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Launching the Fife Accused Witches Trail

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

On 5th September 2019 we supported West Fife Heritage Network to launch the 'Fife Accused Witches Trail'. Three plaques were created, with a short trail on the Fife Coastal Path leading from Culross to Torryburn, where Lilias Adie is buried. Below is a transcript of speeches given by our guest speakers: Sara Kelly, Cllr. Kate Stewart, Claire Mitchell QC and Lindsey Marchant.

Councillor Kate Stewart

Welcome everybody into the Royal Burgh of Culross.

This small village hosts a gold mine of rich history: socially, industrially, economically and tragedy. Probably because the West Fife Heritage Network were inspired by the tragic stories that affect this shoreline from Torryburn to Culross, it’s the stories of the West Fife accused witches, but in particular, the tragic tale of Lilias Addie, who was accused, tortured, died in prison and was hurriedly buried on the tide-line at Torryburn shore. She has become the focus and inspiration for this group to tell the true story of the horrendous fate they all suffered.

Here in this small Royal Burgh of Culross, thirty-two were accused of being witches.

We’ll hear more on this shortly from Lindsey Marchant who will be telling the stories of the Culross accused, but before we hear from Lindsey, I'm privileged to introduce you to our guest speaker, human rights lawyer, Claire Mitchell QC. Claire has been saddened, or even angered, by the lack of memorials to the accused witches of Scotland and backs our campaign for a national Memorial here in West Fife. Claire herself is campaigning to right the wrongs done to these victims and has campaigned for a legal pardon. I now invite Claire to share her story for the accused witches of Scotland and to unveil the first 'Accused Witches' trail, which has the potential to advance here in Fife, Scotland and beyond, even across the ‘pond’ to remember the injustice suffered by all these victims.

Claire Mitchell QC

Hello everybody, I am delighted to see so many people here today. It is an amazing tribute to all the women who were accused and died as witches, that so many people, hundreds of years later, care enough to come out and to be here today.

I work as a lawyer who mostly deals in my day job with miscarriage of justice cases. So, I deal with people who have been convicted of crimes that they say that they shouldn't have been convicted of. And as part of my day job, I deal with issues like miscarriages of justice. So, it wasn't a far reach for me when I became involved, looking at Scottish history, to realise that one of the greatest injustices done in Scottish history was in fact done between the 16th and 18th century.

What happened during this time is a result of a number of factors, the rise of the local churches, the ability of people to go to court, the interest of King James in particular and the issue of witches and demonology, combined to make a period in Scotland which is characterised by fear, paranoia, misogyny and resulted in thousands of deaths of, we say mostly women, I think it's 84% of women who were put to death as witches.

What happened was, they were tried in local courts. It got so out of hand and so many people were being prosecuted as witches, that the authorities became concerned that there were so many witch trials and so they decided to elect only to make special people able to prosecute witch trials and that started to reduce the numbers. But to give you an idea, there's been lots of work done and I would encourage you to go online and look at the great work done by the University of Edinburgh. They have tried to trace, where they can, the number of people who were convicted as witches. The difficulty was, when things got out of hand, there were so many people, so many women, being accused and convicted of witches that there are no records for them and therefore the numbers that they got are a very narrow estimation of how many people were killed.

If I explained to you that in Salem, when people think of witch trials, they think of Salem in America, the witch trials that took place, fifteen women were killed as witches and four men. Throughout the years in American legal history, that has become a turning point in legal history where they realised that even though there appeared to be due process and semblance of a trial, that very innocent people could become convicted. And in Salem now, they have a Memorial, a public Memorial, which is a garden and there is a seat for every person who was convicted and every person in Salem received a pardon by the authorities and the latest pardon was in 1957, by that time everybody had been pardoned. It seemed to me, I have this interest in history, knew about the witches and my day job is miscarriages of justice. One day I was walking along in … , near the Nor Loch with my two wee dogs, it’s just below Edinburgh Castle in Princes Street Gardens, where I was walking along. I'm just about to tell you how the ‘Witches of Scotland’ started. So, I was walking along there with the dogs and I was looking at statues and there were statues of men who have been involved in Wars and statues of Generals on horses. There's a statue of a dog called 'Bum the dog' that's a little lame, from Canada, it’s a twin for Greyfriars Bobby and as I got to the top of Princes Street Gardens, I saw that there was a statue of a bear, a full-sized bear in Princes Street gardens called 'Voycheck' (Wojtec) the bear, and that was a bear that had helped out during the Second World War.

I looked around and I thought where are the statues of women? Where is the recognition of women in history?

It was a great bear there's no doubt, but I looked around and I thought where are the statues of women? Where is the recognition of women in history? I looked over the Nor Loch where hundreds of women died, right there, as witches, and there isn’t so much as a sign, there isn’t anything to say that happened and it was at that point that I decided that I should try to combine my day job, along with my other interests and see whether or not I could raise enough interest, that’s why this is so heartening today, to see so many people turning out, for enough interest in seeing if we can get these women who died recognised.

The numbers that we are talking about, broadly speaking, of people that were accused of witchcraft in Scotland in comparison with Salem, the whole nineteen, there are approximately three thousand eight hundred people, women in Scotland, 84% women, of people that were convicted as witches and the vast majority of whom died. They were strangled first and then they were burned, and they were burnt so that there was no record of them so, people didn't have a history of them.

And it's so telling that the only person that has a grave is Lilias at Torryburn and the reason for that was, although she'd been accused of a witch, she died in the month before her trial, a period of time when she was being tortured, kept awake for hour after hour after hour and asked to confess. She confessed and she said she was a witch, but what she wouldn't do was name anyone else and that no doubt saved many other people from the same fate. But before she could get to trial, I will hear much more about this perhaps from yourself Lindsey Marchant, before she could get to trial she, died in that period and as a result of that, they didn’t know where to bury her for she had not been convicted as a witch so she still had the presumption of innocence so they couldn’t do away with her in the same way and that’s, therefore, why we now have a place that you can go to where we say that she was and that is so powerful, when we’re able to see that and that's part of the reason that we're here, right here today at this particular area, because of course, I'm sad to say, that Fife was one of the particular hot spots for the execution of witches.

So, what I want and what a number of people here, there’s, I should say, somewhere in the crowd there is Sara Sheridan. Sara wrote a brilliant book called Where are the Women?, I read her book and that was part of my inspiration for this, it’s a great book which goes around renaming all the places that are named by men as places to commemorate women and that was one of the original thoughts I had, we need that female, we need that female visibility.

But what I want and what I want with the other people involved in the campaign, like my friend Zoe Venditozzi, who we’re going to do a podcast speaking to the women around Scotland and my friend Cameron Rattray who’s taking photographs here, who’s documenting all this… what we want is, we want a pardon for those women who were convicted as witches, so a recognition publicly, that that should never have happened and that those people should never have been convicted. But like Lilias, there were so many people who in fact died before they ever got to trial because of torture. So, for those people, we can’t get a pardon because they were never convicted. We want an apology, a public apology for those people to be made in parliament and the third and arguably most important thing is, we want a public memorial so that people come to hear and know and understand about our past history.

If recent events have taught us anything, in relation to the Black Lives Matter campaign, is that statues are important to people, and that people take interest in these things. And it's important I think that we have that visibility of what happened.

So, when I was asked by Kate to come along today and to unveil this plaque, I absolutely jumped at the chance because it's, the start of something which I think could be huge, unfortunately, as Kate’s already alluded to, you could put a trail all the way round Scotland and all the way round Europe. But I’m very, very glad to be here right at the very start with the first of the three bronze plaques that are between here and Torryburn and I'm now going to, I’m now going to unveil the plaque.

I'm delighted now to introduce Lindsey Marchant that’s going to come and speak to you in some more detail.

Lindsey Marchant

Hi and welcome to Culross, thanks for coming, it’s amazing, what an amazing turnout. I'd like to start by saying I'm not a seasoned speaker, so I’m pretty nervous and so I’m going to be reading.

Thanks to Kate and thanks to Heather and Jane who started the whole movement of the memorial trail in Fife and for asking me to speak. And I'd also like to thank the artist, Karen Strang, who I've known for a number of years now. She sent me on the journey of discovering more about the witchcraft trials through her lifelong work of investigation into the women, the poor women who were tortured and killed Back in 2016, which she did an amazing exhibition called Voices from Ashes and I think that, Voices from Ashes is an extremely apt name for, to remember these women by.

Scotland had one of the highest rates of convictions and executions. Four times the European average in fact, accounting for nearly four thousand of the sixty thousand Europe-wide.

As you're probably aware, Scotland had one of the highest rates of convictions and executions. Four times the European average in fact, accounting for nearly four thousand of the sixty thousand Europe-wide, sixteen percent of which were men. The most accurate figures, which comes from the latest, extensive research from Edinburgh University cites three-thousand, eight-hundred and thirty-seven of which six-hundred and twenty-five are unnamed. Sorry, if I go over some of the facts that you already mentioned. Thirty-two were from Culross and nineteen from Torryburn.

But who were the women?

They were not, as popular culture likes to embrace, midwives or healers, who actually counted to around four percent of the total. The majority, sixty-four percent, were middle class, often over forty, widowed or unmarried, twenty-nine percent were the poorest strata and six percent actually Lairds or nobility. Witches were also seen as hereditary and so often members of the same family would be unlucky enough to be accused together and indeed in subsequent generations. It would seem that by definition, a witch could be anyone and in its strictest sense, a witch was an enemy of God, a maleficent Devil worshiper and ultimately an enemy of the State. The weaker sex, also less able to resist the temptations of the Devil. My Gran used to say there would be no bad women if there were no bad men - the other way round, sorry, if there were no bad men, there would be no bad women - so that carries on to the present day, it's still in our culture as we speak.

With the reformation, civil war looming or at large, and increased jurisdictional powers given by the Scottish State to the localised Kirk Sessions of the Church of Scotland, the male dominated parish elite were to see their Calvinistic Godly discipline meted out with fervour and ruthlessness. This was not a direct money-making endeavour but a way to keep total control of the communities and largely illiterate communities would have had a genuine fear of witches based on the words and interpretations of the Bible by the local revered Minister. Indeed, the main profiteers were all levels of servants, jailers, executioners and witch-prickers.

No doubt, the publication of Demonology, by James VI in 1597, which is also the year that the first part of the Palace was built, which would have set a precedent for rule makers. One can say here that Catholic practices, the practice of carrying faith charms, folklore, fairies and many beliefs, which had previously brought comfort and had been part of Scottish culture for centuries, became the focus of the new system.

It's also created a pressure-cooker environment of fear, intimidation and power politics in which local quarrels over possessions and land and other aspects of everyday life became inflamed. As a resident of this beautiful Burgh, I can attest that this still happens on some level.

The trials came in waves of hysteria and were mostly held in local courts. Evidence was extracted mainly by sleep deprivation, causing hallucinations and lurid confessions (although these were likely contrived by their accusers due to their formulaic nature, especially in the High Court of Edinburgh). The Reverend Allan Logan, the legendary Minister of Torryburn, was a master witch pricker, famed throughout Scotland for his witch-hunting skills and we know, was successful in his condemnation of Lilias Addie. After their torments, they were usually strangled and then burned at the stake, although sometimes burned alive or hung.

Notably, in the trial of Catherine Sands and her four ‘accomplices’, Isobel Inglis, Agnes Hendries and Jonet Hendries in 1675, the accusations were so formulaic and stereotypical, i.e. carnal copulation with the devil, the attendance at sabbats held in deserted churches (which was actually the West Kirk up above Culross), giving themselves over from the tops of their heads to the toes of their feet and receiving the mark of the devil. They apparently all made these confessions, which beggars’ belief and we can relate these detailed confessions to the case of Lillias Addie, later in 1704. Proving that there was a certain ‘ticking of boxes’.

Another notable case I won't go on too long. We've just got a little bit more. Another notable case that is, uh, that is with a written account was of Helen Elliot in 1684 (from Culross) and written by a person of great honesty and sincerity, Alexander Colvil. He writes that the poor woman had to be carried to her place of execution in a chair, by four men, as she had broken her legs and belly. Having been incarcerated in the “Steeple of Culross”, which in this case would have actually been up at the Abbey as at that time the steeple wasn’t on the Townhouse, so she had tried to escape and fallen and broken her legs and her body. She had had her legs secured in stocks by her jailers, but somehow the devil had managed to release her and throw her from the tower. So, her jailers said. More likely is that her jailers were negligent and had to make up a story to protect themselves. Poor terrified Helen, broken and burned.

Finally, these are just a couple of cases and I've not gone into detail about some of the gruesome and inventive tortures these women endured even although this is why we are here. Too often, you can hear titillating misinformation and glamorising of the gory details of their suffering in the name of entertainment and money making.

I think it's important for the wider public to remember these victims as real people and not immaterial to our own lives.

I think it's important for the wider public to remember these victims as real people and not immaterial to our own lives. They were mothers, daughters, cousins, sisters and living a hard life in a tumultuous early modern Scotland. Female inequality and persecution continue around the world to this day and in some way, the recognition of these historical injustices and the victims themselves, can shine a light for all women.

Sara Kelly

First of all, I have gifts to give to Claire, thank you very much. We have given Claire some mini discs, there are three of these discs and we’ve got some mini discs made and Claire’s got them to remember the occasion by. They are absolutely beautiful, but we couldn’t get enough made to sell them today.

So, what I’d like to say is thank you very much for coming. We are absolutely on the verge of making a big thing here. The Facebook is growing every day, we are getting new members every day. We are becoming a constituted body and the idea is this is just the first of these events and we want to spread them across Scotland and eventually to have a national memorial, hopefully, somewhere in this district.

Please do sign up. Please do contribute. If you want to join up and be a valued member and be able to contribute, we have meetings once a month on Zoom, properly social distanced, and so you can give your opinions, give your ideas and help us to make the project really work.

Thank you very much for coming along today and let's get this thing going.

There is a conference, I nearly forgot. There is a virtual conference on 8th November and I’m looking for contributors, so please come along and see me if you would like to contribute. I’m going to get Lindsey to record what she said cos so few people heard it and we will get that on to the conference as well as Claire.

Thank you very much for coming.



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