I’m in Aberdeen to promote my second historical novel, Sunwise, with a reading/signing at Blackwells on Sunday 26th May at 4pm as part of the Aberdeen May Festival (alongside the poet and writer, John Bolland). As my first two novels are about witch trials, I always like to find out about local witch history when I visit other areas. The lovely, friendly people on the Facebook group, Aberdeen history and stories from the past helpfully obliged by giving me lots of useful ideas about where to go looking. Because I came by train instead of driving up, I didn’t manage to get round all of them, but I’ve listed everyone’s suggestions below and I’ll no doubt get to see them on future visits to Aberdeen.
In the city centre, just off Correction Wynd, I went to see the ‘Quine Shrine’, which is next to St Mary’s Chapel where some alleged witches were held.
The artwork is by Carrie Richardt, ‘Gallus Quines – Deeds Not Words’, and it’s well worth a visit. (I think Gallus Quines is Doric for Daring Women – gallus perhaps indicating that they were destined for the gallows.) The tiles are set in the shape of stained-glass windows, perhaps reflecting back at the kirk, which looms over the artwork.
The Kirk of St Nicholas, Aberdeen
It was cheering to see one of the stained-glass windows crowned with the words ‘We are the granddaughters – all the witches you were never able to burn’!
Each of the tiles making up the window reflects the stories of women persecuted and executed as witches.
At the bottom of the window was a picture I’m very familiar (!) with. The source on the tile is given as Law and Customs in Scotland in Matters Criminal, from 1678. However, the picture originally appears in Ralph Gardiner’s 1655 book, England’s Grievance Discovered. (This is the book that triggered my first novel, Widdershins.) There is a very brief section in the book, which mentions the little-known Newcastle witch trials, and it contains an artist’s impression of women being hanged outside of the castle keep in Newcastle, although the victims were actually hanged on Newcastle’s Town Moor, alongside nine moss troopers.
On the left of the picture is the bellman. The witchfinder and the bellman toured Newcastle inviting people to send out their witches. On the right of the picture is the Scottish witch-finder, who is being paid by a member of Newcastle council – possibly the Chamberlain as the expenditure on trying witches is listed in the Chamberlain’s accounts, held in the Tyne & Wear Archive. (Please note that the archive refers to the cost of burning a witch, but witches were generally hanged in England.)
As a point of interest, this picture of the witchfinder inspired the silhouette of John Sharpe, the Scottish witchfinder on the cover art for both Widdershins and Sunwise.
If you’re interested in witch trials, witches and witchfinders in Aberdeen, then you might like to try some of the following, which were helpfully suggested to me by the lovely people of Aberdeen.
Thanks to Lou Strang: The two graves of Mary Elphinstone at Inverurie. The poor woman ‘died’ and was buried, then came back to life and scared her husband to death, she was then hung for witchcraft, hence the second grave. She became known as Mary Eerie Orie Elphinstone.
Thanks to Bruce Collie: The local council has helpfully produced a leaflet, which contains a wealth of historic information about witch trials in Aberdeen and what influenced them. There is also a fascinating glossary of terms, such as ‘dittay’ (a list of charges against a witch).
Thanks to Mary Baird Sommerville and Gaynor Purdie: There’s the warlock’s stone. It’s signposted from the main road heading out Ballater way. Park at the quarry and it’s a ten minute walk up a forest track. There’s even a geocache to look out for.
Thanks to Michael Middleton: Head for the Heading Hill off the beach boulevard, where many burnings took place; it can be accessed from Virginia street. ( Not much but grass and a house now, it was the site of beheadings, hence the name, but you had to be of high status to get the chop, the city had a sword for the purpose, there was a simple guillotine style instrument called the maiden that was used when you got ‘heedit’.) Terrible times here in Aberdeen, the Tolbooth museum at the foot of Union St will help, there is a small chapel in the Mither Kirk of St Nicholas off Union Street, where women were tethered to the wall. Witches, or alleged witches were worried, ‘wirret’, meaning strangled before burning by the city hangman, sometimes called John Justice. And check out the Castle gate at the foot of Union Street, it was where the witches were accused of having their ‘cantrips’ (acts of mischief and magic), including kissing the devil’s backside.
Thanks to Vanessa Smith: If you have a car then visit Forres for Macbeth witches connection. I had heard that they also burned witches at Dunnottar Castle.
Thanks to Ralph D Edwards: There are lists of info in the library: men accused were hanged and women drowned.
Thanks to Sheila Hay: The ‘barley pot’ part of the river Urie was where they drowned so-called witches. Mary Elphinstone woke up when the gravediggers tried to remove her rings. She then ran home to her farm in Keithall nearby the cemetery nearly killing her husband with fright. There is also an area nearby, where my own father was born, called Meggie Glutton steeped in witch history.
Thanks to Sandy Cheyne: I found this in City by the Grey North Sea by Fenton Wyness, page 155:- The Witch-hunt of 1596-97 is one of the most fantastic periods in the City’s history and is without parallel. In Aberdeen, one man and twenty three women were convicted for the practice of Witchcraft and condemned to death. A few took their own lives in the dank cells of the Tolbooth while others were strangled by the public hangman and thereafter dragged through the cobbled streets until their battered, shapeless bodies were unrecognisable. However, the majority of Aberdeen’s witches were burnt at the stake as a public spectacle in the grassy hollow now called Commerce Street and so great was the attraction of a ‘roastin’ that crush barriers had to be erected to restrain the spectators. You can find all the above info and more in the city’s records which are kept in the Town House on Castle Street. Visitors are welcome, and you can consult ancient volumes like the Diurnal of Remarkable Occurrents, Selections from the records of the Kirk Session of Aberdeen etc. T.C.Smout, A history of the Scottish People 1560-1830, has this to say: ‘In the years between 1560 and 1707 considerably more than 3,000 people, and perhaps as many as 4,500, perished horribly because their contemporaries thought they were witches. In England, with a population five times as large, only about one thousand are believed to have been killed as witches. This unique wave of judicial murder deserves a historian’s serious attention.’
(Thank you very much, everyone for these helpful ideas. It’ll take me a while to get round them all, but I’ll visit a couple each time I come to Aberdeen! I hope I’ve remembered to include everyone who contributed, but please nudge me if not!)
I did manage to get into St Mary’s Chapel and I saw the tethering ring. It was much smaller than I’d imagined, which saddened me, perhaps because the women were so weakened by captivity, it wouldn’t have taken much to hold them. Unfortunately, the light was poor, and my photo didn’t come out. (I’d also unwittingly gatecrashed a celebration there, so didn’t want to overstay my welcome any more than I already had, not least because I was the only one not in 15th century clothing.) I did manage to get a photo of the vaulted ceiling though. And here’s a link to a photo of the tethering ring so you can see it for yourself (along with details of when it’s open to the public so, unlike this fool, you don’t rush in where angels fear to tread).
If you’re interested in witches, witch trials and witchfinders, come and see me at Blackwell’s Aberdeen, near King’s College at 4pm on Sunday 26th May. (Or, you can come at see me at the Causeway/Cabshair launch at 10 am, where I’ll be reading my poem, ‘Sentence’, or at 5:40 pm where I’ll be at the Pushing Out The Boat event, reading my poem ‘Quiet Sisters’. Details are on the events page of my website. And if you’re interested in the history of Aberdeen, you might like to join the Aberdeen history and stories from the past Facebook group – I’m sure you’ll be made most welcome.
Best wishes, Helen