Edinburgh friends! Join me at Edinburgh launch for Ashes and Stones at the wonderful Lighthouse Books. I’m overjoyed & honoured to be hosted by Edinburgh’s radical bookshop—an ally to so many communities. 15 February, 7pm. Ticketing information at the Lighthouse Books Website.
For thirty years I have worked in ritual, built altars of words, objects and spaces. I’ve lived by the moon and tides, though I wasn’t always a witch—the word was not there for me to use; it wasn’t something that occurred to me until years later when I embraced the moniker as one of feminist subversion.
It’s October, crone-season, and the 18th is World Menopause Day. Halloween, or Samhain is hot on its heels. The 31st is the witches’ New Year, and as nights grow longer, their attendant twilight will surround us as the veil between the living and the dead thins. It’s a liminal time, as is the menopause, sometimes called “the change.” Winter is coming, and with it, the season of the Cailleach, the Celtic creatrix. This time of year, the Cailleach, the Crone—the archetype of the old woman and the spirit of the land as winter personified, will visit the underworld, carrying with her what we no longer need in that ash-darkened creel on her back.
Now, I am that woman. She is beginning to surface on my own face and hands. My grandmother lived to 96, and I saw her intricately lined face as beyond beautiful. I embrace images of the old woman archetype, marked by her long life, her eyes bright with life force, even while they might be clouded with the blindness of age. The white plait down her back is a trophy of her years. She among all others is privileged with uncountable memories.
While this spiritual notion gives my path of ageing depth and meaning, there is the reality of ageism in this culture, of invisibility and disregard as well as a very real legacy of hatred towards older women, institutionalised in the witch hunts of the 17th century. I have spent the last five years writing about this history, which will now be a book, Ashes & Stones, published by Sceptre/Hodder & Stoughton in January 2023.
Beyond the historical and personal erasure of older women, there is also the daily struggle to access medical care, and the very real symptoms of peri-menopause that for me are nothing less than disabling. I’m 53 and am in what is called peri-menopause, the undefined period of life before menopause, which comes once you have not had a period for a year.
I have fibromyalgia, arthritis, anxiety, depression, and have had suicidal ideation as a survivor of trauma with PTSD. All these things became much worse in my mid 40s, but no medical professional ever mentioned peri-menopause. My friend and dance mentor, Carolena Nericcio, asked me—do you think you are peri-menopausal? I had never heard the word before! No one in my family ever talked about menopause.
Before I had access to HRT, I was severely disabled by pain, depression and anxiety
In my late teens, my boss in the San Fransisco State University Library periodicals department answered some of my questions. It’s fair to say I loved this woman and felt from her a deep protection no one else until that point had given me. She had long, mousey grey hair parted in the middle that she would swing over her shoulder for emphasis. She wore clogs and laughed with all her teeth showing—even the wires of the bridge holding them in place. Her ambling gait made her look like she was always dancing, her straight curtain of hair swinging from side to side down her back. I don’t know how we got talking about the menopause. She was, in many ways, the closest person I had during those troubled years. During the massive earthquake in 1989, we held each other in the doorway of her office, watching the book stacks fall like dominos, people running out from between them, screaming. I cried, and she reassured me it would be ok. She had no idea if that were true, but in that moment it needed saying. She was brave like that, and when we talked about menopause she said, “you just ride it through and it stops.” Maybe a bit like that earthquake–she didn’t need hormone replacement therapy, and my 19 year old self decided at the time that neither would I.
Over the years, I’ve tried to get appointments with my GP to talk about options for dealing with peri-menopause. Every time I brought it up in the past— do you think my pain, depression, hot flashes, chronic yeast infections, UTIs and low mood are peri-menopause? I would get the brush off. Instead, I have been prescribed three different antidepressants. One shut down my brain and body to the point where I was bedridden and, terrifyingly unable to make the decision to go off it. It was essentially a chemical lobotomy. I have refused to take the latest pill prescribed to me, affirming my status as a ‘difficult patient.’ All the NHS offers me now are antidepressants and a rest cure called “pacing” wrapped in a patronising guise of “mindfulness” and “self care”— the blanket and mug of tea as an answer to debilitating chronic illness and peri-menopause.
I began to research, reading good advise on the Reddit Menopause Community—what to ask for, what myths persist in the NHS, and how to insist on your needs. I pursued the HRT idea. I wondered what if there was a therapy I could try safely? Eventually, I was given a phone appointment with a locum (temp) GP who was so uncomfortable with the idea of menopause, he simply couldn’t talk about it. I asked the locum doctor to refer me to the menopause clinic in Aberdeen. He’d never heard of it and didn’t even know there was such a thing. I had to give him the address and information.
While I waited for my appointment with a specialist clinic in the NHS, I had this sinking feeling it would be months, perhaps years, before I saw someone. (I had been on the waiting list for rheumatology for over a year.) I had some savings and I spent it on a private consultation with a menopause specialist. As I waited for an appointment with her (weeks instead of months or years), I, like everyone else of a certain age, watched the Davina truth bomb documentary about menopause. That was in May 2022. I read with dismay the dismissive way the press treated the overwhelming response to the show. They presented menopausal women as trend followers who now sought HRT as some kind of “youth-boosting” fad rather than a legitimate healthcare option.
The private specialist prescribed oestrogen/progesterone patches for me and vaginal oestrogen pessaries. This doctor listened to me, saying the overwhelming majority of women she sees have a similar story to my own, and almost all have been put on at least one antidepressant rather than being prescribed HRT.
Before I had access to HRT, I was severely disabled by pain, depression and anxiety. Every morning it was as if I were hit by a truck, all my confidence and sense of self eroded with the sheer wall of pain and depression engulfing me. Chronic yeast infections and UTIs compounded the misery of it all.
I have been on HRT for four months and my life is utterly changed. Within a day on the patch, I could get up in the morning, make decisions, go for a walk, even. The pain and low mood are still here, but they no longer consume me. I have enough spoons to strategise and plan around them. It was, in short, life changing.
In Scots, an attitude of this sort is called smeddum, and during the witch hunts it was damning. Smeddum means drive, resilience, “vigorous common sense” and resourcefulness—true grit.
Looking back at my writing a book while in this state of suffering seems beyond belief, yet my own ordeal was my link to those accused of witchcraft in the 17th century. Writing about women’s tribulations in a culture that deliberately disbelieves women’s pain gave meaning to the meaningless anguish I faced daily in my own life as well as the women’s lives I researched.
A couple of years ago, I saw the rheumatologist I’d been waiting to see for over a year. When I finally was in front of him for ten minutes he told me that I needed to go back on the pills that laid me low. Before summarily discharging me, he said my suffering was down to ‘my bad attitude.’ In Scots, an attitude of this sort is called smeddum, and during the witch hunts it was damning. Smeddum means drive, resilience, “vigorous common sense”* and resourcefulness—true grit.
talk openly about menopause with everyone. Let it become normal, an everyday thing.
I have smeddum in spades; I write every day, run workshops and continue to live on the earnings from my handmade jewellery business. I survive—financially and spiritually, yet the constant pain and struggle to access care, to be heard, has taken its toll. I am broken in a way I shouldn’t be. Five months from the initial referral, I am still waiting for the NHS menopause clinic appointment.
If you have read this far, I would ask one thing—that you talk openly about menopause with everyone. Let it become normal, an everyday thing. Listen to middle aged women and ask them about their journey through the change. Advocate for them, and take them seriously. Men can be menopausal, too—this is not just about gender, but a complex picture of oestrogen’s role in our minds, hearts and bodies. If you are on this path—here is my hand. Take it. We have prevailed.
- Dictionary of the Scots Language Online https://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/smeddum
I’m so pleased to share the gorgeous cover design for Ashes and Stones by Natalie Chen. The illustrator is Iain MacArthur.
‘It’s summer. I stand where perhaps Ellen stood, in this ground thick with new thistle and long grass. She would have ken this coast in all weathers: in the summer when it was as gentle as a lake and in the winter, with the high winds and stinging salt spray.’
Ashes and Stones is a moving and personal journey, along rugged coasts and through remote villages and modern cities, in search of the traces of those accused of witchcraft in seventeenth-century Scotland. We visit modern memorials, roadside shrines and standing stones, and roam among forests and hedge mazes, folk lore and political fantasies. From fairy hills to forgotten caves, we explore a spellbound landscape.
Out 19 January, 2023. Preorder Now:
Join my Patreon as a Valiant Witness and receive a signed copy of Ashes & Stones. I ship worldwide.
Saturday, 10 September 2022, 7pm GMT online via Zoom. Tickets via eventbrite. Free.
Toil, trouble and tomes: two witches in conversation about difficult history, custodianship, and magic.
Carolee Harrison and Allyson Shaw in conversation discussing what it’s like to be the keeper of difficult books, specifically an original 1490 copy of the infamous witch-hunting manual, Malleus Maleficarum, or the Hammer of Witches, in the Portland State University Library. We’ll talk about the fascinating history of this five hundred year old edition of this book on witch hunting and what it can tell us about the current ‘witch craze’, our responsibilities as custodians of the history of witch hunting, and how this history informs our identities as witches today.
Carloee Harrison is a steward and conservator of Portland State University’s rare book collection and a sister-witch. Her work with Malleus Malificium involves making it publicly available for research as well as preserving and protecting it.
Allyson Shaw’s creative nonfiction book on the Scottish witch-hunts, Ashes and Stones: a Scottish journey in search of witches & witness, will be published by Sceptre, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, in January 2023. She’s a witch and independent researcher. Long ago and far away she worked in many libraries as a humble page, and her love of libraries is unbounded.
A workshop exploring the story of Tarot as a prompt and informant to our writing process and our personal narrative
August 20, 2022 7pm BST online via Zoom. £25. Book your place now.
In this two hour workshop we will use the iconography of the tarot’s major arcana as prompts to memory and personal narrative.
You don’t need to know how to read tarot to participate, but those who do work with tarot will find a new way to use your insights with this divination tool to broaden and deepen your writing.
I have thirty years of experience working with tarot. As a child, my first conversations with the cards were as a mysterious game. In this workshop we will rekindle a bit of this wonder as we delve into our pasts on the page.
This workshop is a safe space for women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ people. While we may discuss our writing process, any sharing of our written work will be voluntary.
At the end of the workshop you will have sketched out a short piece of memoir writing with a plan for development and revision.
You will need paper and pen, or something to input text. The major arcana cards from a personal tarot deck is optional—an online deck is available here. https://randomtarotcard.com
Allyson Shaw brings ten years of experience teaching writing at University of California and city colleges in the USA. She has delivered numerous community based workshops throughout her career, including online workshops for the Taibhsear Collective. Recent publications include Fireside Quarterly, Rituals and Declarations, and Fiddlers Green. Her creative nonfiction book, Ashes and Stones: a Scottish journey in search for witches and witness, will be published by Sceptre, the literary imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, in January 2023.
On Friday 24 June 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade—making a human right into a crime. The legal precedent for the catastrophic decision has witch hunting at its heart. The leaked Alito document circulated on 10 February, 2022 was unaltered in the final decisions. I have looked at this chilling statement setting out rights to the ‘unborn.’ Alito refers to two treatise from 1673 by a 17th century barrister and judge, Matthew Hale. Hale’s misogynist views may be part of early modernity but they have no place in a contemporary legal argument. Hale believed that rape within marriage was not a criminal act. He was also a judge at the witch trials of Bury St. Edmunds, condemning at least two women to be executed for witchcraft
The wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth has employed a legal argument from a witch hunter to justify this attack on women’s rights. This is not just shades of Atwood’s Gilead coming to pass, this is history repeating.
Coming of age in the USA, I never took my ability to access safe and legal abortion for granted. But as a teenager, I had no such illusions that I would be able to afford or access an abortion, despite being a survivor of sexual violence. It was a harrowing, vulnerable time for me, an experience I know millions of girls have faced and are currently enduring. In the US, the loss of this fundamental right will mean millions more will suffer and die trying access safe abortion.
The wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth has employed a legal argument from a witch hunter to justify this attack on women’s rights. This is not just shades of Atwood’s Gilead coming to pass, this is history repeating.
Rape is the most under reported crime in the world, with statistics varying widely— as many as one in five women will be raped in her lifetime, perhaps more. The repeal of Roe vs. Wade will affect the survivors in life threatening and traumatic ways. Women of colour, the young, vulnerable and poor won’t have the resources to find other ways to access healthcare.
Birth control is not 100% effective. Abortion allows women to control their lives and fates, to create a human being when they will be able to care for them, when the child will be wanted and welcome.
Never Again. I can’t believe that a new generation of young women will have to become acquainted with the horror of this human rights slogan, coupled with the image of a wire hanger from the years before abortion was legal. The terrible black and white photos of women bleeding out, dying alone after they had been butchered will circulate again–no longer artifacts of a backwards time but evidence of the very real danger of back alley abortions.
In the late 80s and early 90s I was an abortion rights activist and clinic defence volunteer. I have faced down zealots who threatened and cursed me in between prayers for the mythical ‘preborn.’ Sleep deprived, adrenaline filled, and indoctrinated with wild notions of evil women murdering babies, these men fuelled their holy war with hatred. They were terrifying, yet we stood our ground.
Many British folks I’ve spoken to think with relief, at least it isn’t us—we are above such things, yet abortion has not yet been decriminalised in Scotland. Consider the ramifications of the USA, this superpower of a nation, the global epicentre of cultural and tech production, the seat of multinational capital—carving out a vision of the future where women do not matter. The US is now a place where a few unelected, robed individuals take aim at the many of the gains made in the last 100 years that made the country and the world safer for women and queer folk. To quote Angela Davis, “If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the night.” They are coming. The extreme right have an agenda and an entrenched, powerful cabal to do their bidding. They have come for women’s bodies and will come for queer rights next. Our struggles are inextricably linked.
When I set out to write this book on the witch hunts in Scotland, I was not thinking of that formative moment in my life as an abortion rights activist on the front lines where I faced an army of misogynists who believed God was on their side. I was only thinking of the dead, and the monuments all over Scotland that kept insisting I write, remember, and try to set the record straight. I didn’t realise that the atrocities I researched and recorded over the last five years would have a terrible resemblance to the Christian right wing in the US and their power centre in the Supreme Court. Then, as now, the marriage of church and state proves deadly for women, indigenous peoples and queer folk.
In the late 80s, I had friends who prepared for this eventuality that has come to pass. This was before the morning after pill was available, and access to abortion was costly. We were considering herbs and alternatives, building networks that could transport women to places where they could get a safe abortion, and donating and fundraising for these things. This is still happening, even after I am no longer in the US. Here is a wonderful list from my favourite astrologer (I don’t believe in astrology, but if you read Brezsny you will know how fascinating his horoscopes are.)
My book, Ashes and Stones, out from Sceptre in the UK in January 2023.
on the Church of Scotland Apology to those Accused of Witchcraft
When I began writing about this history over four years ago, an apology from the church seemed an impossibility. Very few people were openly discussing this history, save academics and ghost hunters. The work for a pardon hadn’t yet begun, and the idea of a national monument had been discussed and abandoned several years earlier before being picked up again.
The Church intends to apologise, and this comes on the back of the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s historic apology to the accused on International Women’s Day this year.
At the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly at the end of May, the elders voted unanimously in favour of a motion for a formal apology to those accused of witchcraft. The motion was put forward by Rev Prof Susan Hardman Moore in conjunction with a paper written by Professor Glen Pettigrove for the theological forum in response to a request from Remembering the Accused Witches of Scotland. The paper, “Apologising for Historic Wrongs,” begins by focusing on Jesus’ teachings of about anger and reconciliation and then summarises opposing arguments by putting forth a series of hypothetical objections that perhaps reflect the intellectual resistance those in favour of an apology have met—for instance, a historical, group apology does not accept personal responsibility for past wrongs but instead stands in solidarity with the victims. It argues that an apology could impose modern ideas on the history of the witch hunts, and witch hunters were doing their best despite their mistaken ideas. “Surely it is unfair to blame them for piety, patriotic loyalty, or benevolent concern for public welfare.” I would argue that many at the time did not see the actions of the church as pious or benevolent, and even when modern scepticism entered the dialogue in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, witch hunting continued in Scotland.
The current church is not the same entity as the Church of Scotland in the 16th-18th centuries. It is product of schisms and mergers and is a different organisation than the historical Church that conducted witch hunts. Yet church services are conducted in buildings that still have jougs, or iron neck rings, attached, ‘witches rings’ used to chain the accused to the church wall or steeples where women were imprisoned while being interrogated. Scripture used to kill thousands is still part of the sacred text used in worship. In the eyes of many Scots, including myself, the contemporary church is tainted by the terrible injustices in its larger history, regardless of the specifics of the organisation.
The paper goes on to present a persuasive argument about reconciliation and neighbourliness.
For many within our community, when [our neighbours] think of the church they think of an organisation with a history of bad behaviour: they think of racism, sexism, homophobia, greed, hypocrisy, inquisitions, witch-hunts, crusades, religious bigotry, sectarianism, social exclusion, child abuse cover-ups, complicity with imperialism, siding with the powerful against the vulnerable, and the like. They think of our worst qualities at our worst moments. And given how bad we have been at those moments – and how imperfect we remain even at our best – they quite reasonably have something against us.Professor Glen Pettigrove , Theological Forum. “Apologising for Historic Wrongs”
The paper concludes, “it is possible to stand in solidarity with the victims and affirm current community standards even if we have not determined who all the bad actors were, what motivated them, and whether they should have known better.” The apology also becomes an invitation to self-scrutiny and vigilance—a commitment to making sure past wrongs are not repeated.
I will be curious to see what the final language of the apology will be and just how much clarity there is in it, yet the impulse is there and it’s a huge shift. It matters deeply to me. What does it mean to contemporary Scots or Christians alienated from the church? While I have entered into churches over the past twenty years to observe art, architecture or relics, I have not gone in to worship. Yet as a child and young woman I was a devout Christian. I read the Bible regularly and sought out the teachings of Jesus, wondering what was most authentic in the Bible. I read the Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalen and began to question the assumptions Christians made about the “word of God.” My early poems—where my life began as a professional writer— were part of this interrogation. I attended a church in California that had many queer people like myself in it. I would sit during the service and weep. Back then, I thought perhaps they were holy tears, and now I wonder if it was ancestral trauma, a deep understanding that historically these Christian words and ideas had been used to kill thousands.
What was I doing there? The more I found out about the church’s history, the less I felt I could embrace any Christian teachings. I left, but I kept looking back. Why can’t you make this right, I wondered whenever I would pass a particularly quaint little chapel or a TRY PRAYING billboard.
As I researched and travelled around Scotland while writing Ashes and Stones: a Scottish journey in search of witches and witness, I was amazed at the role the church played in this machine of mass death. But what I also found were voices and acts of resistance to this policy of women-killing. In the 16th-18th centuries, this belief in satanic bargains and women’s moral weakness was not ubiquitous even within the church. It’s important to acknowledge that the witch hunts were not just a product of an unenlightened past but of a horrifying abuse of power, a cynical consolidation of patriarchal beliefs and a stamping out of a certain animistic spirituality that resisted church control. Yet there were many who subverted this in their own ways.
This solidarity with the accused continues into the present with Scottish people maintaining, updating and creating memorials—sometimes in private, under cover of darkness or without any institutional support. These stories are part of the book I have just finished writing.
The imminent apology has left me to wonder if I would ever enter a church again to pray and worship. Would I be welcome and what or who would receive my prayers?
I just read that Elspeth Barker died last month, and I’m still recovering from the perfection of her only novel, O Caledonia. Heartbreaking and hilarious—why had no one ever told me about it before? I recognise Janet, the ill-fated protagonist, as myself. I see vividly in this book the enchanted, cursed landscape of Northeast Scotland and the steely, unforgiving nature of this place. I have never read a book that was written with the delicious precision of language—words with the power to summon a place and time as if the reader is living it beside the writer and the people, animals and land of the book. This is no hyperbole—Barker was a sorceress.
I’m writing to you on International Monuments and Sites Day. It’s true there is a day for everything, but when you’ve spent the last four years exploring and recording neglected or missing monuments, this moment seems significant. International Council on Monuments and Sites along with UNESCO chooses a theme each year. 2022 is ‘Heritage and Climate.’
There are events planned all over the world, but not in Scotland. I wonder what would Heritage and Climate mean to Scottish Heritage? The very same forces that have destroyed archeological sites or left them vulnerable are the same forces of myopic capitalist greed that is destroying the earth.
Much of my research has focused on carlin stones or sites with ‘witch attribution.’ Carlin means ‘old woman’ in Scots, but can also mean witch. The two meanings occlude each other. These unremarkable places in the landscape are complex cultural sites. They are often stones on private land. Some carlin stones have scars of holes where dynamite was to be inserted, yet they survive. Others were blown up or buried, their stories forgotten. The carlin or witch stones that survive are the last receptacles of stories, the stand-ins for monuments to atrocity where there are none.
What might it mean for Scotland to claim these places, trespassing on private land if need be, on this International day? Might we dress our stones with flowers and song, crystal grids made with found quartz and pebbles? Could we pour over them water from a sacred well? On this day, let’s bring back pilgrimage to these places. Sacred sites are everywhere. Where is your closest carlin stone, sacred well or place of great mystery? These need not be part of the official ‘Heritage’ collection of real estate, and it probably isn’t. No doubt you can walk to it, even if you have to cross that liminal boundary of public and private land. If you don’t know of a site that close, find one, claim it and know it. Tell its stories. Share them we me, us. I want to hear them.
This process of reclamation was a large part of my upcoming book Ashes and Stones: A Scottish Journey of Witches and Witness, out from Sceptre in January 2023. I travelled the length and breadth of Scotland looking for the witch in the Scottish landscape, and the places we share with those killed during the hunts—the places that were once claimed by the dead.
A short video of my journey across Scotland researching memorials to those accused of witchcraft is below.