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19 September 2014
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THE WITCH HUNT

Prick which witch ?

One of the stranger activities in Scotland between 1550 and 1700 was the witch hunt. Belief in the supernatural and spell casting had been part of everyday life up until this time and witchcraft had been seen as just superstitious beliefs of peasants, but now those who practised it were thought to be in league with the devil. Theologians against the practise imagined a world where witches sold their soul to the devil and held witches’ sabbaths - a kind of anti-Christian service. The educated elite of society began to fear that the so-called peasant superstitions,were, in fact a plot by the devil against Christian society.

In 1563 witchcraft became illegal in Scotland. Local lairds and kirk elders were against the practice and enforced tight local discipline, particularly in areas of strong government control, so there was little witch hunting in the Highlands.Witch prickers were employed, named after the way they pricked the body of someone accused of witchcraft. If the person didn't bleed, they used this as evidence to convict them and and compiled a case for the local courts to try the accused.

For those accused of witchcraft ,sleep deprivation was used to entice them into answering questions about their practice. After three days of being awake, hallucinations would set in and the will to resist crumbled. The confessions extracted from them often revealed bizarre hallucinogenic scenes such as flying, changing into animals, meeting the devil and taking part in witches’ sabbaths.
None of which were real, but where enough on their own to convict a witch, especially during times of panic.

The panics came in waves, at times when Scotland was undergoing a crisis. In other years there was only a few cases, but in a panic year the accused were far more likely to be convicted and executed. In total, 1,500 people were executed for witchcraft, out of a total of about 3,500 accusations. The majority of them were women, who already had a local reputation for witchcraft. Most males convicted were the husbands of witches.

The Witch hunt declined after the 1660’s when the elite of society began to take a more rational view of the world. As a result, the witch prickers were exposed as frauds and the legal system began to reject evidence from them. The last witch was executed in 1727 and the law was finally abolished in 1736.

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