Walking the Witchy Ways of Aberdeen

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

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.

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

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:

Turmeric Latte
Turmeric Latte

The Tolbooth

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

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:

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

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.

Ailish Sinclair in the Evening Standard.

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

The Mermaid and the Bear

The Mermaid and the Bear by Ailish Sinclair

The book that came from it all is out now in paperback and kindle.

If you like castles, Scotland, history, witches, stone circles and Christmas done medieval-style, you might like THE MERMAID AND THE BEAR. There’s also a love story.

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 

Also: Should we really have fun at Halloween when the north-east led the great execution of witches?


Go here to sign up for my (roughly monthly) newsletter. It’s a more intimate space than the blog and always includes some exclusive photos. If you would rather just hear about new books and offers, you can follow my Amazon author page.

More Books

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Enjoy a kiss on the London tube. Romp up and down the castle stairs! Dance in a stone circle. Attend a Ceilidh in the great hall. Have your brain studied in the dungeon. All fun, I assure you. Well, not quite all…

Scotland’s all misty lochs and magical forests and perfect boyfriends, right?

When dance student Amalphia Treadwell embarks on a secret relationship with her charismatic new teacher, she has no idea of the danger that lurks in his school in Scotland…

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New novel from Aberdeenshire author combines passions from Grampian Online

Sisters at the Edge of the World

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

Amazon UK

Amazon Worldwide

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

Fireflies and Chocolate by Ailish Sinclair

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

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Review from the Historical Novel Society

Ailish Sinclair romps in the loch

See my About Page here

129 Replies to “Walking the Witchy Ways of Aberdeen”

    1. 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?

      1. 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

        1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

        2. 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

  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.

    1. 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!

    1. 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 🙂

      1. 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.

  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…

    1. It would explain the road system of Aberdeen! Particularly the Haudagain roundabout where I failed my driving test the first time 🙂

  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 🙁

  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.

    1. 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!

      1. Well you’re doing better than us – it’s raining down here! Have a great day in the sun. 🙂

  12. 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…

    1. How fascinating, and what a great subject for your production! Town accounts are a great source of information in these things.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

    1. 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!

  15. Have passed along this blog post to my critique partner who writes about witches! But the injustice of this was sad to read about.

  16. 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?

    1. 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…

  17. 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

  18. 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!

  19. Dear Ailish,
    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!

  20. 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.

  21. 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).

  22. 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 –

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