Scottish Witchcraft

P. G. Maxwell-Stuart. Satan's Conspiracy: Magic and Witchcraft in Sixteenth Century Scotland. Tuekwell Press, 2001.

In this revisionist account of Scottish witchcraft, Maxwell Stuart challenges the view that the 'evidences' of witchcraft accusations were fantasies produced by torture. Instead he argues that witchcraft accusations were based on a Protestant reinterpretation of occult folk beliefs, particularly those involving the sithean or fairies. The accused were as immersed in this folkloric world as anyone else. Their stories were not just 'made up' under interrogation, but were derived from the sort of visionary and anomalous experiences which today give rise to beliefs in ghosts, channeling and spirit guides. We might regard people like Elizabeth Dunlop who claimed to have met the Queen of Fairy as the abductees of their time.

In this climate it would have been entirely rational for political foes to have sought occult means of doing down their opponents, as Boswell was said to have done in employing witches to try and drown James VI. The background to many of these accusations was the Reformed Kirk's assault on Catholicism. What we might call folk shamanism became literally demonised by the new church, which saw all spirits as devils out to seduce the faithful. Ambiguous and intermediate supernaturals had no place in their world view, and the sithean were to go the way of angels, holy wells and saints. This mirrored attempts to centralise royal power, and remove layers of intermediate allegiance.

The contents of dreams, hallucinations and visions are just as much cultural products as broadsides and television soap operas; having the same reciprocal relationship that popular imagination and the media have today. The religious struggle becomes a struggle for the imagination. The Scottish witchcraft material illustrates the process of this contest, with the production of hybrid narratives in which traditional folk and elite ideological motifs contend and merge.  -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 81, May 2003


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