A few years ago I heard about twelve women and one man who in 1662 were condemned as witches here in my neighbourhood - Drum and Crook of Devon. Lord Moncrieff of Tullibole Castle, where the witch trials had taken place, was creating a woodland maze in commemoration of their lives and following an article published in the local press we began an artistic collaboration.
I knew witch persecutions were rife across Scotland but learning of the horror faced by those accused of witchcraft from the place I now lived struck a personal chord. The witch trials at Tullibole Castle were held across the field from my house and their deaths took place in an unmarked location just down the road.
Interestingly we hear of miscarriages of justice on a daily basis yet Scottish witch trials, if and when discussed, are viewed on a different level as somehow irrelevant to our everyday lives. Perhaps it’s considered history best left untold or that facts are too vague, unsubstantiated and no longer important. Some people are still scared to discuss ‘witches’ as if there will be condemnation or contamination wrought through the mere subject. Recordings of the trials are few and far between. There were no legal definitions of what witchcraft actually was, there was no Justice system as we now know it overseeing trials, communities themselves were often self appointed Judge and Jury, there was no opportunity for self defence and no accounting for the torture inflicted upon accused in order to extract confessions of witchcraft.
Truth is there were no spells and no witches just women living out their lives in horrendously difficult times in a society overseen by men who had power to condone or condemn individual actions. Of course women had disputes, words with one another, shared curses and fall outs but they also had skills and knowledge of herbalism and healing which were called upon and utilised by members of the community. In turn these skills were often used against them when they were named, shamed, condemned and killed often by and within these same communities.
With little actually recorded about the accused there is virtually nothing known about their husbands, children, grand children, many of whom were expected to testify against the accused. For sure even greater hardship would have had to be endured by families following a so called witch’s death. What became of these families and how were their lives thereafter affected? Many generations later do any of these family members still live locally?
Solid Heart for Suffering Souls
The images are of two women of different ages, representing the spectrum of those accused of witchcraft. They are mixed medium, paper mache and collage mounted on wooden pedestals. Photocopies of documents from local trials were taken from The Annals of Auchterarder and Memorials of Strathearn by Alexander George Reid (1899) and used as the first and last layer of paper mache. The wood for pedestals, plants, herbs and various collage materials were located locally. Names of those who were tried and convicted as witches are incorporated on the side of one of the pedestals. Words by Fife poet Mac Logan on the other.
Moulding the women’s faces was poignant as I turned and twisted them to shape their ears, eyes and mouths. At first I formed them both with eyes open, however I was always imagining the fear, terror and uncertainty they faced and thought the younger woman would choose to block some of it by closing her eyes. The older woman might, I considered, have been more defiant, indignant, enraged but also terrified. What did they see and who was indeed watching them?
Collage allowed me free reign with what might be considered signs and symbols on skin that saw women condemned as witches. In reality any mole, scar, hair, twitch, scratch or bruise seems to have been taken as a sign and there are no human bodies that exist without them. As an indicator this meant finding a witch was easy but torture was also used thereafter to extract her own confession, a no win situation.
Photocopied pages from the trials used as paper mache spread accusations across their faces and in language of the day sound haunting, complex, fearsome and final. Plants and herbs grown locally would have been used by woman for cooking and within potions for healing animals as well as people. Accusations against women indicate these same healing qualities were turned against them when animals and people thereafter became sick or died. Many of these plants can still be found within the neighbourhood and I used them for threading through the hair and at the base of the heads.
Perhaps by remembering the accused they will live on. Crimes committed against so called witches needs to be acknowledged for the shameful and relentless practice it was.
When can an ending be a beginning?