WHEN Dr Alice Tarbuck tells people she's a witch, things generally go one of two ways. Either they are unfazed ("that you are an evangelical Christian is perhaps more shocking to people than witchcraft – at least in the circles I move in," she suggests) or they reel off a list of bizarre questions.

Such as asking if her witchcraft practices extend to the bedroom (there's a whole chapter devoted to "sex magic" in Tarbuck's new book A Spell In The Wild).

Or enquiring whether she owns a collection of skulls and keeps a vat of goat's blood in the fridge (funnily enough the Edinburgh-based academic has neither but does have some intriguing items on the shelves of her pantry).

Indeed, as Tarbuck shares what it means to be a modern-day witch, it becomes clear that the reality is perhaps not what you might expect. Rather, her book is a joyful foray into wild landscapes, celebrating nature's calendar and harnessing the power of lunar phases.

"I am a long-standing practitioner of magic – mostly of this wild, strange kind," she writes. "I am also a keen forager, and maker of all sorts of what my mum would fondly term 'nonsense', from tinctures and syrups to herbal preparations for use in spells.

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"I also love the natural world and have an academic background in the relationship between words and the environment. These various practices come together to be what I would call 'witchcraft', which for me is practical, spiritual, academic, magical and intuitive, all bundled up in one."

When we speak on an October afternoon, Tarbuck, 32, makes for a gregarious interviewee, sharing witty observations and such fascinating nuggets about plants and trees, that I'm struck with a sudden urge to visit the nearest woodland post haste.

Her enthusiasm makes it easy to delve into talking about witchcraft – something I admittedly knew very little about before reading Tarbuck's book.

Picture a witch and inevitably the mind jumps to a cackling hag in a pointed hat and long, black cloak clutching a broomstick. But that's like imagining every journalist is striding around with a press card tucked into the band of a battered-looking fedora (sorry to shatter the illusion).

As Tarbuck asserts, there is no one-size-fits-all criteria. "Because witchcraft is a syncretic practice, it doesn't have centralised tenets or systems in the way that an organised world religion would," she says. "It doesn't have a Bible like Christianity does, for example, or a church.

HeraldScotland: Author and academic Dr Alice Tarbuck. Picture: Duncan McGlynnAuthor and academic Dr Alice Tarbuck. Picture: Duncan McGlynn

"Witchcraft is for some people a very spiritual practice and for others a practical practice. For me, it encompasses the way I am in the world and the way I view the world. That is helpful because it lets me bring aspects of every element of my life into the umbrella of witchcraft.

"One of the things I hope that the book does is make it feel like a really accessible term to people. You don't have to be one way or do one thing to consider yourself a witch or someone who is interested in witchcraft."

A Spell In The Wild opens with Tarbuck walking home from work one evening in her early twenties and the rather magical – albeit somewhat unnerving – experience of being followed by a city fox and tailed through the streets to her front gate.

Later, she relayed the story to a colleague, who responded matter-of-factly, saying: "You know why these things happen to you, don't you? It's because you're a witch."

This was, says Tarbuck, the first time anyone had noticed. It was a watershed. There was no malice, the remark wasn't a slur or accusation, merely a matter-of-fact observation.

Her witchcraft journey, she says, began as an infant. "My parents would certainly not define themselves as witches, but there was an actor who came to stay when I was born – my dad works in the theatre.

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"The actor was also a wizard and practising occultist and they decided it felt like a good thing to have me blessed by him and have a naming ceremony. I had a tree planted for me – a weeping willow in the garden – and they set up an altar and he read spells and poems over me.

"It is interesting because I wouldn't have said I had a very heavily occult-influenced upbringing. I had a normal childhood where I read fairy stories and went to a non-denominational primary school. My parents are atheists."

Although there were, she admits, some unconventional elements woven into their lifestyle. "My dad consults the I Ching, which is a Chinese divination method. My mum has various witchy bits that she does.

"My grandma has always said that her mother and grandmother – my great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother – had various intuitive abilities, such as the ability to tell when people were pregnant or very ill before they knew. It is has always run in my family.

"When I was 12 or 13, I started spending my pocket money on books and I was very drawn to the self-help and spirituality section of Waterstones. I bought some books about wicca and witchcraft. I hid them in my room. My mum knew they were there, but I thought I was being subtle."

HeraldScotland: A Spell In The Wild by Alice TarbuckA Spell In The Wild by Alice Tarbuck

I'm curious why Tarbuck chose to hide her interest? "It was feeling drawn towards something and not being able to explain that draw," she muses. "And maybe a bit embarrassed because you are taught as a child that witchcraft is something that happens in fairy stories.

"Also, there is such a pleasure at that age in having things that are private. It is like having a celebrity crush on a boy band member. It feels important and embarrassing at the same time. A bit like having a picture of Peter Andre in your diary, which I know dates me horribly, but that's exactly what it felt like."

The eldest of two daughters, Tarbuck grew up in Leith. She read English literature at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, did a stint working for a publisher in London and completed a PhD at the University of Dundee on the work of Pittenweem poet and artist Thomas A. Clark.

Tarbuck lives in Edinburgh where, alongside academic research and teaching, she runs Toil and Trouble, a witchcraft course. Her writing on the subject was featured in 404 Ink's Nasty Women anthology.

Being a witch may not get you burned at the stake these days, but it isn't without peril. "One of the things it stops people doing is taking you seriously," she says. "As an academic, who is also a woman and under 5ft tall, I struggle quite hard to be taken seriously anyway. It can be a difficult thing.

"People find it something that can be dismissed because they think: 'Oh, you must believe in nonsense.' There are amazing misconceptions where people think that if you are interested in the occult, you are also interested in things like aliens or conspiracy theories or think the Earth is flat."

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This can mean, she says, having to "reassure people that I have not joined a cult or that I'm not going to build a bunker and fill it with tins and weapons awaiting the revelation of the end of the world."

Rather, explains Tarbuck, it is best explained as "an interest in folk belief and practices that lots of people probably have. They just might not all move towards a practice identified as witchcraft.

"Really what I'm doing is taking a bunch of very normal stuff I'm interested in and shaping it into a way of living in the world, which lots of people do all the time. Like people who are vegan or who home-school their children or who love long-distance cycling."

Tarbuck, though, has become adept at answering the unabashedly probing questions that usually come with a raised eyebrow. "The 'weird sex' comment is one I've had a few times and also people are interested about whether I have illegal items in my house," she says, wryly.

"They ask, do I have human remains? People are very interested in bones and ask whether I have goat, sheep or deer skulls. What fascinates me about that is that lots of homes have those things, particularly big houses, which have mounted, taxidermy stag heads.

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"Taxidermy is having a bit of renaissance but, in fact, I don't have any of it. I always feel I'm letting people down when I don't have anything wonderful and macabre to show them."

What she does have is a cupboard "full of strange things" that some visitors eye with suspicion. Tucked away behind the usual herbs and spices are items such as dogwood thorns, hawthorn berries, dried sloes and juniper.

Tarbuck keeps "long, folded stems of yarrow, and viciously poisonous slips of yew", alongside valerian, broom and rose petals. These are the "gatherings" from foraging trips that Tarbuck uses to make teas, balms and herbal preparations for spells.

Each has a special use – such as cloves for protection and oak leaves for wisdom. Discovering and learning more about these properties is something that Tarbuck first fell in love with as a young child.

Her interest was piqued when her father explained that beech mast, which fell from the trees lining their street, was edible. "Inside beech mast are little brown, pear-shaped kernels – you can peel and eat them," she says. "They taste a little bit like pine nuts."

A friend of her mother's further stoked that curiosity by showing Tarbuck how to make tea from sage leaves to help soothe a sore throat. "I knew sage was a culinary herb and edible, but I didn't know it had any properties beyond the fact it tasted nice," she says. "That lit my brain up."

HeraldScotland: Sage leaves. Picture: Getty/iStockphotoSage leaves. Picture: Getty/iStockphoto

A Spell In The Wild is broken down into 12 chapters – one for each month of the year – sharing practical knowledge, snippets of history and personal experience.

October is perhaps best known for its spooky Hallowe'en vibes and ties to Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival marking the end of the harvest season and beginning of the dark, winter months.

Some might envisage this would be a time for a witch to party, yet for Tarbuck it holds a starkly different meaning. "As the year wanes and we move into the darkness, October is a time to talk about things that scare us," she says. "What we really mean by that, is things we can't control.

"This has been a year full of things we can't control. When we talk about ghosts and beyond the veil, we are often talking about being quite afraid of death in our culture, what happens to us when we die and worries about age and infirmity, loneliness and loss."

Tarbuck sees it as an opportunity to stop and take stock. "For me, October is a great time to remember people who have gone," she says. "This year, particularly, there will be a lot of people who are looking for ways of understanding loss.

"In our culture, we don't have formalised mourning anymore. The Victorians would be in full mourning dress for a year and then half mourning for half a year. We don't have visible reminders of the stages of grief in the people that surround us. That is hard for us as a culture.

"We have lost those immediate ways of recognising that someone we are walking past in the street or serving in a shop is perhaps grieving the loss of a loved one."

She believes that we shouldn't shy away from or hide our grief. Indeed, says Tarbuck, this can be a fitting point in the calendar to dedicate time and space to remembering those who have gone before, be it recent losses or a long line of ancestors from our family tree.

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"I find it a good time for solemn reflection," she says. "It can be a time when, as a family, that we tell stories about people who have gone. It is nice to ask your more elderly relatives what stories they have about people you never met.

"We are quite squeamish about the way we remember people, I think. But I rather like the idea of getting out photographs, lighting a candle and making a little display to remember them; a special place in the house for this month, that you can go to and think about them."

A Spell In The Wild by Alice Tarbuck is published by Two Roads, priced £16.99