The Memorial Project Commemorating the Victims of the Orkney Witchcraft Trials
We're grateful to Helen Woodsford-Dean and Ragnhild Ljosland for allowing us to reproduce this article, originally published in Commemorating the Victims of the Orkney Witchcraft Trials, New Orkney Antiquarian Journal, Volume 9 (published by Orkney Heritage Society).
This introductory article is intended to provide historical and cultural context for the Orkney Heritage Society’s project to commemorate the victims of the historic Witchcraft Trials in Orkney, and to describe its journey from inception to realisation. In Scotland, the witchcraft trials fall within the period when the Witchcraft Act was effective, from 1563 to its repealing in 1736. The Scottish witch prosecutions are connected with similar events and ideas in other European Countries (Goodare 2007, 26-50), where prosecutions began a century earlier, as one can see in the infamous witch-hunter’s handbook Malleus Maleficarum, published in Germany in 1487.
The second half of the 16th century was a turbulent time in more ways than one. The Middle Ages had come to an end, but the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were yet to come. Scotland during the period of the witch trials can be characterised as a ‘middle-range’ society with elements both of ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’ thinking (Goodare and Miller 2007, 3). Witchcraft, and the influence of the Devil and his agents, the fairies, were greatly feared in the communities. There was a genuine belief that witchcraft could be the cause of misfortune or illness, as well as a widespread folk practice of healing with plants, charms and rituals which could be brought up in witchcraft trials if a testimony against someone was sought. Witches were believed to derive their supernatural powers from the Devil or from evil spirits such as the fairies. Any mysterious happenings, or coincidences, could be used to infer this relationship, or witches could have been seen in the Devil’s or fairies’ company or might confess to it (Hollinrake, 2015; Marwick 1991, 345-48; Rendall, 2012).
While the witch trials were not directly caused by the shift from Catholicism to Protestantism, the Reformation was yet another event in this period which shook the foundations of society. The most prominent intellectuals of the period were ministers (Goodare and Miller 2007, 4) (John Knox himself supported and may even have contributed to authoring the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 (Goodare 2005, 39-67; Macdonald 2017, 637-52)), and in the years following the Scottish Reformation the Presbyterian Church (Among the Gaelic speaking Catholics of the Highlands, witchcraft was less prosecuted, although people still believed in the power of witchcraft (Henderson 2007, 95-118) and its officials became a dominant force with the authority to define which beliefs and practices were sacred and acceptable and which were profane and unacceptable (Goodare and Miller 2007, 10) Practices not controlled by the church were deemed magical. The loss of the cult of saints would have left a spiritual void in people’s lives. Goodare and Miller (2007, 15) remark that perhaps the Calvinist form of Protestantism that was on offer in post-Reformation Scotland did not provide enough spiritual or physical comfort, particularly in the first decades after 1560. Fears about the causes of illness and misfortune were complex in early modern society and disease narratives were expressed by the sufferer and their families, rather than outsiders such as priests, ministers or even physicians. This meant that believing that misfortune was the result of demonic intervention through the actions of witches, or of dangerous spirits themselves, allowed society the means to counteract the harm done. In Scotland, the Protestant kirk removed this aspect of religious worship, but the alternatives of prayer and personal contemplation were not entirely adequate.
Instead, a prevailing belief emerged of the world being in the grip of diabolic forces. The Devil and his works were apparent everywhere: supernatural threats abounded, coupled with a lack of heavenly assistance. Engaging in folk-practices deemed as ‘witchcraft’ was one way in which people sought stability, security and control (Hollinrake 2015, and personal comment). The earliest preserved written source on the topic of Scottish witchcraft after the Witchcraft Act itself was the pamphlet “Newes from Scotland: Declaring the damnable life of Doctor Fian a notable sorcerer, who was burned at Edenbrough in Ianuarie last”, published in London in 1591. It details what it claims to be a true account of the witchcraft trials held at North Berwick (University of Glasgow n.d.). This was a chain of trials lasting two years, 1590-92, which catalysed efforts in Scotland to expose, try and execute witches over the next century. The North Berwick trials are now best known for the king’s personal involvement. Travelling home from Denmark with his newly wedded wife, James VI and his ships were hit by a ferocious storm, which James thought had been raised by witches. The trials at North Berwick were held in an attempt to hold someone responsible. King James VI went on to write his own tract on witchcraft and witch hunting: Daemonologie, published in 1597. The views of the king naturally became influential, and in Orkney King James’ first cousin Earl Patrick Stewart was having his own problems: Succeeding his father to the earldom in 1593, Patrick immediately fell victim to a murder attempt when his brother John tried to poison him (Anderson 1992, 49-52).
In the intellectual climate created by the king and the North Berwick trials, it was easy for Patrick to explain the poisoning as the result of witchcraft. The Stenness woman Alesoun (Alison) Balfour was arrested under charge of having prepared the poison. She was brought to Kirkwall, where she was imprisoned and tortured. Alesoun withstood her own torture but could not bear to see her little daughter tortured. Alesoun Balfour was the first of 72 people known to have been persecuted in the Orkney witchcraft trials between 1594 and 1708 (Goodare et al, 2003). In content, the Orkney witchcraft trials were no different to those elsewhere in non-Gaelic Scotland, but in frequency they peaked here in certain years because of political circumstances, food shortages, or chain trials where one trial led to more accusations and prosecutions in turn, making Orkney among the worst affected areas per head of population. The east of Scotland, including Orkney, was worse affected by witch trials than the west because the prosecutions here were fully administered by the Kirk Sessions and Presbyteries. Also, it seems that some individuals, in Orkney notably Henry Aitken, Sheriff Depute from 1611 to 1615 and Henry Smith, minister successively of Hoy, Walls, Flotta and then Shapinsay from 1621 to 1664, were keener than others to expose witches, so there is a personal element where one can see a cluster of trials taking place while such a person is in office. On the other hand, Bishop George Graham (1615-1638) was said to be “indifferent to witchcraft” (Craven 1897, 189) and thus possibly someone who may have slowed persecution down during his time in office.
Law, prosecution and punishment
The ninth parliament of Mary Queen of Scots passed the Scottish Witchcraft Act in 1563 and subsequently the General Assembly of the Kirk issued a series of Condemnatory Acts that were sent out to every Presbytery; these placed an injunction on every kirk to vigilantly seek out witches. The Witchcraft Act stood until 1736, when it was replaced by a law outlawing the act of presenting yourself as someone with magical powers, as by then the elite of society no longer believed there was such a thing as real witchcraft. This new law had a maximum penalty of one year’s imprisonment, and executions for witchcraft thereby came to an end (Goodare et al. 2003 Introduction).
The Witchcraft Act of 1563 prohibited witchcraft, sorcery and necromancy (necromancy involved summoning of demons and was a learned concept distinct from witchcraft (Goodare and Miller 2007, 5)), and was applied to widespread folk practices of herbal medicine, charms and rituals. Some trial records show a demonic element such as dancing with the Devil, while others do not and are purely based on practices of healing or harming, cursing, foretelling, controlling weather, influencing fortune, and similar traditional practices. Julian Goodare and Joyce Miller (Goodare and Miller 2007, 12) observe that “for most, popular witchcraft belief was not a conscious attempt to follow a set of beliefs which rivalled religion, but merely a wish to continue participating in aspects of their cultural mores whether or not they fully believed in, or understood, them.” So widespread were these folk practices that it must be assumed that many more people did these things than those who were taken to trial.
The witchcraft trials were held in several types of court, including local church courts, Privy Councils, travelling “Circuit courts”, regular local criminal courts, and the highest criminal court, i.e. the Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh (Goodare et al. 2003 Introduction). A person accused of witchcraft would normally be tried first before a minister and a Kirk session because of the special injunction placed upon the Kirk to seek out witches. These were not criminal courts, however, and they could only order punishments in the form of fines or acts of public penitence. In Orkney, those accused of more serious crimes were tried by a sheriff or church court in Kirkwall, which was held in the south transept chapel of St Magnus Cathedral, or they were sent to Edinburgh. In Kirkwall, fifteen men, all elders or landowners, were chosen as jurors. The accused was held in Marwick’s Hole – a bottle-necked dungeon, built into the wall of St Magnus Cathedral, in which the accused was confined (Marwick 1991, 373).
Torture was used to extract confessions but the psychological stress of the judicial process and the discomfort of being held in Marwick’s Hole would probably have been sufficient to break anyone of a nervous disposition. Many of the accused were brought to Kirkwall for trial from some of the remote northern islands; the whole experience for them must have been terrifying and confusing (Marwick 1991, 373).
Those found guilty would be sentenced to death. Unlike in many other countries, Scottish witches were not burned alive, but instead strangled (“worrit” / “werryt” at the stake) before burning. In Orkney, this took place at Gallow Ha, at the top of Clay Loan: the site for public executions in Kirkwall in centuries past.
Accusations and practices
While incomplete records make it impossible to know precisely how many persons were accused and tried for witchcraft, it is still possible to have some idea of how many were affected both in Orkney and in Scotland as a whole. Edinburgh University’s Survey of Scottish Witchcraft project accounted for 3,212 named individuals plus at least 625 unnamed people accused of witchcraft in Scotland between 1590 and 1727; of these, 72 were from Orkney (Goodare et al 2003, Introduction). What is not known is how many records might have been lost, or how many were tried without a proper record being kept at all. As an estimate, a Scottish total of 67% of those tried for witchcraft lost their lives through execution (Martin and Miller 2007, 51-70). In most cases, both with regards to Orkney and Scotland in general, the sentence is not recorded (Martin and Miller 2007, 56).
From the trial records, it is evident that the majority of the accused (85%) were women, and Julian Goodare (Goodare 2007, 27) ascribes this fact to pre-existing stereotypes, including the idea that witches were women. If someone had had a misfortune this stereotype would lead them to search their memory for a woman in their community with whom they had had a quarrel, and especially threats or curses that might have been uttered (Goodare 2007, 26-27). When an accusation had been brought up, it then prompted other members of the community to contribute similar memories of the person, which could reach many years back in time. The accused therefore tended to be women of middle to older age, who had lived in the community for some time.
Many of the accused are recorded as vagabonds or “wanderers” in the court records. This was because some alleged witches, who had initially escaped a sentence of execution, perhaps on insufficient evidence, would have first been punished by being banished from their native parish and subsequently would have had to survive on their wits, whilst being hounded from place to place (Marwick 1991, 368-71).
Below are some examples of the ‘crimes’ recorded from the Orkney witchcraft trials. Most of these do not much resemble what would today be associated with the word ‘witchcraft’; rather, they are more reminiscent of what would be termed as praying, or using herbal medicine, or as ‘superstition’, slander, or downright co-incidence.
Healing with plants, minerals, charms, and rituals
The main allegations against Orkney’s witches were for causing or curing death and disease in humans and livestock (Marwick 1991, 353). This could be done using plants, stones or metal, or by charms or rituals, for example transferring illness onto something else. It is rare to find Orkney’s witches being accused of using herbs, although James Knarstoun (of Orphir, tried 1633) rubbed the arms and legs of a woman with an “oyle, made of mekillwort” (deadly nightshade) as a cure for sciatica (Marwick 1991, 362). Katherine Grant (tried 1623) gave a man algae to eat as a cure, Jonet Reid (of Sandwick, 1643) offered a farmer mint to keep mice away from his grain, while Katherine Cragie (tried 1640) offered another woman a herb to make a love potion (Black 2010, 18-29).
Some of the magical formulae, charms and rituals that were used have been preserved and in these the Christian element is evident. They make explicit references to God, Christ, the Holy Ghost or saints, and many of them have actions that are carried out three times or contain a number of lines or words that are divisible by three in reference to the Holy Trinity. This charm, for example, was for curing sprains (Marwick 1991, 357):
Oor Saviour rade (i.e. rode),
His foal slade (i.e. slid);
Oor Saviour lichtit doon (i.e. alighted).
Sinew tae sinew,
Vein tae vein,
Joint tae joint,
Bane tae bane,
Mend du i’ Geud’s neem! (i.e. God’s name)
The charm below was used by Christian Gow (tried 1624) to cure a bewitched or “forspoken” horse:
Thrie things hath the forspoken,
Heart, tung, and eye almost;
Thrie things sall the mend agane,
Father, Sone, and Holie Ghost.
In the Orkney Heritage Society memorial project, this charm was used as one of the sources that inspired the creation of a memorial song, led by Corwen Broch at the creative day in October 2018, and sung by Corwen Broch, Kate Fletcher and the participants at the inauguration day in March 2019.
Stones, water and sea-water are often used alongside these charms. This practice was widespread in folk healing across Scotland, and relates back to a story where St Columba is said to have used a white stone dipped in water to cure a Pictish king, and thereby persuade him to convert to Christianity (Beith 1995). Orkney examples include Margaret Sandieson (of Sanday, tried 1635), who touched her patient’s head three times with each of three small stones which cured the patient. Katherine Grant (tried 1623) pushed a distempered cow backwards into the sea until it was washed by nine surges. Three handfuls of each wave were then washed over its back and it was brushed with a bunch of burnt malt straw (Marwick 1991, 356, 358-9). Jonet Reid (tried 1643), besides using words, put nine blue stones in a vessel of water, then used the water to wash patients to cure them of the “boneshaw”, i.e. sciatica (Black 2010). Jonet is also accused of curing “heart cake” in a child by pouring melted lead into a bucket of water to “cast” the “heart cake”. This ritual is also known from elsewhere is Scotland, as a cure for insanity (Beith 1995, 59-60). It was widely believed at the time that insanity was caused by the heart having travelled to the wrong position within the body and, in order to move it back, a sane person would first invoke the Trinity, then pour melted lead into a vessel of water which had been placed on the patient’s head – as in Jonet’s trial – when the lead hit the water, it would solidify. The shape of it would be examined and, if it in any way resembled a heart, the lead was taken and turned around with the intention that this would cause the patient’s heart to go back to its proper place.
The 17th century understanding of cause and effect was different to our modern understanding, and this led to accusations of cursing where the cause and effect in hindsight do not seem to be linked. Orkney’s witches were believed to be able to hex (curse) simply by looking, ganting (yawning or blowing breath) and touching. They might also issue vague threats, or sometimes quite specific ones, or loosen their hair to fortify their workings. For example, when Elspeth Cursetter (tried 1629) was refused access to a house in Birsay, she sat down on the doorstep and expressed an ill wish on the people of the house. Two weeks later, the owner’s best horse fell and broke its bones, and this was thought to be due to the curse she had put on the owner (Black 2010). Katherine Grant (tried 1623) only had to look over her shoulder at a man, turning up the white of her eye, whereupon the man felt ill (Black 2010). Marable Couper (of Birsay, tried 1624) had a quarrel with her neighbours, and when they had some misfortune with their cattle the blame fell on Marable (Rendall 2020, 31-40).
Many witches were believed to have second sight or the ability to see into the future. The men of the island of Hoy would ask Bessie Skebister (of Walls, tried 1633) if the fishing boats would come safely home or not. There was a proverb on Hoy that “Giff Bessie say it is weill, all is weill” (Dalyell 1835, 491). Magnus Grieve’s only recorded offence, causing him to stand trial for witchcraft, was to have walked backwards in a harrow to see who his wife would be and how many children they would have (Black 2010). Related to second sight is also the reported ability of some witches to hear or see what is going on at another location. Elspeth Cursiter was said to know what food was served and what was being spoken about at a party she had not attended by shape-shifting into a bee (Black 2010). This accusation echoes King James’ accusations of the North Berwick witches, whom he suspected of having heard what he said to his new wife in their wedding bed.
Influencing weather, catch and luck
With people living off subsistence agriculture and fishing, much depended on good weather, crops and catches. Marion Richart (tried 1633) was accused of washing a cat’s head and feet in the water in which a fisherman kept his bait, then pouring this water over the man and his baskets – presumably as a spell to increase his catch (Marwick 1991, 350-52). Katherine Cragie, in her second trial (1643) was accused of calming the wind and being paid in cloth for her service. She also raised a storm (Black 2010). However, the so-called Orkney Storm Witches, made famous by Sir Walter Scott the Victorian novelist, mainly flourished in Stromness much later, in the 19th century (Marwick 1991, 366-68).
Liaison with the Devil, demons and fairies
Witches were believed to derive their supernatural powers from the Devil or from evil spirits such as the fairies. Any mysterious happenings, or coincidences, could be used to infer this relationship, or witches could have been seen in the Devil’s or fairies’ company or might confess to it (Hollinrake 2015; Marwick 1991, 345-48; Rendall 2012). They could also be tested for carrying the Devil’s mark, which involved pricking the body to identify a numb spot.
For example, Marion Richart (tried 1633) was seen with the Devil “in likeness of a black man”. And the Devil apparently taught Jonet Irving (tried 1616) “if she bore ill-will to anybody” to look on them “with open eyes and pray evil for them in his name so that she should get her heart’s desire”. Issobell Sinclair (tried 1633) was accused that during seven years “six times at the quarters of the year, she has been controlled by the fairies; and that by them, she has the second sight” (These examples and quotes are all from Marwick 1991, 349-350).
The case against Barbara Boundie (tried 1644) is remarkable (Willumsen 2013, 161-77). She was accused of dancing with the Devil and 99 witches at “Muness” (possibly Moaness, Hoy), but when during the trial it was suggested to her that she saw another woman, Marjorie Paplay there, she bravely denied it. Barbara Boundie’s case also illustrates the connection between fairies and the Devil. Having fallen unconscious, and subsequently rendered speechless, this was taken as a sign that Barbara had been away with the fairies, and fairies were understood as being in league with the Devil.
The Orkney memorial
Phase 1: Planning and funding; and memorial design
Between 2013 and 2019, Dr Ragnhild Ljosland and Helen Woodsford-Dean worked with the Orkney Heritage Society to install a small memorial to the victims of Orkney’s witch-trials. The original inspiration for the project came from a lecture given by Professor Liv Helene Willumsen in 2012, invited by the Centre for Nordic Studies, University of the Highlands and Islands, in which she made comparisons between the witch trials in Northern Norway with those in Scotland, and spoke about the modern memorial at Steilneset in Finnmark, Norway (Willumsen 2020, 19-30).
Although an installation of the scale at Steilneset was unlikely to be viable in Orkney, discrete memorials to those accused of witchcraft already exited elsewhere in the UK, which had been met with quiet approval from the public. For example, a brass horseshoe plaque has been laid at Paisley to commemorate the execution of seven people accused of witchcraft there in 1697. The memorial at Forfar Loch Country Park is a simple headstone in a clearing, inscribed with the words “The Forfar Witches, Just People”.
From its inception, Gallow Ha in Kirkwall was the preferred location for the Orkney memorial, as this was the site of public executions. Gallow Ha is situated at the top of Clay Loan (HY 453 104), with a magnificent view over the city of Kirkwall. Today it takes the form of a bare patch of green land, strangely undeveloped amongst otherwise quite densely built residential housing. The initial preference was for the installation to be sited directly within the circular area of box hedging which allegedly marks the site of the town gallows in the past. A number of ideas and materials were discussed, including a sundial because of the combined symbolism of sunlight as a natural, positive image, together with time as a healer. The particular design of the sundial was taken from the grave slab of Patrick Prince (died 1673), which can still be seen in the south side of the west end of the nave of St Magnus Cathedral. The original concept is shown in the photomontage in Illustration 1 above. The sundial would be made of a single piece of blue-grey Orkney sandstone, shaped like one of the Standing Stones of Stenness, inscribed with a memorial text.
The next task was to raise awareness and interest in the project by consulting with interested parties including local officials, heritage charities and organisations, community representatives, faith representatives, and residents.
As the land at Gallow Ha belongs to Orkney Islands Council (OIC), it was suggested that the proposal be put to OIC’s Asset Management Sub-Committee, with a detailed report to elected members. OIC advised that their preference was to communicate via a lead organisation. The Orkney Heritage Society (OHS) were approached for this purpose, because of their expressed interest and excellent reputation, and their experience of successfully delivering heritage projects. In addition, the Society’s founder member, Ernest Marwick, did extensive research on the Orkney witch trials and made relevant court records available in transcription. OHS’ Committee responded supportively to the detailed proposal, but raised practical concerns about the costs, future maintenance, viability, insurance and, most importantly, the health and safety issues associated with a metal gnomon sticking out at eye-level of the sun-dial. In response to these concerns, the memorial design was simplified and reduced in size. The revised suggestion was to exchange one of the existing flagstones, leading up to the circular box-hedging area, with an inscribed piece of blue-grey Orkney sandstone and the sun-dial rendered in a symbolic and abstract form. The suggested inscription was “They were just folk”, in Orcadian dialect. The design was intended to be sensitive and decorative, without being macabre or offensive. This met with approval by the OHS and the proposal was accepted by OIC’s Asset Management Sub-Committee on 2nd June 2016.
OHS formed a sub-group for the purposes of advancing this project. The working group thus had six members: Helen Woodsford-Dean, Ragnhild Ljosland, Tanya McGill (who had valuable experience with making funding proposals), Lucy Gibbon (who had valuable archive experience), Hayley Green (who had project managing experience), and chaired by Spencer Rosie. Early in 2018 Tanya led OHS’ funding application to OIC’s Cultural Fund which awarded £1000 towards the installation, a creative day, and inauguration events. OIC further advised that no additional permissions were required from them: Planning Permission was not required, and the permissions already granted by elected members in 2016 still stood, as long as the installation was to the standard expected by OIC and this would be most easily achieved by using an OIC approved builder. Orkney Builders Ltd generously offered to complete the installation free of charge.
To make the memorial itself, Colin Watson, who had been the St Magnus Cathedral’s stone-mason (now retired), was approached in order to build as many links with the cathedral as possible due to its historical involvement in the trials. Colin procured a suitable stone, shaped it, and carved the chosen design upon it. Colin is a speaker of Orcadian dialect and he translated the phrase “they were just folk” into Orcadian, completing the carving in early August 2018. The physical installation took place early in 2019.
Phase 2: Community involvement
All members of the project working group were keen to involve the Orkney community, so Tuesday 30th October 2018 was chosen to hold a creative workshop day. This particular date was the nearest viable date to the traditional festival Samhain, (a traditional Celtic festival, in modern times replaced by Halloween, associated with witches) and within the school holidays – the intention was to make the day accessible to families.
Ragnhild and Helen facilitated a day of creative and reflective activities around the whole concept of witch-trials, focusing on their relevance to contemporary society by reflecting on how easily people still ‘blame’ others. The intended end-product was for the Orkney community to produce material to go into a time-capsule to be buried under the memorial stone at Gallow Ha. About 40 participants attended the creative day. In the morning, historical background information was provided as a stimulus to creativity. This was sourced from material from the Orkney Archive (Lucy Gibbon) plus recent archaeological finds (Dan Lee) and presented together with songs (Sarah Jane Gibbon) and storytelling (Marita Lück). After lunch, creative workshops were held: participants were encouraged to make music, tell stories, write, paint, and print. Several of Orkney’s talented writers, artists, musicians and storytellers contributed by performing and running the workshops.
Sheena Graham George made digital voice-recordings of workshop participants reading out the names of the recorded victims of the Orkney witchcraft trials. Jeanne Bouza Rose led a printmaking session, where participants printed colourful designs based on traditional protective marks such as the “witches’ rose”. Amber Connolly led a creative writing workshop, inviting participants to write poems or short stories prompted by a collective brainstorming on the theme of “whispers”. Marita Lück taught participants an Orkney folk story, aided by drawing. Corwen Broch led a song writing workshop, where participants chose lines from genuine 17th century poetry and put it together as the lyrics for a special memorial song. Corwen put the words to a known melody from the period, and composed a second part using the words from Christian Gow’s charm quoted above.
Ragnhild ran one of the workshops; it involved writing letters to some of the accused victims of the witchcraft trials, as a way of communication with the past and future. Workshop participants, in the present, wrote letters addressed to the past victims, i.e. named individuals whose court records are preserved, letting them know how their future now views the trials they underwent. These letters would then be preserved in the time capsule to be buried under the memorial stone, intended to be discovered and opened at an unknown point in the future. The letters would thus become letters from 2018 to a future still unknown, letting people of the future know how those in 2018 viewed the witchcraft trials. In preparation, Ragnhild had made ‘victim profiles’ with silhouettes symbolically representing a selection of the accused victims, each accompanied by a list of the ‘crimes’ for which they had been taken to trial.
To raise awareness ahead of the creative day, these victim profiles were posted on the project’s Facebook page. This inspired Helen to write a poetic response to each victim, some of which were also posted online. The notes on the accused and poetic responses were then published as an e-book They Wur Cheust Folk (Available from: https://www.spiritualorkney.co.uk/books#TheyWurCheustFolk).
Throughout the creative day, participants were invited to fill and ‘charge’ a ‘witch-bottle’, which was kindly made and donated by Andrew Appleby (also known as the “Harray Potter”). ‘Witch bottles’ were one of the forms of counter-magical protection used against witches and witchcraft in the past, particularly the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most often recovered from East Anglia, Essex and Suffolk, they are also known throughout Scotland (Merrifield 1987, 163-68); it is possible that some have been identified in Orkney and these are on display in the Orkney Museum. Needless to say, the witch bottle created for this project was not intended as a trap against witches; instead it was filled with tears, gathered throughout the creative day. This witch bottle was buried in the time capsule with the other output from the day, where one might imagine it would convert any projected ill-thoughts to kindness.
Much of the material produced on the creative day was too large for the time capsule, so it was given to the Orkney Archive to hold. Reduced-size photocopies of these materials were instead put in the capsule. A selection of items was chosen to go in the time capsule, including the witch bottle and a book of prints designed by Jeanne Bouza Rose and produced by workshop participants. The time capsule also contained a USB drive on which all material produced, including out-sized and sound recordings, had been stored digitally. A copy of the material on the USB drive is also stored on a DVD held by the Orkney Archive.
At the end of the creative day, the Orkney Museum was visited in order to view some relevant artefacts, followed by spending some contemplative time at St Magnus Cathedral. At the cathedral a talk was given about Marwick’s Hole (the dungeon in which many of the accused may have been held) and some of the ‘witch’ marks that had been scratched on the walls, possibly as protection. Fran Flett Hollinrake played her haunting tune on fiddle: “Marwick’s Hole” which she had composed for Sheena Graham George’s sound installation.
In the early evening, Ragnhild and Helen provided a guided ‘witchy walk’ through Victoria Street, Kirkwall, to the bottom of Clay Loan. This tour was originally devised by Fran Flett Hollinrake as part of the Kirkwall Town Heritage Initiative (Hollinrake 2015). Although there is a more direct route from St Magnus Cathedral to Gallow Ha via Palace Road, it is possible that the condemned were taken via the road now known as Victoria Street in order to maximise their exposure to the population of Kirkwall – this public condemnation being an important element of the torture and destruction of an alleged witch. From the bottom of Clay Loan, the condemned would have continued up the steep hill of Clay Loan to Gallow Ha and their deaths.
Phase 3: Inauguration Day
The memorial inauguration day was held on Saturday March 9th 2019. This date was chosen because it was the Saturday immediately following International Women’s Day and it was a way of acknowledging that the majority of those accused were women. Honoured guest for the day was Professor Liv Helene Willumsen from the Arctic University of Norway – the original catalyst for the project – who opened the day with a short speech and took part in key aspects of the main activities.
The day started at King Street Halls with Kate Fletcher and Corwen Broch teaching all those present the memorial song which had been composed at the creative day in October. Then the St Magnus Players performed a shortened version of George Mackay Brown’s play Witch, directed by Penny Aberdein (Brown 1977. The text of this play is based on the short story, “Witch”, originally published in A Calendar of Love, 1967, directed by Penny Aberdein. The play was first performed at the St Magnus Festival 1991.). This was a chilling and emotionally charged performance, performed with excellence and feeling. Next, award-winning writer Ashleigh Angus read her short story Unknown, Unknown, death c.1629.
From King Street Halls, participants walked to St Magnus Cathedral for a memorial service of reflection in St Rognvald’s Chapel. Musicians Kate and Corwen played background music from the period. Then, arranged in a circle, eight speakers had been pre-selected to say the Lord’s Prayer, one line at a time, in a variety of dialects and languages which were likely to have been spoken in St Magnus Cathedral during the past 400 years: standard English, Orcadian, Scots, Norwegian, ancient Greek, Latin, Orkney Norn, and Flemish. The speakers were arranged as male/female alternating voices to represent the Orkney community. In the middle of the circle, facing outwards, the lines of the prayer were repeated silently back by Sarah Wilkins and Fran Flett Hollinrake in British Sign Language. This was designed to be symbolic of the way that so many of the alleged historical victims were unable to reply to the charges. Accompanied by Kate and Corwen, Fran Flett Hollinrake then played her composition: “Marwick’s Hole”.
After the cathedral ceremony, participants walked together as an act of contemplation, along Victoria Street and up Clay Loan, retracing the probable route which the condemned took to their deaths.
Once at Gallow Ha, a group of about 50 people gathered for the unveiling of the memorial, including invited guests such as Professor Liv Willumsen, MP Alistair Carmichael, and Rev Fraser McNaughton of St Magnus Cathedral.
Thirteen sheets of material had been prepared and laid to cover the flagstone, along with thirteen short readings. Thirteen readers each read two lines of the following poem, composed by Rev. David McNeish and Helen. With each reading, one ‘veil’ from the flagstone was removed:
The flames die down, the embers grey
The wind whips up their dust
Another victim’s bones decay
And cry of breach of trust
How many stood in judgement here
Accepting what was done?
In silence, hope will disappear
Injustice then has won
Remember then those that they chose
And grieve at cruelty
They could not win, could only lose
Accusers walking free
Pain, anger, blame, and hurt, and hate
Rejection, terror, fear
This act demands they dissipate
No scapegoats needed here
Our witches now have diff’rent names
Yet still we dread their sight
The powerful making more false claims
That just inflame the fright
Truth will illuminate these lies
And heal this ancient crime
Sunlight bestowed upon the skies
Redeems the passing time
We pledge to stand against the crowd
When might’s not right but merely loud
The topmost veil was black to represent a shroud, then ten sheets of red flame-like material, followed by a grey sheet to represent ash, and finally a white sheet to represent fresh starts. The last reader, Rev. David McNeish, led those assembled to repeat the final rhyming couplet as a community oath. The symbolism was about recognising how easily witch-hunts can take place and about being brave enough to stand up, as a lone voice, against mob rule when required – and as necessary today as in the past.
To conclude the inauguration, Kate and Corwen led those assembled in singing the memorial song specially composed for the project. After a brief pause for lunch, participants returned to King Street Halls for an afternoon of academic lectures. Chaired by Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, the speakers were Professor Liv Helene Willumsen, Tim Morrison, Jocelyn Rendall, Dan Lee and Marita Lück. The papers from this mini conference form the core of the present publication. The day’s events finished in fine Orkney tradition with a raffle, the main prize being a bottle of Highland Park whisky generously donated by the distillery.
Although this project took seven years from inception to inauguration, taking time was necessary because the historical events which it commemorates are painful ones for any community to revisit. As this project had the potential to become controversial, Orkney Heritage Society wanted to ensure that the project progressed gently and considerately in full consultation with the community and stake-holders throughout, to make certain that everyone with concerns had been fully listened and attended to. The process was as important as the end result.
Ragnhild, Helen and the other working group members were motivated throughout by a joint belief that it is appropriate, viable and desirable for Orkney to have its own memorial to the victims of the historic witch-trials. The intention was to install a positive memorial with the message of “never again” and to commemorate an important episode in Orkney’s history, and to be thankful that such cruelty no longer occurs at an institutional level. The aim behind the project was to look ahead together to the future as a community; a community that is free of prejudice and remains optimistic about continuing to be so in the future. The memorial incorporates a quiet and persistent power in its unobtrusiveness, with a different type of potency to a more highly visible monument. The finished installation has now been handed back to OIC, and it is hoped that the costs of future maintenance will be minimal.
Phase 4: Published material and future plans
The publication Commemorating the Victims of the Orkney Witchcraft Trials (New Orkney Antiquarian Journal, Volume 9, published by Orkney Heritage Society) is part of an attempt to create a legacy of the project, comprising printed output and digitally accessible materials. In the process of creation, on an updated website for Orkney Heritage Society, is a section known as the “virtual memorial”, containing historical information, information about the project, and creative outputs produced for the project such as poetry and other creative writing, artwork made by the community, sound recordings, scans of output from the creative day, and photos. The “virtual memorial” will remain open for further submissions over the years should community groups such as schools wish to add to it. Some of the artwork produced on the creative day has meanwhile also been exhibited on the project’s Facebook page, and this page remains open as a forum for discussion and interaction.
The memorial itself has become an additional, albeit minor, tourist ‘attraction’ for Kirkwall and highlights a fascinating part of Orkney’s history. It features on a Kirkwall guided app (The Kirkwall Heritage App., developed through Kirkwall Town Heritage Initiative) launched in 2019. It is hoped that the memorial site may become a place for quiet reflection.
There is further potential for developing the memorial site at Gallow Ha by replacing further existing flagstones with inscribed stones, commemorating other victim-groups who were executed at Gallow Ha; perhaps the whole path might eventually become a line of different memorials in due course?
Hear more about the memorial project here, in this short talk recorded by Helen for the Scottish Pagan Federation's recent online conference.
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Rendall, Jocelyn. 2012. “The Orkney Witchcraft Trials.” Paper given at Women’s Things Conference, Stromness.
The Kirkwall Heritage App, developed through Kirkwall Town Heritage Initiative. Downloadable from Google Play at https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=uk.co.audiotrails.kirkwall and App Store at https://apps.apple.com/us/app/kirkwall-history-heritage/id1435074849.
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Willumsen, Liv H, 2020. “Memorials to the Victims of the Witchcraft Trials: Orkney and Finnmark, Norway” in Commemorating the Victims of the Orkney Witchcraft Trials, New Orkney Antiquarian Journal, Vol 9, published by Orkney Heritage Society
All photographs are copyright Mark Woodsford-Dean.