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It is estimated that in Scotland over 3,000 people were accused of witchcraft during the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries and 84% of them were women. Two thirds of those known accused were executed, and these numbers are only from the existing records. Records of the witch trials in Scotland were meticulous, recording the cost of the tar for burning, rope for binding and even on occasion the cost of ale given to the spectators, but they are in no way complete and will never give us the real number of the dead, though they give us a glimpse of their suffering. In Scotland the witch hunts were more virulent than in England or the rest of Europe, yet there is no large-scale public memorial.
Map of Accused Witches at the University of Edinburgh Website
The recently published map representing the data in the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft is a memorial of sorts. It is a sobering visual reminder of the thousands of accused. It literally puts them on the map. Emma Carroll, a Geology and Physical Geography undergraduate student and intern at the project created the map which can be used by anyone in Scotland or the Scottish diaspora to find their neighbours and ancestors by area. Toggling through the Detention, Trial and Death Location maps is sobering viewing. The myriad charts which breakdown the victims by career—the majority were domestic workers, vagrants, midwives and weavers—is humanising.
The Steilneset Memorial in Vardo, Norway. Photo by Bjarne Riesto via wikipedia
But what of a physical memorial in the landscape? What would a national memorial look like? The possibility of a successful site brings to mind the powerful Steilnesest Memorial, in Vardø, Norway. Louise Bourgeois’ last installation, entitled The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved, was a collaboration with Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Years ago, I embarked on a pilgrimage to Vardø to see this monument, only to be thwarted by a wild Norwegian sea which was so violent we could not dock, but that is a story for another day. The structure commemorates over 100 women, girls and Sami men executed. The memorial is set in a larger structure on the craggy coastline. It is a burning chair in a dark glass box, surrounded by mirrors that reflect the viewer and the perpetually burning flame.
In Salem Massachusetts, there is a memorial to 20 people executed for witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. It is a series of granite benches set in a low stone wall surrounding the Old Burying Point. Each bench is inscribed with the names of the accused, and their date of execution. Maggie Smith and James Cutler designed the memorial which was inspired by the Vietnam Memorial.
Can a monument shift the discussion of these dead women and men? Often we only hear of the victims in news stories or on commercial ghost tours, dusted off for Halloween, with the attending broomsticks and black cats. Could a monument help frame the victims in a new light? What shape could Scotland give to its memory of atrocity? How can a monument make space for witness and ultimately healing?
For the past year I have been travelling to witches monuments throughout Scotland, visiting stones, fountains and even hedge mazes dedicated to people who were accused witches during the Scottish witch hunts of the 17th century. I’ve mapped them and added field notes with a kind of trainspotter impulse. There are many secreted away outside a village here, beside a suburban lawn there, each with its own story. Some are called “The Witches Stone” or are menhirs marked with a date. Some are nothing but a big rock with stories, told over hundreds of years, attributing them to the women killed during the witch trials of the 17th century. Often these stones mark the “last woman burned” as if the monument would keep history from repeating, like a revenant stone over the grave of the unquiet dead.
Reconstruction of the face of Lilias Adie by Dr. Christopher Rynn of Dundee University.
As I have written up my field notes, the face of Lilias Adie has stared back at my from my laptop’s screen where I keep it as a reminder. An accused witch murdered in 1704, her face has been reconstructed from a photo of her skull by Dr Christopher Rynn of Dundee University. She has been the tutelary spirit of this project, and hers may very well be the face that launches a national memorial. The morning before I posted my notes on Lilias Adie, I received an email reply from Councillor Kate Stewart who represents the area in Fife where Lilias Adie’s grave is located. She was central in making a wreath laying memorial event for Lilias. She told me that since the wreath laying, the story of Lilias has taken off on social media and she has been contacted by artists and writers from all over the world, curious about Lilias’ story. She has asked for the grave of Lilias Adie to be registered as a site of National Importance and there has been a public meeting to discuss a National memorial organised by Fife Witches Remembered. The proposal put forward uses the Beamer Rock Lighthouse which would be re-erected near the site of Lilias’ grave. The beacon was originally a non-illuminated day navigation beacon, but I wonder if, for the memorial, light could be involved in some way, as a flame or reflected light. The minutes of the memorial meeting state “The lighthouse would make an excellent low-maintenance landscape feature or memorial. The structure is built of a high quality whitish coloured sandstone (probably Longannet Quarry stone) and could be easily cleaned back to natural stone.” The lighthouse, like most of the lighthouses in Scotland, was built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s family. Lighthouses are heroic by nature, built as they are under often violent conditions, saving many lives. The poetry of a lighthouse monument for Scotland is unmistakeable: thrashed by storms and beaten by the tides, it still shines its light of hope and redemption, of home.
How would you see our fallen dead— the sisters, daughters, wives, mothers and neighbours—remembered? The shape the monument takes will be important, as important as the momentum we now have to make this happen. We can finally look Lilias Adie in the eyes and say, we are righting this.