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.
After I first saw the Mystic Fire VHS video copy of the The Witch of Positano in 1999, I went looking for Vali Myers, the Australian artist who lived in Italy and created an animal sanctuary there.
I searched for her landscape through a limoncello haze when I was in Positano at the turn of the century. My notes are scant, road weary. I long to go back.
Her visionary self portraits hit me hard, a dark mirror of a wilder self. In the last two decades she’s become the darling of the witch wave with her photogenic, vagabond style and her various totem animals. She was a Warhol kind of witch, a glamouring sort. Her images multiplied on the internet still ask me why so domesticated? Now we are reflected back to ourselves constantly, it is difficult to imagine what this invention entailed. I wonder what magic was seeded in her self-imaging? It is a thing of lasting power.
My wilful, hennaed hair is been an homage to her.
My newest workshop, Reclaiming Our Monsters, pushes boundaries and clears space for subversive imagination. There are still some spaces left–tickets available at Eventibrite. April 30th, 7pm GMT via Zoom.
This workshop is driven by feminist ideas, reworking the monstrous into new empowering guises. It’s also a way to explore folk horror as a wider genre with space for women and non-binary people.
April 30th is the second Halloween of the witches’ calendar. The veil is thin, the dead walk among us, werewolves are born and all good witches fly to the Brocken.
In films, TV and books I’ve always had sympathy with the demonised feminine. I drank up the power in these images, and it has served me well. Not that I’m older, I realise this was a kind of crone-medicine. The crone embraces a lived duality: she knows what she is, are even if the dominant culture and history says she’s extraneous, voiceless and grotesque.
There is a lot going on in the world right now that is truly monstrous. In times of upheaval and uncertainty, what messages do we amplify and share? What realities do we tend? Writing through disaster capitalism and the death throes of patriarchy isn’t a hobby or pastime, it’s a mode of survival and resistance.
How do we know who we are? Write must it—Write it out like the Cailleach on a night raid with her retinue of the dead. Writing it out like a spell, like a draught of blood.
From where I stand writing may be my only power against the forces of destruction that envelop us. It is the sword I have sharpened over decades in the forge of my own raging intellect, my furious imagination.
Teaching is my vocation. It’s a devotional work for me and something I’ve done in and outside of hallowed halls of academia and on the streets and in community centres. I’m thrilled that technology, though far from perfect, allows me to teach others online across the world.
In this two hour workshop we’ll explore the monstrous through an intimate, personal perspective. We’ll embrace the persona of the outsider, the not-quite-human, using subversive world-building, and writing through the eyes of the cursed, the spellbound, the exiled. You’ll need pen, paper and a six sided dice. Join us!
I longed for an authentic glimpse of the women executed for witchcraft hundreds of years ago, and I went out into the landscape to meet them. Their voices and lives became braided with my own in moving and unexpected ways. I’m excited that Sceptre will bring this humanising perspective on the accused to a wider audience.’–Allyson Shaw
The day after Nicola Sturgeon issued a formal apology for those accused of witchcraft in Scotland, Sceptre has publicised the press release for my book on the same topic. It is wonderful timing. Sturgeon’s apology is healing not only the past but present and future misogyny. I am moved to tears and so proud to be Scottish right now.
From the Ashes and Stones trade announcement:
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.
Allyson Shaw untangles the myth of witchcraft and gives voice to those erased by it. Her elegant and lucid prose weaves threads of history and feminist reclamation, alongside beautiful travel, nature and memoir writing, to create a vibrant memorial. This is the untold story of the witches’ monuments of Scotland and the women’s lives they mark. Ashes and Stones is a trove of folklore linking the lives of modern women to the horrors of the past, and it is record of resilience and a call to choose and remember our ancestors.
Charlotte Humphery, Senior Commissioning Editor at Sceptre, who is working with Francine Toon’s authors while Toon is on parental leave, says: ‘Ashes and Stones is a beautiful exploration of a dark history that is often forgotten or trivialised. Thousands of women were murdered by state forces during the witch hunts and Allyson Shaw revives some of these women – through historical records, physical presence and informed imagination – with tenderness and compassion. In this book, she has created her own memorial that is rich with magic of folk lore and the power of the Scottish landscape and resonant with the politics of today. We are delighted to be publishing this brilliant and important book.’