The Quine Shrine: witchcraft in Aberdeen
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.
Survey of Scottish Witchcraft
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:
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:
Prosecutions for Witchcraft in Aberdeen
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:
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:
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.
I’ve made a Pinterest board for the book, though it does seem to be rather focussed on the cheerier parts of the story.
I am Weather Obsessed
And on another cheery, or perhaps laughable, note, I was recently mentioned in the Evening Standard as an example of a ‘weather obsessed’ Briton.
I must go now. I have to check on the weather!
The Mermaid and the Bear
The book that came from it all is out now in paperback and kindle.
Amazon UK and Amazon Worldwide
Other bookshops (and libraries) can get it too!
From the Press and Journal: New book by Fraserburgh author highlights horrific extent of witch trials in Scotland
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My Other Books
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 neurodivergent main character and some rather complicated romance!
See the press release here
Read the article Roman Aberdeenshire features in author’s new book from Grampian Online.
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
Review from the Historical Novel Society
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126 Replies to “Walking the Witchy Ways of Aberdeen”
Funny how the chain adds such a dark undertone
It’s not art of course; it’s the real thing.
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 “Easter Egg” to reward astute readers
Whoops! That was meant for Ailish! Guess I’ll try re-posting it to the correct conversation. 🙂 But still, that is interesting to hear from you as another author. Something I’ve wondered for a while.
I’m really surprised at how few ‘witches’ were midwives or healers.
These are just the statistics for Scotland; other places may be different, but I doubt they’re too different.
Ronald Hutton found very little evidence in the UK for witches who were midwives and healers.
However, when I was studying German, I was shown medieval German broadsheets with stories of midwives (Hebamme) convicted as witches (Hexe). I think that is where that particular trope came from.
That’s fascinating, Yewtree. I know that witch hunting was widespread in the rest of Europe too, but I haven’t studied it in any depth.
I just did a quick Google and found this article.
Witch hunting in Europe was a completely different phenomenon. In England and Wales, witchcraft was a felony, and thus tried by secular courts and punishable by hanging or the pillory.
In Scotland and the rest of Europe, it was a heresy, thus tried by ecclesiastical courts and punishable by burning.
RE: how ‘who was targeted’ stereotypes come about discussion…. I remember once, discussing with my Dad, a history buff, while delving into heresy and witch trials/people killed, what he said in reply, when I said, “Do you suppose there are negative magnet forcefields somewhere deep in earth that just affects some places more than others? The sheer numbers of deaths from so many eras, seem to center around the land mass of Germany’s borders – – ” (I always liked I could just ask/muse outloud without needing to fact check the thoughts going through my mind, with him!) But his reply? “Well, sis, just never forget, some civilizations, societies and areas are better at keeping records at the time, those records survive, and always remember, they are written/preserved by the winners” – 😀 Totally changed my perspective away ( I hope!) from fanciful ‘reaching for a meaning” or taking sheer records and notes and stats reported, at face value – ever again ! And I’m so GLAD this conversation happened in my teens – I cringe to think how the rest of my life would have gone, had I NOT heard/been reminded of/taught that little nugget – LOL
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.
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.
I’ve not heard of this book; I’ll look it up 🙂
This to me was a way for men to take control of medicine and banish centuries of women’s knowledge about local plants
There were undoubtedly many reasons for the witch hunts. Often sinister and lecherous ones 🙁
Quite often it was because they were widows with property & land that the accuser stood to gain if they were killed.
In Scotland these sort of tricks often failed, but they were played.
The youtube link did not yield the carillon video 🙁
Oh dear, I’m not sure why. This is the direct link to it on Youtube: https://youtu.be/186PI-h3Unc
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!
It is a really emotive subject.
An interesting period in British history, a time when any woman could be denounced as a witch!
Some amazing stories there.
I did actually write one about the Essex trials!
Not any woman. Communities could take revenge in various forms if injustice happened. Witches tended to be isolated women. Since women outnumbered men, they were more likely to be widows so vulnerable to attack.
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!
Yes, there were a few property holding witches here too. Was that book, ‘The Scottish Witch Hunt in Context’? Extremely useful title to me! Glad you like the bells 🙂
Another volume of essays by the same editor, “Scottish Witches and Witch-hunters.” Now I’m going to have to go back and look at the one you mention.
And I’ll have to look this one up!
Thank you for such an interesting and informative post, and giving me a smile at the end 🙂
I’m glad you liked it 🙂
I am enjoying your blog and I think your book will be very interesting. The pictures are nice as well.
Thank you so much, Michael 🙂
What a sad and tough time for Scottish women. I look forward to reading your book.
Yes, terrible and extraordinary times, and thank you 🙂
Loved this walk around Aberdeen. I haven’t seen the names yet either so that was good to see.
Glad you enjoyed it 🙂
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.
Absolutely. I want to remember and honour them. Blogging feels an authentic way to connect to me too.
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.
I love this blog. It’s inspiring for me, as I’m in the midst of writing (trying to write) a novel. Thank you.
That’s great to hear you found some inspiration here Daphne!
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 🙂
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 🙁
Religious intolerance did come up a bit in the accusations 🙁
Don’t know if you’ve ever been but there’s a mosaic and plaque dedicated to her in Peter Street, Dundee.
I will look for this when next in Dundee, thank you 🙂
@dearscotia…Hey, Neighbor! I’ll pop by and a pic of the mosaic and a selfie of us to post
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.
I’m glad you liked the post; it is such a fascinating subject .
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.
‘Dooking’ a witch went on in the UK too with the same rules, not often in Scotland though.
Thank you Rob 🙂
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.
I’m glad you liked the post Alli; it is a fascinating and terrible subject. Happy to report that it is bright and sunny today!
Well you’re doing better than us – it’s raining down here! Have a great day in the sun. 🙂
Thank you ☀️
I’m in love with your Pinterest board for this book!
It is immense fun to do!
Lovely photos, and the historical insights are fascinating. Congratulationson your book!
I’m glad you like, and thank you 🙂
I’ve worked in Aberdeen for years but didn’t know about this. Tch. Nice piece.
The art is really recent. Witch accusations, not so much!
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…
How fascinating, and what a great subject for your production! Town accounts are a great source of information in these things.
I walked past the ‘Deeds Not Words’ on Sunday 🙂 Next time I might have to explore more based on your post – thanks!
I’ll have to go back too; I haven’t read it all either.
I am sure you have read Silvia Federici? I find her theses really interesting.
Yes, the war on women. It is, indeed, interesting.
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.
I’m glad you found it interesting 🙂
Enjoyed my time here immensely… especially with those bells ! What a wonderful job you’ve done here bringing in so much light around our sacred roots that have gone rotten with time, damage, disenchantment, and murder.
I’m so glad you enjoyed the post 🙂
I love the photos this time as well as the previous post you shared, and I I have to say I’m a sucker for pinterest boards for books. I can’t wait to read your book!
Thank you so much 😀 I’m glad you liked the photos.
LOVE THE SITE AILISH AND WRITE ABOUT ABERDEEN IN MY BOOK SERIES, ‘MIRANDA LOOKING THE PERFECT MOTHER’ ON AMAZON KINDLE, CHINA
How amazing that you write about Aberdeen too 🙂
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!
Have passed along this blog post to my critique partner who writes about witches! But the injustice of this was sad to read about.
It is sad. I hope your friend finds the post useful 🙂
Love this piece, informative, entertaining and well-written.
And thanks for following AnElephantCant
I’m glad you like it, and you’re welcome 🙂
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…
Hello Ailish! Thank you for posting about the Gallus Quines Monument. I always go there when I am in Aberdeen to pay my respects. I look forward to reading your book! I am a Aberdeenshire based writer documenting monuments to accused witches all over Scotland– I thought you might be interested. The work is up at my Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/Allysonshaw
Your work sounds so interesting! I would love to visit more of these monuments too.
A fascinating post!
Glad you like!
Really enjoyed reading this post. Very sad, but fascinating information. They were dangerous times to be an older female healer. Sleep deprivation can bring on psychosis. These ‘interrogators’ really knew how to bring on suffering. Thank you for writing this!
I’m glad you enjoyed it. Dark times, indeed!
About The Mermaid and the Bear. I was fascinating about Isobel and Thomas love story. I loved the way you mixed up historical elements and create such a compassionate story about all the character’s living in the castle. Stay safe!
Thank you Susana 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. You stay safe too.
Fascinating! I hope to be able to visit Scotland someday. I’ll check out your book later tonight 🙂
I hope you get the chance to visit 🙂 And that you enjoy the book!
Wow, Ailish! Great post, and I’m looking forward to picking up ‘The Mermaid and the Bear’ now, too. The comments about how these women suffered in prison literally have me shivers – it’s hard to believe that this stupidity ever existed. Yet, it still does.
On a side note, I’m doing a facelift on my site finally after seven years, and I’m obsessed with how well you’ve integrated your site, well, this post in particular – I’m a new follower. Everything looks great.
Hi Shadow Girl – I’m glad you like the site and post. The witchcarft trials and accusations are such shocking subjects 🙁
What a refreshing, wonderful post! I enjoyed it so much – that I just bought your book on Kindle for some Christmas reading.
I hope you enjoy it 🙂
Very cool.. Thank you for sharing this part of your work and your world with us. I look forward to reading the book!
I hope you enjoy the book 🙂
I hope so too, thank you!
Great post, Ailish! Thanks for sharing the pics and the video, especially the tile. I used to hear stories in my family about Hellie Pennie being wrongfully accused (we’re Pennies from Ellon and the Broch, on my grannies side).
I have heard of Hellie!
It was so nice to see her name
Those numbers related to women who weren’t midwives or healers were probably wives husbands wanted to get rid of or women who refused a man’s interest in her.
I have read of cases like that 🙁
Through various reading/studies I’ve taken, it seems to me, still, that those targeted for ‘heresy/witchcraft’ and ‘slated for destruction’ was more often a form of power fed ‘culling’ of the followers of those who questioned AND/OR an easy way for others to ‘gain favor/gain power/gain resources’ by either taking out their competition/enemy for a position of power – in a way that was sanctioned by the higher powers in place, who also, feared too many questions or resistance was a danger to their resources and powers. Greed and Fear for Survival, to me, seem to have played a part in all of the various stories, over and over – and over –
There were many reasons. Terribly dark events.