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.