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Pardoning Witches in Scotland

According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Scotland is considering pardoning those who perished during the witch hunts in Scotland in the early years. It would be an effort to right a passed wrong.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Advocates are calling on leaders to exonerate the thousands of women and men targeted in witch hunts during the 16th through 18th centuries

Officials have moved one step closer to pardoning the nearly 4,000 people accused of witchcraft in Scotland between the 16th and 18th centuries, reports Paul English for the London Times.

Witch hunts swept across much of Europe between roughly 1450 and 1750. Fear of the devil, social unrest and mass hysteria contributed to the frenzy of accusations and trials, which often arose from local disputes and typically targeted unmarried or widowed women, per the National Galleries of Scotland.

Scotland in particular was a hotbed of supposed “witchcraft” during the early modern era, writes James Hookway for the Wall Street Journal. A 2003 University of Edinburgh report found that at least 3,837 people were accused of witchcraft in the country between 1563 and 1735—the years in which the Scottish Witchcraft Act was passed and repealed, respectively. Around 84 percent of those accused were women, and more than half were over the age of 40. Five large-scale witch hunts took place in Scotland between 1590 and 1662 alone—a much higher rate than in England, according to the British Library.

Speaking with the Times, lawyer Claire Mitchell, who leads Witches of Scotland alongside schoolteacher Zoe Venditozzi, notes that “[p]er capita, during the period between the 16th and 18th century, [Scotland] executed five times as many people as elsewhere in Europe, the vast majority of them women.”

One of Scotland’s first major witch hunts broke out in the coastal town of North Berwick in 1590. As Caroline Davies explains for the Guardian, James VI of Scotland believed that the town’s residents had used witchcraft to summon storms that delayed the ship carrying his Danish bride, Anne. Sixty or so people were accused over several months, including the servant Geillis Duncan.

In 1597, James himself wrote a treatise, Daemonologie, about demons and magic more broadly. He identified several signs of witchcraft, including the presence of a devil’s mark, interpreted loosely as any “marke upon some secreit place of their bodie.” The text amounted to a passionate defense for the punishment and persecution of witches, per the British Library.

James’ treatise became a bestseller. It even inspired playwright William Shakespeare to incorporate details from the North Berwick trials into his play Macbeth, which debuted shortly after the king was crowned James I of England and Ireland in 1603. Colloquially known as the “Scottish play,” Macbeth’s opening acts feature three witches who make prophecies, control the weather and incite powerful storms. As the Royal Shakespeare Company notes, the play was most likely performed for the first time in James’ court in August or December 1606.

The North Berwick trials took place almost a century before the infamous Salem Witch Trials broke out in colonial Massachusetts. The worst mass hysteria event in early American history, the trials resulted in some 150 accusations and 25 deaths.

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