Witches, child killers and brothel keepers - and the injustices of being a woman

From a written confession used at a 16th century witch trial to a 20th century wanted poster of two fugitive brothel keepers and a mugshot of a mother who killed her daughter, the rare archive material paints a powerful picture of female criminals through time.

Catherine Anderson, who killed her child in Aberdeen (left), fugitive Lily Hart, a brothel keeper wanted for faking coins (centre), and Jane Wotherspoon, a forger (right).

Now, an exhibition Outcasts: Women Crime and Society draws together the photos, documents and police prints in a new exhibition that will go on show as part of the Granite Noir International Crime Writing Festival in Aberdeen this week.

The exhibition explores how society has comfortably cast disproportionate blame on women for certain types of crimes and misdemeanours, from the ‘fornicators’ held up by the men of the Kirk Session to the witchcraft trials in Aberdeen and surrounding areas during the 1590s.

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“Some of the cases are truly harrowing, and it really makes you appreciate the progress that has been made towards equality.”

The ‘unprecedented’ scale of witchcraft paranoia felt in Aberdeen between 1596 and 1597 is also highlighted by the event. Then, around 40 cases were recorded locally, with many of the individuals – the vast majority female – executed following significant periods of incarceration and torture.

One case highlighted in Outcasts relates to Isobel Strathanchyn - also known as “Skuddie” - who was accused of four counts of witchcraft. Offences ranged from enchanting a piece of cloth to enable Elspet Mutray to marry the man ‘whom she loved the best’ to the more serious charge of gathering ‘dead folks bones’ and boiling them before washing a man with the water. The accused was convicted and then executed.

The costs of the imprisonment and execution of Isobel are also recorded, from the 26 loads of peat, four barrels of tar and six loads of firewood used in her burning to the fee payable to the executioner.

Meanwhile, the case of Catherine Anderson, an outworker from Pitfodels, now a suburb of Aberdeen, is also featured. She was accused of concealing her pregnancy and smothering her newborn child.

Her counsel pleaded for clemency, stating that the girl was in a state of starvation, deserted by the father of the child and “indeed in the most wretched circumstances – without food, without clothing, and without the means of procuring them, and altogether alone and in her misery, her child was born, and this child unfortunately met its death”.

Anna Durward and Margaret Campbell were also accused of murdering their own children in 1742. After being held in the city’s Tolbooth prison for several years, they volunteered to depart from Scotland and transport themselves to ‘some of His Majesty’s Plantations in America’, never to return home again.

The Kirk Session frequently tried women accused of concealment of pregnancy or extra-marital sex. One such case was Margaret Dunbar. While the court acknowledged that she had been raped twice and named her attacker on record, she was brought before the session and accused of having a child out of wedlock.

Outcasts: Women, Crime and Society runs from Thursday 20 February to Sunday 23 February at The Music Hall and Lemon Tree in Aberdeen.