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Why they burn witches in Scotland Where the Highlands meet the Lowlands, Christianity both assimilated and clashed with paganism

The Beltane Fire Society is a reminder of Scotland's pagan past. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The Beltane Fire Society is a reminder of Scotland's pagan past. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)


August 11, 2020   5 mins

It’s 1597 in Aberdeen, and it’s deep midnight in the human mind. A witch panic is underway. Like most witch panics, this one began with a few accusations, and it escalated when some of the accused began to name names. The dismay spread quickly from Aberdeen itself to the surrounding area. As panics do, this one ended when the supply of victims ran dry; it was over by 21 September, when Aberdeen paid off its witch burner William Dun, who received £47 3s. 4d. as expenses for having been put to the trouble of burning an unusual number of people. The whole flurry lasted just four months.

And just as calm was restored, yet another witch was arrested, in October: Andrew Man, apparently a wandering magician from Rathven, who could cure sick animals and people using skills given to him by “the people of the hills”.

Andrew does not fit our stereotype of the witch. For one thing, he is a man. For another, unlike the blank-faced and completely innocent victims of the Salem witch trials, Andrew did believe himself capable of using powerful magic. According to his testimony, he was the lover of the Queen of the Fairies, and had gotten many children with her. He was also helped by a supernatural entity called Christsunday, and had seen the king that died at Flodden (James IV) and Thomas the Rhymer with the fairies, along with other dead people.

The material in Andrew’s confession includes the tips of some huge story icebergs. Perhaps most interesting is the forgotten culture of Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland. In Aberdeenshire, the Highlands meet the Lowlands, and it was there that Christianity alternated between assimilating with the Gaelic paganism that preceded it, and clashing savagely with it. The fairy Otherworld lay alongside the everyday world, and it was both dangerous and exciting; its moral neutrality was intolerable to a Christian theology that emphasised life as a war between evil versus good. The witch trials of the sixteenth century were another Christian attempt to purge the last vestiges of Gaelic paganism from rural Aberdeenshire.

For Andrew Man, there was a fairy underworld, physically below the world of men, and culturally subordinated or even repressed or forgotten. Andrew and other magic users were left to carry the traces of this underworld to the surface. In the harsh light of resurgent Scottish Calvinism, such stories were of course misinterpreted as tales of demons. But in the twenty-first century, we are relatively familiar with the idea of the Queen of the Fairies, thanks to us fantasy literature. The very strange figure to us is Christsunday.

Christsunday is a curious name. Perhaps it was meant to be read as Christian at first glance, but the entity in question could hardly be mistaken for a Christian one. From Andrew, we learn that Christsunday is a stag some of the time — a stag that bursts up out of the snow. In Gaelic writings, deer are often able to pass from this world into the Otherworld, and to guide mortals across that border. Figures who rise from below are associated not only with the fairy realm, but with a particular idea about fairies: that they are linked to the dead who die before their time (like James IV and Thomas the Rymer.)

This movement of the Otherworld — from perpetually at the margins of human life, fitfully accessible to those with guidance, to a dark underworld inhabited by the dead — lightly Christianises the Gaelic Otherworld and assimilates it to an afterlife of punishment for sin. These dead figures can be understood by pious Christians as in hell or Purgatory, even though in pagan Gaelic tradition they are in neither.

This kind of partial Christianisation was common in cultures that abruptly met medieval Catholicism in its evangelical form. New world cultures are full of figures like Christsunday: Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, is an ideal example. The word saint is a Christian cover hurled over what is very plainly an Aztec goddess: Mictēcacihuātl, the “Lady of the Dead”, who ruled Mictlan, the last layer of the underworld. Similar processes occur in both Hoodoo and Voudoun, and also in fully creolised religions like Santería.

But just as the modern Catholic Church condemns the votaries of Santa Muerte, so both the Presbyterian Kirk and the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church sought to condemn those who told tales about such hybrid figures in sixteenth-century Scotland.

Nevertheless, even as local folklore cloaked itself with Christian imagery to protect itself, Christianity appropriated local imagery to make itself more influential. For Andrew Man and most of his countryfolk — for pagans throughout what is now Britain — the solar year still dominated understandings of the supernatural. (If you strip the word Christ off the name Christsunday, you are left with Sunday — or SUN-day.) Medieval Catholicism made a reasonable fist of appropriating this, converting the figure of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun, into the figure of the risen Christ.

As long as the agricultural year dominated human experience, the seasons of the sun mattered profoundly; the yearly growth cycles of crops kept representatives of solar triumph in circulation, even if they had once been owned by the Romans and were always disowned by pure Christians. The compromise arrived at in medieval Christianity was, however, unacceptable to reformed Protestantism: it was the pagan elements absorbed by Christianity that ardent Protestants sought to destroy.

And it was this, ultimately, that condemned Andrew Man to death in 1597. There has long been a connection suggested between a tentatively identified Gaelic stag-god, sometimes called Cernunnos, and DÄ«s Pater, a Roman lord of the underworld. Andrew himself would not have known these names, but it is likely that some of his interrogators would have been able to make the link. Certainly, Scotland’s James VI made any number of such connections in his book Daemonologie, published the same decade as Andrew’s trial.

For a Christian courtroom, the idea of a dark world beneath, from which people might frequently emerge — an underworld dominated by a highly sexual queen — could not be made to harmonise consistently with any Christian idea of a wholly spiritual resurrection. It may have felt uncomfortably close to a medieval story of the birth of Christ from his human mother’s flesh. Such adjacencies killed Andrew because they could not be tolerated.

We use the words witch hunt now quite lightly, to mean job losses at the very worst. But in 1597 it meant the loss of everything. Liberty, and life. Among many losses are lost records: we have only fragmentary material on any of the Aberdeenshire trials, and for some we have no records at all. That is as the prosecution wished. The last thing the record offers on the Aberdeenshire witch panic is a series of chilling payments for the materials of execution: 20 pieces of peat, four tar barrels, a length of rope to tie the victims to the stake, along with their stories that might unsettle the prevailing religious powers.

It’s worth remembering how these identities were forgotten. It was no accident; they were deliberately destroyed, burned to the bone. It is not insignificant that the last linguistic traces of Highland Gaelic paganism are about to disappear with Scottish Gaelic. In England, witches were not burned, but hanged as felons. In Scotland, they were first strangled to death, and then the body consumed by fire in a ritual designed to ensure that they were gone completely, gone for good. Such extirpation suggests an uneasy sense that stories like these might still emerge out of the Gaelic underworld, bringing with them a horde of restless dead rebels — who might threaten current governance in the way that the Aberdeenshire witches terrified the ruling class.


Diane Purkiss is a professor at Oxford University. Her book, The English Civil War: A People’s History, was published by HarperCollins.


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Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago

The seventeenth century was an era of regression for Europe. While the mainstreaming of the printing press brought about enlightenment and knowledge, it also brought about a slew of conspiracy theories. After the Bible, books such as the ‘Daemonologie’ by King James VI were very popular.

Mainland Europe was also going through a bloody religious schism as exemplified by the Thirty Year War in Germany. The old rules no longer applied and new ideologies were competing for space in people’s minds.

Strangely enough, we are experiencing the same with the advent of the internet. While access to knowledge has never been easier, there’s also so much nonsense out there that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to discern what is real or not. The Woke mindset, for instance, is not dissimilar to that of the Puritans in sixteenth-century England. The Puritans were so abhorrent they moved to Amsterdam where even the Dutch couldn’t tolerate them, and eventually emigrated to North America where they had the freedom to practice their religion anyway they wanted. Now that Protestantism has taken a backseat to mainstream American culture, perhaps what we are seeing is a secular resurgence of this puritanical mindset in our campuses and mainstream media in the form of Woke doctrine.

Eugene Norman
Eugene Norman
3 years ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

Definitely. Wokeness is a North American and Northern European phenomenon – Protestant Europe. The statues in Southern Europe are safe.

Andrew Shaughnessy
Andrew Shaughnessy
3 years ago
Reply to  Eugene Norman

Specifically the Anglophone parts of the former British Empire, the very places to which Puritanism was exported.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
3 years ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

Interesting.

A century ago Baltimore-born journalist and critic H.L. Mencken expended prodigious streams of ink complaining about “neo-Puritanism” in the United States. There were many dimensions to his complaints, but, ultimately, he was complaining about the the kinds of busybodies we see anywhere, Left or Right, who want to dictate how the rest of us organize our lives. They were the kind of people who brought us Prohibition (1919?), one edition of a war on vice, then their War on Poverty, War on Drugs, War on Terror, etc. See a pattern?

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago

Yes, funny enough, Prohibition was the first thing women lobbied for as soon as they were allowed to vote. Modern-day feminism is still lecturing men on their behavior.

Gudrun Smith
Gudrun Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

Be fair -women were probably recipients of domestic abuse from drunk husbands and “girls” nights out would still have been half a century away.

Joseph McCord
Joseph McCord
3 years ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

And in America, we’ve been having to put up with them, ever since.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

‘…a dark world beneath, from which people might frequently emerge ” an underworld dominated by a highly sexual queen…’

I might have known Glasgow and Sturgeon were at the heart of all this.

Andrew Shaughnessy
Andrew Shaughnessy
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Careful! They’ll be using their hate speech laws against you…

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Is this why all those people in Aberdeen got Coven-19?

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Witch people?

John Alyson
John Alyson
3 years ago

I’m not so sure the witch hunts were “another Christian attempt to purge the last vestiges of Gaelic paganism from rural Aberdeenshire”. It is no coincidence that the European “witch craze” was most prevalent in more remote rural areas where the Catholic religious structure had been weakened through the reformation and a protestant replacement was still only solid around the seats of power such as Edinburgh or London. Therefore it wasnt so much a purge as a reaction borne out of real fear of things that were creeping in to fill the vacuum – some of which certainly may have had their roots in paganism.

As for Christianity appropriating ” Sol Invictus”, the opposite is more likely to be true with the cult of Sol Invictus being used by Roman authorities as an attempt to undermine the growing influence of Christianity.

Andrew Shaughnessy
Andrew Shaughnessy
3 years ago
Reply to  John Alyson

I seem to recall that James VI and I acquired his witchcraft obsession from his marriage to Anne of Denmark. Witch hunts were all the rage in Denmark at the time.

John Alyson
John Alyson
3 years ago

Yes, he was deeply affected by a stormy crossing from Denmark during which the ship was almost wrecked and which was attributed to witchcraft. His obsession has meant that the UK has some meticulously detailed accounts of witchcraft trials (he always took an interest) and this is why we know that it wasn’t a deliberate “purge” of paganism as such. In the infamous Pendle witch trials it seems to have been much more associated with paranoia, bad luck, the settling of old grudges and secret Catholic activities raising suspicions.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

As Dr Samuel Johnson so amusingly put it,
“Knowledge was divided among the Scots like bread in a besieged town, to every man a mouthful, to no man a bellyful”.

Peter Ashby
Peter Ashby
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Which was poppycock when he wrote it. He was an elitist who saw the near universal education in Scotland & turned his nose up at it. Scottish education turned out the administrators of the Empire. The Scots were better educated than most ordinary public school English. Our soldiers fought for it while our clever boys administered it & our merchants profited from it. While the Cleared emigrated, sometimes forced, to it.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Ashby

Your are perhaps confusing literacy with education. Scotland’s literacy rate in say
1700 was about 90% whilst Bedfordshire’s was about 18%.
However the Scotch had nothing to do with foundation of the Empire because they had no sea power beyond a few fishing smacks, and no cash whatsoever. Thus they had nothing to do with the foundation of the East India Company or the settlement of Virginia and New England, or for that matter the West Indies.

When they did make their own pathetic attempt to found an ’empire’ in Darien in the 1690’s, it was, as I am sure you are aware, a complete fiasco. This off course, allowed England to literally’ ‘buy’ Scotland for a ‘bargain basement’ price in 1707.”Bought and sold English gold”, as Mr Burns so appositely put it a century later.

However in that wonderful spirit of generosity that England is so famous for, the Scotch were allowed to pillage the Empire to the best of their abilities, and it
must be said, made a good job of it. Who can forget the sterling work of Hector Munro at Buxar for example?

What now astonishes most Englishman, is the grossly ungrateful nature of most of the Scotch, and their continuous whinging litany of self pity. Without the generosity of England and the Empire,
they would have continued to be a poverty stricken medieval hell hole of dubious repute, do you not agree?

chrisjwmartin
chrisjwmartin
3 years ago

We use the words witch hunt now quite lightly, to mean job losses at the very worst. But in 1597 it meant the loss of everything. Liberty, and life.

The less sensational truth is that very few witches were executed in medieval times. Like most pop culture knowledge of the middle ages, this was exaggerated by propaganda from the Enlightenment onwards in order to make themselves look better by comparison. (See also the supposed medieval torture devices, which were almost all either anachronisms or outright inventions.)

In the case of witchcraft this has been compounded by identity politics. Modern feminists’ insatiable desire for victimhood led them similarly to exaggerate the proportion of witches who were female”in reality, the gender split in accurate histories is far more even than is portrayed. And nationalist groups have long identified themselves with their locations’ pagan religions and attempted to find a victimhood story there. This holds be they German Nazis idolising Wagner (Himmler was especially obsessed with Germanic paganism), Italian Fascists aping Roman culture, or Scottish Nationalists obsessing over Celtic paganism.

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
3 years ago
Reply to  chrisjwmartin

Not in Medieval times no, but after the Renaissance. The Medieval mind could perfectly happily cope with witches and saints; it was the rationalist mind which could not, and felt it necessary to exterminate the former. Hence the rise in witch burning late 16th century onwards…

chrisjwmartin
chrisjwmartin
3 years ago

Indeed!

Dolan dolan_cummings
Dolan dolan_cummings
3 years ago

Gaelic paganism? In Aberdeenshire? Gaelic was not spoken in the east of Scotland until Christianity was well established (and then not for long). And this Queen of the Fairies stuff sounds distinctly English (or Scots English, but not Gaelic).

chrisjwmartin
chrisjwmartin
3 years ago

Shhhh the Scots Gaelic extermination of the indigenous Brittonic culture of Pictland doesn’t fit with the approved Scottish Nationalist version of history in which Scots are saints and all their problems stem from English interference.

Eugene Norman
Eugene Norman
3 years ago
Reply to  chrisjwmartin

Given that the original kingdom of alba was an alliance between Picts and Gaelic speakers it wasn’t really a cultural extermination but a dying out of a language. One of those languages eventually dominated, and then came french and English. French also died out and then mostly Gaelic was replaced by English.

chrisjwmartin
chrisjwmartin
3 years ago
Reply to  Eugene Norman

Alba was not the “original kingdom” except in Scottish revisionism. There were Brittonic-speaking Celts in the far north of Britain long before the Gaelic invaders arrived from Ireland with their alien Scottish language, and progressively eradicated nearly all trace of the indigenous Brittonic culture that we call Pictish.

Peter Ashby
Peter Ashby
3 years ago
Reply to  chrisjwmartin

Sigh, the excavations at Dalriada show a continuous occupation displaying a cultural continuity with a wider maritime culture along the Western European seaboard. The Scotti would have had kin in parts of Ireland but that doesn’t make them Irish or invaders.
The Kingdom of Alba was formed after the battle of Dun Nechtan in 685 when the Picts killed the king of the invading Norhumbrians who owned up to the Lothians at the time. The Strathclyde Britons and the Scotti had also had to fight the Northumbrians off.
It was thus a case of my enemy’e enemies are my friends. They combined to better defend themselves. They chose Gaelic as the lingua franca which is why we have so little Pictish come down to us.
The Scotti were Gaelic speaking Scots with trading & marriage links with the Hebrides to Iberia. Much like later east coasters trading with the Low countries, the Hanseatic league in the Baltic & Scandinavia.
Why the Scandis see us as another Scandinavian country.

Simon Newman
Simon Newman
3 years ago

Yes, the author doesn’t seem to know too much about actual Aberdeenshire.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago

I am not too sure that there was a strong pagan influence in Aberdeenshire by the late 1400s.
After all did not the Irish come to Iona in the late 500s as Christians (St Columbus).
They then Christianised most of Pictland in the 600s.
Of course there are always people around with different faiths, but to suggest that there was a Gaelic pagan influence nearly 900 years after St Columbus is strange.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

It was unfortunate for Andrew Man and his co-believers that they were living in a very aggressively anti-occult country, Calvinist/ Presbyterian Scotland. John Knox and his fellow ministers would have done all they could to wipe out pagan and occult activity, and for very good reason. Firstly these activities are forbidden in the Bible which they and most Christians take to be the authoritative Word of God. Secondly they were aware that these these things could open the door of a person’s life to evil forces which could do grave spiritual and mental damage. Jesus spent time with people suffering from evil possession/oppression and set them wonderfully free.
Its very important not to exaggerate nor dramatise this phenomenon. The abuse of the ministry of deliverance or exorcism in the past has been well documented, and there are now good safeguards in place. In my 42 years of parish ministry I was involved in 6 cases of evil oppression of people or places, 2 of which were more to do with spiritual and emotional need than with anything sinister.
It’s easy to treat these matters lightly, scornfully or out of rather bemused intellectual interest. But these forces are real and the teaching and experience of the Church should be respected.

John Vaughan
John Vaughan
3 years ago

With respect, Michael, the bible contains 2 diametrically opposed views – the old testament full of Zionist propaganda and the new testament describing the teachings of the great Palestinian scholar/thinker, Jesus. Followers of the old testament do not believe in Jesus while, in Islam, Jesus is the second prophet. We might respect the church if it had anything rational or useful to say to us. Darwin Bless You.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago
Reply to  John Vaughan

John, I don’t, as they say, recognise your description of the Old Testament. Christians see it as a looking forward to the coming of the Messiah fulfilled perfectly in Jesus recorded in the New Testament. We believe that one of the events prior to the glorious return of Christ will be the acceptance of Jesus by the People of Israel as Messiah. Many Christians are praying that Islam will come to see in Jesus someone far,far greater than a prophet.

Simon Newman
Simon Newman
3 years ago

What fascinates me is that burning ‘witches’ is itself a pagan rite among the Norse/Germanic, long predating Christianity. You have to first believe in witches to think they need burning!

Olaf Felts
Olaf Felts
3 years ago

There’s a pun here that I have just about resisted.

ravenedparticles
ravenedparticles
3 years ago
Reply to  Olaf Felts

Tease.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

How Come Nicola Sturgeon has managed to avoid Matthew Hopkins?..