Scotland Pardons Nearly 4,000 ‘Witches’ After 300 Years

by Jennifer Shea

It’s easy to joke about witches now. But for the advocacy group Witches of Scotland, witch hunts are no laughing matter.

Scotland’s Witchcraft Act of 1563 ushered in a bloody reign of terror. Throughout that time, Scots brutally executed 2,148 women and 410 men for their perceived supernatural actions. Nearly 4,000 people in total stood accused of witchcraft during that period.

Scotland did not repeal the act until 1736. And while it was in effect, the country held a grand total of five historic “great Scottish witch hunts.” They often ended with strangulation and burning deaths.

Now a bill in the Scottish parliament is set to put things right, albeit centuries after the fact. It follows the lead of one passed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 2001. The Massachusetts bill declared the Salem witch trials’ victims innocent. Meanwhile, the new bill is poised to pass and has the support of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s administration, The Sunday Times reports.

Scotland’s Crackdown on Witches Was Particularly Vicious

Even compared to other countries during the same time period, Scotland’s witch hunts were particularly vicious. In their zeal to uncover sorcery, the Scots outstripped all of Europe.

“Per capita, during the period between the 16th and 18th century, we executed five times as many people as elsewhere in Europe, the vast majority of them women,” Claire Mitchell told the Times. Mitchell is a senior attorney in the Queens Counsel, which lobbied on behalf of the Witches of Scotland bill. To put that into perspective, she said, Salem residents accused 300 people of witchcraft and executed 19 of them.

“We absolutely excelled at finding women to burn in Scotland,” she added. “Those executed weren’t guilty, so they should be acquitted.”

Scotland’s Witchcraft Act lasted nearly 200 years. In Massachusetts, by contrast, the witch-hunting fervor only stretched for about a year, from 1692 to 1693.

Bill’s Passage Would Set in Motion Several Consequences

If the resolution passes, it will bring about several steps. These include a legal pardon, a public apology and the construction of a national monument for the people convicted of witchcraft. That’s on top of the handful of independent memorials around Scotland.

A petition accompanying the resolution called on the Scottish Parliament to pardon, apologize to and create a national monument in memory of those Scots who faced witchcraft charges. It drew 3,414 signatures. And in a recent tweet, Mitchell thanked them for propelling the pardon campaign onward.

“Without the show of support of so many people both in Scotland and worldwide it is unlikely that the @witchesofscotl1 campaign would have got anywhere,” Mitchell tweeted.