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

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.