Monumental Reminder of Scottish Witch Persecutions
The Scottish public is being consulted on a proposed national memorial in Fife for people condemned as witches.
Scottish records inform that between the 16th and 18th centuries there were at least 1,400 executions of people accused of witchcraft, and witches lie at the very heart of the country’s folkloric system. The newly proposed witch memorial will be the focus of discussions next Thursday evening at the Torryburn and Newmills Community Centre, which will include an information point offering the history behind Scotland’s witch persecutions.
An article in Kingdom.com says Fife councilors Kate Stewart, Mino Manekshaw, and Bobby Clelland stated: “We’d love to see the creation of a memorial at Torryburn, dedicated to the memory of Lillias Adie” and also for the thousands of other Scottish (mainly women) witches persecuted for practicing witchcraft.
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Plans are to rebuild the beacon on the coast at The Ness in Torryburn into a witch monument. (Fife Council)
She Served Hard, Hard Time
For the monument, the councilors say that they have in their possession an 1840s Beamer navigation beacon which was designed by Stevenson, whose nanny Alison Cunningham was born in Torryburn. This particular Fife town has been chosen for the memorial because it was the home of Lilias Adie who died in prison in 1704, before being convicted, strangled, and burned at the stake for having sex with the devil. Adie was eventually buried beneath a stone on a beach in Torryburn in a paranoid effort to stop her returning from the grave.
A CNN article from September features a digital reconstruction of Lilias Adie that was designed by scientists at Dundee University; and Douglas Speirs, an archaeologist for Fife Council, told CNN that she was a victim of a “short-lived witch-hunting craze" in the Fife area. Around 3,500 women were executed as witches in Scotland between 1560 and 1727 AD and Adie was arrested in her late 50s or early 60s and after having been “treated roughly” in prison - being deprived of sleep and routinely interrogated - a confession was easily extracted from the woman.
Reconstructed face of Lillias Adie . (Dundee University)
A Monument to Nocturnal Goddesses
Most of the reports you will read about this new monument fail to even scratch the surface on the immense significance of this gesture. While movies, horror books, and computer games portray witches as murderous hold hags, since the study of folklore began at the end of the 19th century, they have been associated with the human-like beings known as elves or fairies, the glue of Scottish folklore.
An article on Erenow.net explains that the records of Scottish witch trials have long been an important source for the study of British fairy tradition, and scholar Carlo Ginzburg argued that the concept of the witches’ sabbath holds traces of an “ancient shamanistic sub-stratum”. His unarguable theory is based on confessions by Scottish witches that they had visited fairies and their queen, and he concluded that we can now recognize the “distorted echo of an ecstatic cult of Celtic tradition, dedicated to nocturnal goddesses”.
Illustration of witches, perhaps being tortured before James VI and I, from his ‘Daemonologie’ (1597). (Public Domain)
Female Scottish Shamans
Witches, according to Ginzburg, entered altered states of consciousness similar to those employed by shamans and by drawing on a pre-Christian animist concepts of the world, the spirits with whom they dealt, especially fairies, descended. The author avoided calling this concept ‘pagan’ and emphasized that early modern commoners generally had a cosmos populated by supernatural figures of both Christian and pre-Christian origin.
Gábor Klaniczay, a Professor at the Department of Medieval Studies at Central European University in Budapest, also explored the idea that witchcraft holds vestiges of ancient rituals and belief systems in his 2005 book ‘A cultural history of witchcraft.’ Drawing evidence from witchcraft trials in early modern Britain, the author argued that in most cases witches drew their ideas from “envisioned encounters with a spirit world in altered states of consciousness” and that this was similar to the activities of shamans.
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The North Berwick witches from a contemporary pamphlet, ‘Newes From Scotland’. (Public Domain)
Shadows of the Church
Thus, the new monument being proposed in Fife is not only a statue to the thousands of women murdered for practicing witchcraft in Scotland, but it will serve as a reminder of a period of history when the lines between right and wrong were very blurred. A time when priests and ministers of churches freely communicated with supernatural gods and spirits, but the same was forbidden to commoners.
And the monument is also a reminder of a dark time in history when the spiritual police (the Church) murdered infinitely more folk than their perceived adversaries- the witches.
Top Image: Example of a monument for an accused witch – “Maggie Wall burnt here 1657 as a Witch.” Source: Alan Weir/CC BY 2.0
By Ashley Cowie