Gina Davidson: ‘Witches’ were the victims of dark past

King James I was convinced there was a coven in North Berwick. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
King James I was convinced there was a coven in North Berwick. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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DOUBLE, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble . . . it’s no surprise that Shakespeare made sure of an appearance by a few witches when he wrote Macbeth.

After all, it was 1606 and sitting on the throne was King James I – James VI of Scotland – known persecutor of “witches”. A man for whom the original Witchcraft Act was a little too liberal so had it tightened to ensure more women could be killed; for if there was one witch it obviously meant there had to be others and, lo, denouncing became the hobby of the day.

He was convinced, in particular, that there was a coven in North Berwick, which was trying to cause his death through sorcery (all because he’d had a bit of a rough sea journey and he wanted to string up one of his political rivals for treason).

James was a superstitious man and the religious rifts which existed between Protestants and Catholics had seen a rise in the belief that the arrival of the anti-Christ was nigh.

So God help you if you were a little different, if you were a woman who knew about the botanical properties of plants and what could be used to heal, or a woman who knew how to help others through labour without necessarily being dead at the end of it. Obviously you must have made some kind of indecent pact with the Devil.

Such ludicrous thinking is hard to contemplate these days, but back in the 16th and 17th centuries it was all the royal-seal-of-approval rage. So much so that Scotland was catapulted to the top of the world league of witch killing – more than 3800 supposed witches, 80 per cent of them women – were burned, hanged, drowned or strangled.

It was, as Edinburgh World Heritage pointed out this week, a “dark chapter” in our history – especially Edinburgh’s as the Capital was the site for the majority of the killings. EWH now wants a debate on how to properly remember the “witches” who were put to death at the Castle.

It’s certainly about time. The women who were killed were not witches. They were just people who others didn’t like. They maybe were opinionated, or had a temper, or were “shrewish”, or knew how to use a bread poultice on an infected fingernail. They were elderly, widowed or spinsters, with cats for company or young and attractive and sure enough of themselves to deny men who might want to take advantage.

Without doubt they were women who could not defend themselves against accusations of witchcraft by malicious or jealous neighbours or a man whom they spurned.

They certainly could not withstand tortures which saw them near-drowned or shackled to a wall while their faces were pierced with a sharp, four-pronged fork. It was no surprise they admitted to whatever they were told they had done – and suggested names of others involved.

“A dark chapter” really doesn’t cover it. Yes, these women – all the so-called witches – deserve to be remembered as victims of an appalling time in our history. And the actions of King James and his cohorts should also be officially condemned in any memorial.

We need to Inch closer to centre solution

INCH House, the old property which sits in Inch Park and has been used as a community centre for decades, is once again under threat of closure – this time because it could cost up to £1 million to keep the place safe.

It would be a terrible shame for it to close, given that despite its distance from the Inch housing scheme, it’s incredibly well used. Perhaps the brains behind the Lismore sports facilities also in Inch Park could be brought to bear on the problem.

Chisholm will be a major loss

MPs get a bad press – a lot of the time quite rightly. But the majority are hard-working constituency-focused men and women who go into politics to try and help and spend years doing just that.

Malcolm Chisholm was one of those. He may have held positions with the Scottish Cabinet but he never sought them out. There was no desire to wield power for power’s sake and when his conscience bothered him over the politics of the day he stepped down and returned to the backbenches.

Now he’s retired. He will be missed by the people of Leith whom he’s represented since 1992 and his experience and wise counsel will be sorely missed in Holyrood.

Aim high for a fun-filled day

IF you’re at a loose end with the kids this Easter holiday break, then can I recommend the new Clip ‘n’ Climb at Ratho, part of the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena.

It’s £8 an hour for children and it’s a brilliant way to introduce them to rock climbing – harness on and off they go.

Might even give it a go myself next time.