How witchcraft went from crime to prime time

For centuries they were burned alive at the stake or hanged for their heresy. Those accused of practising witchcraft were hunted down and put to death throughout Europe – and Scotland is believed to be Europe’s biggest persecutor of witches.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Scotland put to death more than 4000 alleged witches. A small well on Edinburgh Castle’s esplanade marks the spot where, over 250 years, 300 women accused of witchcraft were burned to death.

The last witch was hanged in Scotland in 1728 – but the persecution continued under the Witchcraft Act of 1736. Under that law, anyone found practising or claiming they practised witchcraft faced hefty fines or imprisonment for their beliefs.

That Act was only repealed in 1951 – just a few years after the last time it was used by the legal machinery of the state.

Helen Duncan, a psychic from Stirling, was arrested for performing a seance in Portsmouth. Duncan lived in Portsmouth during the Second World War and on two occasions she was allegedly contacted by deceased sailors who had just been killed when their ships had been torpedoed.

In both instances, she found out the details of the tragedies months before they were officially confirmed by the War Office, which was suspicious about her powers.

While performing a further seance in 1944, the 47-year-old was arrested and tried under the Witchcraft Act and was sentenced to nine months. Just 60 years later, our perception of witchcraft is quite different. Witchcraft and magic are subjects of family entertainment – from Harry Potter to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Hollywood heroine Nicole Kidman is soon to star in a film named after and based on the American TV series Bewitched.

A current exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has included Wicca – one of the modern branches of witchcraft – in a series of pictures depicting different faiths, including Buddhism, Church of Scotland and Roman Catholicism.

And this week even saw the announcement of the country’s first official “witch wedding” which is due to take place in Edinburgh next Tuesday and will be presided by a Coven grand master – one of the Capital’s highest-ranking witches.

So why, in 60 years, has witchcraft gone from being a crime to a fully tolerated, and popular, religious practice in Scotland?

The prime catalyst was the repeal of the 1951 Act, which came about because of pressure put on the Government from psychic mediums, such as fortune tellers. After that, witchcraft began to raise its head above the parapet.

“It’s been a long process,” says George Cameron, also known as The Hermit, who is the grand master of the Temple of the Source Coven of the Blue Dragon in Niddry Street.

“Until the Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951, there were hardly any followers of these type of rituals and certainly no where near as many as there are today.

“However, in the 60s and 70s people who were interested in witchcraft and paganism started to publish books that described what witches were and what they actually did, which attracted more followers.”

Modern witchcraft has roots in pagan traditions and “white” magic. Followers worship a god and goddess, although some believe that the two are linked together into one deity that is largely unknowable, which is sometimes called “The All”. Spiritual rituals include magic, spell-casting and the consecration of a sacred space.

Wicca, the coven-based branch of witchcraft, is widely regarded as being founded by Gerald Gardner, a British civil servant who wrote a series of books on witchcraft in the 40s. However, there are also other branches of witchcraft including Alexandrians – an older order who follow “celebrational” magic – and traditionalists, who follow the pagan “old religions” which have their roots in Celtic mythology.

Sandy Christie, a follower of Wicca since the 70s, says there are now thousands of witches practising in Scotland.

SHE believes that the change has come about because young people are no longer attracted to more orthodox religions such as Christianity. She says: “Paganism in general is one of the fastest-growing religions in Britain today.

“We’re finding that people are not only interested in things of a spiritual nature, but also of a magical and cyclical nature as well. Patriarchal religions such as Christianity are simply not satisfying enough any more. At church, you sit in a congregation and it’s a very passive experience, whereas with paganism or Wicca it’s a much more involved process.”

Cameron adds: “There are a lot of witches around – not only in Edinburgh, but across Scotland and around the world. A few years ago, there were only 100 or so websites set up to promote and explain witchcraft but now there are thousands of them. More people are becoming interested in witchcraft, but there’s still a great deal of suspicion surrounding us. Some people, including the Christian church, don’t accept us and probably never will, which seems strange considering Christianity uses the same types of rituals as we do.

“Every one of the festivals in Christianity shares a link with those that are practised in the old faiths such as witchcraft – for instance, Christmas is celebrated at the same time as our winter solstice ‘Yule’.”

Christie, a 61-year-old divorcee, adds: “Everyone participates in Wicca and there is no hierarchy – everyone has an equal standing. I think part of the reason that it is becoming so popular is that it ties in with a sense of ecological spirituality which young people are looking more and more at exploring.

“In these days of global warming and the destruction of the environment, people are becoming more inclined to search for something with a natural spirituality that brings them into balance with the world.”

Professor David Jasper, a senior divinity lecturer at the University of Glasgow, agrees that there seems to have been a change in people’s perceptions of witchcraft and paganism over the past 20 years.

He says: “Witchcraft has been much misunderstood and has certain connotations attached to it that are unjustified, but it seems to have become more popular in recent times. It’s not exactly a ‘religion’ as such, but rather is a sense of spirituality that is linked with ecological questions and attitudes to nature.”

He adds that, as an Episcopal minister himself, he has not seen any particular backlash within his church and says that most other “orthodox” religions in Scotland seem to accept and tolerate other, smaller religious groups.

However, not all religions appear to be so understanding. When asked about the popularity of witchcraft, the Church of Scotland declined to comment.

However, Bill Wallace, a former convener of the Church of Scotland’s board of social responsibility and a minister in Wick, has said that the trend was a “sad reflection on the state of our country”.

Speaking about the white witch wedding, he said: “This illustrates people’s desperate need for some spiritual dimension in their lives and their willingness to go to any wild extreme. It emphasises all the more need for Christian affirmations.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Evening News, UK
Sep. 17, 2004
Adrian Mather

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday September 17, 2004.
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