It concerns an actual, convicted witch. Her name is Janet Horne, a former resident of the Highland town of Dornoch. Horne was the last woman to be executed in Scotland for the crime of witchcraft. Three centuries after she met her end, she still casts a spell over people, and I intend to find out why.

Horne’s life and death have inspired one of the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival (EIF): a play called The Last Witch. According to the play’s author, leading Scottish dramatist Rona Munro, Horne’s story is a metaphor for what catastrophes can unfold when a politically apathetic society, as many people consider present-day Britain to be, allows itself to be influenced by dangerous ideas.

The hunt for Horne is not a search for a body: hers was burned to ashes in a wooden barrel filled with flaming tar. It is a hunt for a body of evidence. Who was Janet Horne? Why was she accused of witchcraft? How does the real Horne compare with the fictional character in Munro’s play? The quest will take me from one end of Scotland to the other.

It begins in Glasgow, where, on Sauchiehall Street, preachers still loudly recite scripture earnestly concerning the evils of superstition. The line between enlightenment and ignorance is often hard to define, explains Munro, who shared the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 1990 for her Belfast-set play Bold Girls. “At the time Janet Horne died in 1727, the Scottish Enlightenment, which is a key theme of this year’s Festival, was putting this country at the forefront of Europe in terms of philosophy and education. And yet we were still burning witches. I think the only country that burned a witch later than us was Switzerland.”

In the library at the University of Glasgow I find some explanations as to why Scots were still burning witches in the 18th century. The fear that they were a danger to society had deep roots. In 1597, almost a century and a half before Horne’s execution, no less a personage than James VI published a book called Daemonologie. It was a study of witchcraft, devil worship, werewolves and other such subjects. In the book the king presents witches as a real threat to national security and “our way of life”. He also reveals much about why most alleged witches were women.

In the text, which takes the form of a Socratic dialogue, one character asks: “What can be the cause that there are twentie women given to that [witch]craft, where ther is one man?” The other replies: “The reason is easie, for as that sexe is frailer than man is, so is it easier to be intrapped in these grosse snares of the Devill, as was over well proven to be true by the Serpent’s deceiving of Eva at the beginning.”

The king’s Biblical certainty that women were naturally inclined towards witchcraft was well received in Scotland. This was, after all, a country still in the zealous early phase of Presbyterian Reformation, where theologians jettisoned the old Catholic icon of femininity, Mary the virgin mother of Christ, in favour of an iconoclastic emphasis on Eve, the fallen woman, and her original sin. In such a climate, with the Kirk and the judiciary tightly bound together, it is perhaps unsurprising that by the time of James VI’s death in 1625, several hundred Scottish women had been put to death for the crime of witchcraft. A similarly grim scenario unfolded in other Protestant European countries after the Reformation.

In the wake of James VI’s “witch craze”, robust judicial machinery was maintained to give Scotland’s law lords the power to mete out severe punishment to alleged witches, including torturing them to extract confessions. Arguably the most famous of them, Isobel Gowdie, a housewife from Nairn, admitted at her trial in 1662 to be the leader of a coven who had the power to transform themselves into animals. Although it gradually fell out of use, this legal apparatus had not yet been dismantled in Horne’s lifetime – and plenty of people in high places still entertained a belief in witches. In 1730, three years after Horne’s execution, at the dawn of the supposedly rational Scottish Enlightenment, a professor of law at the University of Glasgow could still openly express the view that “nothing seems plainer to me than that there may be and have been witches, and that perhaps such are now actually existing”.

When he wrote those words, Professor William Forbes surely had the recent witch trial and execution in Dornoch somewhere in mind. After all, the case of Janet Horne had been a sensation. Before Horne, it had been 20 years since anyone had stood trial for witchcraft in Scotland. But what was the evidence against her? The only material evidence I have is a copy of a faded black and white photograph, taken in 1920, of the Witch’s Stone, which marks the site in a field on the edge of Dornoch, in Sutherland, where Horne was said to have been put to death in front of a baying village mob. The image has a luminescent, ghostly quality. I wonder what the place looks like now, almost 90 years since that picture was taken. I am going to Dornoch to find out, of course. But first a detour to Edinburgh, where Munro tells me she made some surprising discoveries about Horne and the thousands of others who have shared her fate.

“We have found a witch, might we burn her?” “How do you know she is a witch?” “She looks like one.” – Monty Python

and the Holy Grail

On a balmy summer evening on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, an array of ghoulishly painted sandwich boards and gothic costumes promotes the private companies competing for a slice of the roaring trade in “Ghosts and Witches” tours. The itinerary might take in the city’s Grassmarket, where scores of witches from Edinburgh and the Lothians were put to death between the 16th and the 18th centuries. This is the sort of place where the professional witch-hunters of old, often local bigwigs such as sheriffs and landowners, would strip naked the accused and search

for a blemish, which her assembled detractors would insist must surely be the mark of the devil.

The Grassmarket is an ideal spot for tour guides to take a tip from Monty Python and poke fun at the mob’s twisted logic. Not that such logic is entirely in the past. Alleged witches continue to be hunted and feared in the 21st century. Cases of individuals being harassed and killed surface from time to time in some African countries, while a poll conducted in 2004 by the Opinion Dynamics Corporation revealed a quarter of American adults still believe in witches. Also in the US, the emergence of the cult of “neo paganism” has prompted some radical right-wing Christians to publicly threaten its adherents with death.

Has the rest of the world moved on? Munro wants her audience members to make up their own minds about whether or not witches such as Janet Horne had supernatural powers. Those looking for a show that dismisses superstition and focuses solely on the social and political reasons for witch-burning are likely to be disappointed. Instead, the play combines elements of fantasy and realism. Perhaps this is to be expected from a dramatist who has written for Ken Loach and Doctor Who.

One thing Munro certainly isn’t doing is taking what she describes as a “simplistic” feminist line: the view that the European witch craze can be boiled down to men’s systematic subjugation of women, and that issues of religion and superstition were mere propaganda tools to fuel a mysogynistic killing machine. The trouble with such an interpretation is it relies heavily on the assumption that all those put on trial for witchcraft were women. In reality, they were not.

Munro took advantage of her appointment at the University of Edinburgh as EIF Creative Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities to tap into the university’s recent Survey of Scottish Witchcraft. She found that while the vast majority of alleged witches were women, around 15% of those put on trial were men – too many to support a monocular view that witch trials were just a smokescreen behind which a battle of the sexes was fought. A fuller picture seems to be that the witch craze was fuelled by a cocktail of factors, and had a variety of victims. The oppression of women was an important element, but not the only one.

While a large number of alleged witches maintained their innocence, or confessed only after being deprived of sleep and food, Munro explains that there were other common reasons. “There were those who ended up being executed because they came forward and said, ‘Yes, absolutely, I made a pact with the devil, I am a witch – and if you do anything against me then I will smite you down.’”

So was Janet Horne one of those who claimed to be a genuine sorceress? “Yes, in my story, she is,” says Munro. “But that’s just my interpretation. The historical record about her is so scanty, you have to fill in the blanks yourself.”

I set off for my next and final destination. Dornoch, 200 miles to the north on the Sutherland coast. There I am due to meet a local historian who has written about the last witch. What can she tell me about the facts of Janet Horne’s life? And does she think the evidence points towards someone who was deliberately playing with fire

“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble.” – Macbeth Act 4, Scene 1

Helen Fairgrieve is an elder in the Kirk at Dornoch. Before she takes me to see the Witch’s Stone, she suggests we meet in the cathedral. Has she chosen consecrated ground for a reason, I wonder. Perhaps living with a subject like Janet Horne is getting to her.

Dornoch is situated at the base of a mile-long promontory of moor and machair at the mouth of the Dornoch Firth. It feels remote, and must have felt a lot more so during Horne’s lifetime. The end of the day is approaching when I pull up in the town square. Businesses are shutting up shop and chapman billies are leaving the street, as the noted witch-botherer Tam O’Shanter might have put it. The cathedral dominates the square. It is a magnificent building, as is the old castle that now houses a luxury hotel. I pull on the church’s heavy doors and the dry crack of old wood echoes around the huge Gothic interior that opens up before me. “You’ve come to see the stone,” says Fairgrieve by way of a hello. “Right, follow me.” As we walk past tight-knit cottages towards the edge of town, Fairgrieve reveals some of what is known about Horne’s life. Horne probably worked in her youth as a lady’s maid, in whose service it seems likely she travelled abroad. She returned home and then married. Little is known about what became of her husband, but Horne had a daughter and the pair settled in the parish of Loth, further up the coast, about 20 miles north of Dornoch.

Horne’s neighbours noticed that her daughter’s hands and feet were deformed and people whispered that she looked as though she had hooves. A rumour grew that Horne must be a witch, and that she had turned her daughter into a pony so she could ride around the land carrying out the devil’s work. “The neighbours felt that the deformities were proof that, on one occasion, Janet had failed to restore her daughter completely to human form,” Fairgrieve explains. “This was sufficient evidence to have both woman arrested for witchcraft.”

The two were taken to Dornoch and imprisoned in the old tolbooth in the town square. Somehow the daughter escaped, but Horne was not so fortunate. She was hauled before the deputy sheriff, who exceeded his authority in ordering her to be burned as a witch. Her fate was sealed when, upon being asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic, she misquoted the opening line.

This was taken as proof that Horne was worshipping the devil, who was expelled from heaven for rebelling against God. She was tarred and feathered and paraded round Dornoch in a barrel before being taken to a fire which had been lit for her. Upon seeing the flames, she is reputed to have held out her hands and said, “Oh, what a bonny blaze.”

We arrive at the precise spot of Horne’s execution, at the edge of town. The land that stretches off beyond is gently undulating, now home to a golf links and a holiday caravan site; behind that, the beach and the North Sea. “The date on it is wrong,” says Fairgrieve, pointing at the stone. “It says 1722, but it should be 1727.” The stone is enclosed behind a fence because the patch of turf it sits on is actually the garden of the last house in a row. We decide to ask permission from the householder before taking a closer look. The door is answered by a young woman with what sounds like a foreign accent who is cradling a baby. “Yes, of course you can go in,” she says cheerfully.

I kneel down to touch the stone. Just then, a third woman appears. “Ah, the witch,” she says, nodding seriously. Is this woman from the area? “No, Australia,” she says. I tell her I live in Glasgow but am spending the night down the coast in Macduff. As soon as the word “Macduff” crosses my lips I become aware that I am in the midst of three women who have just converged more or less upon the heath. I also notice a raven in a nearby tree. It all feels a bit weird, reminiscent of

the story of Macbeth, which features witches prominently and doesn’t end well for the guy in the middle.

As much as Fairgrieve is a kind and considerate host, I’m eager to wrap up my business here. It will be dark before long and a cold wind is blowing in from the north. I suggest we conclude our discussion in the warmth of the Castle Hotel back at the main square. She agrees. As we settle down for a cuppa in front of the embers in the huge old fireplace of the hotel bar, I go over some issues still bothering me. I’m not clear about whether Horne considered herself guilty or innocent. Why the devilish misquoting of the Lord’s Prayer? Why welcome the fire so obviously laid on for her execution? The most likely explanation, Fairgrieve assures me, is simple. “Janet Horne was elderly by the time she was executed and suffering from senility. She just didn’t understand the fate awaiting her.” And the daughter with the hooves? “The child suffered from a physical deformity that was simply misinterpreted by a superstitious group of people.”

I recall Munro’s very different, more artistically licensed, view. “Either you present Horne as just some poor senile old woman who’s been burned alive because she’s got Alzheimer’s and her neighbours are scared of her, or you see her as an incredibly defiant individual,” she had said. “I think the second interpretation is more interesting from a dramatic point of view.”

There are too many gaps in Horne’s life to say with certainty that Munro’s portrayal of an avowed witch whose claimed supernatural powers divided her community and unsettled those in authority is the wrong one. Either way, the subject makes for a spellbinding drama. Fairgrieve agrees before bidding me goodnight. It’s time to leave Dornoch. The witching hour will soon be upon us. n

The Last Witch is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, on August 23-24

and 26-29. Visit