INSPIRATION for books comes from all kinds of places but in the case of Mairi Kidd’s latest, We Are All Witches, its genesis was a commission to inspire the album Heal and Harrow, a collaboration between two of Scotland’s most celebrated folk musicians, Rachel Newton and Lauren MacColl, released in February this year.

Heal and Harrow have been touring Scotland throughout September but over a year ago, when Newton and MacColl started the project, they asked Kidd to write short stories about the real women who were tried as witches; the basis for what they went on to produce.

The Scottish witch terror is a topic of much public debate at present. This is underpinned by published research from the University of Edinburgh’s Survey of Scottish Witchcraft which has for the first time made the details of previously uncollated medieval records available to the public. The team at the university are now creating an interactive database that will tell the stories of the individuals involved as well as the headline figures, which are straitening.

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An estimated minimum of 2500 people were executed, more than 80% of them women, making Scotland’s witch trials five times worse than the average across Europe. By contrast the Salem witch ­trials (arguably more notorious) executed a mere 25 people.

Since the figures emerged there has been a growing movement to ­commemorate the lives of those ­accused. In March this year the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. chose to ­acknowledge what she called an “egregious ­historic injustice” and earlier this month ­submissions closed on the Scottish ­Parliament’s public ­consultation, the next stage in a two-year-long campaign led by Claire ­Mitchell KC and Zoe Ventidozzi to secure both a pardon and a national memorial.

Scotland’s accused witches have never been so prominent, nor so much information available about them, but outside academia little has been published on the subject, Jenni Fagan’s novella, Hex, having hit the bookshop shelves last year, with a poetic and highly ­fictionalised ­account of the last night of Geilis ­Duncan’s life, in an Edinburgh jail cell on December 4, 1591.

We Are All Witches

For We Are All Witches, Kidd was given free rein to choose which women she wanted to write about and how she wanted to present each story, so every entry consists of a factual account of the person and an engaging fictional piece in a voice appropriate to their story.

The National: Mairi Kidd. Photograph: Gordon TerrisMairi Kidd. Photograph: Gordon Terris (Image: Gordon Terris)

“I wanted to choose tales that were geographically and politically diverse,” she says.

It’s a mark of Kidd’s achievement that she writes in a wide lexicon, ­including one account where part of the tale is told in Shetlandic. The stories are ­mesmerising, opening a door into one scene after another.

“I wanted to explore as many different angles as I could,” she says. “The main source of women’s voices in this period are in court records; both as accused and accusers.”

It is for this reason that Kidd included alongside the stories of the victims of the trials, a piece about Robert Burns’ fictional witch, Cutty Sark and another about Christian Caddell, who dressed as a man to get a job as a witchpricker in Moray in the 1660s. Caddell gathered “evidence” against several women, at least eight of whom were condemned to death. This included torture.

When she was discovered, she was deported; a lesser sentence than her ­victims.

“All the voices are important,” Kidd ­insists. “Each shows a different side of what happened.”

Kidd’s interest, however, isn’t sited only in the past, but in relating the toxic patriarchy and ageism of the witch trials to our own time.

Connecting past and present

By exploring historical beliefs in the supernatural and modern-day ­parallels in our society, she wants to place our ­foremothers at the centre of a very ­modern narrative of thought-provoking questions about present-day misogyny. This encourages the reader to examine where we have come from as a way of exploring where we are.

“Memorialising people whose stories have been marginalised by the narrative of commonly-told history is important,” she says. “It is there we can recognise the patterns of our own lives.

“At least part of what I wrote had to be fictional because historical documents rarely record the voices of those involved in traumatic events. But it’s those voices that allow a modern reader to make a connection with the past.”

As a result, Kidd adds questions ­after each section to encourage readers to ­explore their own beliefs.

“This is my take,” she says, “but ­someone else might see something ­different in what happened.’

Writing these stories of victimhood and particularly of the torture was hard, she admits. Empathy is baked into this form of “ventriloquism” but Kidd’s mother was a history teacher, and she has known some of these stories at least since she was a child.

“The detail was upsetting to write,” she adds. “Once you realise what was done to these people, it’s always with you.”

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Justice can be served in modern Scotland

Fascination with the witches has been part of Scottish culture for at least five centuries: Be it the real-life terror of the 1500s, the dramatic presentation of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the romantic Victorian take on the subject or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander version of Geilis Duncan (rather than Jenni Fagan’s).

However, times are changing and ­increasingly the modern, Scottish view is that recognising the reality of the ­injustice done to so many ordinary folk, and coming to terms with this dark part of our history will inform change in our national narrative – the stories we tell about the nation we want to be. A place where justice is served.

Kidd’s dedication at the front of We Are All Witches is to the memory of a stalwart of the Gaelic music world, Jessie Newton, but it might be made to many of the women who died as a result of the terror.

I beseech God to show you mercy
And admit you amongst the angels
Since music was your delight on earth
May your soul find music among the saints

Kidd is right, in many ways, We Are All Witches.

We Are All Witches by Mairi Kidd and illustrated by Helen Crawford-White is published on October 6