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.

A Memorial to Scottish Witches

Some of you may follow my Patreon where I post new writing, specifically my field notes around the witches monuments of Scotland.

It is estimated that in Scotland over 3,000 people were accused of witchcraft during the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries and 84% of them were women. Two thirds of those known accused were executed, and these numbers are only from the existing records. Records of the witch trials in Scotland were meticulous, recording the cost of the tar for burning, rope for binding and even on occasion the cost of ale given to the spectators, but they are in no way complete and will never give us the real number of the dead, though they give us a glimpse of their suffering. In Scotland the witch hunts were more virulent than in England or the rest of Europe, yet there is no large-scale public memorial.

Map of Accused Witches at the University of Edinburgh Website

The recently published map representing the data in the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft is a memorial of sorts. It is a sobering visual reminder of the thousands of accused. It literally puts them on the map. Emma Carroll, a Geology and Physical Geography undergraduate student and intern at the project created the map which can be used by anyone in Scotland or the Scottish diaspora to find their neighbours and ancestors by area. Toggling through the Detention, Trial and Death Location maps is sobering viewing. The myriad charts which breakdown the victims by career—the majority were domestic workers, vagrants, midwives and weavers—is humanising.

The Steilneset Memorial in Vardo, Norway. Photo by Bjarne Riesto via wikipedia

But what of a physical memorial in the landscape? What would a national memorial look like? The possibility of a successful site brings to mind the powerful Steilnesest Memorial, in Vardø, Norway. Louise Bourgeois’ last installation, entitled The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved, was a collaboration with Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Years ago, I embarked on a pilgrimage to Vardø to see this monument, only to be thwarted by a wild Norwegian sea which was so violent we could not dock, but that is a story for another day. The structure commemorates over 100 women, girls and Sami men executed. The memorial is set in a larger structure on the craggy coastline. It is a burning chair in a dark glass box, surrounded by mirrors that reflect the viewer and the perpetually burning flame.

In Salem Massachusetts, there is a memorial to 20 people executed for witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. It is a series of granite benches set in a low stone wall surrounding the Old Burying Point. Each bench is inscribed with the names of the accused, and their date of execution. Maggie Smith and James Cutler designed the memorial which was inspired by the Vietnam Memorial.

Can a monument shift the discussion of these dead women and men? Often we only hear of the victims in news stories or on commercial ghost tours, dusted off for Halloween, with the attending broomsticks and black cats. Could a monument help frame the victims in a new light? What shape could Scotland give to its memory of atrocity? How can a monument make space for witness and ultimately healing?

For the past year I have been travelling to witches monuments throughout Scotland, visiting stones, fountains and even hedge mazes dedicated to people who were accused witches during the Scottish witch hunts of the 17th century. I’ve mapped them and added field notes with a kind of trainspotter impulse. There are many secreted away outside a village here, beside a suburban lawn there, each with its own story. Some are called “The Witches Stone” or are menhirs marked with a date. Some are nothing but a big rock with stories, told over hundreds of years, attributing them to the women killed during the witch trials of the 17th century. Often these stones mark the “last woman burned” as if the monument would keep history from repeating, like a revenant stone over the grave of the unquiet dead.

Reconstruction of the face of Lilias Adie by Dr. Christopher Rynn of Dundee University.

As I have written up my field notes, the face of Lilias Adie has stared back at my from my laptop’s screen where I keep it as a reminder. An accused witch murdered in 1704, her face has been reconstructed from a photo of her skull by Dr Christopher Rynn of Dundee University. She has been the tutelary spirit of this project, and hers may very well be the face that launches a national memorial. The morning before I posted my notes on Lilias Adie, I received an email reply from Councillor Kate Stewart who represents the area in Fife where Lilias Adie’s grave is located. She was central in making a wreath laying memorial event for Lilias. She told me that since the wreath laying, the story of Lilias has taken off on social media and she has been contacted by artists and writers from all over the world, curious about Lilias’ story. She has asked for the grave of Lilias Adie to be registered as a site of National Importance and there has been a public meeting to discuss a National memorial organised by Fife Witches Remembered. The proposal put forward uses the Beamer Rock Lighthouse which would be re-erected near the site of Lilias’ grave. The beacon was originally a non-illuminated day navigation beacon, but I wonder if, for the memorial, light could be involved in some way, as a flame or reflected light. The minutes of the memorial meeting state “The lighthouse would make an excellent low-maintenance landscape feature or memorial. The structure is built of a high quality whitish coloured sandstone (probably Longannet Quarry stone) and could be easily cleaned back to natural stone.” The lighthouse, like most of the lighthouses in Scotland, was built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s family. Lighthouses are heroic by nature, built as they are under often violent conditions, saving many lives. The poetry of a lighthouse monument for Scotland is unmistakeable: thrashed by storms and beaten by the tides, it still shines its light of hope and redemption, of home.

How would you see our fallen dead— the sisters, daughters, wives, mothers and neighbours—remembered? The shape the monument takes will be important, as important as the momentum we now have to make this happen. We can finally look Lilias Adie in the eyes and say, we are righting this.