Memorial: the History of Witchcraft in Aberdeen

The Steeple of St Nicholas Kirk

Aberdeen has quite a brutal history of witchcraft accusations (and other dark events such as mass kidnappings). This post details the start of my research into those areas.

Memorial

Cowdray Hall War Memorial and the history of witchcraft in Aberdeen

Aberdeen’s Cowdray Hall doubles as a war memorial and a venue for classical concerts, and it’s where I started my wee tour of the city on this day.

Gaol!

Leaving grand places behind, I journeyed on to the Tolbooth Museum, a 17th and 18th century gaol.  Unlike the pristine 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: history of witchcraft
bars in the 17th century gaol

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

outrages

History of Witchcraft Accusations

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

door to the cells: history of witchcraft in Aberdeen

The present day kirk is serene and beautiful and open to visitors in the afternoons. The steeple sits just above the part pictured below. It’s not the same one that was used as a prison in the 16th century, but it is situated in exactly the same place.

Those boards on the left display a detailed history of  the church,  but there was no mention of witchcraft.

church and history of witchcraft in Aberdeen

There was an excavation happening in the east part of the building. Lots of skeletons were uncovered along with a metal ring that ‘witches’ were once tied to.

archaeology: history of witchcraft in Aberdeen

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. They sit right underneath the steeple.

carved furniture as a memorial

This window depicts the history of Aberdeen. It was paid for by the oil and gas industry so those themes dominate.

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

research

Unfortunately there’s not much comfort to be found in researching The Witchcraft Act and all that followed.

The Witch Stone

History of Witchcraft: the witch stone near Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire

It is said that witches were tied to the witch stone near Fraserburgh, 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 by church and state had ended, people were ashamed. And rightly so. But where’s the memorial in that?

Memorial through Dance

70 years since D-Day, BalletBoyz pay tribute to the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives with a specially commissioned short film for Channel 4:

More Witch Related Posts

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

See the publisher’s press release here.

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.

Amazon UK

Amazon Worldwide

Waterstones

My Other Books

Sisters at the Edge of the World cover

Set in 1st century Scotland, my latest novel, SISTERS AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, includes the battle of Mons Graupius between the Romans and the Caledonian tribes. The book features a neurodiverse main character and some rather complicated romance!

See the press release here

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Amazon Worldwide

Read the article Roman Aberdeenshire features in author’s new book from Grampian Online.

Fireflies and Chocolate by Ailish Sinclair, out 2021

FIREFLIES AND CHOCOLATE 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

Amazon UK

Amazon Worldwide

Review from the Historical Novel Society

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24 Replies to “Memorial: the History of 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. I had a distant relative live in the Witch Hill Cottage in Fraserburgh. Would this be near the Witches’ stone?

  6. 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

  7. I have often thought that the killing of witches was more about men controlling women than the church controlling magic and thought. Not all witches were (are) female, but most of those charged and executed were. I don’t know if it means anything, but most, if not all, of your responders on this particular installment seem to be female as well. Men (myself included) still have so much to learn and so much to apologize for. Thank you for your intriguing post.

    1. 85% of those accused in Scotland were women. The kirk was used to imprison Andrew Mann, a male ‘witch’. Sadly, he was executed despite never having been accused of doing anything malevolent.

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