Mark Smith: We should not pardon Scotland’s witches

I can’t stop thinking about Lilias. How did she feel in those last few days, alone in prison, accused of the worst crimes, shocking crimes? In the end, she died in her cell and they buried her without ceremony. Driven by fear and superstition, they also placed a great slab of sandstone over her grave. They feared her corpse would rise again. They feared she could not really die.

Looking back now, 300 years on, the treatment of Lilias Adie, who died in Fife after being accused of being a witch, looks monstrous, outrageous, ridiculous even. But it’s worth remembering a sobering fact: the people who accused Lilias were not necessarily, for the time, ignorant or prejudiced. Lilias died at the dawn of the Scottish Enlightenment when even the most educated and sophisticated, including King James himself, believed in witches.

It is this fact, I think, that should give us at least some pause when we consider the story of Lilias and in particular the question of whether she and women like her (and a few men) should be pardoned. The lawyer Claire Mitchell has been running a campaign to win such pardons for some time now and it looks like the Scottish Government is minded to support her. A member’s bill is likely to be placed before parliament and it would mean the records of Scots convicted of witchcraft would be wiped clean.

But have we got that correct I wonder? And, in issuing pardons, is the government itself asking us to believe in a little bit of magic? The idea – and I’m sympathetic to it – is that we should right a wrong; in Claire Mitchell’s words, the men and women accused of witchcraft should be restored to their rightful place in history as men and women rather than witches. Mitchell has also made the very good point that in some parts of the world the fear around witches still lingers. And perhaps, even in Britain, we can see it in the abuse that older women in public life often face.

The question though is how to respond, and I think there are a number of problems with the idea of a pardon. First of all, a pardon is, by necessity, also a judgment – the people who accused others of witchcraft were not necessarily evil or prejudiced; in fact, as I said, they were often educated, their views were widespread, and they were probably more than a little afraid. We should not judge people for living in the past.

I also wonder about the practical effect of pardons. I can see why some governments might like the idea: they can be seen to do something without actually having to change anything or, more importantly, spend any money. It was the same in 2019 when the Scottish Government granted a pardon to gay and bisexual men convicted of historic sexual offences. It meant Humza Yousaf could say there was no place for homophobia in modern Scotland but the truth is he could not change the past and has not changed the present: gay people are still the victims of homophobic violence in modern Scotland and the institutional prejudice against trans people – in the present not the past – has still not been corrected.

There is also a danger, I think, that the act of pardoning becomes an act of forgetting too. Pardoning Lilias does not change her story: she was still accused of being a witch, she was still thrown in a cell and tortured; she was still thrown in an unmarked grave under a slab of sandstone to prevent her animated corpse rising up and terrorising her village. Pardoning her changes none of it.

Better instead to remember what really happened as well as we can. Where is the national memorial to Scotland’s witches for example? Where is the place where the story of Lilias and the thousands of others like her can be told and taught? You may think we should pardon Lilias. Fair enough. But I prefer to think we should remember her better. We should remember what she went through, and how we treated her, and how we killed her. Pardons do not alter the past but learning and remembering does at least hold out a chance of changing the future.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Herald.

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