The Witch Tiles
Caroline Anderson recently shared a photo of three tiles she created at her ceramics class on our Facebook group. The response was hugely positive, with kind comments and interest from around the globe. We're happy to invite her now to tell us more about her inspiration and the accused witches she featured on the tiles.
As part of an Exploring Ceramics course through Argyll College, with Lesley Burr as the tutor, the brief allowed us to choose a narrative to base our makes on. As I am also studying for a degree on Scotland’s Culture and Heritage through the the University of the Highlands and Islands, and have had a long-standing interest in the persecution of (mostly) women as witches in the 16th and 17th centuries I felt it appropriate to marry the two together.
The narrative I used was a book by Jackie Morris and Robert MacFarlane called The Lost Spells, mainly because the illustrations in the book are stunning and the sentiment behind the book was appropriate.
I am in awe of the movement to ensure those accused, persecuted, and executed in Scotland receive a pardon, and felt strongly that in my own wee way I could remember three women in the Witch Tiles.
... by remembering these three, and in a very small way, I am keeping their memory alive and sharing their story with others.
Sadly, when I finished the tiles and started writing my submission for the course, it hit me that in order to do the accused justice, I would need to create a few thousand more tiles. However, as some kind person pointed out, by remembering these three, and in a very small way, I am keeping their memory alive and sharing their story with others. I also feel for those not remembered, those without a voice or even names and are just listed as 'many witches' so the Witch Tiles are also for them.
In folklore and superstition, the hare has long been associated with witchcraft and that’s why I chose it as the central motif for the tiles. A hare is also mentioned in the Lost Spells – “Snow hare whitens as the year turns dark – by the Cairn of the Wolf, in the Glen of the Lark.”
Much has been written about the woman who I based the first tile on, Isobel Gowdie (Issobell Goudie) from Auldearn. It is suspected that Isobel was a member of a shamanic cult. She made several confessions which included meeting with the devil, raising an unchristened child and using it to make a potion. Further confessions referred to using elf shot to cause harm. Isobel also claimed that she was able to shapeshift into a jackdaw, whilst others changed into a cat and a hare, hence the hare motif. Whilst the Sourcebook of Scottish Witchcraft lists Isobel’s fate as unknown, her outlandish claims would, I’m sure, have inevitably led to her death.
The next tile for Janet Clark (Spalding) from Chanonry who was executed by being strangled and burned in 1590 in Aberdeenshire. She was accused of folk healing after having been implicated by another woman accused of being a witch. It was said she made an enchantment for a woman to put in her master’s meat. When her home was searched, she supposedly had a kist full of men’s secret members made of clay. The trial record says she was “dilatit of certane crymes of witchcraft”. She was strangled and burnt on the Castle Hill in Edinburgh. All her movable goods were kept by the state – potentially to offset the cost of the execution.
The final tile was for Bessie Wright from Perth who was accused in 1628 of being “a witch and abuser of the people against whom ther ar great and many presumptions of witchcrafte, and has bein the occasion of the death of diverse and sundrie persons be applying of physike, and whatever charme is done by her all is done under pretext and cullour of physike.” It is said she used cures including foxglove, plantain, fennel and hyssop. Her fate is unknown, but it can be presumed.
I’m so very grateful to all the resources which helped with the research: the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database; the Gaelic Otherworld by John Gregorson Campbell; The Hathi Trust Website; A Calendar of Cases of Witchcraft in Scotland 1510 to 1727 by George F Black; A Source-Book of Scottish Witchcraft compiled by Larner, Hyde Lee and McLachlan and many others. I am also super grateful to Lesley Burr for sharing her own specific brand of magic with me which enabled me to create the tiles.