THE stereotypes are of people shawled in black casting curses but a growing number of people are converting to Paganism and nature-based religions, including Wicca, Druidism and Shamanism. And it is a trend that is sweeping Scotland and the rest of the UK, according to organisers of the world's largest witchcraft festival.

Children of Artemis, which runs Witchfest that runs this weekend, claims that tens of thousands of people are practising Paganism with many more attracted by its spiritual and magical elements, which can include moon worship and ritual.

It has noted an unprecedented interest in its events with ticket sales up 150 per cent, while its event on Wicca at Glastonbury Festival next summer is already sold out.

Merlyn Hern, of Children of Artemis, said people were increasingly drawn to Pagan belief systems, which often revolve around both gods and goddesses and involve worshipping nature, because it reflected modern sensibilities more closely.

He claimed that though people were rejecting tradition believes and religions, they were still looking for a spiritual dimension in their lives and were more attracted to the egalitarian nature of Paganism.

"It's a genuine spiritual interest," he said. "It's democratised and it's open. I think the idea that there is a female deity as well is much more egalitarian – it's something we had in the ancient religions of Greek and Roman times but is not found in the monolithic religions. It also resonates with a more modern understanding of sexuality, and reflects issues like the move towards equal marriage.

"We are also seeing a growing respect for the natural world though again, the idea of worshipping the natural world is a very old one. I think there is a connection between the growing interest in paganism and in ecology. It's a very eco-friendly system.

He said the element of magic also sparked people's interest, and performed the same function as prayer in more traditional religions. "It has the other worldly aspect of prayer but it is also more egalitarian. There is not just one power here."

Witchfest, which is held in Croydon and expects to attract over 3,000 people from across the UK, includes tens of talks by experts on all aspects of pagan traditions from witchcraft to spiritual healing. Organisers say it also offers a chance for people from across the community, who are sometimes isolated to come together an socialise.

Most Pagans celebrate their spirituality privately and as there are no Pagan churches, group meetings often take place in people's homes although moots, open meetings organised in public places, are also held in some parts of the country.

Tam Campbell, a Wiccan High Priest originally from Dundee, who will be delivering introductory seminars on the religion at Witchfest said it was important to fight the stereotypes that surrounded it. "People sometimes think its like something out of the Hammer House or Horrors, with everyone walking about in black clothes and putting curses on others," he said. "It's nothing like that at all. It's a modern way to interpret the mystical and the spiritual."

Scots have a particular affinity to Paganism, he claimed, due to the Celtic and Pictish stories and myths are are woven into the culture. "Look over every hill and you'll find a different myth or legend about fairies or dragon," he added. "Scottish Pagans can be very independently minded. But that's the beauty of it. There are so many different varieties but there is room for them all."


TRACIE Wilde, 39, who lives in Stirlingshire was brought up a Catholic but remembers the day her perspective changed. "My grandfather was a Romany gypsy and he took me out to the garden and said: 'There's the sun, there's the moon, this is the earth.' It all made sense."

Now she considers herself to be "loosely Pagan" and organised a Wicca naming ceremony for her first-born daughter Willow, which was held in the woods and conducted by a priestess. Her relatives did not all approve. "My family think it's all devil worship," she said. "They would have been much happier if we had been in a chapel with the priest sprinkling the holy water."

For Wilde, her Pagan beliefs are an important element of her identity that she shares with her partner and children and she says they are better understood now by her peers.

At home she has a simple altar where the children place seasonal objects they have gathered. "Just now we've got lots of autumn things," she said. "Our beliefs are connected to the seasons changing. At Yuletide we chose a log and burn it. Easter for us is about nature coming alive and the kids love it. It's about fertility and the cycle of life.

"It is about magic but that magic is all around us in nature. For me its not about a supreme entity. Ritual is important to all humans and it's important for our kids too."

Wilde's beliefs are very much in tune with her connection with nature. She believes that by bringing her children up to love and respect the natural world around them, she will ensure that they will help protect it for future generations.

It also offers spiritual guidance. "We don't need churches to teach morality and what's right and wrong. It's a way of giving a positive message to our children in these times of turmoil," she added.

"For me it's a form of pleasure and a wholesome way of bringing up my kids. It's a way of passing on the stories that I remember my grandparents telling around the fire. It's a system that's not about dogma. You can have lots of different identities – it's just about being yourself."