NICOLA Sturgeon has marked International Women’s Day by issuing a formal apology to all those persecuted and killed centuries ago in Scotland as ‘witches’.

The First Minister said thousands of people had been the victims of “injustice on a colossal scale”, driven in part by an outright hatred of women.

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs that same deep strain of misogyny persisted today, but expressed itself in harassment, online rape threats and sexual violence against women.

Opening a debate on International Women’s Day, which is normally a public holiday in Ukraine, the First Minister also voiced her solidarity with that country’s women and girls.

She said: “This time last year, thousands marched through the streets of its capital city Kyiv, to demand gender equality. Today, the reality could not be more different.

“Kyiv, and cities across Ukraine, are under brutal Russian bombardment.

“So today, from our national Parliament here in Edinburgh, Kyiv’s twin city, let us send the women and girls, men and boys of Ukraine our love, solidarity and support.”

She urged the UK Government to do more for those fleeing the war.

She said the misogynistic bias that saw women under-represented in public life, underpaid, undervalued and more likely to be victims of violence and abuse was “age old”.

She cited a petition currently before the Scottish Parliament demanding a pardon for more than 4,000 people in Scotland, the vast majority women, who had been accused and in many cases executed under the Witchcraft Act of 1563.

She said: “Those who met this fate were not ‘witches’. They were people. And they were overwhelmingly women. 

“At a time when women were not even allowed to speak as witnesses in a courtroom, they were accused and killed because they were poor, different, vulnerable, or in many cases just because they were women.

“It was injustice on a colossal scale, driven at least in part, by misogyny in its most literal sense – hatred of women.

“The pardon the petition calls for would require this Parliament to legislate, and in future this Parliament may choose to do so.

“But in the meantime, the petition also calls for an apology.

“After all, these accusations and executions were instigated and perpetrated by the state.

“And so today, on International Women’s Day, as First Minister on behalf of the Scottish Government, I am choosing to acknowledge that egregious historic injustice and extend a formal, posthumous apology to all those accused, convicted, vilified or executed under the Witchcraft Act 1563.”

She said reckoning with historic injustice was a vital part of building a better country, as was restoring the erased experiences and achievements of women into history. 

“While here in Scotland the Witchcraft Act may have been consigned to history a long time ago, the deep misogyny that motivated it has not. We live with that still,” she said.

“Today it expresses itself, not in claims of witchcraft, but in everyday harassment, online rape threats and sexual violence.

“All of it intensified by an increasingly polarised and toxic public discourse, and amplified each and every day by social media.

“It is no wonder that more women than ever before, certainly in my lifetime, are now questioning whether politics and public life are safe environments for women.

“A line in the sand must be drawn. It is no longer acceptable to expect women and girls to adapt and accommodate. It is time to challenge unacceptable male behaviour, and better protect women from it. We must change for good the culture of misogyny that has normalised such behaviour for far too long.”

The petition Ms Sturgeon referred to was presented to Holyrood's public petitions committee last year by Claire Mitchell QC calling for a pardon for all those convicted in Scotland under the Witchcraft Act between 1563 and 1736.

The last person legally executed for witchcraft in the British Isles was Janet Horne, from Dornoch in Surherland, who was burned at the stake in 1727.