I’ve been writing up my field notes to Witches Monuments throughout Scotland, up at my Patreon. I’ve made a video to thank my patrons for all their amazing support. Making this video was way out of my comfort zone but I help it gives a suitable signal boost to my gratitude.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I love DIY culture, and owe much of my life to its ethos. For years I have supported artists I admire on Patreon, which embodies the ethos but is even better as it creates community around creators. It’s a website that lets you support artists and writers and in exchange you get an exclusive look at their work before it goes out into the world. I have been building my Patreon page for a while and finally decided to launch it today, at the May full moon. I will be adding weekly updates about my creative process as well as monthly poems, short fiction or non fiction pieces inspired by folklore, witchcraft and the wild landscape. I hope you will join me on this journey.
I’m delighted that a poem of mine will be included in the Monster Verse, Poems Human and Inhuman anthology, to be published by Random House on September 15th, 2015. The anthology is edited by Tony Barnstone and Michelle Mitchell-Foust.
About the anthology, from the Random House website:
Humans have always defined themselves by imagining the inhuman; the gloriously gruesome monsters that enliven our literary legacy haunt us by reflecting our own darkest possibilities. The poems gathered here range in focus from extreme examples of human monstrousness—murderers, cannibals, despotic Byzantine empresses—to the creatures of myth and nightmare: dragons, sea serpents, mermaids, gorgons, sirens, witches, and all sorts of winged, fanged, and fire-breathing grotesques. The ghastly parade includes Beowulf’s Grendel, Homer’s Circe, William Morris’s Fafnir, Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwock, Robert Lowell’s man-eating mermaid, Oriana Ivy’s Baba Yaga, Thom Gunn’s take on Jeffrey Dahmer, and Shakespeare’s hybrid creature Caliban, of whom Prospero famously concedes, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”
Monster Verse is both a delightful carnival of literary horror and an entertainingly provocative investigation of what it means to be human.
This year Fantasycon was in York, convenient for me as I live behind the rail station so the con was essentially in my back yard. The popular joke at the con was that York was indeed Winterfell. I confess I went simply because it was close to me– but fantasy is the genre I have always loved and with the embrace of the New Weird, it has become even closer to my heart.
The first con I ever attended was GenCon back in 1984. I was a dorky kid who played D&D. I remember trying to disguise my budding womanhood by wearing a man’s shirt and a fedora. I ended up wandering around pretty lonely, not knowing how how to approach the myriad boys and men around me. (I don’t remember any other girls, though there must have been some.) I was shy then, and not much has changed though I no longer wear men’s shirts and fedoras– maybe I should.
I still found the social aspect of this recent con daunting. Everyone was chatting in groups– presumably they’d known each other for years, or so it seemed. There was no way to enter into conversations as a lone woman. Or at least i should say I found it daunting.
And yet, things have changed. This was my first Fantasycon– since moving to the UK I have regularly attended Eastercon, the BSFA con– and in the last few years I have sold my hand made jewellery in the dealers room under the Feral Strumpet banner, which has helped me fund my trip to the con.
What I noticed was that feminism was alive and well in almost all the panels I attended. Challenging questions of inclusion and the purpose of violence against women in fiction where electric, bristling with new ideas. Men and women were voicing complex arguments; inclusion and nixing the misogynist cliches in the genre simply makes for richer stories.
Still the statistics are sobering– 50% of fantasy readers are women, yet we make up only 25% of published fantasy writers. These numbers, voiced by Abbadon Editor David Moore in his panel on Grimdark, were repeated in other panels I attended that weekend. There was an urgency to change this, something I had not felt before at any con.
It gave me hope. I would like to go back in time to that little girl hiding in plain sight and say “Hang in there– 30 years from now things will start changing and when they do, it’s going to happen fast.”