Culture

Remembering The Victims Executed for Witchcraft

 By Helen K Woodsford-Dean

Memorial to the historic victims of the Orkney witch-trials at Gallow’ha, top of Clay Loan, Kirkwall, Orkney


The original inspiration for this project came from a lecture given by Professor Liv Willumsen at Centre for Nordic Studies in 2012, in which she made comparisons between the witch trials in Northern Norway with those in Scotland, and spoke about the memorial to the witches at Steilneset in Finnmark, Norway.

Although an installation of the scale at Steilneset was unlikely to be viable in Orkney, I was aware that memorials to those accused of witchcraft have been introduced elsewhere in the UK, where they have tended to attract quiet approval with the public. For example, the memorial at Forfar Loch Country Park, where a headstone has been erected in a clearing simply inscribed with the words ‘The Forfar Witches, Just People’, and the brass horseshoe plaque laid at Paisley to commemorate the execution of seven people accused of witchcraft in 1697.

In 2013, myself and Dr Ragnhild Ljosland (‘Raggie’) first proposed the construction of a memorial to the historic victims of the witchcraft trials in Orkney. We felt that the undeveloped area at the top of Clay Loan, known as Gallow’ha and currently laid to grass, would be an ideal location; our preference was for the installation to be sited directly within the circular area of box hedging which marks the site of the town gallows in the past.

We discussed a number of ideas and materials; we both favoured a sun-dial because of the combined symbolism of sunlight as a natural, positive image, together with time as a healer. We pictured the sun-dial as being made of a single piece of blue-grey Orkney sandstone, shaped like one of the Standing Stones of Stenness, inscribed with ‘Just People’, or similar wording, perhaps rendered in Orcadian dialect. The sun-dial would be of a vertical wall type with the gnomon being a horizontally projecting short metal pole about 20 cms long, and with the total height of the stone above ground being no more than 1.5ms, and the width about 1m.

We anticipated that we would be able to raise the funding required for installation and construction ourselves, and that maintenance, if any, would be minimal.

Our original thoughts are shown below.

Memorial to Witch Victims

Raggie and I started by entering a phase of raising awareness and interest in the project by consulting with interested parties. We were both interviewed by Radio Orkney and we had a letter published in The Orcadian. We wrote to Kirkwall & St Ola Community Council and received a sympathetic response to a ‘small, discrete memorial plaque or written inscription’. The county archaeologist informed us that our proposal would be unlikely to disturb any archaeology; both the Orkney Heritage Society and Orkney Archaeology Society were supportive. We met with our MP and MSP who expressed positivity towards our project.

Orkney Tourist Guides Association was supportive, and our proposal featured in a ‘Kirkwall Witchy Walk’ along Victoria Street, developed by Fran Flett Hollinrake, in conjunction with UHI Centre for Nordic Studies, in 2015. The site will also feature in new Town Walks being developed by the Kirkwall Town Heritage Initiative.

We raised the matter with the Minister of St Magnus Cathedral and discussed it with members of Orkney Interfaith group. The Scottish Pagan Federation was also informed. All feedback from faith groups was positive.

On two occasions, we have hand-delivered printed letters to all of the houses overlooking Gallow’ha, the most recent being summer 2018. We intend that all those who will be directly affected by the project, through physical proximity, will now be fully aware of it.

We set up a FaceBook page which has received favourable responses from several 100s of people with 567 ‘likes’ as of 17th August 2018.

On investigation, we discovered that the land at Gallow’ha belongs to Orkney Islands Council. It was suggested that we put our proposal to the Asset Management Sub-Committee, in the form of a detailed report to be discussed by elected members, but we were also advised that OIC’s preference was to communicate via a ‘lead organisation’ who would represent our project. Given their previous interest and approval, we approached Orkney Heritage Society to be our ‘lead organisation’; OHS seemed the natural choice given their excellent reputation in Orkney and their prior (and current) experience of delivering heritage projects.

We presented our project in a detailed form to OHS’ Committee and, although they were supportive, their prior experience of similar installs led them to raise practical concerns about the costs, future maintenance, viability, insurance and, most importantly, the health and safety issues associated with a metal gnomon sticking out at eye-level.

We reviewed our project and suggested instead the much-reduced and simpler memorial shown below. Our revised suggestion is to exchange one of the existing flag-stones, leading up to the circular box-hedging area, with a carved flag-stone. This flag-stone to be a single piece of blue-grey Orkney sandstone. This met with approval by the OHS and our proposal was put to OIC’s Asset Management Sub-Committee on 2 June 2016, when it was approved by the elected members.

Memorial to Witch Victims 2

The sun-dial design is still central but is now rendered in a symbolic and abstract form. The particular design was taken from the grave-slab of Patrick Prince (died 1673), which can still be seen in the south side of the west end of the nave of St Magnus Cathedral.

At this stage, Raggie and myself were joined by Tanya McGill, who offered to share her experience of making funding applications.

A few members of Orkney Heritage Society then formed a sub-committee for the purposes of advancing this project. Spencer Rosie kindly chaired the sub-committee, and we were joined by Lucy Gibbon and Hayley Green – making us six in total.

Early in 2018, Tanya led our funding application to OIC’s Cultural Fund, applied for via OHS. We were grateful to be awarded £1000 to cover the install, a creative day, and inauguration events.

OIC further advised that no additional permissions were required from them. The proposed installation was now of a form that Planning Permission was not required, and the permissions already granted by elected members still stood. The only requirement was that the physical installation of the paving slab should be to the standard expected by OIC and that this would be most easily achieved by using an OIC approved builder.

From the beginning of the project, we have been keen to make reference to the cathedral as much as possible, mainly because many of those historically accused of witch-craft may have been tried and imprisoned there. We approached the cathedral’s stone-mason (now retired), Colin Watson, to procure a suitable stone, shape it, and carve our design upon it. Colin advised changing the sun-dial design slightly, with our full approval, and he completed the carving early August 2018 (see below).

Memorial to Witch Victims 3

Orkney Builders Ltd have generously offered to complete the install free of charge. We envisage that the install will take place sometime in February 2019.

We are currently planning a day of creative workshops and another day of inauguration events.

We have booked the MacGillvray Room at the Kirkwall Library and Archive on Tuesday 30th October 2018 for a workshop day. This date has been deliberately chosen as it is the nearest date to All Hallows Eve that also falls within the school holidays. Hallow’een is also known as the festival of Samhain; it is traditionally the start of winter when witches are supposedly abroad and at their most powerful. We will lead a day of creative and reflective activities around the whole concept of witch-trials, perhaps making this more contemporary by reflecting on how societies still ‘blame’ others. It is intended that there will be music, story-telling, drawing and sketching, meditations, acting and role-plays, creative writing, and poetry – with the hope that we will be able to produce material to go into a time-capsule to be buried under the new paving-slab. The day will finish with some time at St Magnus Cathedral towards the end of the afternoon.

Then on Friday March 8th, there will be a day of inauguration events. This date has been chosen because it is International Women’s Day, and the majority of those accused of witch-craft were women. We intend for these events to be contemplative and suitable for those of all faiths and none. At present, faith representatives in Orkney are discussing possibilities, but the focus of the day is likely to be a reflective processional walk from Marwick’s Hole, south transept of St Magnus Cathedral, up to Gallow’ha. Afterwards, at the St Magnus Centre, there will be talks from academics on the historical trials, performances, readings, music, and story-telling.

There will, of course, be refreshments at both events, as well as the obligatory raffle.

We are currently inviting contributions (with the possibility of offering funding for suitable artists and performers), thoughts and feedback, offers of assistance, donations, and raffle prizes. We are very much at the planning stage of these events and are intending for them to be as inclusive as possible – if you would like to be a part of them, please do contact me via email (orkneymagpie@googlemail.com). Likewise, if you have any concerns about this project, please contact me to discuss them.

We have been keen to stress from the inception that this memorial is not meant as a religious monument, nor to seek any act of contrition from any other parties. Rather, our intention has always been to install a positive memorial with the message of ‘never again’ and to commemorate an important episode in Orkney’s history.

We have always believed that it is appropriate, viable and desirable for Orkney to have its own memorial to the victims of the historic witch-trials. This memorial will give a clear and positive message that Orkney society is free of prejudice and optimistic about continuing to be so in the future. It will also be an additional, albeit minor, tourist ‘attraction’ for Kirkwall and will highlight a fascinating part of Orkney’s history. The costs of future maintenance should be minimal and the finished install will be handed back to OIC.

Once completed, the install will be, by its nature, minimalist in its design. Although a larger memorial was originally intended, the necessity of its reduction to a plaque has been enthusiastically embraced by our sub-committee. The historical events which it will commemorate are painful ones for any community to revisit, and a discrete and modest memorial – perhaps even one which is not easily found and which has to be deliberately sought – can hold more potency than a highly visible, monumental one. Implicit in our design is a symbolism that is powerful in its own quiet and persistent way.

If anyone would like to make a donation to this project, please do so via Orkney Heritage Society, making it clear that the donation is to be ring-fenced for this memorial.


8 replies »

  1. Aye Helen those were barbaric times aided and abetted by ‘Christian Ministers of all Faiths’ when all most of those did was to try and help people who were ill with their herbs and plant extracts. And to think that nowadays many of those self same plants etc form the basis of many ‘modern’ medicines that we think nothing about when we pop in to Boots to collect our prescriptions.

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  2. ”The glorification of witches.” A generation ago, you’d have found more than a few of the older folk would have been horrified and outraged by such a memorial. Not all witches were beneficent souls caught up in the trials of the day with ”herbs and plant extracts,” some of them were outcasts in society, often by their own hand, causing fear and concern by their actions for which they are still well remembered. We forget, that a century ago, society was governed by a mixture of religion and superstition, and in many cases the religion was no better than the superstition, it fed on the wrongs of society for the fines to pay for and justify it’s existence. I am saddened to think the views of the past can no longer be heard and swept away by something that is foreign to the way of life of the common folk of Orkney. Let the disruption, pain and suffering caused by some of those who were accused of witchcraft also be remembered.

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    • Please note, this memorial is not seeking any blame nor contrition. Indeed, some of the ‘witches’ ran ‘protection rackets’ and were not pleasant characters … but they were so marginalised they had few choices. The first offence (witchcraft), was often punished by banishment from your parish, and once that happened, you could claim no charity, you were an outcast – there was little left but to build on your supernatural reputation. I find it interesting to look at the whole socio-economic religious sphere of the time – it was a powder keg awaiting a spark. There are parallels too with today: some homeless people have addiction issues which also make them unpleasant and problematic for society, yet it is our current (highly disfunctional in my opinion) society which has created the very toxic context for their situation. Like yourself, I would also be saddened if the views of the past are no longer heard, and if any ‘sweeping away’ takes place – none of this is our intention.

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      • Re. ‘protection rackets’ – some still take something of this approach today – “Keep the right side of me – or else.” And they can give weirdy-folk in general a bad name. Thankfully, wrong as their behaviour may be, today, in Britain, they are not killed for doing so.
        Many of the weirdy-folk mean nothing but good to the world, but folk are often not comfortable in their presence – some idea that they ‘know to much’.
        ‘Unusual’ people, are often outsiders – it’s how it is.
        People.

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  3. What can I say? Poor souls. Many of whom did nothing but try to help others.
    For me, one of the worst aspects of this, is that some of the trials and interrogations, took place in the cathedral. The cathedral holds so many years of the big human things, marriages, christenings, funerals. That such a place, should have been used to torture and hurt people, is …..I can’t even say, what it is. Desecration, is one word for it. All we can do, is sit there, and connect, whenever we get the chance.
    Poor souls, I think of them, sometimes, and wish them well. The ones who only wished good to folk, beasts and places, will, hopefully, have moved on to other ways of being, by now. Who knows?
    And the very sick souls that tortured them? Who knows where they are?
    This is a good thing to do – putting in place a focus for thought and Healing. It will have blessings poured on it – light diffusing darkness.
    It’s starting now, with the thoughts, and will spread like ripples on a still pool.
    A GOOD THING

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  4. Yet, Bernie, the Blessing is that St Magnus Cathedral shines peace and calm on those who visit, not pain and torture – what a powerfully spiritual place it must be to be so transformative. I find it a miracle that this is the case whenever I visit.

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