Exploring Life in Orkney During the Witchcraft Trials

A new creative writing and drama project named The Witch Experience aims to help people find out what was it like to live in Orkney at the time of the witchcraft trials. It is inspired by the real historical records of 72 witchcraft trials that happened in Orkney between 1594 and 1708.

Project leader Ragnhild Ljosland, explained:

“This is a community project open to all and I’m hoping local folk in Orkney will join in.

“It is our past, and we will use real historical court records to find out what happened. But where history sees the past from an objective distance, I want us to put ourselves in these people’s shoes and experience it subjectively. I want it to become part of our own personal memory, because in that way we care more. It is not trivialising past suffering, but quite the opposite.”

The project is part of Culture Collective, a series of projects funded by Creative Scotland and being co-ordinated by the Pier Arts Centre.

The Witch Experience runs from January through to March 2022, during which time participants will take part in several creative activities where they gradually get to develop a historical character.

First up are creative writing workshops held in Kirkwall, Stromness and online. Participants will look at court records from the 17th century and probe into who these people were and what they thought they were doing – both those accused of witchcraft and those who believed themselves to have been cursed. There were other people involved as well; neighbours, authorities, interrogators, each with their own story. The stories will be teased out and added to with creative writing, so that they can be imagined and seen from each of these people’s perspective.

These will be followed by drama workshops where participants can get to know their chosen character better by trying them out in different improvised situations. The intention is that participants will attend at least one writing and one drama workshop before the main event.

The project culminates on Sunday 27th March with a Nordic Larp. This is an improvised drama technique where participants take on the lives of the characters prepared in the earlier workshops and interact with each other.

“For a day, we are in the 1620s.” Ragnhild explains.

“It is a turbulent time in Orkney; Earl Patrick Stewart and his son Robert have been ousted, causing political chaos. The Reformation is not far behind us, and the Kirk is still finding its feet. On top of it all, crops have failed, and many are on the brink of starvation. The inhabitants of Kirkwall seek to find explanations for their misfortunes by exposing the witches in their midst.”

Set in Kirkwall, the event will take the form of a day in the life of a person in the 1620s. Not all are suspected witches. Farmers have come to town to buy merchandise or sell produce. The town’s burgesses are busily running their businesses. Traders have called in from the Low Countries. The clergy are taking care of their parishioners. There is political plotting. Others are seeking a cure for their ailments, or advice about the future.

“Somewhere, among the crowd, is a witch – or several. It could be anyone – it could be you!” Ragnhild describes.

For one day, the participants in The Witch Experience live in Kirkwall anno c. 1620 and experience that one of their community is publicly tried for witchcraft.

Ragnhild Ljosland, said:

“You might ask, can I come and watch? But this is not for watching.

“It is only for participants; there is no audience. We are not doing it to perform or entertain. It is purely for personal growth. You don’t need to have any acting skills and you don’t need to be good at it. All you need to do is to be another person for a day. Therefore, there is no stage. Instead, we will be in venues in central Kirkwall which are very old buildings both inside and out. Also, we will be in the streets and lanes and the private garden of one of the houses. Other people will see us going about in old fashioned clothes, but there will not be any spectacle to watch. The witch trial itself will also only be witnessed by the participants. It is time travel, not theatre.”

To take part, visit www.brodgar.co.uk/the-witch-experience and register from there.

The Witch Experience project is funded by Creative Scotland’s Culture Collective through the Pier Arts Centre. Culture Collective is a national programme supported by Creative Scotland exploring ways of working together, supporting artists and embedding the arts within community recovery from the effects of Covid19. Shetland, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides are working together as an ‘island group’ to share their experience and contribute to their communities. Creative Scotland is the public body that supports the arts, screen and creative industries across all parts of Scotland on behalf of everyone who lives, works or visits here. It enables people and organisations to work in and experience the arts, screen and creative industries in Scotland by helping others to develop great ideas and bring them to life. Creative Scotland distributes funding provided by the Scottish Government and the National Lottery. www.creativescotland.com

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