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400 years later, Scottish witches are finally getting a formal apology

Too little too stake!

After years of campaigning by the Witches of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has apologised to the thousands accused of witchcraft under the Witchcraft Act – only took 450 years! The Scottish first minister made the announcement yesterday (March 8) during the Scottish government’s debate on International Women’s Day, acknowledging “that egregious historic injustice” and making a formal posthumous apology.

The Scottish Witchcraft Act was brought into law in 1563, the same year that England passed “An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts”, and dictated that the practice of witchcraft and consulting with witches were capital offences. This act remained a part of Scottish law until 1736, though the last execution –  the burning of an old woman, Janet Horne – took place in 1727.

An estimated 4,000 Scots, most of whom were women, were accused of breaking the Witchcraft Act over the course of these 173 years. “Those who met this fate were not witches, they were people, and they were overwhelmingly women,” said Sturgeon in her statement. “At a time when women were not even allowed to speak as witnesses in a courtroom, they were accused and killed because they were poor, different, vulnerable.”

"It was injustice on a colossal scale, driven at least in part by misogyny in its most literal sense: hatred of women.”

Of course, brutal witch hunts took place all over Europe during this period, not to mention the Salem witch trials in America, which similarly led to dozens of false convictions. According to data about the accusations, however, the rate in Scotland reached four to five times the European average.

Launched on International Women’s Day 2020, a Witches of Scotland campaign called for justice for those accused as witches, with a petition gathering thousands of signatures by 2022. The petition outlines three aims: “To obtain a pardon for those convicted as witches under the Witchcraft Act 1563, to obtain an apology for all those accused, and to obtain a national memorial to remember those killed as witches.”

Sturgeon has made no direct reference to a future memorial, though she does say that parliament may take steps to officially pardon those who fell victim to the moral panic and were convicted under the Scottish Witchcraft Act.

“This is not yet historic,” she added in her apology. “There are parts of our world where even today, women and girls face persecution and sometimes death because they have been accused of witchcraft… While here in Scotland the Witchcraft Act may have been consigned to history a long time ago, the deep misogyny that motivated it has not. We live with that still.”