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Scottish witches may receive pardon

  

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CAMPAIGNERS have said that a public apology to those accused of witchcraft – some of whom were natural psychics or healers – between the 16th and 18th centuries would send a powerful symbolic signal.

CLAIRE MITCHELL QC: “What happened to these people was a terrible miscarriage of justice.” (Photo: Witches of Scotland Podcast/Facebook)

  

CLAIRE MITCHELL QC: “What happened to these people
was a terrible miscarriage of justice.”
(Photo: Witches of Scotland Podcast/Facebook)

“They said a statement from the Scottish government would help to right a terrible wrong from Scotland’s past,” said David Cowan, Home affairs correspondent for BBC Scotland.

“It would also send an important message to countries where witch hunts still take place today.”

The Witches of Scotland campaign wants Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to make a statement on International Women’s Day next month.

“The campaign, which was launched two years ago, is trying to secure a legal pardon for the estimated 2,500 people, mainly women, who were convicted and executed under Scotland’s Witchcraft Act,” said Mr Cowan.

“It is thought that 4,000 Scots were accused of breaking the law, which was in force from 1563 until 1736. About 85 per cent were women.

“Witch hunts took place in many countries during that period, but academics say Scotland’s execution rate was five times the European average.

“Confessions were secured under torture. The condemned person was strangled and their body burnt.”

Claire Mitchell QC, co-founder of Witches of Scotland, said a public apology would be an important first step towards making amends.

“We’re seeking a pardon for all of those convicted of witchcraft, an apology for all of those accused and a national memorial, so we can remember what happened in the past,” said Ms Mitchell.

THIS illustration from a mid-19th century book shows a so-called witch being burnt at the stake.  (Photo: Robert Benner on Flikr)    

THIS illustration from a mid-19th century book shows
a so-called witch being burnt at the stake.
(Photo: Robert Benner on Flikr)
 

“We’re going to ask the Scottish government on this International Women’s Day to make it clear that they accept what happened to these people was a terrible miscarriage of justice and to apologise on behalf of the people of Scotland.

“We think it would be important if Scotland stands up and says, ‘We accept what happened was wrong.’ That would send out a powerful signal and hopefully help others.”

Ms Mitchell said witchcraft trials were still happening around the world and becoming more frequent because of the pandemic.

David Cowan said the campaign was being backed by Nigerian human rights activist Leo Igwe, who campaigns against modern day witch hunts in Africa.

“What happened in Scotland hundreds of years ago is happening now in many parts of Africa,” he said.

“People are accused of witchcraft when there are misfortunes in their families – sudden deaths, accidents and other tragic, unfortunate experiences such as loss of a child, divorce and marital difficulties.

“People accuse most often vulnerable members of their family, mainly women, sometimes children and people with disabilities. They say they caused these misfortunes through magical means.”

LEO IGWE: “People are accused of witchcraft when there are misfortunes in their families.”  (Photo: Carissanv)

  

CLEO IGWE: “People are accused of witchcraft
when there are misfortunes in their families.”
(Photo: Carissanv)

Mr Igwe said such accusations came with serious consequences including lynching, mob attack and beheading. He added that the Scottish campaign would send a message to those responsible for such acts, as well as giving hope to the accused.

“It will,” he ended, “send a message to our politicians who are enabling the persecution of witches through their action or inaction.”

Natalie Don, a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP), is planning to put forward a private members’ bill to win a pardon for those convicted under the Witchcraft Act.

Ms Don she had the support of her Scottish National Party colleagues, meaning that the bill would only require the votes of a small number of opposition MSPs to become law.

“It’s essentially admitting that this wasn’t a criminal act and that these people shouldn’t go down in history as criminals,” she said. “They should be given a posthumous pardon.

“The really positive messages I’ve had shows that this is important to a lot of people. It’s symbolic and could be really important going forward at home and internationally.”

Historian and author Prof Sir Tom Devine supports a pardon, but questions the relevance of an apology. He commented:

“I am not convinced of the merits of an apology for the obvious reason that what happened to those poor folk was not in any way the responsibility of Scottish people living in 2022.

Natalie Don MSP, is planning to put forward a private members’ bill to win a pardon for those convicted under the Witchcraft Act. (Photo: Facebook)    

Natalie Don MSP, is planning to put forward a private
members’ bill to win a pardon for those convicted
under the Witchcraft Act.
(Photo: Facebook)

“Pardoning has more attractions, but also with some difficulties. What convinces me, however, is that most of those found guilty in Scotland gave ‘confessions’ delivered under torture.

“There is also legal precedent for a pardon. Those executed after the infamous Salem witch trials in the USA were declared innocent under Massachusetts state law in 2001.”

A spokesman for the Scottish government said it acknowledged that those accused and convicted of the offence of witchcraft, the majority of whom were women, faced discrimination and had very little protection in law.

“We will,” he added, “carefully consider any proposal for a Members’ Bill in this area.”

On a different website, Cali White, a psychotherapist from West Sussex, cited the case of Geillis Duncan, a Scottish maidservant.

“At a time before GP surgeries and the NHS,” said Ms White, “people were responsible for their own health decisions and might have consulted a local Cunning Woman who used herbs and intention or magic to create healing potions.

“These were often the women targeted as witches, like Geillis Duncan, a maidservant in Scotland, accused of witchcraft by her magistrate employer in 1590.

Scottish medium Helen Duncan was one of the last people convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1735. (File photo)

  

Scottish medium Helen Duncan was
one of the last people convicted
under the Witchcraft Act 1735.
(File photo)

“Known to have had a reputation as a healer, Geillis’ brutal torture sparked the North Berwick witch hunts in which 70 people were tried for witchcraft. Healing and plant knowledge became a dangerous occupation.”

In England, as late as 1944 famous Scottish medium Helen Duncan was one of the last people convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1735, which made falsely claiming to procure spirits a crime.

Sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment, when she was convicted, Helen cried out: “I have done nothing; is there a God?”

Helen was the last person to be jailed under the act, which was repealed by the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, which gave Spiritualism legal status. This followed a campaign by Spiritualist MP Thomas Brooks.

Born in 1897 in Callander, Perthshire, Helen toured Britain giving materialisation séances. She passed on in 1956 aged 59 in Edinburgh.

 

 


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