The failure to serve posthumous justice to the thousands of people – mainly women – persecuted as witches in post-Reformation Scotland “prolongs misogyny”, an MSP launching a bid to grant them a legal pardon has said.
Speaking before the launch of a Holyrood member’s bill on Thursday, the SNP MSP Natalie Don explained: “The only way we can move forward in terms of where we are with misogyny and prejudice in society is by fixing these injustices of our past.” She also hoped that the member’s bill could contribute to awareness of parts of the world where women and girls still faced such accusations and their violent consequences.
A pardon for the 4,000 people tortured and often executed under the Witchcraft Act 1563 would be a collective rejection of misogynistic attitudes both in the past and the present, said Don. She believes the campaign for acknowledgment of this historical femicide has gained traction in recent years because of its contemporary resonance.
“Specific kinds of women that were targeted, generally because they were a little bit different, they were poor, they were outcasts. We still see that in the modern day – although it’s maybe not the same characteristics – where women who do choose to be different or independent feel men’s anger.”
When the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, issued a formal apology to those affected on International Women’s Day this spring, she noted that the “deep misogyny” motivating the Witchcraft Act had not been consigned to history: “Today it expresses itself not in claims of witchcraft, but in everyday harassment, online rape threats and sexual violence.”
The launch was welcomed by Claire Mitchell QC of the Witches of Scotland campaign which has led calls for an apology and pardon: “This is a way for people in the 21st century to acknowledge and to have their say in pardoning those who suffered the most grave miscarriage of justice centuries before.”
Momentum for national acknowledgment continues to grow: the charity Remembering the Accused Witches of Scotland last month secured an apology from the Church of Scotland for its central role in the persecution, and has now identified a possible location for a national memorial in Fife, the locus of much of Scotland’s witch panic.
The bill is launched amid a swell of grassroots groups researching local prosecutions and organising community memorials. The Renfrewshire Witchhunt group recently held a memorial on the last remains of the Gallows Green in Paisley, where seven women were executed on 10 June 1697.
In West Lothian, Mairi Harkness is part of a project aiming to uncover women from the parish of Calder who were strangled then burned at the stake, with plans to take their pop-up museum out to local schools.
“The national campaigns are very important for making people think about what happened, and people then start to look to their local history to find out more about the people who were affected in their area; the real people who lived where we live now and would have been our past neighbours.”