It’s been a while since my last post and it’s been a busy year. Recently, I’ve been reading and researching more about this strange, wonderful corner of Scotland and I was pleased to find some more startling stories from Wedale and round about.
I mentioned below that six people were executed in Stow in 1649, a horrific year in which mass panic about witchcraft erupted throughout many parts of the kingdom. Scotland would have five mass witchcraft panics:
There were witch-hunts, interrogations and executions at other times, of course, but in these five periods, the panics and executions intensified in scale and terror. Localised panics could often break out at times when other parts of the country were relatively peaceful, as occurred, for example, in Renfrewshire in 1697-1700 in Bargarran.
1649 was one of the worst peaks. In The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (1959), Rossell Hope Robbins noted that
Scotland is second only to Germany in the barbarity of its witch trials.
Witchcraft in Scotland became a crime in 1563, only three years after the Protestant Reformation, during the reign of the absent Queen, Mary. The Witchcraft Act formally made the Biblical offence of suffering a witch to live, a legal reality. By making witchcraft illegal, Scotland was setting the scene for accusations, recriminations and mob rule. The land was in the grip of religious vervour, the revolutionary Reformers determined to create a GODLY kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven.
Belief in witchcraft was nothing new, and tales of witches and warlocks stretch back through history. What was different after 1563, was that the State now could act upon superstition, suspicion and finger-pointing, legally. And it did.
The causes of the major witch panics are still discussed and reinterpreted. Scotland during the period would be wracked by religious and political conflict and wars. Famine through poor weather and crop failure, disease and plague are also contributing factors.
Recently, more attention has been given to the misogyny and sexism of the witch-hunts. Doctor Julian Goodare, in The Scottish Witch-hunt in Context (Manchester, 2009) notes that some 85% of the recorded witch trials involved women. These trials centred on accusations involving fornication. In the Godly State the Reformers hoped to set up, all aspects of the lives of the Parish were under increased scrutiny. The Kirk Sessions records note all misdemeanours and punishments and sexuality features strongly. The Reformers’ revolutionary zeal and enthusiasm for making sure their neighbours obeyed the laws of God ,added to ages-old superstitions and a need to blame, provided a heady mix which would peak five times.
Sex, sexuality and fornicating with the Devil are common themes in the records that survive and, presumably, took centre stage in the accusations and executions which were not recorded. The Devil, surprisingly conservative in his sexual choices, seems to have limited his lust for the female of the species. Homosexuality and Devilish fornication does not feature with the Godly menfolk, but if this is misogyny and control in play, that’s hardly surprising. The righteous were definitely wearing the trousers in the seventeenth century.
But men, were accused of witchcraft. In my last post, I mentioned that one of the six accused of witchcraft was described as a Man of Lauder. I’ve been wondering about this man ever since. Our wonderful Parish archivist and author Mary W Craig (whose excellent Border Witch Hunt book came out last year) has suggested that he was of wealthier stock that the others, whose family could pay to have his – their – name removed from the records. Sounds likely. Doubtful they had enough money to save him from the stake, though.