Fascinating objects that tell story of Scotland's witch hunts go on show

A locked Gaelic prayer book said to be owned by a wizard and a set of stone charms used in curses are among items brought together to illustrate the witch hunts in Scotland.

The objects, which are held in the collections of Aberdeen University, explore the beliefs, suspicions and persecutions associated with the dark chapter in the country’s history, which chiefly unfolded between the 16th and 18th century.

They are now on show in a new exhibition Toil & Trouble: Witchcraft in Scotland, which is accessible online and aims to explore the “gendered violence and oppression, the perceived difference between magic and medicine and the role of the church and religion” in the trials and executions of the period.

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Jougs, an iron collar, were secured around the neck and fastened to the wall of a church on the 'witches ring' via a short chain. They were used for punishment and to warn others of the consequences of defying the church. PIC: Aberdeen University.

A known 3,837 people were accused of witchcraft in Scotland between 1563 to 1736, the vast majority of them women.

Lisette Turner, of the design and marketing curatorial team at Aberdeen University, who was involved in bringing together the online exhibition, said: “It was important to me to be able to convey the other sides of witchcraft through its history.

“People often have preconceived notions of haggard women on broomsticks or hexing their neighbours. There is so much more depth to the topic than that.

“We wanted to change that visual representation with this exhibition and focus more on the naturalistic side of the craft and how often it was that 'common' women found themselves in trouble when thought to have toiled in anything seen as unholy.”

A Gaelic prayer book - with lock and key - said to have been owned by a wizard on the Isle of Lewis. PIC: Aberdeen University.

The 19th-century prayer book, which comes with an accompanying key, was originally owned by an alleged wizard from the Isle of Lewis, who was said to be the only one who knew how to unlock it and “the mystical power within”.

The book was confiscated from him by his landlord and donated to the university.

A 15th-century spindle whorl is also on show and illustrates the “everyday belief in witchcraft” in Scotland.

Belonging to an Aberdeenshire family, the sandstone whorl is decorated with a feather and dot design on one side, with feathers associated with healing charms which could both ward off evil and be used in curses.

A 15th Century spindle whorl decorated with a feather design which was used as a healing charm which was used to ward off spirits as well as cast curses. PIC: Aberdeen University.

A selection of witches stones, small items which feature naturally occurring holes, also feature. They were believed to provide protection to those that found them and were hung from buildings, babies' cradles, and around the necks of livestock to protect against evil spirits.

A set of jougs – a type of iron collar – also features. The heavy item was secured around the neck and fastened to the wall of a church on the 'witches’ ring' via a short chain.

Jougs were used as a punishment for those who had sinned against the church, with their public display serving to remind the congregation to stay on the right side of the law.

Other items in the exhibition, which has been curated by MLitt Museum Studies students at the university, include a 15th-century encyclopedia on medicinal cures prepared from plants, animals and minerals.

Student Caitlin Jamison, who worked on the interpretation for the exhibition, said of the exhibition: “My classmates and I have tried to shape how people understand this important topic. Magic, medicine and religion collide in a way that still has resonance today, which makes it so fascinating to explore.”

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