ABERNETHY WITCH HUNTS AND A SEVERE DOSE OF LOCKDOWN CURIOSITY
During the COVID lock-downs my husband bought a book by the Rev Andrew Small, published in 1823, of ’local antiquities’. We had a fabulous time, finding Roman sites at every turn, along with some increasingly dubious sounding stories. One story included the witches’ graves, path, hole and how 22 women were caught and executed as witches (as written about in the last edition of the Crier). The Reverend’s story sparked many questions for me, not least that 22 was a huge number and how big was Abernethy in the seventeenth century? Like most people I have met, I knew little about the size, scale and reality of the Scottish witch hunts so I set about finding out more.
En route, I contacted Abernethy Museum for more information and they, in turn, asked me to develop a display. Initially I said ‘no’. I work, I have too many interests already and I’ve never done anything like this before. Then I thought about the women (as I had found out the names of the three women almost certainly executed in Abernethy in 1662) and how they had been forgotten. How they will have been ordinary women like me, but stripped of their humanity and dignity through torture and being accused of witchcraft. With little chance to defend themselves against the accusations, facing six local judicial Commissioners, their fate will have been sealed. The display was a chance for me and Abernethy to be involved in setting the story straight, so in the end I could not say ‘no’.
The display delves into the world of the Scottish witch hunts – what people thought about witches at this time and the uncertainties, political, religious and social, that may have meant that five times more people were accused and executed of witchcraft in Scotland than in any other European country. Most of them were women, often targeted by neighbours and members of their own community. Yet this terrible time has been largely forgotten and replaced with folk lore and myth, turning cruelty, unfair accusations and persecution into ‘witchy fun’.
So it has been an absolute labour of love to create this display – meeting with and contacting some amazing people. It has also come at a great time, given the work being done nationally to remember the people accused, to provide a government apology and a legal pardon. The display includes an information section for most of the sources I have used, should anyone want to find out more. You will be relieved to know that all information comes from ‘real’ historians, including the Aberargie based historian and archaeologist Irene Hallyburton. Additionally Linda Allen, a PKC artist, has created a modern woodcut of the Rev Small’s story.
At the heart of the display are the three women, Elspeth, Margaret and Jonet, as depicted by our very own fabulous local artist Moira Lacey. For me, Moira has brought the whole thing alive – see what you think!
Abernethy Museum, on School Wynd, opens from 7th May to 25th September, Wednesday to Sunday in the afternoon, from one to four pm.
Please promote the display amongst your friends and family – it’s a great opportunity for people to visit our wonderful village and find out more. I would love to hear from you if you go along. Additionally I’m in discussion with a stone artist/mason about a design for a permanent memorial for the women, so watch this space.
ABERNETHY MEMORIAL TO EXECUTED WITCHES
You may have read my article in the last edition of the Crier, or visited the museum to see the Abernethy witch hunts display. If so, you will know that two and a half thousand people, mostly women, were executed for witchcraft in the 17th century, three of them in Abernethy.
So why would we want to remember such an awful time? For me, there are various reasons. Despite there being five times more people accused and executed in Scotland than elsewhere in Europe (twelve times more than in England), the realities of the witch hunts in Scotland have been largely forgotten. The bodies of the three women executed in our village are likely to have been dumped in wasteland, with no memorial for their families apart from terrible shame - all for a crime that cannot exist. Elspeth Young, Margaret Mathie and Jonet Crystie were victims, caught up in terrible events. In all likelihood they will have been a bit different, perhaps ‘quarrelsome’, elderly, poor and ordinary. Definitely not witches in any modern sense of spells, potions and broomsticks.
Finally, but most importantly, a memorial should look to the future. What can be understood from these events? At the heart of the memorial will be the women’s names and a Rowan tree. Traditionally used as protection against maleficence, the tree also symbolises wisdom. Unfair accusation and persecution didn’t stop after the 17th century so why not take a moment of reflection when walking around the village?
The plan is to erect a memorial stone beside the witches’ path beyond the top of Kirk Wynd. The stone will be carved by a master heritage stonemason based on a design by local artist Moira Lacey. David McGovern specializes in Pictish carving - a modern Pictish stone for our ancient Pictish village? You can see an example of his work in the cross at Forteviot. Andrew and Willem Herd of Bigcat Contracts have kindly offered to prepare the site, gratis, and we have the very welcome support of the Abernethy Community Council and Abernethy in Bloom committee.
Just fingers crossed now to find out the outcome of our grant application with Perth and Kinross Community Heritage Grant 🤞🤞
The Museum of Abernethy is taking part in the Perth and Kinross Open Doors weekend of 17th and 18th of September where people will be encouraged to visit the museum, see the witch-hunt display, then walk around the village looking at various witchy sites. P&K Heritage have developed a map, alongside The Museum of Abernethy, with two linked walks. One will go past the modern dwellings where some of the Commissioners lived (they were the local big-wigs who will have investigated, tried and executed the women - no doubt being involved in their torture) and the other will include places mentioned in later stories about Abernethy witches.
Please look out for announcements!