SARA SHERIDAN: WHY THE WITCH TRIALS ARE A FEMINIST ISSUE
Our head bitch, Sara Sheridan is focusing on Scotland’s witches as part of a wider project –Where are the Women? : an imagined female atlas of Scotland, which will be published next May. But why are the witch trials a feminist issue?
Finding women’s voices from history is like treasure hunting. There I am, in a sea of papers in an archive, digging for days and if I’m lucky, I come across a letter, a journal or an old book and wham, it’s like that woman is right next to me, telling me what she had for breakfast, or what she’s afraid of, or best of all, what she is dreaming about. I have been hooked on this kind of time travel for years and I’ve written a dozen novels, re-imagining those voices – amplifying them and melding fact with fiction. History is important. I believe we can’t fully understand our culture if we don’t know where we came from. The stories of the Scottish witch trials has always fueled my own feminist fire.
When I founded REEK perfume with my daughter Molly we wanted to memorialize amazing (and often forgotten) women through scent. I love the idea of perfume as a silent rebellion – no-one needs to know you’re commemorating forgotten Jacobite heroines as you swish by. For DAMN REBEL WITCHES it was important to us and our perfumer Sarah McCartney that the eau de parfum reflected the real lives of women from the witch-hunting era – outdoor smells of riverbank and crushed leaves as well as a whiff of 17th century domestic life – oak moss (used in medicine at the time), malt and hazelnuts. The resulting perfume is complex and it smells dark and kind of haunting. It was important that it was truly gender fluid – a smell that could be traditionally female and male at the same time.
People find the history of the witches fascinating and strongly identify with it. There is a ‘hallowe’en’ perception of witchcraft – a folklore version – which is seductive – more whore than hag, I’d say. Central to it is the idea that these women really practiced magic. As a storyteller, I understand the allure of that but as a historian I come back again and again to the reality. These were not women involved in a power struggle they had a chance of winning – there is no magic to their stories. They were terrified. Once an accusation of witchcraft went to a Scottish court it was difficult to get out of it. The persecution of the witches (in Scotland far more extreme than in most other European countries, with the possible exception of Germany) is a largely uncommemorated piece of our female history, and this is one reason why it is a feminist issue. Another is that it was extremely rare for men to be prosecuted – a handful of cases out of literally thousands. This is something that happened to women and in particular to women who were different – who spoke out, didn’t get on with their neighbours, who were vulnerable because of their age, infirmity, disability or sexuality. There are cases where the family of a witch was cast out after her death – banned from the local community. What happened devastated female life in Scotland for decades and sent a strong message to conform in all things.
This year, I embarked on a project commissioned by Historic Environment Scotland, reimagining an atlas of the country that does justice to the history of our women. I have been working in this field for two decades, looking at individual stories, but it wasn’t until I examined our history as a whole, I realized how many amazing women we have forgotten. Some are heroines – scientists, writers, sportswomen, actresses and activists – others were victims, like the witches. I was reminded of the words of the poet, Mairi Mhor nan Oran who exhorted us to ‘study our witches as well as our saints’ and I began to look more closely at how we commemorate these women and what is left of their stories, fragments of which are available in contemporary court records. Agnes Finnie, a moneylender from Edinburgh who was drowned in 1645 while cursing the crowd ‘May the Devil blaw ye blind’. Maud Galt from Kilbarchen, Renfrewshire prosecuted as a lesbian (for assaulting her maidservant with what sounds like a 17th century sex-toy) as well being charged with being a witch. Janet Horne executed in Dornoch in 1727, thought now to be suffering from senile dementia, heartwrenchingly she had no idea what was in store and is said to have warmed herself by the fire that was being set to burn her body.
History is written by the winners, and Scotland’s witches were losers, every one. I believe, however, it is the sign of a mature civilization to recognize its victims. If we are looking for examples, we need look no further than Germany and Berlin in particular, where the city’s history weighs heavily on its built environment with raw memorials recognising (and apologizing for) its part in the Holocaust as well as telling the chilling story of the decades from the Berlin Wall going up until it came down again.
The cultural impact of commemorating our winners (and particularly our female winners) is huge – it affords, among other things, role models for a new generation because when you see that women before you have been judges and musicians, pilots and ground-breaking scientists, it seems possible or even normal to achieve your dreams. In commemorating our victims, however, the process is different. We must make a promise not to forget and more importantly, not to repeat our worst failings. In the witches’ case this needs to be done while navigating the intersection of folklore and history – there is glamour to the witches. The roots of the word glamour, interestingly, refer back to the magic of the faerie world, but unlike the faerie folk the witches are demonstrably real. They are our foremothers and we imagined them to be in league with the devil. We hunted them down, drowned them and burned their bodies. In the modern world witchcraft movement is about sisterhood and attuning to nature and it’s important that anything we say about the witches of the past, also respects that movement in the present.
I am not the only Scottish writer who is interested in highlighting this important issue. Drs Claire Askew and Alice Tarbuck are running Toil and Trouble, a six-week course of witchcraft history, theory and practice starting in November. Claire says “The lack of recognition for real, historical women accused of witchcraft was the main reason I wanted to run the course. We need to better remember them.” For me too, that’s what creating a whiff of our past was about – to silently commemorate the witches while still honouring the present. As a country, it’s time for Scotland to properly memorialize our 16th and 17th century witches – not with the scattering we have of monuments to the legend of individual women but something with gravitas, that recognizes what happened to thousands of our foremothers, and the impact that had on our culture.
This article was first printed in The National on Sunday newspaper on 21stOctober 2018.