New national museum proposed to honour Scots convicted of witchcraft

Campaigners seeking a pardon and apology for thousands of Scots persecuted for witchcraft want a museum created to commemorate them.

Friday, 14th May 2021, 8:38 pm
Updated Sunday, 16th May 2021, 12:33 am

The proposed attraction, which is hoped to secure public funding to help get it off the ground, would recall how 3,837 people were accused of witchcraft in Scotland between the 16th and 18th centuries – 85 per cent of them women.

It is thought around 2,500 executions were carried out in Scotland under the Witchcraft Act during several waves of “satanic panic” between 1563 and 1736. The death toll is believed to be five times higher than any other country in Europe.

The museum has been proposed months after the Scottish Government was formally asked to secure justice for all those convicted and executed around the country.

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The idea of a museum has evolved from the initial proposal of a national memorial put forward by the Witches of Scotland campaign after its launch in March 2020 to coincide with International Women’s Day.

Founded by QC Claire Mitchell and writer Zoe Venditozzi, the campaign already has its own podcast and merchandise range.

The museum concept would be based on the Salem Witch Museum, in Massachusetts, which recalls the notorious 17th-century witch trials.

However, the Witches of Scotland campaign has highlighted how just 14 women and five men were executed after being found guilty of witchcraft in Salem. All of their convictions were overturned by 2001 and they are commemorated in a memorial park in Salem.

Portraits depicting women executed for witchcraft in Dalkeith were unveiled in the Midlothian town last year. Picture: Dalkeith Arts

No-one convicted or executed in Scotland has received an apology or pardon.

The museum idea has emerged on the back of a huge response to the campaign and a petition lodged at Holyrood, for which more than 3,400 signatories have been collected. The National Trust for Scotland has been suggested as a potential operator.

Ms Venditozzi said: “During the course of our podcasts, we’ve interviewed a few witch trial museum curators and educators and think that a museum would be a great idea, and indeed an asset to Scotland.

"We’ve come to realise there’s a real gap in our national education about the witch trials and think a museum would help Scots and visitors to get an accurate sense of what created the atmosphere of the trials and how we can avoid anything of that nature happening again.

QC Claire Mitchell at the Witches' Well memorial, on Edinburgh Castle esplanade.

"I’m very passionate about people having access to the facts of their past and think a museum would be a great opportunity to showcase how forward thinking we can be as a nation whilst being thoughtful about our past.

"The museum could build on the great work of the interactive database and cover stories and documentation from all over Scotland, telling the stories of the accused and humanising their terrible ordeals. We wouldn’t want to see displays of instruments of torture or bubbling cauldrons.”

Ms Mitchell added: “We’ve had talks with several politicians who each have an in interest in a museum in their own area due to their unique links and stories.

“Whilst we’re not particularly wedded to where the museum is built, we’re very focused on how the museum should be presented. We think it should be vibrant and engaging and not at all relying on the pointed hat imagery that’s often associated with the witches. The Salem Witch Museum has a tremendous approach, for example.”

Dirleton Castle in East Lothian was used as a prison for women accused of witchcraft in the 17th Century. Picture: Creative Commons.

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A witchpricker was often used by accusers to try to determine who had contact with the devil during the great witchunts of the 16th and 17th Century. Picture: Creative Commons.
Writer Zoe Venditozzi and QC Claire Mitchell set up the Witches of Scotland campaign last year. Picture: Stan Clement-Smith