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Scottish Witches: "So Sorry"

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

Over four centuries after the passage of the 1563 Witchcraft Act, Scotland has finally issued a formal apology to Scots accused of—and persecuted for—witchcraft.

By Ellen McDaniel-Weissler

According to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, an injustice is an injustice and the wholesale slaughter of those accused of witchcraft centuries ago should be acknowledged. Moreover, the deep misogyny that motivated it has not disappeared. So recently the Minister formally apologized to all witches, on behalf of the Scottish government.

"While in Scotland the witchcraft law may have been consigned to the past long ago, the deep misogyny that motivated it was not [and] we still live with that," explains Sturgeon.

In medieval Scotland, women were the ones most often accused of witchcraft. Today, the idea that it would be a crime to practice such rituals may seem ludicrous. But historically, most European cultures, and American as well, have feared witches, seeing them as servants of Satan who were believed to use sorcery to torment their neighbors, sicken livestock, or kill infants.

In fact, a person could be accused of sorcery for having red hair, a wart, walking past a neighbor’s pasture two days before his cow dropped dead, not attending church, or even stumbling over the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

The 1563 Witchcraft dictated that the practice of witchcraft and consulting with witches were capital offenses. Though the last execution took place in 1727, this act remained a part of Scottish law until 1736. An estimated 4,000 Scots, most of whom were women, were accused of breaking the Witchcraft Act over this time and an estimated 2,500 people executed for witchcraft, five times the European average of executions per capita.

Although there are a few small memorials around Scotland that remember those convicted of witchcraft, such as the photo shown here of a fountain that was erected in Edinburgh to commemorate those executed for witchcraft in the city, they don’t actually apologize for unfairly killing them. However, there are growing calls by women’s organizations for a national monument to be erected to memorialize those so unfairly brutalized and tortured.

Following the first minister's remarks, the Scottish parliament is now deciding whether to pass legislation pardoning those convicted of witchcraft.


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