One of the most persistent negative female stereotypes is that of the witch: frequently isolated, sometimes peculiar women, who often lived on the periphery of their communities and fell prey to gossip, shunning and, at the height of the witch-hunting paranoia, persecution.
Men could be – and were – accused of witchcraft also. According to the best estimate we have, they accounted for somewhere between 15 and 25% of all those tried in Scotland. Nonetheless, women were much more vulnerable to such suspicion, and many were hounded and tortured into confessing to compacts with the devil, and other occult tropes of that kind. It is estimated that 2500 people were put to death, having been convicted under the Witchcraft Act in Scotland.
Now, a lobbying group called Witches of Scotland, is calling on the Scottish Government to support its campaign for these people to be pardoned.
In an atmosphere of cancel culture and revisionist history, it’s tempting to dismiss such a move as empty tokenism. It was not the present-day government which prosecuted these ‘witches’, and it was not any of our contemporaries who trumped up charges against them. Why not let the – albeit shameful – past lie, and move on?
Those who advocate such a response, however, are making one major error: assuming that such witch hunts are a thing of the past. There are still societies where innocent people are routinely accused of bringing misfortune on neighbours through magical means. Like our persecuted ‘witches’ of yesteryear, they are often the most vulnerable in society.
Paranoia about witches in Scotland spread alongside the religious zeal of the Kirk – which explains the almost complete absence of witch hunting in the West Highlands and Islands, where Protestantism was yet to penetrate. Like the Pharisees of the Bible, these men were decorously pious, and determined to prove it. Those who would not – perhaps could not – conform fell under suspicion, and were swiftly dealt with.
If this sounds familiar, then there’s a reason for that. Just as our forefathers got so drunk on piety that it led them to behave impiously, our modern devotion to freedom of speech causes the same rampant othering of those who will not – perhaps cannot – subscribe to the new religion. And so we shut them down. We cannot execute them, but we will nonetheless cheer as they are burnt at the stake of public opinion.
A pause to reflect on where this kind of behaviour can lead a society would be no bad thing at this very point in history. To do so on International Women’s Day would be apposite, given where we are with gender politics and female identity in particular. For the Christian, there is an additional danger in writing off the witch hunters as a ‘product of their time’. Believing people are not meant to reflect the weaknesses of the age in which they live, but witness against its worst excesses and point to a better path.
Othering happens in every generation, where truth and lies trade places, and the easy thing is to go with the flow. Acknowledging and expressing considered regret might help heal historical wounds, and give us pause before opening fresh ones in our own time.