Thousands of Scots convicted of witchcraft could be posthumously pardoned if a new bill proposed by an MSP becomes law.
Natalie Don, the SNP MSP for Renfrewshire North and West, has launched a consultation on a member’s bill to “right the historic wrong of witchcraft convictions” and give legal pardons to those convicted almost 300 years ago.
It comes after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon apologised on International Women’s Day in March to those convicted, vilified or executed under the Witchcraft 1563 Act.
Around 4,000 Scots are estimated to have been accused of the crime, which was in law until 1736, with around 85% of those convicted being women.
Campaigners have been fighting to secure a legal pardon for around 200 years for the approximately 2,500 people convicted of breaking the law.
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- Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis Accused of witchcraft by her brother King James V, as part of a vendetta against his family, she was arrested on trumped up charges. People close to her were tortured to extract “evidence” and on 17 July 1537 Janet was burned alive on Castle Hill, Edinburgh, with her young son forced to watch.
- Helen Duncan (1897-1956) The last Scot to be tried under the 1735 Witchcraft Act, Duncan was notorious as a schoolgirl for her dark premonitions. Later she claimed she could summon spirits by emitting ectoplasm from her mouth, but was exposed and convicted as a fraud. In 1941 Duncan held a seance in which a dead sailor told her HMS Barham had been sunk. Because this information had not been released to the public Duncan was arrested and imprisoned, for falsely claiming to procure spirits.
- The Bo’ness Witches In 1679 Annabel Thomson, Margaret Pringle, Margaret Hamilton, William Craw, Bessie Yickar and another Margaret Hamilton were detained in the tollbooth at Borrowstounness on charges of witchcraft. It was alleged that they had all renounced their baptisms and eaten, drunk, danced and fornicated with the devil on numerous occasions. They were all found guilty and strangled at the stake.
- Janet Horne Accused of being a witch in 1727, Janet Horne was the last person in the British Isles to be executed for witchcraft. When Horne and her daughter were arrested in Dornoch, after being accused of being witches by their neighbours, she was showing signs of senility. After a hasty trial they were both found guilty. Whilst her daughter managed to escape, the old woman was stripped, smeared with tar, paraded through the town on a barrel and burned alive.
- Isobel Gowdie In 1662 Isobel Gowdie, a housewife from Lochloy, Nairn, was executed after freely confessing – without being tortured, which was usual for the time – to being part of a coven of 13 that feasted with the Queen of the Fairies and also had the ability to transform into animals. She also claimed to have killed a man with elf-arrows and to have been raped and beaten by the Devil. Gowdie’s testimony is considered to be the most exceptional ever given by a witchcraft suspect in Britain.
- The Witches from Macbeth “Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” Shakespeare’s witches predict Macbeth’s rise to king and his eventual downfall. They were probably based on a chronicle of Britain written in 1587, in which Macbeth and Banquo encounter ‘three women in strange and wild apparel’, believed to be Weird Sisters, ‘goddesses of destiny’.
Ms Don said: “The recent formal apology from the first minister on International Women’s Day was welcomed by campaigners in Scotland and recognised around the world as a statement of intent.
“It was a powerful and incredibly important first step in righting the historic wrong of ‘witchcraft’ accusations, arrests, and executions.
“My member’s bill will hopefully be the next step towards that and, if passed, it will make clear that the people convicted of witchcraft all those years ago should never have faced the injustice of being labelled as criminals.
“By issuing official pardons for all those convicted of witchcraft, we will be sending a strong message to the wide world – some parts of which, women still face prosecution for being accused of witchcraft – that Scotland recognises what happened to these people as a deplorable miscarriage of justice.
“It is also about influencing the gendered and patriarchal attitudes which, unfortunately, still exists in our society today – and making it clear that Scotland does not tolerate discrimination in any way.”
The Witches of Scotland campaign group said: “We are absolutely delighted to see Natalie Don’s bill reach this stage and are hopeful that this will bring about some posthumous justice to the thousands of people who were executed by the state during the witch hunts.
“This will also signal to other countries around the world where accusations of witchcraft are a very real and current issue that this is not acceptable in the modern day.”