Think you know about Scotland’s witch-hunting past? Think again – Susan Morrison

A group of women accused of witchcraft are beaten in front of KIng James VI. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A group of women accused of witchcraft are beaten in front of KIng James VI. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Scotland put to death thousands of innocent women who were accused of being witches, just one member of a supernatural ecosystem that also included ghouls, ghosts and a particularly Scottish type of fairy, writes Susan Morrison.

Scotland in the 18th century was just about the smartest place on Earth. So, how come in the 16th and 17th centuries, we went radge and carried out the state-sanctioned murder of about 3,000 people, mainly women?

Consorting with the Devil was apparently all the rage in 16th and 17th century Scotland. Picture: Getty

Consorting with the Devil was apparently all the rage in 16th and 17th century Scotland. Picture: Getty

Witch hunting, my friends, was a sport the Scots took to like ducks to water, and if the duck floated, it could be a witch. That would not end well.

I’ve been up to my eyeballs in witches, fairies and his Dark Satanic Majesty for a good couple of months now as part of a fantastic team ­making a six-part podcast for BBC Radio Scotland, all about Scotland’s witch hunt.

It’s online and the first episode landed, appropriately enough, on Hallowe’en. You can find us on BBC Sounds, search for Witch Hunt, and bingo, we’ll pop up like a summoned demon of the airwaves. Not going to lie to you, it’s unsettling listening and just a bit bonkers.

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Remember, the people who were condemned as witches were ­innocent. Not only did they not commit the crimes they were accused of, they couldn’t have committed them. They were made up.

One set of witches claimed to be able to whizz about Scotland in a twinkling of an eye. Seriously? You can’t do that today, and if we could, trust me, Satan would be landing the contract for the next big motorway reorganisation.

Mind you, not exactly trustworthy, the Devil. Bit wonky on the old project management front. Given the traffic snarl-ups in Edinburgh right now, I sometimes wonder if he’s landed the deal already.

Possessed in Paisley

Accused witches talked of meeting the devil dressed in the reanimated corpse of someone recently deceased so they could... ummmm... well, this is a respectable newspaper, so I don’t think I need to get into detail about this, but let’s just say Satan in the skin of the newly dead is not someone you’d snog. But they claim they did. And more. Imagine opening your door to that trick or treater.

Oh, and all that head spinning and projectile vomiting everyone got so het up about when The Exorcist came out? Ha. Scotland could have shown Hollywood how to do demonic ­possession, and in Paisley, too.

There was quite a lot of screaming, levitating and priests getting thrown out of windows in the film version. That’s just a bit attention seeking for us. The Presbyterian solution to chucking out an invading devil was to have a lot of praying and more fasting than a fat lass trying to get into a size 10 frock, so I suspect that ‘McExorcism’ might have been a slightly less interesting film.

Drunken, pampered Fairy Queen

We think we know about our mania for the hunting of witches, but we don’t. Listen in to Witch Hunt and find out why James VI and Satan went to war in North Berwick, and for Jimmy, it was personal.

How did a witch-pricker work? And who was The Great Witch of Balwearie? What an imagination we had. Every Scot then was surrounded by a supernatural ecosystem of witches, ghouls, ghosts and especially fairies. Oh, and you can drop any notion you might have about fairies being sweet little flying ballerinas waving glittery wands. Scottish fairy folk were tricksy little horrors who might steal you away to the hall of the Fairy Queen, who sounds like a cross between a pampered princess and a drunken hellion from Leith. If you annoyed them, they could curdle your cow’s milk, or even swap your baby for something far more sinister. To be fair, there are a fair few ­parents today who look their kids and wonder...

So, the next time a cutesy little Tinkerbell lookalike flits across your path, just remember, fairies in ­Scotland had anger management issues, short tempers and, from what I could tell, a bit of drink problem. So Scottish.

The English had elves. They seem to have gone around repairing ­footwear for impoverished shoemakers and running up brocade jackets for visually impaired tailors under cover of darkness.

I like to think the Fairy Queen and her gang could have given them a bit of a magical kicking and then stolen all their beer, whilst chanting “Elves on the shelves are a load of old cobblers”.

Seriously, you did not mess with Scottish fairies.

Satan and the Scots

We’ve lined up a veritable battalion of top-notch witch historians for you to feast your ears on during our podcast, and if you’d like to catch one of those fabulous contributors live, then you can. Previously... Scotland’s History Festival launches on 21 November at the French Institute, opposite St Giles High Kirk.

Our first speaker is the wonderful Dr Mikki Brock, a highly talented academic from America. Her talk is entitled Satan and the Scots.

Get a ticket and find out just how personal this war on the Devil got for our ancestors.