Comment: We should learn from this dark history

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IT is very hard for us to understand today how hundreds of women came to be burned at the stake in Edinburgh four centuries ago.

Even the notion of summoning the devil or possessing others with evil spirits seems downright bizarre to our modern minds.

However, the real reasons why many of these women found themselves on trial and executed on the Castle Esplanade are likely to be much more familiar to us. Revenge and the settling of scores no doubt motivated many of the witnesses who made extraordinary claims about what they had seen their female neighbours getting up to after dark.

The brutality of the witchcraft trials of the 16th and 17th centuries were underpinned by a way of thinking that we really struggle to fathom. The very idea of attributing things that we don’t understand to sorcery is so alien to our way of thinking that it is almost incomprehensible.

That should not, of course, stop us contemplating what happened then and trying to learn from such a dark period in our nation’s history. This understanding is something that is happening increasingly in recent years around the world, including close to home in Prestonpans.

In Salem, Massachusetts, the scene of probably the world’s most famous witch trials, there is a simple garden of remembrance where visitors can quietly ponder what happened there centuries before. The Norwegian town of Vardo has achieved the same thing with a strikingly modern visitor centre telling the stories of the women who died there.

There are very different approaches to commemorating these horrific events in the places where they happened. But all are united in having a simple dignity, marking the lives of the women who were tortured and killed – and debunking the storybook image of witches as cackling hags with warts and broomsticks.

Something similar should be welcomed here in the Capital.