeon linked this apology to the misogyny still evident in today’s society.
In a National Library talk, Venditozzi and Mitchell acknowledged it was ‘generally people without status or power that were accused so following their heritage is tricky’, but that there will be descendants in Scotland today. Laura Graham makes an uncomfortable point: “I do think that the other thing that we should all be aware of is, we’re all survivors, we’re still here, which means we might well have been the persecutors of people. If it is a truly horrible thought, that we’re not necessarily the people who were aggrieved”.
Graham passionately believes in the need to right these historic miscarriages of justice. When she began to research witchcraft prosecutions she was shocked to discover geographical differences. In England and Ireland witchcraft prosecutions were ecclesiastical, “But in Scotland, it was so strange to discover it was criminal courts…So, from my point of view, as a former solicitor, it really whet my appetite for miscarriages of justice created by justice.”
Like Venditozzi and Mitchell, Graham was delighted by the First Minister’s statement: “Nicola Sturgeon – hats off to her, it’s courageous to actually even say something like that. I’m delighted that she’s done it.”
Zoe Venditozzi explains why the Witches of Scotland campaign are now campaigning for a full legal pardon. “The apology was to everyone accused. A pardon deals with all of the people who were actually found guilty, and it changes their legal status. They should never have been accused of any crime.” Natalie Don MSP is backing a private members bill calling for this historic pardon, with cross party support and a consultation hoped for later this year.
It is hoped that a successful pardon would have global impact. Only last year the UN passed a resolution ‘condemning human rights violations associated with witchcraft accusations’, an acute and in some cases increasing problem in a number of countries including India, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
For Graham a pardon is important: “It needs to be something that a culture as old as Scotland, can face up to and say it was wrong”. “Scotland needs to know more about its history,” says Venditozzi, “it’s not just a shortbread and Braveheart nation”.
It’s hoped that a national memorial will help increase awareness of historic injustices.
Fife-based charity RAWL (Remembering the Accused Witches of Scotland) are planning a witches’ memorial in Fife, with private company National Pride. It will be funded by donations and grants.
The Witches of Scotland campaign want something very different – a national memorial funded by the state, “not something we have to fundraise for,” explains Venditozzi, It should be “really amazing and provocative, by a top artist.” Laura Graham agrees: “I think the last thing you want is yet another statue, I think it needs to be a sculptural thing to do with movement and fire, or wind or light, something that really is evocative and transformative… I think it’s an opportunity for some kind of a comment about femicide, about human rights and domestic violence as well.”
Venditozzi and Mitchell are inspired by the haunting Steilneset Memorial by Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois in Vardø, Norway, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC by David Adjaye. Hopefully the memorial will be, “somewhere like Edinburgh and somewhere everyone can see. This is an opportunity to make something really beautiful and powerful” says Venditozzi, “We want their names spoken, and the marks against them rubbed out.”