Ashes and Stones: A Journey Through Scotland in Search of Women Hunted as Witches

Image of Ashes and Stones: A Journey Through Scotland in Search of Women Hunted as Witches
Release Date: 
October 3, 2023
Pegasus Books
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"Ashes and Stones is an adventure in the form of a tour of the places and people the author encountered in a search for the stories of Scotland’s people condemned as witches.”

Appropriate for the Halloween season, Allyson Shaw offers a book on the histories of witch hunts and trials in Scotland. Ashes and Stones is engrossing reading but also offers a tour of “the stones, foundations, and even hedge mazes” involved, traveling “the footpaths, coffin roads, and lyke wake trails,” making this history intimate and insightful.

Ashes and Stones is an adventure in the form of a tour of the places and people the author encountered in a search for the stories of Scotland’s people condemned as witches.

The witch culture is commemorated and even celebrated in Scotland, as remembered in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Shaw provides many examples. It has become “the root of burlesque fantasies surrounding the witch.” A modern campaign seeks to grant pardons to the Scots accused of witchcraft.

Witchcraft grew in a little-known, legendary, mystical, and misty Scotland, “remote and filled with imaginings.” “Witches and magic were tied to Scotland from the very start.” Tales of witches are a major part of the lore of Scotland, as the author shows in several tales, inspired by ancient ruins, the terrain, and the weather.

Witch hunts raged across Europe, killing tens of thousands of people, but they came to Scotland only after the peak of this mania in the 16th century. The author gives 4,000 Scots as accused and 2,000 killed, chiefly women, from a total population of 800,000. In Scotland, the witch hunts “lasted longer than in any European country.”

This violence, largely against women or “women hunting,” came to a land “alive with spiritual presence.” Records tell of animism, “fairy lore,” cantrip magic, ghosts, herb lore, magic stones, the occult, second sight, and spells, not just angels, the Crown, and demons. Someone like Agnes Sampson could become the basis of stories and, even in the present, reportedly haunt a place as a ghost.

Practicing the supernatural was separate from witchcraft but could be used to prosecute a person as a witch for practicing bad magic (“petty malefice”)! Often, the accused were homeopathic healers and midwives, whose methods for the time would be called magic.

Shaw goes beyond asking why these Scots were accused of witchcraft. The author asks why “landowners and churchmen [were] obsessed with hunting women.” Issues of feminism and public prejudice against women then ring true in the present.

King James VI of Scotland (James I of England) wrote a book to justify witch-hunting, and the three witches in Macbeth represent fates who can end kings. People were persecuted for their delusions based on myths and public fears that falsely appeared to validate the prosecutions. The similarity to other situations in the present day is relevant.

The witches' hedges, kitchens (private gatherings), rings (used to chain the victims), and stones (used for executions) are often identified only by obscure local lore. Shaw spent years searching this past and concludes that “everywhere, it seems, there is evidence of these mass, state-sanctioned killings.”

Torture was common, and imprisonment could go on for years. Confessions were extracted from the emotionally or mentally ill. The “fraught imaging of doomed women” could make them guilty of cavorting with Satan.

These artifacts and places remember the hunts that “terrorised generations, and the overwhelming majority of the victims were women.” Witches were often portrayed as “menopausal or perimenopausal women past childbearing age.” Carkin stones refer to witches, but the name comes from Cailleach, an old woman and the ancient goddess who created Scotland.

Not surprisingly, in many confessions, “the devil is free of any supernatural menace,” but whose “appearance and broken promises are those of a human man.” The Sueno Stone, connected by legend with Macbeth’s three witches is “celebrated male military prowess.” Famed witch Isobel Gowdie, in legend, dreams of being seduced by a knight who is a serial killer who had murdered seven women.

“Much evidence about these sites and their history has been destroyed or was never written down in the first place.” What remains can be buried behind archival bureaucracy. If documentation survives and is accessible of the hunts and where they happened, it is the product of prosecutors and is problematic. “They are hostile documents,“ written by sexist male “demonologists, witch-hunters and judges.”

The author seeks to find “fragments of the forgotten whole,” including bells, horseshoes, and Freudian psychology. Because of a lack of documents, Ashes and Stones is told through Annalist-style accounts of individual incidents, rather than as a broad chronology. This work has annotation.