MEMORIALS should be created across Scotland to mark the deaths of thousands of women brutally tortured and killed during the witch trials, say leading feminists and researchers.

Calls to acknowledge the “genocide of Scottish women” include a network of plaques across the sites in Scotland where women were held, tried, tortured and burned at the stake.

It is estimated that about 2,500 women in Scotland were executed for witchcraft between the mid-16th and early-18th centuries, yet there is no large-scale public memorial to the fact.

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Women who were burned at the stake, hung or strangled included healers and local wise women as well as those considered rebellious to the Presbyterian cause, including many who continued to practise as Catholics. Others targeted included those thought of as “different”, or even women singled out by rivals during neighbourhood disputes.

Edinburgh University historian Dr Julian Goodare, who is calling for a more public acknowledgement of the injustices, claims many existing memorials are inappropriate, inaccessible or unknown.

He notes that the most important, at Castlehill in Edinburgh – where one in 10 accused of witchcraft were tried – is not only tucked away but depicts a serpent and a foxglove, indicating an ill-fitted belief that the women killed had magic powers. Others, he says, are “embarrassing” in their historical inaccuracy, like "Maggie Walls" in Dunning which commemorates witches that did not exist, or the "Witches Stone" in Forres, where it is claimed witches were rolled down Cluny Hill in spiked barrels – a suggestion not backed by historical records.

“I would like to see a memorial,” he said. “I enquired whether the Scottish Government would be interested, but they replied that they have a policy of not paying for memorials so there would have to be a fundraising campaign.”

Rosie Kane, a feminist and former politician, who will next weekend perform in Seraphina, a play about the Paisley witch trials, agreed with the call.

“It is a huge part of Scottish history,” said Kane, claiming the need for a memorial was brought home to her when the cast of the play went on a site visit to a piece of waste ground where Paisley witches were burned.

“We all fell silent and started quietly looking for a plaque or a marker that held some kind of apology, but there was nothing," she said. “It’s important that after a war or a battle or a genocide there is breathing space and then there should be a physical remembrance.

“I think that in every place that something happened there should be a plaque with the names – if they are known – and there should be something that joins those together and tells the story. Each area should take responsibility for that.

“It may help us talk about the sexism that we’re seeing now in Hollywood, in politics, in sport. If we say someone is a witch we are still insulting them.”

Rachel Jury, creator and director of Seraphina, which will look at the perception of witches today and make comparisons between the persecution of witches and modern “slut shaming”, added: “One man asked me: 'Why do you want to bring all that up again?' If I was writing something about the First World War it would be obvious why that was important. Well, this is my war and it’s important to women and it should be important to every man too. It would be fabulous to see a more widespread recognition of this.”

Professor Lynn Abrams, chair in modern history at Glasgow University, said that the lack of memorials to those executed for witchcraft echoed the “dearth” of visible monuments to Scottish women more generally.

She added: “A public memorial to remember the many ordinary women who were persecuted and murdered during the period of the witch trials might be one way of highlighting this tragic era in European and Scottish history, and a means of raising awareness of the plight of those who were often made scapegoats for the misfortunes of others.”

THE RISE OF THE MODERN WITCH

ON a rain-sodden and sluggish Thursday morning it’s hard to image that Glasgow Cross – the site of the Tolbooth Steeple – was once the bustling centre of the city, teeming with residents, hawkers and traders. But it was also its dark heart, where the undesirable – criminals and women accused of witchcraft – met the most grisly of ends.

Just up the High Street, yet a whole world away, is 23 Enigma, a shop selling supplies for those interested in new-age “magick” and the occult. Owner Samantha Cooper says it chills her to think of the women executed at the clock tower. But though she has one eye firmly on the past, this is a shop for the modern witch. Here you’ll find birch and willow wands, crystals used by Pagans for healing rituals and pentangle pendants. There are ceremonial swords for casting sacred circles, idols and cups for Wiccan alters and books on Paganism galore. Tarot readings sessions for this weekend are nearly fully booked. Halloween – or Samhain – is her busiest time.

“All of our senses are inverted at this time of the year,” she says. “When it’s dark we’re focusing on senses other than sight, on hearing, on smell. The dark half of the year explains what witchcraft’s real purpose is.”

In 22 years of trading in the historic High Street, Cooper claims the explosion of interest in neo-Paganism – a set of nature-worshipping beliefs that rose to prominence in the mid-20th century – has been staggering. “We get all sorts of people coming here,” she says. They include Millennials, she claims, perhaps attracted by the gender-fluid nature of witchcraft – both men and women are witches and deities include gods, goddesses and those whose gender is not fixed.

“We get lots of women accompanied by their mothers,” says Cooper. “Perhaps they had a gift and that was shut down. Maybe they were subject to ridicule.”

Witches in mainstream culture, she admits, have always had an image problem, even after the repeal of the Scottish Witchcraft Act in 1735 that saw women – often accused due to fears about their political and Presbyterian allegiance to the paranoid King James VI during his reign – burnt at the stake.

Since then, thanks to fictional creations by everyone from the Brothers Grimm to Disney, witches have been portrayed as cackling hags on broomsticks or child-catching crones. Even the good-versus-evil-axis presented in the Wizard Of Oz is troublesome.

In response, says Cooper, “softer” terms, like “spey wife” have been adopted to describe “wise women” who dabbled in herbal healing and charms. Wiccan is the religious term now used instead of witch by neo-Pagans. According to the last national census, neo-Paganism is now the sixth-largest non-Christian faith community in Scotland with 5,194 people ascribing to the beliefs. In England and Wales there are around 80,000.

For an increasing number there is a growing pride in “reclaiming” the word “witch”. Kristen Solle, author of Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring The Sex Positive, claims there is a tradition of using the word as a form of rebellion. Her book charts the way women, from the Suffragettes to the W.I.T.C.H. activist covens of 1960s and 70s America, have attempted to harness its power.

“The word is being taken back by women who see the witch as an icon of female power and persecution, a beacon in black that stands out on the path to power beyond patriarchy,” she adds.

John MacIntyre of the Scottish Pagan Federation agrees. “The vast majority of witches in history who were persecuted were women,” he says. “Now there is definitely an element of owning that term and wearing it as a badge of pride.”

CLOAKS, CAULDRONS AND AND FULL MOONS

Fee, is a Wiccan high priestess who the Sunday Herald has agreed not to name. She turned to Paganism after growing disillusioned with mainstream religion. “I grew up in the Church of England but found that it was prescriptive and didn’t reflect my beliefs adequately,” she says. When she discovered Paganism while rummaging in a secondhand bookshop, she found its rituals comfortingly familiar. Months of training included meditation “to build a relationship with the deity” after which she was initiated as a Wiccan.

The new full moon brings her out to the woods, complete with cloak, cauldron and broom (to “cleanse” the sacred circle where magic is performed) with her husband and other coven members. Spells are concerned with healing and good fortune. Self-defence is permissible but curses that do harm are against the moral code.

She says: “There is something in every season to celebrate – that might be the harvest, or Lammas, or Yule (Pagan version of Christmas) when the sun is reborn."

Fee is concerned when she hears Wiccan beliefs being misrepresented and advises new members to consult with the Scottish Pagan Federation to ensure that they are learning from someone reputable. Even now she hesitates to tell people about her faith. "It might be easier to come out when we retire," she admits.

WITCHCRAFT AND MAGIC

Pauline Reid, who runs Bewitched Beauty Therapy and is the high priestess of the Hearth coven, is open about her belief in witchcraft. Now 45 and based between Glasgow and Arran, she first knew she was “different” at about eight years old.

She explains: “We [her coven] are Wiccans and see ourselves as witches. There is the saying 'all Wiccans are witches but not all witches are Wiccan' – this means for us witchcraft and magic are part of our religion, but you do not need to be Wiccan to practise magic.

“We do have a positive morality: if it does not harm anybody, do as you will," she says. "This definitely encourages us to evaluate all our actions for ourselves instead of following strict rules written in a book.”

Not everyone has to go down the formal path that she has done. Many Pagans practice individually, some considering themselves as “hedge witches” or individual practitioners.

Actress Marysia Kay, who starred in 2005 horror film Forest Of The Damned, is organising an open ritual in Dundonald to cater for local Pagans. She claims that films like The Craft, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Charmed, have helped stoke interest a younger generation. But, she says, it can be hard to find ways to access the community outside of Scotland’s main cities. “Wicca requires commitment,” she adds.

WHAT THE TERMS MEAN

Pagan: Paganism is described as “a spiritual way of life” which includes Wicca and other forms of Pagan Witchcraft, Druidry, Heathenry, Celtic Paganism, Shamanism and Goddess worship. It has its roots in the ancient nature religions of the world.

Wiccan: a Pagan witchcraft tradition, Wicca combines both high magic and spellcraft within a religious framework that has a very strong emphasis on goddess-worship.

Coven: a small, very closely-knit, group of witches who worship and work magic together. Sometimes these can be hierarchical with the high priestesses and high priests firmly in control. Others operate in a more informal basis.

Hedge witch: Solitary witches, who may or may not be Wiccan, hedge witches often have wide range of beliefs and might traditionally have been described as a “local wise woman”. They are often interested in the power of plants, healing and midwifery.