memorial: witchcraft in Aberdeen

Cowdray Hall War Memorial

Aberdeen’s Cowdray Hall doubles as a war memorial and a venue for classical concerts. I visited it recently during a ‘Let’s do all the free museums!’ day; the marble hall is accessible via The Art Gallery.

Leaving grand places behind, I journeyed on to The Tolbooth Museum, a 17th and 18th century gaol.  Unlike the war memorial, the prison exhibits the dark nature of its origin for all to see. The small cells are stifling and scary. They smell stale. There are a few of those terrifying pretend people; some of them talk, regaling you with tales of their mistreatment.

leg fetters

The 18th century record of prisoners reveals many debtors, a murder spree and one intriguing entry of unspecified ‘outrages’:


An interesting fact gleaned behind the bars and bolts and padlocks of the jail was that women accused of witchcraft were once imprisoned in the steeple of St. Nicholas Kirk. Out the door I went…


… and into the present day serenity of the Kirk (open to visitors in the afternoons). The steeple sits just above the part pictured below, those boards on the left display a detailed history of  the church,  no mention of witches:


There is excavation happening in the East part of the building, lots of skeletons have been uncovered:


The 12th century St. John’s Chapel houses a memorial to those killed in the Piper Alpha oil disaster. These amazing chairs are part of it:

carved furniture as a memorial

Window depicting the history of Aberdeen (paid for by the oil and gas industry):


I walked down steps and cobbled streets in search of comfort, hot chocolate and books:


Unfortunately there’s not much comfort to be found in researching The Witchcraft Act and all that followed. The Witches stone at Witch Hill near Fraserburgh:

witches stone: a memorial of sorts

It is said that witches were tied to the stone and burnt. The landowner questions whether this was the case as no documentation exists on the subject. But such evidence was often destroyed, or omitted from written history, after the burnings and ‘dookings’ and other well specified outrages against those who were different in some way had ended. People were ashamed. And where’s the memorial in that?

I need dance to calm me down. 70 years since D-Day, BalletBoyz pay tribute to the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives with a specially commissioned short film for Channel4:

Also see the later post, Walking the Witchy Ways of Aberdeen, and keep up to date with all my news by signing up to the mailing list.

The book that came eventually sprang from this is out in both paperback and Kindle now!

Set in a fictional castle in Aberdeenshire, Ailish Sinclair’s debut novel, THE MERMAID AND THE BEAR, blends an often overlooked period of history, the Scottish witchcraft accusations, in particular the 1597 Aberdeen witchcraft panic, with a love story.



The Mermaid and the Bear cover
Fireflies and Chocolate by Ailish Sinclair, out 2021

FIREFLIES AND CHOCOLATE, out April 1st 2021, was inspired by the kidnapped children and young people of Aberdeen. The story follows the adventures of Elizabeth Manteith from the castle and her determined efforts to get back home. There’s love. There’s derring-dos on the high seas… And there’s chocolate!

See the publisher’s Press Release here




18 Replies to “memorial: witchcraft in Aberdeen”

  1. So poignant; I can remember being shown a ducking stool as a child and refusing to understand why if you floated you were guilty and innocent if you drowned and getting upset when the ‘logic’ couldn’t be explained to me. Thanks for the lovely post.

  2. Fascinating post. I understand the frustration about the lack of memorials to women accused of witchcraft. It’s a part of our history that people don’t seem ready to acknowledge yet. Although having said that I understand that there’s a really good visitors centre in Pendle now.

  3. Growing up in Germany, visiting palaces, and castle ruins I always wondered what secrets those walls held. Those beyond what were shared in tours. You have brought this story to life and make me wonder how many spirits passed me in those halls.

  4. Connecticut lacks a memorial and I think Salem only has one because of all the attention brought to it from books and movies. Those accused of witchcraft in the colonies were typically hung, although as Geoff mentions, other died by drowning to prove their innocence. Pressing was another horrific torture meant to lay stones atop the witch until confession or crushing. My husband’s ancestor, a grandmother about 12 generations back was hung in Connecticut as a witch. Never understood the fear, but then again, it was different times–no electric lights or security, little education and empathy for others. Thank you for your delightful tour despite the shadows you walked through. Well rewarded with dance and chocolate!

    1. Half strangling followed by burning was the usual method in Aberdeen until the 18th century when hanging took over. I had not heard of pressing before. What terrible things we humans do dream up; if only we could be satisfied to let them exist as fiction…

  5. Love this , I am going put exploring tommorow in aberdeenshire never heard of the witches post u till I read your post so thank you

Leave a Reply