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? 

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.

New Patreon Page

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.