THEY were slaughtered in their hundreds in a country gripped by fear and blinded by ignorance.
But more than 300 years after suffering torture and a fiery death, Scotland’s “witches” could be honoured with the nation’s first official memorial.
A community in the East Neuk of Fife is hoping to atone for this by commemorating the innocent victims of the witch-hunters. The 1,600 citizens of Pittenweem are taking part in a referendum on whether they want a memorial and where it should be erected.
At least 26 “witches” were tortured and 18 of them killed in Pittenweem in the early 18th century, victims of an over-zealous minister who ignored all legal constraints to indulge in an orgy of killing.
The local community council, which admits the idea is contentious, has written to every adult in the fishing village asking if they agree in principle with the plan.
The ancestors of some present-day residents almost certainly took part in the executions, while others are related to victims.
If the plans are approved, a permanent memorial will be constructed in the village, most likely on the site of the most notorious witch killing, that of Janet Cornfoot, who was tortured and killed by a lynch mob in 1705.
She was swung from a rope, stoned and crushed under a heavy door piled high with boulders. To make sure she was dead, a horse and cart was repeatedly driven over her body and her remains buried in an area called West Braes.
Local historian, Leonard Low, author of The Weem Witch, said of the plan: “It is just fantastic and a massive step forward. This will be the first time in Britain that such a memorial has been erected.”
Low, whose family have lived for generations in Pittenweem, spearheaded the campaign to commemorate the witches.
“I was looking at the names of people who lived in Pittenweem during these events. One of the families are the distant ancestors of Sir Sean Connery. The records state that everyone in the village took part in this horrific murder, so I think his ancestors would have been involved and very much a part of that mob.”
Louise Park, presiding officer for the Pagan Federation of Scotland, said: “A memorial would be a great thing to remember the people who were victims of hunts and persecutions. It is always good to remember that people can be persecuted by those in authority.”
One proposed design for the memorial at West Brae is a tall metal structure depicting the door used to crush Cornfoot, emblazoned with the names of all 26 victims. Hands will grip the door on both sides, a powerful reminder of the mob who took her life.
Margaret Laidlaw, a member of the community council, confirmed: “A questionnaire has gone out and we are waiting to hear local opinion on the matter before we thrash out the finer details.”
As well as Cornfoot, 16 of those accused of witchcraft in Pittenweem were burnt at the stake, and one died during torture. Local minister Patrick Cowper was as determined to punish witches as he was to ignore the laws of the day.
The authorities in Edinburgh demanded evidence that witches had used their supernatural powers in the commission of actual crimes such as murder. And even then, they had to give their permission for a trial to go ahead.
Cowper imprisoned women merely on flimsy accusations of practising witchcraft. And he incited the mob to mete out its murderous brand of justice before getting permission from Edinburgh.
When the government ordered a stop to the persecution, the few surviving women were released and the folk of Pittenweem turned against Cowper. He was never brought to justice although his village gravestone was vandalised to the point where the inscription can no longer be read.
Not everyone agrees with the memorial plan. The community council’s own acting secretary, David Birrell, described it as “ridiculous”.
“I know all this is going on and I can hardly believe it,” he said. “This all happened 300 years ago.”
Dr Peter Maxwell-Stuart, a history lecturer at the University of St Andrews, said the monument would be “futile”.
“Apologising for what your ancestors have done in the past is futile. It is making an assumption that all these people were innocent when of course they weren’t. Practising witchcraft was against the law at the time and was considered a criminal offence and to apologise would be a mistaken view of history.
“If I was given a vote in Pittenweem I would certainly vote against the memorial.”