Taking a Walking Tour of the Orkney Witchcraft Trials

A guided walking tour is a great way to explore the history around you and get some exercise as an added bonus. On Saturday 3rd of June I joined Orkney Time Travel in Kirkwall as they took us through the history of those condemned as witches in Orkney.

Religious zealotry, superstition, scapegoating, political distractions – whatever you like to think of it as, the pursuit of those who were accused of being witches in Scotland – was a very dark period in our history.

Raggie, as she is known, at the start of the tour in her traditional Norwegian dress and long cloak

Led by experienced tour guide Ragnhild Ljosland of Orkney Time Travel the walk took us through the streets of Kirkwall as we followed the stories of those who were accused.

Ragnhild Ljosland is an academic and is still researching the lives of those put on trial in Orkney for witch craft. She explained that she kept thinking about who these people were. On the tour we get to hear a bit more about individuals involved, accused and accusers, and of the background to the trials taking place.

The Orkney Witchcraft trials took place between 1553 and 1736, when the law was eventually changed. Appropriately the walk starts at the place where the parliament met in Kirkwall.

A person could be accused of several things: making magical potions, ‘stealing the profit’ and leaps of cause and effect that we wouldn’t recognise today, explained Raggie.

The tour has several stopping points , many of which have areas which contain seating – a sensible arrangement for the group contains people of all ages and abilities.

Some of the people we hear about include: Marjory Paplay and her two sisters, mother of Kirkwall’s richest man James Baikie; Donna Forsyth ‘The Storm Witch’, Barbara Bundie, Janet Rendall ‘The Spitting Witch’; Alison Balfour; Catherine Craigie; and top prosecutor of his day the notorious John Buchanan.

St Magnus Cathedral is today visited as a place of worship and reflection , but at the time of the witch trials it included a well used dungeon.

The walk concludes at the memorial stone at the top of Clay Loan where those who were tried and condemned were executed.

This was an excellent walking tour attended by both locals and visitors to Orkney. We are fortunate to have very well trained and informative tour guides and Ragnhild Ljosland certainly fulfils that description. The tour was supposed to take an hour, starting at 12.30 but it lasted much longer. The time, however, did not drag as Raggie was informative, informal and responsive to the needs of her audience.

Fiona Grahame

Categories: Review, walking

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