A PETITION is being presented today at 10am to the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament, seeking a pardon for all those convicted in Scotland under the infamous Witchcraft Act between 1563 and 1736. The petition, in the name of Claire Mitchell QC, calls on the Scottish Parliament “to urge the Scottish Government to pardon, apologise and create a national monument to memorialise those people in Scotland accused and convicted as witches under the Witchcraft Act 1563”.


IT was all down to religion, of course. The Catholic Church had decreed that heretics and witches should be burned at the stake – apparently because that would prevent the resurrection of the body on the Last Day – and in the 16th century a great competition arose between Rome and the nascent Protestant churches to see who could burn the most witches. Cardinal Charles Borromeo, for instance, was canonised for his burning of heretics, ie Protestants, with a large number of witches found in what is now Switzerland in particular.

READ MORE: Why a campaign to pardon Scots women killed as witches is starkly relevant today

Fear of witchcraft engulfed Europe and spread to Scotland, with John Knox bringing back from Geneva the teaching of John Calvin that the “race of witches” should be exterminated. Three years after the Reformation Parliament of 1560 changed Scotland’s religion, the Witchcraft Act was passed, again by Parliament. There is a theory that Knox either drafted the Act or played a part in its preparation. The Act forbade “Witchcraftis, Sorsarie and Necromancie” and witch hunts duly began, usually led by Kirk clergy or elders and then turned over to the criminal justice courts.


THE worst period of witch hunts began in 1590, with the trial of a group of people, mainly women, from East Lothian. They were accused of meeting with the Devil and conjuring up storms to sink the ships of James VI on his return from Denmark with his bride, Queen Anne. Such modern concepts as meteorology were absent in those days, and James was hugely paranoid. He would later write the book Daemonologie about witchcraft and his royal approval made witch hunting a national pursuit.


THANKS to the remarkable Survey of Scottish Witchcraft carried out by a team from Edinburgh University and first published in 2003, we know that almost 4000 people were accused of witchcraft between 1563 and 1736. As many as 2000 people may have been convicted and executed, usually by being strangled and burned. More than 85% of those convicted were women or girls. The accused people were alleged to have done everything from consorting with Satan to using herbs to cure sick people. Modern examination of trials shows that many of those convicted were simply mentally ill.

Not all prosecutions were successful. In one case in 1597, a brave Glaswegian woman, Marion Walker, proved that people had been wrongly accused. Witch hunts in Glasgow promptly ceased.


JUDGED by what happened in 2008 when a similar petition was made to the Holyrood parliament, this current petition will face a struggle, but there is hope for it.

Full Moon Investigations got their petition for a pardon discussed by the Petitions Committee 13 years ago, only for the MSPs to refuse to continue the matter for the necessary reports. A spokesperson said at the time: “The committee closed the petition and agreed to take no further action on it. They did this on two grounds.

READ MORE: Witches of Scotland campaign for pardon to go to Holyrood

“Firstly, they accepted the Scottish Government’s response that a Royal Prerogative of Mercy was not appropriate in relation to people who were tried and convicted under the laws of their time. The committee also felt that it was particularly difficult to apply modern concepts of knowledge and morality to events that took place centuries ago.”

There have been significant changes in the intervening 13 years, however, and one recent law has set a precedent for such pardons. The landmark Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) Act was passed unanimously by the Scottish parliament in June 2018, granting an automatic pardon to gay men convicted of homosexual acts, no matter when they were convicted.

The Scottish Government states in its submission to today’s meeting that there are clear “similarities between the injustices of those convicted in a discriminatory manner for same-sex sexual activity and the injustices of women classed as witches many centuries ago”.