Scottish Witches by Lily Seafield

This wide-ranging description of the presence of witches in Scotland shows how complicated the problem was throughout the period from 1563 to 1720. The author begins by reminding us that we all have our superstitions even to this day. Many of us avoid walking under a ladder, picking up a dropped glove and many more simple actions. We know deep down that there is nothing real in all of this; however this was not so in the years under discussion. If some elderly lady said something nasty to someone who then fell ill, she was in great danger of being branded a witch – of course in those days no one knew about viruses and bacteria.

Once the accusation was made there were many people who joined in – to cover themselves, make money out of the situation or indeed take revenge on the poor person. The Pittenweem witches who get a brief mention were of the poor, unjustifiably persecuted majority.

There were many witch trials in Scotland. Perhaps the most famous involved the North Berwick witches whom King James VI accused of plotting to sink his ships returning from Denmark with his new young Queen, Anne. One of the ships sank in a storm in the Forth, but ships did sink in the many storms, without the need for intervention by witches. The publication by King James VI of his book Daemonologyfanned the flames.

The book moves on to the topic of magic in legends and stories involving for example, Lord Soulis, Aleister Crowley and even John Graham of Claverhouse, who was assumed to have dabbled to enhance his cause. The wealthy, however, had the power to avoid persecution.

The author also discusses witches and sorcery in Scottish prose and poems, the most well-known being ‘Tam O’Shanter’. This tale of course took a light-hearted approach, as by this time the fear of witches and their spells was beginning to recede after the ruling in law of 1735 dismissing the prosecution of such highly unlikely crimes.

Lastly, we have mention of modern ‘witches’, people such as herbalists and alternative therapy practitioners. In the centuries before modern reason, these people also existed but were always in danger of being misunderstood and branded as witches.

To sum up, this is truly enchanting account of an absorbing part of our history. Well worth a read.

Reviewed by a library member