Author Topic: The Great Scottish Witch-hunt  (Read 3800 times)

Devious Viper
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The Great Scottish Witch-hunt
« on: August 01, 2006, 04:43:03 AM »
by PG Maxwell-Stuart
Tempus, 254pp

In April 1658 Janet Sawyer was tied to a stake in the town of Ayr, protesting her innocence of witchcraft. An executioner garrotted her and lit a fire beneath her body. An English observer noted ruefully that, "The people in this country are more set against witchcraft than any other wickedness", and that the fate of "this poor creature" was all too common. What Sawyer was believed to have done is unknown. Most likely she was convicted for harming others with spells, like the Dumfriesshire girl said to have used a mole's feet to inflict a fatal foot infection on her father.

The stories in this stimulating account of the witch-hunt of 1658-62 - the high water-mark of Scottish trials - show how it was ordinary folk who initiated accusations.

Maxwell-Stuart employs the term "witch-hunt" cautiously, refusing to endorse the myth that church and state persecuted women. As elsewhere in Europe, Scottish witchcraft prosecutions were sporadic , forming clusters at certain times. Nine cases in 1657 exploded into 100 the next year, spreading from Edinburgh and its environs to the south-west.

Tales of direct diabolical involvement proliferated in 1659. Accused witches confessed that Satan had appeared; some reported disappointing sex with him. Congregations were not, however, orgiastic revels as on the Continent, but modest feasts with drinking and dancing - a fantasy of fun in an age when fun was scarce. To the authorities the real crime was covenanting with the devil, reflected in the belief that the witch's body bore an incriminating mark. Enter the witch-prickers: sly opportunists who used a needle to locate flesh that neither bled nor felt pain.

Maxwell-Stuart likens the situation by 1661 to "some kind of plague sore ... swollen to the point where surgery was considered necessary for the well-being of the body politic and ecclesiastic". By 1662 panic had spread, and officials in Edinburgh were deluged with requests for commissions to try witches. Around 250 died.

Much can be explained by the political climate. Scotland had been under military occupation since 1651, and the kirk was divided. Government and law enforcement were confused, made worse when the English departed in 1660. Anxiety from below, religious polarisation and an intolerant regime were a volatile mix. Presbyterian ministers perceived the devil in every crisis.

Surprisingly, the authorities took great pains in the weighing of evidence. Not even a confession was taken at face value, and half the cases heard at the Court of Justiciary resulted in acquittal. The restoration of order after 1662 coincided with juristical doubts about proof.

This book is impressive for its archival foundations and skilful extraction of strange stories. Also admirable is Maxwell-Stuart's insistence we do not impose our values on the past. Some of the accused believed they were witches, perhaps even practised magic. The Kirkcudbright woman who walked naked, backwards around an enemy's house may well have been trying to kill him. Crude equations between women-hating and witch-hunting are also shrugged off; how else to explain why a quarter of the accused were men? The quest for overarching theories is abandoned: different regions defined and reacted to witchcraft differently, calling for specific explanations.

This historical episode was a symptom of abnormal levels of civil disruption. The odd trial upheld positive social values in the 17th century; unauthorised witchfinders, illegal tortures and mass trials suggested a world turned upside-down. Once chaos had been removed from the equation, the torrent of witches became a trickle.

review by Malcolm Gaskill, Director of Studies in History at Churchill College, Cambridge, and the author of  Witchfinders: a Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy (pub. John Murray).