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Folklore Friday - Witch Trials and persecution

Stories of witches abound in our culture. Before we look at some of the folklore and myths around them I wanted to address the terrible atrocities that happened to women, and men, accused of witchcraft.

Trigger warning - mentions torture & execution On International Women's Day the First Minister of Scotland offered an apology to the people, 84% women, who were accused of witchcraft in Scotland during the 16th-18th centuries.

Following the Reformation (a Christian movement to “purify the faith”) a “Satanic panic” swept many countries resulting in people, mostly women, the disabled, and those with mental health issues, or 'othered' in some way, being accused of satanic practices and witchcraft. Royalty was even caught up in the fervour to accuse and see 'evil' everywhere, with King James IV publishing a book on the subject.

Between 1563-1736 an estimated 3837 people on Scotland were accused of Witchcraft with 2558 being executed in often horrific manner, usually in public as a form of entertainment.

Women were seen as unreliable witnesses at the time and were specifically barred from being able to speak in their own, or anyone else's defense. 'Alewives', midwives, and herbalists were all seen as threats. The images we associate today with witches- the hats, cauldrons, cats, and broomsticks were all symbols of alewives and those involved in brewing. Weak beer was the most common drink at this time, traditionaly brewed by women. Its interesting to note that as men and businesses got involved in its manufacture, and it became profitable, the women and still brewing were accused of witchcraft.

The Forfar Witch trials (a small market town north of Dundee) in the 1660s saw over 40

people –women, along with some men, and children – caught up in the witch hunt hysteria. Considering how small the population would have been at the time the impact can only be imagined. Everyone must have lost someone they knew and the fear of who was going to be accused next must have been overwhelming. At least 22 people were publicly executed. They were strangled to the point of near death and then burned in barrels of tar. They had been accused of destroying ships and crops by calling up storms, ‘consorting’ with Satan and even cannibalism. Often the women accused were suffering from mental health issues, or tragically had suffered miscarriage or stillbirth. Witches of Scotland are campaigning to have all those who were accused, tortured, condemned, and executed as Witches to be fully pardoned and have a memorial erected so that we remember the horrors they suffered.

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