The persecution began in the 1500s and lasted nearly two centuries. Nearly 4,000 people have been accused of witchcraft, the vast majority of them women. They were arrested, brutally tortured and forced to make false confessions. Two-thirds of the defendants were executed, according to historians.
Unlike the United States, whose own shameful history of witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, led to official exonerations and memorials for the victims, the Scottish government has never apologized for the atrocities committed against its citizens, according to activists campaigning for a formal apology. .
That changed on Tuesday, when Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, addressed Parliament and apologized for the persecution.
“It was an injustice on a colossal scale,” said Ms Sturgeon, who made the statement on International Women’s Day as part of a speech also calling on Scottish leaders and the public to fight back. modern day misogyny.
“At a time when women were not even allowed to speak as witnesses in a courtroom, they were accused and killed because they were poor, different, vulnerable or, in many cases, simply because that they were women,” she said.
“As First Minister, on behalf of the Scottish Government,” she continued, “I choose to recognize this gross and historic injustice and to issue a formal and posthumous apology to all those who are accused, convicted, vilified or executed under the Witchcraft Act 1563.”
The law, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament and made witchcraft or consulting with witches a capital offence, resulted in the execution of around 2,500 people, according to the Witches of Scotland, an organization which lobbied Parliament to apologize for the atrocities, pardon those who were accused and convicted, and build a memorial to commemorate the victims.
Witchcraft law reflected the superstition and panic about the supernatural that was spreading in parts of Europe and the American colonies.
In Massachusetts, 14 women and six men were executed after being accused of witchcraft, and hundreds were executed in England, which passed a witchcraft law similar to Scotland’s in 1542. But the Persecution of people in Scotland was particularly brutal, according to historians. More than 80% of the approximately 3,800 people accused of witchcraft were women, according to the Witches of Scotland. Many of them were tortured with sleep deprivation, needles that pricked the skin, and other violent means. Often the torture was practiced in public.
In Scotland, witch trials were particularly politicized, encouraged by Protestant clergy and conducted at the local level, where judges had less control and could use torture more laxly and extract more confessions, said Michelle Brock, associate professor at Washington and Lee University. in Virginia who teaches stories of the supernatural.
“It was an environment of heightened religious anxiety,” she said. The clergy, local magistrates and the monarchy “cooperated in the project of building a godly state”, Prof Brock said.
“And a godly state cannot accept witches,” she said. Women were particularly vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, in part because they were seen as more susceptible to Faustian bargains, Prof Brock said.
“Who is most likely to be vulnerable to the devil, who is most likely to make a pact to trade their soul for goods and power,” she said. “People imagined women because they didn’t have the same degree of power in society.”
In her speech, Ms Sturgeon said the “deep misogyny” that drove the Witchcraft Act had not been consigned to history.
“We still have that left,” she said.
Ms Sturgeon said the apology was part of an ongoing acknowledgment of Scotland’s history of marginalizing vulnerable people. She noted that parliament had apologized for the government’s treatment of gay people and for forcing the adoption of children born to unmarried women.
“Some will wonder why this generation should apologize for something that happened centuries ago,” Ms Sturgeon said. “But it might be more relevant to ask why it took so long.”
Claire Mitchell, a lawyer in Scotland who started campaigning for an apology in 2020 with Zoe Venditozzi, a writer, said they were both “delighted” with the speech.
“Today the most amazing thing happened,” Ms Mitchell said on the podcast she hosts with Ms Venditozzi.
“It’s been hundreds of years since these people died,” she continued. “No one has ever formally responded to what happened to these people. No one has ever formally apologized.
But she said the campaign’s efforts would not stop until Scotland formally pardoned the victims and erected a monument in their honor.
“We want there to be a national monument in the state that will mark what happened,” Ms. Venditozzi said, “let people know what happened if they travel around the country, and will keep us from remembering this terrible miscarriage of justice for many, many, many years to come.
Prof Brock said Ms Sturgeon’s apology should serve as a reminder that practices widely accepted today, such as capital punishment, could be seen as barbaric in the future.
“The people who prosecuted the witches thought they were doing the right thing,” she said. “This apology from Nicola Sturgeon is a call to be more empathetic, more humble and more self-aware.”