The themes around witchcraft drag the human psyche kicking and screaming into a heart of darkness. In other words,

it is perfect subject matter for artists as they try to wrestle with telling the story of what makes us human.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, written in 1606, is defined by the brooding presence of his three witches and their spellbinding double, double toil and trouble, while both Bruegel and Dürer came of age as artists during a period in which the witchcraft trials swept Northern Europe.

The first public trials for witchcraft took place around 1430 in Europe, but up until the end of 17th century, people were gripped by a very real fear of the devil. Artists such as Breugel and Durer gave a visual template for this fear.

There had been attempts by artists to depict witches before but Bruegel

(1525-1569) was the first to add in fireplace, cauldron on the hearth and black cat. The pointed black hat was added a couple of centuries later by British artist, William Hogarth.

In Calvinist Scotland, about 4,000 people (mostly women) were accused of witchcraft during the 16th and 17th century and this shameful statistic still reflects badly on us as a nation.

The witchcraft trials of women in central Scotland have long fascinated Stirling-based artist Karen Strang. You will find no pointed hats, black cats or cauldrons in her latest exhibition at the Lillie Art Gallery in Milngavie, but it may be necessary to gird your loins in advance of a visit before it ends on Thursday.

For The Burn And The Tide, Strang has created a searingly vivid collective picture of the experiences and sense of place inhabited by the women who were persecuted in central Scotland. Staying close to home, she focuses in particular on trials at Glendevon, Dunning in Perthshire, the Forth Valley, West Fife and in Alloa.

The exhibition is broken up into three physical areas; the first room you walk into on entering the gallery, contains landscape paintings of the places where the trials and their aftermath took place, the second small space has small works that focus on torture scenes, while the Lillie’s large central space contains large figurative paintings homing in on bodies and the situations women were accused of having been part of during the trials.

Factual records have inspired Strang’s depictions of ancient sacred sites, and the series of large oil paintings expresses the psychological effects and fears of the accused and the accusers.

It is not easy viewing. This is not the Scotland of white-washed cottages and ruggedly handsome landscapes that routinely find their way into our social media feeds under a gloss of 21st century hashtags.

As Strang notes during an “in conversation” with her former Glasgow School of Art tutor, Alexander Moffat, in the publication that accompanies the exhibition, “painting […] demands individual human interaction, not a thumbswiped reaction that takes less than a human breath”.

The title of the exhibition is a word play that talks out the elemental agony of the so-called witches, particularly in the section featuring the landscapes and small works with titles such as Confessions: Agnes, Bessie, Isabelle and Coastlines, Bloodline, Borderlines.

By the 1660s, at the height of the witchcraft trials, these lands of central Scotland were highly industrialised. South-running burns, we are told in the gallery notes, of which there are many in this part of the world, were cited as places connected to witchcraft and the devil as well as being used in ancient times for healing purposes.

The south-running burns in this area were also a means of hydro power and many early mills were founded at settlements such as Forestmill and Linn Mill in Clackmannanshire.

Commerce and castigation clearly walk hand-in-hand when it comes to witch-hunting.

You can almost taste and feel the burning pain and searing indignity inflicted on these ordinary women with ordinary names.

It goes without saying that there are parallels between these witchcraft trials 350 years ago and the times in which we live today. The hysteria generated by the witchcraft trials across Europe was used as a stick with which to batter the weak into submission. Everything and nothing changes when it comes to human nature.

Strang’s work doesn’t exist in isolation. The Burn And The Tide is complemented by visceral poetry from Katharine Macfarlane and ambient sound from Peter Drysdale generated at the site of the many of the locations included in Strang’s work.

Strang and Macfarlane worked on a collaborative project called Voices From Ashes based on the Culross witch trials, which they began in 2015-6.

It is still an ongoing project, says Strang, adding the pair share an interest in our Scottish “herstory”, particularly surrounding Scottish witchcraft myth and fact.

Strang has made an important and haunting new body of work. I, for one, feel bereft for all the Agneses, Bessies and Isabelles who were persecuted and subsequently lost in the dance of time.

As Katharine Macfarlane writes in her poem, Flax:


Whispers still slide

As wind across wheat fields

Streeling chains in their wake.

Karen Strang will be discussing her work in

The Burn And The Tide at The Lillie Art Gallery, Milngavie, today at 2.30pm. The Burn and The Tide, Lillie Art Gallery, Station Road, Milngavie, G62 8BZ, 0141 956 5536, Until March 15. Open Tue-Sat, 10am –1pm and 2pm–5pm (closed Sunday & Monday). Free

Critics Choice: A new exhibition, billed as a “mini-retrospective” of work by John Byrne, the best-dressed artist and writer in Scotland, has got to be

a cause for celebration.

The Boy With The Jabberwocky at Edinburgh’s Fine Art Society brings together a selection of early works by Byrne, from the start of his career in the 1960s to the present day. The exhibition draws in all the elements of Byrne’s many and varied creative endeavours, including painting, drawing, and writing. The show features Byrne’s work in theatre, film and television through preliminary drawings and character sketches from the much-loved Tutti Frutti, The Slab Boys and Writer’s Cramp. A highlight among these is a framed storyboard from the film adaptation of

The Slab Boys, showcasing Byrne’s close involvement in the project and the

all-encompassing nature of his vision.

A series of small watercolour works examine childhood and Americana through the psychedelic lens of the 1960s and 1970s, reminiscent of Byrne’s album covers for Gerry Rafferty. These and an oil painting, Le Chat, are crafted with the deceptive straightforwardness of Byrne’s alter ego “Patrick”. All are steeped with symbolism and hidden narratives. Self Portrait With Sea Shells, an introspective self portrait, marks Byrne’s return to painting in 1992 following a focus on writing. Byrne attended Glasgow School of Art from 1958 to 1963, and

its tradition of life drawing and draughtsmanship has left an indelible mark. This is clear in Writer’s Cramp, a watercolour character study for the theatrical production of the same name. His character F S McDade sits at his desk surrounded by ephemera, each object representing an element of his life. Byrne designed the First Minister’s Christmas Card for 2017, and completed a portrait of Sir Billy Connolly for the BBC (now a mural in Glasgow) which is also included in this exhibition.

The Fine Art Society presents The Boy With The Jabberwock, 6 Dundas Street, Edinburgh, EH3 6HZ, 0131 557 4050, Until March 29. Mon-Fri, 10am-6pm, Sat 11am-2pm. Free

Don't miss:

For the last 25 years, first under artist Ann Johnston, and then her ex-BBC producer daughter, Becky Walker, The Green Gallery, has been a fixture on the central Scottish arts scene.

In the 17 years Walker has run the Green Gallery, latterly from her home base in Buchlyvie, Stirlingshire, with an added “shop front” in Dollar, Clackmannanshire, she has provided an informal art consultancy service to clients.

Now she is launching her own art matchmaking service., which launches next weekend with an exhibition in Buchlyvie called Rooms, which features artworks by leading Scottish artists. Her gallery will be transformed into a room set up with furniture by Steven Burgess, with lighting by Rocke and table dressings by Twine.

Rooms: An exhibition curated by Becky Walker, greengallery Buchlyvie, The Coachhouse, Ballamenoch, Buchlyvie, Stirlingshire, FK8 3NX, 01360 850 180, Until April 6.