A Lapsed Christian Weighs in…

on the Church of Scotland Apology to those Accused of Witchcraft 

Photo by Alex Gorham on Unsplash

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? 

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

Glenda of the Saltpans

Andy Scott’s untitled memorial to the accused witches of Prestonpans in the Athena Grange Housing Estate.

In my recent Patreon update, I’ve written about sculptor Andy Scott’s monument to the accused witches of Prestonpans. In it, I talk about undercurrents of fascination with the lively witches in the paintings of Frans Fracken the Younger who are often seen reading. You can read the piece and support my work by going to my Patreon here.  You can really get lost in Francken’s “Witches Kitchen” paintings, like they one below. They were a subject of obsession for the 17th century Flemmish painter.

Witches Kitchen, Frans Fracken the Younger. 1606.

“The Cailleach of the Borehole” at The Bottle Imp

19th Century photo of the Witches Stone of Dornoch

My piece on the witches stone of Dornoch, “The Cailleach of the Borehole,” is published in The Bottle Imp, the online journal of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies. You can read it here: https://www.thebottleimp.org.uk/2019/12/the-cailleach-of-the-borehole/

This is part of the larger project I’m working on at the moment, writing about the witches monuments of Scotland. You can read more about that project at my Patreon Page.