The National:

IF there’s one thing we have proved in the last few years it’s that our understanding of our history frames how we live today, from the political choices we make to the responsibility we feel to minority communities and more generally to how we take our place in the world individually and as a society.

In 2018, I remapped Scotland according to women’s history for Historic Environment Scotland. It seemed an esoteric project, even in the early wake of the Brexit referendum, but it radicalised me as an equality activist.

After the resulting book, Where are the Women?, was published, I met Claire Mitchell QC who, as a human rights lawyer, had decided to petition the Scottish Government to pardon Scotland’s Accused Witches, apologise to those who suffered, and raise a national monument to their memory.

READ MORE: Sara Sheridan: Women have been written out of our history ... let's reverse that

This had resonance for me – in Scotland we had among the worst witch trials in Europe, with over five times the average executions per million of the population. Around 85% of the people convicted and killed were women. The execution of a witch also tarred that woman’s family and sometimes her friends.

We can only imagine what watching the killing and burning of these women did to the people who loved them. Around 4000 people died, but many more suffered.

I am always struck and impressed by cultures that come to terms with their historical wrongs. One of my favourite European cities is Berlin, which carries its history with astonishing frankness and houses monuments and museums to the worst of its 20th century past – both of the Nazi and the Cold War eras.

Walk down Scotland’s streets and you’d think only middle aged, middle class, white men ever achieved anything

UK-wide 2020 saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which, at its heart demands that the systemic racism in our institutions be both brought to light and changed and that we reassess our history in light of this, opening the narrative to more representative voices. In Scotland we need to do this too – Scots benefitted hugely from the enslavement of Black people and much in our cities was built on the back of that suffering.

READ MORE: Sara Sheridan: Five disabled Scottish women whose stories you should know

But some of the history we have to come to terms with is uniquely Scottish. Parts of our past sit on the cusp between being victims of the British state – for example, during the Highland Clearances or in the terrifying decades after Culloden. We had bad things visited upon us, but we did bad things too, and we need to take responsibility for our own actions – the ownership of slaves or the killing of witches.

Women are the largest minority group – we make up over 50% of the population and yet we are marginalised. Despite legislation we do not have equal pay, our voices are often demeaned and censored, our achievements underplayed, our prospects in terms of promotion, publication and pensions remain lesser than those of men. Part of addressing these issues is telling our history in a more honest way. Walk down Scotland’s streets and you’d think only middle aged, middle class, white men ever achieved anything.

Since I met Claire, the Witches of Scotland campaign has spawned a fascinating podcast that was meant to run to a dozen episodes and now covers more than double that.

With writer Zoe Venditozzi, Claire has interviewed historians, lawyers, activists and some of the many artists, writers and dramatists who find inspiration in what happened to Scotland’s witches. It’s a snapshot of our country during the medieval era, especially as it was experienced by women. If we are where we come from, it’s a valuable peek into an origin story of our national psyche.

Always though, the best history is about change.

One of the reasons I support the campaign to pardon Scots “witches” wholeheartedly is that it can change our relationship to where we come from, and in that make us interrogate where we are going.

If, during Women’s History month, or for International Women’s Day 2021, you would like to support the Witches of Scotland campaign, you can sign the petition to the Scottish Government here to add your voice to those of our foremothers.

Speaking on behalf of accused witches in Scotland in the medieval era was likely a death sentence, but we can raise our voices now.

You can sign the petition to support the Witches of Scotland campaign here