Closed petition PE1855: Pardon and memorialise those convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1563

Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to pardon, apologise and create a national monument to memorialise those people in Scotland accused and convicted as witches under the Witchcraft Act 1563.

Previous action taken

I have contacted local MSPs Joe Fitzpatrick and Jenny Marra.

Background information

I launched the Witches of Scotland Campaign on International Women’s Day 2020. The campaign has 3 aims: to obtain a pardon for those convicted as witches under the Witchcraft Act 1563, to obtain an apology for all those accused and to obtain a national memorial to remember those killed as witches. Since March 2020, Zoe Venditozzi and I have been raising the profile of the campaign by our podcast which can be found on the website which was set to support the campaign.

When standing in Princes Street Garden one day I reflected on the fact that there was no female visibility in the public space; no statutes to named women recording things that they had done. I then looked at the Nor Loch, which sits below the castle esplanade where 300 or so people were killed as witches.

Not only is history not properly recording what positive things women do, but their history is also erased by not properly recording their story. I have a particular interest in Scottish legal history and the people who were caught up in accusations of witchcraft so I decided to start a campaign to restore these people, mostly women, to their correct place in history as women and men, not witches.

Between 1563 and 1736, the years when the Witchcraft Act was law, there were 4 relatively defined periods of “satanic panic” which resulted in approximately just shy of 4000 people being accused as witches. As with elsewhere in Europe, the vast majority of those accused, some 85%, were women. Confession to allegations of witchcraft were routinely obtained by torture, both physical and mental. The stripping and pricking of women was common, as was sleep deprivation. Most confessed and that was used as the basis for their conviction. Of all of those 4000, academics estimate that approximately 2500 were executed. The method of execution was by way of strangulation and then burning at the stake. In comparison to elsewhere in Europe, where witch trials also took place, Scotland had approximately 5 times the number of cases than elsewhere in Europe during this time. Alas, at finding and killing witches, we excelled.

The reason for each of the aims is separate but interrelated. Firstly, the aim of getting a pardon is to right, in so far as is now possible, the terrible miscarriage of justice that was suffered by the people who were convicted and executed as witches. It is universally accepted that such allegations and subsequent convictions ought not to have happened. We cannot overturn the convictions, but we can restore these people to history to remember them as people who were so wrongly dealt with by our criminal justice system, and not as witches.

Secondly, the aim of getting an apology is to obtain a public statement of regret for all those who were accused, including those who were not convicted. A pardon can only be granted to those who were convicted, but many had their lives irrevocably damaged by the allegation of witchcraft. Scotland’s most famous accused woman, Lilias Adie was accused of witchcraft and died a month into her remand in custody, most likely having suffered greatly by torture in order to try and obtain a confession. She, and many others deserve acknowledgement and apology.

The third aim is to obtain a national memorial to all those affected by the witchcraft trials; throughout Scotland there are local memorials, raised by people in their area to memorialise women remembered by them. I believe that it is appropriate for a national memorial to be built to remember the history of all the people who were affected and to serve as proper reflection of the story of women and men in Scotland.

In passing the Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) Act 2018, the Scottish Parliament set a precedent for righting historic wrongs and for pardoning those who were convicted of offences, including when those affected were no longer with us, to benefit personally from the pardon. This petition has the same desires.

Recently, the Scottish Parliament stated its intention to pardon miners convicted during the 1984 miners strike. The Justice Minister made it clear that the pardon was to affect not only the living, but those who had died suffering a miscarriage of justice – and the aim of that pardon is to issue a collective and posthumous pardon. Again, the same is sought for those convicted as witches.

The only (muted) criticism which has met the campaign is that what happened to those convicted as witches happened a long time ago, and that there is no need to pardon them or to memorialise them now. We do not think these criticisms bear any great weight. History still records these people as convicted witches – justice demands that this is put right. History should properly reflect what these people were – innocent, vulnerable people, caught up in time where allegations of witchcraft were widespread and deadly. Further, as the Black Lives Matter campaign has shown in particular the response to the removal of statutes, people passionately care that their history is properly recorded and they are properly represented in the world.

Academics have explained that the almost universal rationale for accusations of witchcraft having been and continue to be made against women in particular, is that women, as the weaker sex, would be more susceptible to the devil’s charms. The underlying rationale that women were inferior to men. Alas, women in Scotland and worldwide are still discriminated against – we have not yet achieved parity in many ways including the workplace, in wages etc. Misogyny remains an ever-present issue for women worldwide. Righting this wrong by pardoning and memorialising these women and men would be a mark against such views. As for the view that money could well be spent elsewhere, we do not think that the cost of an apology is significant; the work done in relation to previous pardons provide an immediately transferable template with which to legislate this pardon. Whilst a memorial may be of some cost it is in the most worthwhile cause, to record the history of Scotland’s women and men.

Other countries have, over the years pardoned and/or memorialised those who were convicted of witchcraft, the following list not being an exhaustive one: Salem – who had a total of 19 convictions and executions (15 women, 4 men) have pardoned all those convicted and have a memorial garden which has a bench dedicated to each person who was killed). Norway has the beautiful and haunting large scale memorial in Finmark, which memorialises the 91 people killed as witches there. Germany has a significant number of memorials throughout the country.

The support for the campaign has been significant both at local and at international level. The Witches of Scotland campaign has engaged with groups who have obtained memorials, such as the Witches Trail in Culross. We have engaged in public discussion with the Edinburgh Civic Trust. Through the Witches of Scotland podcast we have reached thousands of people who have listened to the views of academics, writers (notably Sara Sheridan whose book “Where are the Women” inspired that same question in Princes Street Garden), artists who seek to memorialise women killed as witches, filmmakers who want to record the stories of women killed as witches, authors who have highlighted the need for memorialisation. The campaign has generated responses from artists and musicians who have begun their own memorialisation projects. We have significant support from the public online who have commented, shared, liked and listened to our campaign many thousands of times over.

We believe a pardon, apology and memorial are necessary as a reckoning for all those who suffered this terrible miscarriage of justice, and in this belief, we are supported by many.

  • Created by Claire Mitchell QC
  • Date closed 28 November 2022

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