Thursday, 18 October 2012

War on Witches at Edinburgh Dungeon

A witch, yesterday.
We have a guest blog today from Johnny Campbell, General Manager of the Edinburgh Dungeon...

Imagine a world full of hidden evil, where seemingly ordinary women and men used Satanic powers to murder, ruin crops and inflict illness. Welcome to Scotland’s past.

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries there was a terror of witches – something being revived by the Edinburgh Dungeon for its War on Witches show that runs throughout October. It recalls hideous claims from the early 1590s that a coven that met in the old kirkyard of North Berwick had conjured up a sea storm to sink the ship carrying King James VI. Their spell, using a cat with the hands, feet and private parts of a dead sailor sewn to its body, was cast at Halloween.

Further research by the Dungeon has revealed widespread fears about witchcraft linked to this ancient festival, and people’s readiness to accuse their neighbours of involvement, knowing this could well end up with them being strangled and burned. This year is also the 350th anniversary of the zenith of the Great Scottish Witch Hunt, when hundreds were condemned to death on the most bizarre evidence.

So what was it the Devil’s apprentices were supposed to do on 31 October, the night where tradition has it that the dead walk the Earth? Well, in the case of Elspet Strachund, of Lumphanan (tried in 1597) it involved being spotted taking a burning coal out of her house and burying it in the yard. Other wickedness included using charms to stop a man beating his wife.

Elspet cured animals, using skills learned from elves. At this point sex and marriage rear their heads for she was accused of bedding a male elf. As well as a healer she was a local marriage maker and this may have been the real problem. One accusation was that she caused a man to wed beneath himself, the wife then lost what little she had and they were reduced to beggary.

Katherine Jones, of Shetland, was supposed to have used Halloween to meet with trolls, faeries and the Devil himself. She was examined closely and her trial was told in 1616 she had the mark of Satan on her ‘privie parts’. This (perhaps a blemish or growth) was proof that the Devil had claimed her. Katherine was also said to have transferred an illness suffered by her husband to a visiting merchant from Crail.

Orcadian, Issobell Sinclair, performed rituals to protect cattle at Halloween. Helped by the faeries she would take some of the animal’s hair and wrap it in linen for her magical work.

This was an era when people thought that supernatural power ebbed and flowed at particular times, with Halloween being one of the moments when it was at its greatest. So in 1658 it was no surprise, that just 20 days before Hallowmass, Grissell McCairtney first met the Devil. It was said that she became lost while gathering shellfish and ended up in 'some eldridge place unknowin to hir where she saw a compne of weemen and one cold black uglie greusome man'.

But once Halloween was over it seems that the powers of witches began to diminish. For example, in 1570, Janet Bowman of Ayr tried as hard as she could to cure a man of his sickness. Her incantations to King Arthur failed and a spirit that would come to her in a whirlwind proved no help, all because Halloween has passed.

The reality though, as the show at the Dungeon points out, is that the victims of witchcraft in Scotland were the people who were accused. Visitors see the burned skeleton of Agnes Sampson, one of the coven leaders from North Berwick and try to bring her back from the dead.

And it seems there were a lot of dead. Edinburgh University academics estimate that at least two thirds of those put on trial for witchcraft were executed and just 4% walked free – if they could still walk after the torture that most had endured.

Find out more about Edinburgh Dungeon and the exclusive War on WItches exhibit for Hallowe'en.

Johnny Campbell. Also scary.

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