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Orkney: Taking a Walk on the Dark Side

Publication: The Orkney News

Step back in time and immerse yourself in the history of Orkney's witch trials. A walking tour uncovers the dark stories that unfolded between 1553 and 1736, terrifying women in the isles.

Dr Ragnhild Ljosland | Photo by The Orkney News | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved

The nights are drawing in, and the darkness descends earlier every evening—a great pleasure to astronomers who long for those dark, clear nights when they can gaze upwards.

This is the time when the old spirits are about. In Orkney, many traditions around Halloween were celebrated throughout the islands. Even today, despite the impact of ‘Trick or Treat’ coming from across the Atlantic, some of the old ways still persist: of Devilment and turnip lanterns – although most bairns and parents have abandoned the hard slog of carving a neepie lantern for the much easier pumpkin ones.

Going round the doors of neighbours, known as guising, was also great fun for bairns, and some still do arrive on doorsteps dressed in costume with a song or a joke in return for sweeties.

We’ve become used to the portrayal of the wicked ugly witch, be it at Halloween dressing-up time or through cartoons and fairy tales. But the very real people who were tried and convicted of being witches did exist in a very dark time indeed in Orkney and Scotland’s past.

Dr Ragnhild Ljosland is a Green Badge tourist guide in Orkney and a respected academic at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) Archaeology Institute. Suitably dressed for the occasion and carrying a lantern, Raggie (as she is known ) took an enthralled party of 40 around the night streets of Kirkwall on Tuesday, 17th of October, to follow the stories of those who were tried and condemned as witches in the islands.

The tour began where the Scottish Parliament once met in 1540, opposite The Brig Larder, and in this drafty corner, busy even at 7 pm with passing cars, Raggie took us back to 17th century Scotland and what the charge of witchcraft amounted too: making potions, wishing ill on someone (or their animals) and the person falling ill, or even employing a witch to use their powers to do evil to another.

The Orkney Witchcraft trials took place between 1553 and 1736 when the law was eventually changed.

Many trials were held in Orkney, and the court records still exist for some of them. A community project researched the trials and the people who fell foul of the superstitions and fears of the time. The trials peaked in the 17th century during the reign of James VI, King of Scots, who was obsessed with witches and the power he perceived they had. The project was not only successful in bringing together a range of people to research and take part in community events, it also enabled the erecting of a memorial to those so unjustly killed. The memorial stone is set within the ground at Gallows Ha’ at the top of Clay Loan, now in the middle of a residential area. This place was where the condemned would be strangled before being burned.

The Witchcraft Walking Tour of Kirkwall proceeded through the town’s main thoroughfare, stopping at the top of Castle Street, where Kirkwall’s mighty castle once stood. Remains of the castle could still be seen in the 19th century but were finally removed by the town council as Kirkwall grew away from its darker past. The few traces of the castle now lie beneath the road surface.

Outside St Magnus Cathedral, Raggie told the story of The Westray Storm Witch, Janet Forsyth, not the version recorded in the trial but the one passed down through oral storytelling. This version has a happy ending, with Janet escaping death and ending up in Liverpool with her sweetheart.

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

In the Earl’s Palace, built by the notorious Patrick Stuart, under the darkness of the trees, his story involves the torture of Alison Balfour, who was forced to confess to save the pain inflicted on her young child and elderly husband.

The walk comes to a fitting halt, and there is a two-minute silence at the place where the victims of the witch trials were executed.

Witch trials took place all across Scotland, and in 2022, on International Women’s Day, the then First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, in a parliamentary statement, made a formal apology to all those accused, convicted, vilified or executed under the Witchcraft Act 1563, on behalf of the Scottish Government.

The statement was made following the publication of an independent report on Misogyny and Criminal Justice in Scotland and the Witches of Scotland campaign. Nicola Sturgeon said that while the Witchcraft Act had been consigned to history in Scotland, it was not yet a historical issue in some parts of the world where, even today, women and girls face persecution and death because they have been accused of witchcraft.

The campaigners would like a national memorial to all those tortured and condemned to death as witches in Scotland and around the country; there are memorials erected by local communities: ‘They were cheust folk’.

There will be a Witchcraft Walking Tour of Kirkwall on Halloween Night starting at 7 p.m. from outside The Brig Larder, 1 Albert Street.