A lifelong Halloween fan, I’m looking forward to this Thursday’s procession of witches, wizards, vampires and ghosts chapping on my door.

During my own peak guising years – the early 1980s – I always dressed up as a witch, my interest in them fed by Jill Murphy’s wonderful Worst Witch series of children’s books and Christmas viewings of The Wizard of Oz. But I’ll never forget the moment when, on a school trip to Inverkeithing, it dawned on me that witches were not glamorous figures with jauntily-angled pointy hats, or even green-faced women who referred to children as “my pretty”. Rather, they were real women often killed by their neighbours.

Inverkeithing was a hotbed of witchcraft trials in the 17th century. Between 1621 and 1652, at least 51 people were found guilty and executed on Witch Knowe, a meadow in the town. Nearby Culross, Kirkcaldy, Pittenweem, Burntisland and Queensferry also tried and executed many women.

The Scottish witch hunts: When our nation went mad

Indeed, Scotland as a whole took to such persecution with aplomb: from the mid-sixteenth to the early seventeenth centuries some 4000 men and women (but overwhelmingly women) were tried. Around three quarters of these are likely to have been executed– usually strangled then burned – according to historians. In this case the truth is much scarier than any Halloween tale, bringing to the fore a terrible and disturbing part of our history that highlights ritualistic torture and killing of women, often, it would seem, just for being women.

Witch persecution was common throughout Europe at the time, of course, and in the New World, as the Salem trials showed. These were superstitious and fearful times of extreme and violent religious change. Witchcraft was perhaps viewed and feared as we today might perceive terrorism. But it’s interesting that Scots were the most voracious and pernicious witch accusers and executioners of them all, our levels of persecution four or five times greater than the European average, and much higher than that of our English neighbours.

There are various explanations for this. Scots took to Protestantism as well as witch-finding with zeal, and it’s clear that although both Catholics and Protestants believed in witches, the more Protestant you were, the more zealously you reacted. King James VI was obsessed by witches, which also would have impacted the number of and attitude towards the witch-finders and trials that swept across Scotland. Indeed, Shakespeare inserted the three witches plotline into Macbeth just to make the play more appealing to James.

It’s also clear our ancestors were looking for explanations when bad things happened to them – disease, famine, shipwrecks. The evidence also tells us that they weren’t above using witchcraft as an excuse to get rid of women they didn’t like, or understand, or were in some way inconvenient to them. Hysteria, speculation and malice are not new phenomenons.

The Scottish witch hunts: When our nation went mad

But I remain deeply shocked by the cultish, ISIS-like way we Scots went after women accused of witchcraft. Could there be something deep in the Scottish psyche that makes us more susceptible to extremism than others? Regardless of the answer, perhaps taking heed of our past proclivity towards hysteria and persecution might help provide new perspectives on some of today’s problems.

Indeed, it’s heartening to see this terrible part of Scottish history already being given new focus, re-examined in terms of gender and society rather than simply folklore. Researchers from Edinburgh University recently produced an extraordinarily full and accessible interactive online resource mapping the grim extent of witch-hunting in Scotland, outlining not only where persecution happened but also who the victims were and, in some cases, what they said.

With the help of such resources, women in particular are exploring the history of witchcraft and cultural misogyny in their hometowns, charting the experiences of women that came before them, demanding more awareness, understanding and commemoration of this brutal history.

This re-contextualisation of history is to be welcomed and encouraged. Granted, it would be sad if the next wave of statues dedicated to women in our villages, towns and cities commemorated not their achievements, but their ritualistic killings. Such monuments would play a wider role, however, reminding us not only of past follies with regard to witchcraft, but also opening the door for us to confront and accept other difficult and unsavoury parts of our history, from Scotland’s role in slavery to land clearance. After all, without facing up to the past, we will never understand our present.