Lecturing at the Witches’ School of Wonder

I’m excited to be a speaker at the Witches School of Wonder at the Witches Revival Weekend at The Storey meeting house in Lancaster. This event is a memorial for the Pendle Witches, but also incorporates other memorial projects and ideas. I’ll be presenting my research and writing about the witches monuments of Scotland–the work that went into writing Ashes and Stones. This is an immersive weekend of talks, workshops and performances focusing on remembrance and empowerment.

World Menopause Day: a witch chimes in

For thirty years I have worked in ritual, built altars of words, objects and spaces. I’ve lived by the moon and tides, though I wasn’t always a witch—the word was not there for me to use; it wasn’t something that occurred to me until years later when I embraced the moniker as one of feminist subversion. 

It’s October, crone-season, and the 18th is World Menopause Day. Halloween, or Samhain is hot on its heels. The 31st is the witches’ New Year, and as nights grow longer, their attendant twilight will surround us as the veil between the living and the dead thins. It’s a liminal time, as is the menopause, sometimes called “the change.”  Winter is coming, and with it, the season of the Cailleach, the Celtic creatrix. This time of year, the Cailleach, the Crone—the archetype of the old woman and the spirit of the land as winter personified, will visit the underworld, carrying with her what we no longer need in that ash-darkened creel on her back.  

Cailleach by Thalia Took

Now, I am that woman. She is beginning to surface on my own face and hands. My grandmother lived to 96, and I saw her intricately lined face as beyond beautiful. I embrace images of the old woman archetype, marked by her long life, her eyes bright with life force, even while they might be clouded with the blindness of age. The white plait down her back is a trophy of her years. She among all others is privileged with uncountable memories. 

While this spiritual notion gives my path of ageing depth and meaning, there is the reality of ageism in this culture, of invisibility and disregard as well as a very real legacy of hatred towards older women, institutionalised in the witch hunts of the 17th century. I have spent the last five years writing about this history, which will now be a book, Ashes & Stones, published by Sceptre/Hodder & Stoughton in January 2023.

Beyond the historical and personal erasure of older women, there is also the daily struggle to access medical care, and the very real symptoms of peri-menopause that for me are nothing less than disabling. I’m 53 and am in what is called peri-menopause, the undefined period of life before menopause, which comes once you have not had a period for a year. 

I have fibromyalgia, arthritis, anxiety, depression, and have had suicidal ideation as a survivor of trauma with PTSD. All these things became much worse in my mid 40s, but no medical professional ever mentioned peri-menopause. My friend and dance mentor, Carolena Nericcio, asked me—do you think you are peri-menopausal? I had never heard the word before! No one in my family ever talked about menopause. 

Before I had access to HRT, I was severely disabled by pain, depression and anxiety

Photo by Amir Kh on Unsplash

In my late teens, my boss in the San Fransisco State University Library periodicals department answered some of my questions. It’s fair to say I loved this woman and felt from her a deep protection no one else until that point had given me. She had long, mousey grey hair parted in the middle that she would swing over her shoulder for emphasis. She wore clogs and laughed with all her teeth showing—even the wires of the bridge holding them in place. Her ambling gait made her look like she was always dancing, her straight curtain of hair swinging from side to side down her back.  I don’t know how we got talking about the menopause. She was, in many ways, the closest person I had during those troubled years. During the massive earthquake in 1989, we held each other in the doorway of her office, watching the book stacks fall like dominos, people running out from between them, screaming. I cried, and she reassured me it would be ok. She had no idea if that were true, but in that moment it needed saying. She was brave like that, and when we talked about menopause she said, “you just ride it through and it stops.” Maybe a bit like that earthquake–she didn’t need hormone replacement therapy, and my 19 year old self decided at the time that neither would I. 

The Crone that Lives Among the pines by Bill Crisafi

Over the years, I’ve tried to get appointments with my GP to talk about options for dealing with peri-menopause. Every time I brought it up in the past— do you think my pain, depression, hot flashes, chronic yeast infections, UTIs and low mood are peri-menopause? I would get the brush off.  Instead, I have been prescribed three different antidepressants. One shut down my brain and body to the point where I was bedridden and, terrifyingly unable to make the decision to go off it. It was essentially a chemical lobotomy. I have refused to take the latest pill prescribed to me, affirming my status as a ‘difficult patient.’ All the NHS offers me now are antidepressants and a rest cure called “pacing” wrapped in a patronising guise of “mindfulness” and “self care”— the blanket and mug of tea as an answer to debilitating chronic illness and peri-menopause.

I began to research, reading good advise on the Reddit Menopause Community—what to ask for, what myths persist in the NHS, and how to insist on your needs. I pursued the HRT idea. I wondered what if there was a therapy I could try safely?  Eventually, I was given a phone appointment with a locum (temp) GP who was so uncomfortable with the idea of menopause, he simply couldn’t talk about it. I asked the locum doctor to refer me to the menopause clinic in Aberdeen. He’d never heard of it and didn’t even know there was such a thing. I had to give him the address and information. 

Photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash 

While I waited for my appointment with a specialist clinic in the NHS, I had this sinking feeling it would be months, perhaps years, before I saw someone. (I had been on the waiting list for rheumatology for over a year.) I had some savings and I spent it on a private consultation with a menopause specialist. As I waited for an appointment with her (weeks instead of months or years),  I, like everyone else of a certain age, watched the Davina truth bomb documentary about menopause. That was in May 2022. I read with dismay the dismissive way the press treated the overwhelming response to the show. They presented menopausal women as trend followers who now sought HRT as some kind of “youth-boosting” fad rather than a legitimate healthcare option.

The private specialist prescribed oestrogen/progesterone patches for me and vaginal oestrogen pessaries. This doctor listened to me, saying the overwhelming majority of women she sees have a similar story to my own, and almost all have been put on at least one antidepressant rather than being prescribed HRT. 

Before I had access to HRT, I was severely disabled by pain, depression and anxiety. Every morning it was as if I were hit by a truck, all my confidence and sense of self eroded with the sheer wall of pain and depression engulfing me. Chronic yeast infections and UTIs compounded the misery of it all.

I have been on HRT for four months and my life is utterly changed. Within a day on the patch, I could get up in the morning, make decisions, go for a walk, even. The pain and low mood are still here, but they no longer consume me. I have enough spoons to strategise and plan around them. It was, in short, life changing. 

In Scots, an attitude of this sort is called smeddum, and during the witch hunts it was damning. Smeddum means drive, resilience, vigorous common sense” and resourcefulness—true grit. 

Looking back at my writing a book while in this state of suffering seems beyond belief, yet my own ordeal was my link to those accused of witchcraft in the 17th century. Writing about women’s tribulations in a culture that deliberately disbelieves women’s pain gave meaning to the meaningless anguish I faced daily in my own life as well as the women’s lives I researched. 

A couple of years ago, I saw the rheumatologist I’d been waiting to see for over a year. When I finally was in front of him for ten minutes he told me that I needed to go back on the pills that laid me low. Before summarily discharging me, he said my suffering was down to ‘my bad attitude.’ In Scots, an attitude of this sort is called smeddum, and during the witch hunts it was damning. Smeddum means drive, resilience, vigorous common sense”* and resourcefulness—true grit. 

talk openly about menopause with everyone. Let it become normal, an everyday thing.

I have smeddum in spades; I write every day, run workshops and continue to live on the earnings from my handmade jewellery business. I survive—financially and spiritually, yet the constant pain and struggle to access care, to be heard, has taken its toll. I am broken in a way I shouldn’t be. Five months from the initial referral, I am still waiting for the NHS menopause clinic appointment.

If you have read this far, I would ask one thing—that you talk openly about menopause with everyone. Let it become normal, an everyday thing. Listen to middle aged women and ask them about their journey through the change. Advocate for them, and take them seriously. Men can be menopausal, too—this is not just about gender, but a complex picture of oestrogen’s role in our minds, hearts and bodies. If you are on this path—here is my hand. Take it. We have prevailed. 

Ashes and stones cover reveal

The book cover of Ashes and Stones, showing an illustrated hand holding a herb robert flower, surrounded by thistles with a  moon in the corner.

I’m so pleased to share the gorgeous cover design for Ashes and Stones by Natalie Chen. The illustrator is Iain MacArthur.

It’s summer. I stand where perhaps Ellen stood, in this ground thick with new thistle and long grass. She would have ken this coast in all weathers: in the summer when it was as gentle as a lake and in the winter, with the high winds and stinging salt spray.’

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.

Out 19 January, 2023. Preorder Now:

Available at Watersones

Blackwells (offers free shipping to the USA)



Join my Patreon as a Valiant Witness and receive a signed copy of Ashes & Stones. I ship worldwide.

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.