Major new cultural project to honour Scottish women persecuted as witches

Women persecuted for witchcraft crimes in Scotland hundreds of years ago are set to be honoured in a major new cultural project being developed by two of Scotland's leading traditional musicians.

Rachel Newton has previously been honoured at the Scots Trad Music Awards BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Picture: Somhairle MacDonald
Rachel Newton has previously been honoured at the Scots Trad Music Awards BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Picture: Somhairle MacDonald

A storytelling book, CD, podcast, visual art and a live touring live production are all planned to emerge under the banner of Heal & Harrow.

The project - which will draw parallels with the treatment of women in modern-day society - has been directly inspired by a new campaign to secure a pardon, an apology and a new national monument for nearly 4000 Scots accused of witchcraft, the vast majority of them women.

Singer and harpist Rachel Newton and fiddler Lauren MacColl describe the project as “a humanising tribute” to the women tried and executed in Scotland following the introduction of a Witchcraft Act in 1563.

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They are to work with photographer, designer and artist Elly Lucas and a yet-to-be-named leading writer to create a new body of work inspired by and in remembrance of the lives of real women persecuted in 16th and 17th century Scotland.

Heal & Harrow will also explore characters from Scottish folklore and mythology, historical beliefs in the supernatural Scotland and how the witch trials are relevant to 21st century Scotland.

Under the plans for the project, which is expected to be officially launched later this year, each key character will be represented by a new piece of music, a short story, and visual art.

Funders are currently being sought for the project, which has just been announced on social media.

The campaign to secure a pardon for Scotland’s witches was launched last year by a QC, Claire Mitchell, who highlighted that the notorious witch trials in Massachusetts led to the execution of 14 women and five men, all of whom have now had their convictions reversed.

In Scotland, it is estimated that more than 2000 women were among the 2558 people executed after standing trail under the Witchcraft Act. None of them have had an apology or pardon to date.

Newton said: “Although we’re very interested in the mythological stories in our culture, we want to make sure our project recognises the fact that real people were persecuted on a massive scale.

"We felt it was important to include women who suffered in the trials and imagine what their experience must have been like. We have a brilliant writer collaborating with us to bring these stories to life.

The Heal & Harrow project is expected to be officially launched later this year. Image: Elly Lucas

“We’ve seen so many parallels with the modern day in the themes that have arisen while doing research into the witch trials, such as misogyny and fear of the ‘other’.

“The project follows a strand of interest we’ve both explored over the last decade; my project ‘Changeling’ and Lauren’s Fèis Rois commission ‘The Seer’, which were both inspired and informed by Scottish folklore, mythology and storytelling.

"The themes in the witch trials also resonate with the work I’ve done around the representation of women in the music industry with The Bit Collective.”

MacColl added: "We’ve been inspired by the brilliant work being done to raise awareness of the Scottish witch trials.

Lauren MacColl is a former instrumentalist of the year at the Scots Trad Music Awards. Picture: Somhairle MacDonald

"We’re both fans of the Witches of Scotland podcast and the campaign for a legal pardon, an apology and national monument for those convicted of witchcraft and executed in Scotland.

"Having been unable to get together over the majority of last year, beginning something remotely which starts with research is a good way to keep creativity ticking over whilst being able to work together online.

"Ultimately, we plan to tour an ambitious live show that includes visuals and aspects of storytelling. We also plan to make a podcast series of our own.”

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The Witches' Well, on Edinburgh Castle's esplanade, commemorates women who were accused of witchcraft and executed.

Joy Yates

Editorial Director

Rachel Newton says the Heal & Harrow project will explore that fact that real women were 'persecuted on a massive scale" in Scotland for witchcraft.
Musicians Rachel Newton and Lauren MacColl have joined forces to create the Heal & Harrow project. Image: Elly Lucas
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