Book review: Ashes & Stones, by Allyson Shaw

There is much to admire in this account of the persecution, trials and executions of so-called witches in Scotland, but it would have benefited from a stronger grasp of the beliefs and attitudes prevalent in pre-Enlightenment Scotland, writes Allan Massie

Last year Nicola Sturgeon gave one of these fashionable, futile, virtue-signalling apologies to victims of persecution in the now distant past, in this case to the Scottish victims of witch-hunts in, principally, the 16th and 17th centuries. The Church of Scotland offered its own apology, with a little more reason, since Kirk ministers were among the keenest witch-hunters.

Allyson Shaw, Scots by ancestry, Californian by upbringing, now a British citizen living in Banff, calls herself a modern witch, though it is not clear just what she means by this, and she has written a detailed and indignant account of the persecution, trials and executions of so-called witches in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries in Scotland. She has travelled widely and researched assiduously. I learned a lot from her book, sometimes about places, Aberdeen for instance, which I thought I knew well. The women put to death for witchcraft are heroines to her. It is of course a horrible story.

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For Shaw, the persecution is rooted in misogyny, though she honestly admits that 15 per cent of those condemned and killed as witches in Scotland were men. Doubtless fear and hatred of women fanned the witch-hunting fever, but some at least of the victims believed they were witches and boasted to neighbours of their powers. Shaw notes that Margaret Murray, author of The Witch Cult in Western Europe, saw the witches as devotees of an old pre-Christian religion. “Her ideas,” Shaw writes, “persist in Wicca and neopagan thought”.

Allyson Shaw

Evidence from the witch trials, wild and extravagant, even apparently boastful, is worth very little. The accused were tortured, and we learned again in the 20th century that torture works, not always but more often than not. Eventually the tortured will say what the torturer wants. All authoritarian regimes, and their police, know this; and the Scots Kirk, like the Spanish Inquisition, was authoritarian.

What is missing from this book is any understanding of pre-Enlightenment Christianity. For Shaw, the ministers who zealously persecuted supposed witches are merely brutal, misogynist men. Fair enough perhaps, but they believed in the Devil as a physical reality, the father of lies, the spirit of Evil, the enemy of God, capable of assuming human shape; Martin Luther, accosted by him in his study, threw an inkwell at him.

The Bible was the word of God, therefore literally true, and Presbyterian Scots were steeped in it. Anyone practising witchcraft was an agent of the Devil, and the Bible was quite clear: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus ch22:14). Belief in witchcraft and demonic possession was general. James VI, a highly intelligent man, believed he had been endangered by men and women trafficking with the Devil and wrote a book on Demonology. Later in life he concluded that much that passed for witchcraft was mere fantasy. Few would then have agreed with him. Things changed with the Enlightenment: the devilish dance in “Tam o’ Shanter” is comedy.

Despite the author’s unwillingness or inability to understand the historical past, or treat it on its own terms, the depth of Shaw’s research is evident and this is an engaging book – one that will surely find many enthusiastic readers. She interweaves her researches with snatches of autobiography – her education in California and her relationship with her father. Some of her descriptive writing is very good and many will share her indignation at the cruel treatment of women accused of witchcraft, then tortured and horribly killed. Many will agree with her dislike of today’s exploitation of grim historical past for entertainment, “feeding a myth that has twisted the reality of thousands tortured and killed during the witch-hunts.” Fair enough; it can be disgusting. So there is much to like and approve of. What is missing is an understanding of the fear of witchcraft, not only among the powerful who persecuted it, but also among many poor men, women and children who felt threatened by it or at least by what they thought it signified. Anyone looking for a fuller understanding of these grim and often frightening times might be advised to read Buchan’s Witch Wood, arguably his finest novel.

Ashes & Stones, by Allyson Shaw

Ashes & Stones, by Allyson Shaw, Sceptre, 292pp, £18.99