Heritage campaigners bid for new memorial to burned ‘witches’

More than 300 people executed for witchcraft, traditions and events marked in old illustrations. Picture: Getty Images
More than 300 people executed for witchcraft, traditions and events marked in old illustrations. Picture: Getty Images
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It is one of the busiest tourist hotspots in Scotland, high up in the historic heart of the capital.

But few of those who flock to Edinburgh Castle every day will realise they pass by the most common spot for burning witches in the country.

More than 300 of them are thought to have been tortured then put to death in the shadow of the landmark during the 16th and 17th centuries.

But heritage campaigners want to see the women who lost their lives properly honoured for the first time with a high-profile memorial on the esplanade.

Edinburgh World Heritage (EWH) said it wanted to kick-start a debate on how to “commemorate the victims of this dark chapter in our history”.

The charity, which is responsible for promoting the centuries of history in the Old and New Towns, said it had been inspired by the recent staging of Arthur Miller’s witchcraft play The Crucible at the Royal Lyceum Theatre and the creation of several prominent memorials around Europe.

A witches memorial in Edinburgh would be one of the few significant works of art to commemorate female figures from the city’s past, along with Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Victoria.

EWH said historical accounts showed at least 4000 people were tried in Scotland following the introduction of the Witchcraft Act in 1563. In Edinburgh, trials took place either at the Tolbooth in the Canongate or at the High Court, with subsequent executions at Castlehill.

The castle esplanade memorial, which would need permission from Edinburgh City Council and Historic Environment Scotland, would join prominent statues of both Robert the Bruce and William Wallace if it was approved.

The idea has been put forward five years after the unveiling of a statue – created by Kelpies sculptor Andy Scott – in Prestonpans, East Lothian, where 81 women were convicted of witchcraft.

A statue was unveiled three years ago in Roughlee, Lancashire, in mark the 400th anniversary of the infamous Pendle Witch Trial, which led to ten people from two families being found guilt and hanged.

Others include a drystane cauldron in Forfar, where 22 women were killed after being convicted of witchcraft, and a memorial maze in Kincross, where a further 11 were executed.

All that visitors to Edinburgh Castle esplanade can currently find to mark the spot of the witch burnings is a small wall fountain and modest plaque, dating back to 1894. The engraving states how some women used their “exceptional knowledge for evil purposes” while others were “misunderstood and wished their kind nothing but good.”

Nicholas Hotham, head of advocacy and outreach at EWH, said it wanted to “encourage a debate” on a suitable memorial.

He added: “The persecution of those accused of witchcraft was widespread in early modern Scotland. The hysteria around the trials may have been caused by fear of the ‘other’, of people who were different, or possessed unusual gifts.

“The various memorials we now see around Europe to those persecuted suggest that now is the time for an open discussion about how we remember and commemorate the victims of this dark chapter in our history.”

Marion Williams, director of the Cockburn Association, the heritage watchdog which was formed in the capital in 1875, said a witches memorial “would offend some people.”

She added: “I studied world religions and philosophy at university, and taught religious studies at the very beginning of my career. I did quite a lot of work on witchcraft.

“It is deep and complicated. Just throwing up a few memorials because we have the statistics is slightly concerning. It is kind of making a tourist trail out of something that’s got a lot more about it.

“I think it would offend some people, based on my knowledge of the subject. It’s not enough just throwing up a monument without any understanding, it is naive.

“Hundreds of women are being treated badly and losing their lives all around the world today.

“But if we start to honour all these hundreds of witches...they will not all will have been honourable people.

“I’m not saying they deserved to die in such an unpleasant way, but to honour someone who has been dishonourable also has its problems.

“I’m not clear what would be achieved and it’s a bit of a distraction when so many other things in Edinburgh need sorting out.”