Remembering the ‘Witches’
‘Morgan the Witch.’ It is perhaps what Morgan le Fay is most famous for being, cementing her role as Arthur’s nemesis. The term ‘witch’, unlike its male equivalent ‘wizard’, is still to this day used as a pejorative term, something to hate and fear, and weaponised especially against powerful women. In the US election of 2016, Hillary Clinton was depicted on social media in a black pointy hat and riding a broomstick, or with green skin and cackling. Julia Gillard, the first woman prime minister of Australia, was greeted by opposing crowds shouting, “Ditch the witch.” Throughout history, ‘witch’ has been weaponised against women who transgress patriarchal social norms, who seek power and influence on an equal level to men, who do not conform, or who their community simply does not like and turns against.
In Scotland, where I live, around 2,500 women were tortured and suffered terrible deaths by being burned at the stake after accusations of witchcraft. Among these was Lilias Adie, from Torryburn in Fife. She only confessed to being a witch after prolonged interrogation and torture, and died in prison in 1704 before her sentence could be carried out. As a witch, she could not be buried in consecrated ground, so she was buried by the sea; hers is the only known condemned witch’s grave in Scotland. In the Highlands of the 18th century, belief in witches and fairies and the supernatural was widespread. It was believed that children who were sickly or born with disabilities were changelings: fairy babies who had been exchanged for stolen human babies. Such children would be thrown on the fire to establish whether or not they were human or fairy, or they would be abandoned in the woods or the wilderness or by the sea.
It seems almost certain that the tragic tale of the last woman to be burned as a witch in Scotland was linked to the belief in changelings. Her real name has been lost to history: she is known only as Janet Horne, the Scottish equivalent of ‘Jane Doe.’ She was from Dornoch in Sutherland, my home county, and was murdered in 1727. As an old woman, she suffered from what we recognise now as dementia and her daughter’s hand was withered. Janet was accused of trying to transform her daughter into a horse, having her shod by the Devil, and riding her until she was lame. Heartbreakingly, a contemporary account quotes the frail and confused Janet as saying, “I’ve tried to lead a good life, but my people are strangers to me now. My girl has a twisted hand and they whisper terrible things about us. Why do they hate us so?”
Somehow Janet’s daughter managed to escape, but Janet was stripped naked, covered in tar, and paraded through the streets of Dornoch in a barrel. When she arrived at her execution place, she is said to have smiled and tried to warm herself by the fire that consumed her. Janet’s daughter is thought to have survived and to have had children of her own, including a son who shared her disability, but her name and how she escaped are also lost in the mists of time. The spot on which Janet was murdered is marked by a single, sad-looking stone, which bears the wrong year in which she was killed: the Witch’s Stone of Dornoch states it was 1722 instead of 1727. In 1735, eight years after Janet’s death, it finally became illegal to execute anyone for witchcraft in Scotland and England.
So much of women’s history has gone unrecorded and has been lost to us. To mark Women’s History Month, it is important to honour and commemorate the tens of thousands of women across Europe who were murdered after being accused as witches. In 2020, a campaign was launched in Scotland for a pardon to be granted and an apology to be issued to the 2,500 women who died, and a national memorial to be created to acknowledge what the campaign’s founder, Claire Mitchell QC, describes as “one of the most horrible miscarriages of justice in Scottish history.” On 8th March, 2022, on International Women’s Day, in an address to the Scottish Parliament, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon formally apologised to the women and men of Scotland convicted under the Witchcraft Act from 1563 to 1735.
However, while Europe is now free of witch-hunts, in other parts of the world this horror has not gone away. According to Cali White, curator of the Lancaster exhibition I Am Witch, there are still 36 countries in the world where witch-hunts take place, and thousands of women and men are tortured and killed every year. There is still a lot of work to do. But, despite its negative connotations, many women – elderly, middle-aged and young alike – are now reclaiming the word ‘witch’ as a positive term, and a source of female power, resistance, and knowledge. We are the granddaughters of the witches you could not burn.