RIP Elspeth Barker

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. 

Reclaiming the sacred on International Monuments day

Sign added to the Forres Witches Stone

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. 

My local carlin stone in Fortrie.

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.

Ashes and Stones to be published by Sceptre in January 2023

Excerpt from Nicola Sturgeon’s speech on International Women’s Day

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.’

Headline from the Bookseller

Reclaiming Our monsters: A writing workshop

Online via Zoom, April 30th, 7pm gmt Tickets are £25 available from Eventbrite

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. 

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. 

Let’s celebrate and write stories together. 

For this workshop you’ll need a pen, paper and a six sided die. 

 This workshop is driven by feminist ideas, reworking the monstrous into new empowering guises—but also a way to explore folk horror as a wider genre with space for women and non binary people. Every workshop I design is an offering of community, creative fuel and fire to the writers and makers around me. And this one is GONNA BE HELLA FUN. 

Enroll now.

Writing Yourself Home: a masterclass

My next writing workshop will be on Sunday, February 27th at 7pm GMT. This two hour workshop will explore rendering a sense of place in writing. Exercises will centre on facets of setting informed by notions of the Scottish diaspora and an anti-colonial re-enchantment of land, place, and home. Numbers will be very limited, with five spaces reserved for patrons. Tickets are £25 Book your place via the Eventbrite workshop page.


This is the first in a series of creative writing master classes focusing on new nature writing, folklore and ritual through the lens of technique. These writing classes will be aimed at serious writers and creatives, regardless of previous writing experience. 

New Benefits for Patrons

I have a core of brilliant subscribers who show their support on Patreon.  This month, after Storm Arwen took off part of my roof, they literally helped keep a roof over my head.

To show my thanks I’m rolling out new benefits for all patrons—whether you have been with me from the start or are joining today! 

These benefits include:

*Exclusive discounts at my online shop http://www.feralstrumpet.com.  

*Discounts for online writing workshops I’ll be hosting in the new year.

*Monthly community Q&A Hangouts via Zoom. (Hangouts will be 7pm GMT, which is 11am PST, 2pm EST and 8am in New Zealand, etc.—[the world is mostly awake.]) The meetings will be a chance for this vibrant, creative community to talk about what we are working on and thinking about. 

This Patreon tier is $5 a month, payable in your country’s currency. You can join up here.

Rites for Writing Workshops

NOTE–These workshops have sold out. Please contact Taibhsear Collective to be added to a waiting list.

Very excited to be teaching a series of writing workshops for Winters last. 

Dr. Alice Tarbuck will be teaching the first three workshops in the series, and I’ll be teaching the last three workshops, the Secrets of Our Craft:

  • Calling Corners: a crash course in first lines, new habits and starting out. In this workshop we will discuss ways to face the blank page, modes of creating a writing ritual for yourself and as well as warding your practice in the face of upheaval and uncertain times.
  • Temporal Shifts: a guide to writing as the ultimate time travel. In this workshop we will look at the element of time in storytelling, using non-linear narrative and foreshadowing to build excitement and movement into our work.
  • Second Sight: a hands-on workshop to help you see old work in new ways. Revision is a mode of perceiving possibilities and it is the secret to powerful writing. In this workshop we will look at techniques for re-visioning– getting a second look at your first drafts and developing all your raw wildlings into powerful writing that embodies your intentions.

For more information, see the Eventbrite page.

Karen McCrindle Warren on her Highland Bagpipe Composition for the Accused


“The Burning of the Nine Women on the Sands of Dumfries, April 13th, 1659.
By J. Copland, Dundrennan

I spoke to Karen McCrindle Warren about her Piobaireachd, composed for the Highland Bagpipes.

You can hear Karen play her Piobaireachd  here.

The tune is one of memorial and witness for women executed in Dumfries in 1659, but also stands in as a memorial for all those executed for whom there is no physical memorial.  The tune was commissioned by Steve Rooklidge of the Shasta Piping Society of California. Asked for a remembrance piece for the “devastating witch trials that took place during the 16th and 17th centurires. A “Lament for the Accused”, if you will.” He included a link to the Interactive Witchcraft Map published by the University of Edinburgh. 

Questions in bold are mine. Here is what she told me: 

“This tune commemorates the events of 13th April 1659, when nine Galloway women were executed on Dumfries Whitesands.  Agnes Commes, Janet McGowane, Jean Tomson, Margaret Clerk, Janet McKendrig, Agnes Clerk, Janet Corsane, Helen Moorhead and Janet Callon, were “stranglit at stakes till they be dead, and thereafter their bodies to be burnt to ashes”.  This began a third peak in Galloway – more and more witch finders came forward, demanding their fees for rounding up suspects and torturing confessions from them.

“The tune is written in pentatonic G – the key that gives the most dissonance against the drones, symbolising the pain, fear and anxiety of these times, and the high G’s symbolising the screams of the ‘witches’ who were tortured for confession and put to such horrific public execution.  Not enough to kill them by strangling them at the stake, they had to be sure they were dead by also burning their bodies to ashes.”

Can you tell me more about how the Piobaireachd was commissioned? 

…I started looking through the map and searching for more information about witchcraft in Scotland, and particularly relating to Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway which is my area of interest.  I wrote music that was dark and desperate, but it took a while to find the story behind the title, and find the right title that suited the tune.  In the end, I felt the tune, title and story were a perfect fit.

Piobaireachd has a way of pulling at the heart strings, as the variations grow in intensity, it is like waves of grief coursing through the body and soul, returning to the calm of the ground as you try to compose yourself and move forward in life.

Karen McCrindle Warren

Your Piobaireachd is moving and intense, demanding time and space for witness. Traditionally, how has this style of composition been used in memorials?  

Piobaireachds have been used in memorials for centuries.  It is the traditional, ancient music of the bagpipe, and is often used to lament or salute those we have lost.  For example “Lament for Mary MacLeod”, “Lament for the Duke of Hamilton”, or “Lament for the Children” – this last one was written by Patrick Mor MacCrimmon who lost seven of his eight sons to small pox within a year.  This year the piping world lost a talented and lovely young man Alex Duncan at the age of 26.  A close family friend wrote a piobaireachd to commemorate him “Lament for Alex Duncan” and it was performed at the Glenfiddich Championship at Blair Castle where Alex used to spend a lot of time piping.  For one tune, our whole world came together and remembered this wonderful young man and mourned such a great loss to our community.  Piobaireachd has a way of pulling at the heart strings, as the variations grow in intensity, it is like waves of grief coursing through the body and soul, returning to the calm of the ground as you try to compose yourself and move forward in life.

What aspects of the history of the witch hunts informed your composition? 

I really didn’t know anything about witches in Scotland before Steve brought it up – we all learnt about Anne Boleyn having her head chopped off for being a witch, but I had never really considered witchcraft in Scotland.  What an eye opener that map was!  As I read into some of the cases, the things these poor people were being accused of was just crazy.  Anyone could fall out with you and accuse you of being a witch and your life would be over. Suspicion was enough to accuse, repute was enough to convict.  It must have been a terrifying time, and it was this state of distress I tried to bring out in the music. 

There is growing momentum for a national memorial to those killed during the witch hunts in Scotland. How do you see your composition playing a role in this work for a national monument? 

This isn’t something I’m familiar with but my music is freely available to anyone who wishes to listen, use it in memorials or learn to play it, and I hope it helps to evoke the desperation of the times and the memory of all these poor people who had their lives taken in such a cruel and violent way for nothing.

Karen can be found online at: 

www.elixir.scot

www.facebook.com/southwestscotlandcollection   

www.facebook.com/elixir.scot