post

Walking the Witchy Ways of Aberdeen

Galllus Quines. Wonderful street art in Aberdeen honouring those persecuted for witchcraft.
Gallus Quines

I ran through St Nicholas Kirkyard, and down and round Correction Wynd, an old medieval lane in Aberdeen, to see this recent street art. I was due to meet people for breakfast, but determined to see the ‘Quine Shrine’ first. The reason being? That first part, on the left, honours those who were persecuted for witchcraft in Aberdeen, and one tile names a few of them, including the three women I chose to write about in The Mermaid and the Bear.

Tile naming some of those accused of being witches in Aberdeen, Scotland

The spellings are different, because spellings weren’t set back then, not like they are today. I chose to go with the way the names are recorded in the Survey Of Scottish Witchcraft from Edinburgh University. It was there that I learned, contrary to popular belief, that only a tiny proportion of those accused were midwives or folk healers; a mere 9 of the 3837 ‘witches’ in Scotland were midwives, and only 141 had some mention of healing in their cases (see the background page of the database).

In my fictional account of these women’s lives, one of them is a midwife and healer, but this is not the reason for the accusations brought against the three quines.

So, with the quine shrine admired and appreciated, on to breakfast:

Turmeric Latte
Turmeric Latte

Now fortified, off to gaol we go! It’s difficult to get good pictures in
the 17th century Tolbooth, what with it being so dark due to having windows like this:

Tiny and narrow window in a 17th century prison
Let the sunshine pour in!
Chain in the Tolbooth Museum, Aberdeen
A chain hangs from the wall

I think I did a better job with photos the last time I was there, blogged here. That was when I first read these words:

text, detailing some history of witchcraft in aberdeen

I remember feeling overcome and distressed by the information, but it was then that I decided I was definitely going to write the book. Here’s that steeple, or its replacement, standing tall against the blue sky:

Steeple and clock of St Nicholas Kirk in Aberdeen

Back in 1597, there were two large bells in the original steeple. Now there’s an impressive carillon, and it started to play while I was eating my lunchtime chocolate ice cream in the kirkyard. This is not as creepy and strange as it sounds; there are benches and lots of people go there for lunch! I took a short video, so you can hear the bells:

Lunchtime bells

I’ve made a Pinterest board for the book, though it does seem to be rather focussed on the cheerier parts of the story.

pinterest board for  the novel, The Mermaid and the Bear, by Ailish Sinclair
Pinterest board

And on another cheery, or perhaps laughable, note, I was recently mentioned in the Evening Standard as an example of a ‘weather obsessed’ Briton.

Ailish Sinclair in the Evening Standard.

I must go now; I have to check on the weather!

Sign up for my mailing list for more, exclusive, ramblings and photos πŸ™‚ The next one will have some more writing research pictures, but ones I probably shouldn’t blog!

The book that came from it all is out Autumn 2019:

Cover of Ailish Sinclair's 'The Mermaid and the Bear'

92 thoughts on “Walking the Witchy Ways of Aberdeen

    • It must be awe-inspiring to witness the actual places where one’s story takes place. It takes “research” to a whole new level! I’m curious: has traveling to the geographical location of your novels ever changed the content of your stories?

      • To be honest, I can’t tell if that q is meant for me or OP haha. In case it is for me, yes it definitely has. Not so much they ever had to change a character arc though. If I have visit a place important to a book scene, I usually like to include an β€œEaster Egg” to reward astute readers

        • Whoops! That was meant for Ailish! Guess I’ll try re-posting it to the correct conversation. πŸ™‚ But still, that is interesting to hear from you as another author. Something I’ve wondered for a while.

  1. I found this so interesting! I really didn’t know a) how many people were persecuted as witches and I assumed (clearly wrongly) that many of them were carers or healers in some way. There is a darkness to history that we sometimes forget about in the romanticising of it all, I think you’ve balanced that perfectly here.

    • I remember reading that one of the most common reasons for witchcraft accusations was for a person to be loud and argumentative. Some people were accused many times because they were so disliked.

      Midwives and healers were providing an essential service to their community and should have been respected and valued.

  2. Yes, ‘wise women’ everywhere had a hard time of it in those days didn’t they? Martina Devlin’s ‘The House Where it Happened’ is a good depiction of those times in Northern Ireland. Looking forward to reading your book.

  3. Wow! Those bells!
    That time in history freaks me out! I always suspect I would have been a woman killed for being a witch. I think about those women and feel so sad. And then angry of course. Interesting post!

  4. Just read about the Survey of Scottish Witches in an academic volume of essays on the general topic. Glad to see it’s got some visibility.

    In New England, witchcraft charges often seem to have been made against women holding property, an anomalous situation in those days.

    And thanks for the bells!

  5. There are many stories kept safe in the folds of history. You have a marvelous way of unfolding the folds. We need to remember, to celebrate these brave women and to keep faith with their courage. I enjoy following your blog – so glad we connected.

  6. Last thoughts – I have travelled to Aberdeen a couple of times (I live in Vancouver Canada) I love this city – thank you for reminding me of wonderful memories.

  7. A few years ago I visited Dunnottar Castle during a holiday spent near Inverness, and to get around Aberdeen I remember I had to drive through sixteen roundabouts on the Aberdeen ring road. The way back, counting them back down, was something of a nightmare. Maybe that ringroad is some kind of punishment on future generations for those terrible witch trials of the past…

    • It would explain the road system of Aberdeen! Particularly the Haudagain roundabout where I failed my driving test the first time πŸ™‚

  8. Great post, Eilish! I remember reading all about Grissel Jaffrey, the last so-called witch to be burned at the stake in Dundee. It’s thought that she was actually sentenced to death for being a Quaker. So sad πŸ™

  9. Thank you for such an interesting post. I’m a bit of a history geek, and reading about history of witchcraft/persecutions is a big interest of mine (partly out of gratitude that I live nowadays – I would almost certainly have been accused of witchcraft in a previous century!). I shall be sure to check this place out next time I’m in Aberdeen.

  10. Prosecution of ‘witches’ happened in the Netherlands too. As we have enough water, an old lady, believed to be a witch, was dropped in a canal or whatever body of water. Was she able to survive this would proof she was a witch; did she drown then she was cleared of all charges. I haven’t done any research and I could be wrong (so disclaimer), but this is what I learned at school. Even a young student knew there was something very wrong with this ‘testing’. If an old lady was able to swim, to survive, she was a witch and was killed anyway. If she died, she wasn’t, but then she couldn’t celebrate her innocence.
    Later I realized that old ladies were often midwives, doctors, and offered counselling. They had survived a long woman’s life, getting pregnant, going through labour, giving birth, and taking care of children. They had learned a lot and were able to share knowledge male doctors perhaps were clueless about or weren’t able to talk about due to the long arm to the church in education and health-care. What if the nuns and monks couldn’t help? Of course they were the primary caretakers, but there were people, women, who couldn’t ask for religious healthcare. And as with everybody offering advice or care, sometimes you have it wrong and there must have been fatalities. And fatalities result in blame, grief, and anger. I can picture old ladies being blamed and a collective will to punish these old and wise ladies. Poor ladies, who weren’t witches, but kind and wise women who took care of fallen woman, women that needed care but couldn’t turn to a monastery. We are still living in a world in which reproductive healthcare for women is not available to all. It is shameful, putting women to death because they were or are believed to be witches but were most likely serving other women.

  11. Fascinating post, Ailish, it’s a period in history that’s both fascinating and tragic. It’s funny that in the Middle Ages witchcraft was part of everyday life, and as long as you didn’t do anything to hurt anyone it was generally acceptable. The Reformation led to the hysteria about witchcraft and the horrendous suffering and executions these poor women had to endure as a result. Those bells are beautiful, and they must resonate through the whole area. And I hope you kept up with the weather – there’s a lot of it about at the moment! Thanks for sharing.

  12. Pingback: A Bookish Post - Ailish Sinclair

  13. Ailish – glad to make your acquaintance. I used to run The Other Company, the touring arm of Dundee Rep in the late 70s early 80s. Our first production was TROUBLE WITH WITCHES and featured Agness Fynnie’s Dittay (Edinburgh) and a dramatised report from James VI. I did a fair amount of research in Dundee public library – even found the cash account of how much it cost to burn a witch. Everyone in the town got a rake off (ouch) so to speak…

  14. I like the history and also present stories of witches and witchcraft alike, this was interesting. I felt like I was reading a book and a personal experience all in one.

  15. Pingback: Walking the Witchy Ways of Aberdeen – Jack Thurston's Blog

  16. Pingback: Walking the Witchy Ways of Aberdeen | The Chamber Magazine

  17. Pingback: memorial - Ailish Sinclair

  18. Bless you for so beautifully honouring the memory of our sisters. Here we well know the stories of the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, but I had no idea this also took place in Scotland, and no doubt many other countries. Terrorism against women appearing to be on the rise again, we do well to take heed.

    • The Scottish witch trials are much less famous than those that took place at Salem, and the Aberdeen ones very rarely get a mention. I agree, history should not be forgotten!

  19. Ailish, I accidentally posed this question to another of your readers here, so here it is for you: has traveling to the geographical location of your novels ever changed the content of your stories? If so, how significantly?

    • Yes, it has. In fact sometimes it is the inspiration for them in the first place. It definitely deepens description, both of the physical and atmospheric. Sometimes it adds elements to the plot too. Without giving too much away, this book was affected by a warden at St Nicholas Kirk telling me what it was like for her to be caught up in the steeple when the bells began to ring…

Leave a Reply