A MEMORIAL service marking a witch-hunting frenzy which impacted families for generations is to take place today in Forfar, with historians hoping to open more people’s eyes to the town’s dark past.

Back in 1661 and 1662, more than 50 people in the Angus town were accused of being witches and a number – at least 12 according to records – were executed.

On International Women’s Day earlier this year, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon issued a formal apology in the Scottish Parliament to the thousands of people persecuted as witches in Scotland, while a petition demanding an official pardon for the more than 4000 who were accused, convicted and often killed is making its way through Holyrood.

But despite a growing focus on the injustice these women suffered, Judith Langlands-Scott and Shaun Wilson, who have organised the service, feel there is still much more reflection to be done.

Langlands-Scott, who has been researching the Forfar witches for the past decade, said the suspicion with which these women were treated is still relevant in modern society.

“We want to make people understand these were marginalised people, people with mental health problems, alcohol problems, they were poor, they had anti-social behaviour problems – but they could not have committed the crimes for which they were accused,” said Langlands-Scott.

The National: A document from 1662 which has some of the names of the accused on itA document from 1662 which has some of the names of the accused on it

“We know people like that in our communities today.

“With this period we’re living in now, where more and more people are having to survive on benefits, jealousy often erupts within a community, and so this service is to make people understand these attitudes still pervade our society today, it’s just the laws have changed.

“Many citizens feel marginalised. Refugees from outside are treated with suspicion due to the fact local people are fighting for limited resources. Simply eradicating people because they seem different is no longer permitted. But has human nature changed? I’d argue it hasn’t.”

Langlands-Scott has appeared on the BBC and on podcasts produced by campaign group Witches of Scotland, which is fighting for justice via the petition for those accused and convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1563-1736.

She met Wilson while he was doing a project on the Forfar witches with ANGUSalive – the council’s heritage body – and the two immediately bonded over their desire to instil a greater understanding of Forfar’s history into the community and ensure history never repeats itself.

The pair have been delivering talks across the town, including in primary schools, and they hope the service at East and Old Parish Church will form an important part of the strive for justice.

"These people were innocent"

Langslands-Scott added: “We thought, let’s get a memorial service, because these people were innocent, and let’s see if we can educate the people of Forfar a bit more on why they couldn’t have committed the crimes they were accused of and get them to understand they were just normal people who had various difficulties, and let’s work along with Witches of Scotland to get the pardon.”

The witch-hunt began in Forfar after Oliver Cromwell’s troops pulled out of Scotland in 1659 to 1660, leaving a power vacuum in their wake.

This eventually led the Presbyterian Church to create godly communities that were “pure” and devoid of troublemakers. It meant dozens of innocent women – many of which were quarrelsome dames – in a town of 1000 were accused of witchcraft, so they could be wiped from society, whether that was through death, torture or banishment.

Wilson said: “In 1661, Forfar had a new minister called Alexander Robertson. He was quite a zealous Presbyterian minister and he saw this as a chance to build a new Forfar, this new godly society, and we know from our records there were a number of Catholics in Forfar, and we see them caught in the witch trials. So it shows they were really trying to get rid of this select group of people.”

The service will mark 360 years since the execution of the last Forfar witch, Helen Guthrie, who, like many other women, was strangled and then burned in a barrel of tar. Her daughter Janet – who was assumed to be a witch too – was held in the Tolbooth for several years before being released in 1666.

The East and Old Parish church stands on the same ground where accused women used to gather in the graveyard and drink, before pestering whisky and beer merchants once they ran out.

Langlands-Scott, who along with Wilson will deliver a talk at the service, hopes the venue will transport Forfar folk back to a past which still has much to teach us.

She said: “It’s important to recognise the persecuted and the marginalised involved in the historic witch trials had value and human rights.

“There is a chance to learn from the past here, to say that such behaviour is wrong and to show where the persecution of minorities can lead.