Ceremony to vindicate men and women executed for ‘crimes’
The were tried and put to death for crimes as innocuous as owning a black cat and living on their own.
The most famous of East Lothian’s “witches” were burnt at the stake for whipping up a storm to sink one of the king’s ships.
Official forgiveness has come a little late for the scores of women and handful of men executed in one of Scotland’s hot-beds for witch-hunting.
Nevertheless, 400 years after the persecution reached its fevered heights, pardons will be bestowed on them in a ceremony in Prestonpans on Sunday.
Eighty-one victims of the witch-hunts who have been identified by local historians will be pardoned by the 14th Baron of Prestoungrange in the Halloween ceremony.
The event has been designed to vindicate the unfortunate individuals condemned by the 16th and 17th-century trials, as well as commemorating a dark part of the region’s history.
The ceremony will be held with the blessing of Dr Gordon Prestoungrange at the town’s Gothenburg pub.
There, for the first time, 15 descendants and namesakes of people executed locally for witchcraft will come together to commemorate the injustice and suffering endured by their forebears.
They will hear a public declaration of a pardon secured by Dr Prestoungrange in Scotland’s ancient baronial courts.
The courts, which are due to be abolished by the Scottish Executive next month, still theoretically give Scotland’s barons the right to dispense justice on their historic lands.
Speaking from his winter residence in the Australian state of Queensland, Dr Prestoungrange said today: “In a way we are righting the wrongs committed by our own ancestors, because many of the individuals wrongly sentenced to death were condemned by the then Barons of Prestoungrange.”
It was common practice in those days for people to be accused of witchcraft based on the flimsiest and most ludicrous evidence.
Throughout Scotland, more than 3500 people, mainly women, and their cats, were tortured and killed for being witches.
Living in the centre of the Scottish Reformation, people in Edinburgh and the Lothians were particularly susceptible to the anti-witchcraft hysteria whipped up by the Church of Scotland at the time.
To make sure the witches’ story continues to be commemorated, the Prestoungrange Baronial Court has also declared Halloween a day of remembrance in honour of those executed.
Andrew White, 39, a graphic designer from Prestonpans, who is believed to be a descendant of one of the witches, praised the idea behind the ceremony. He said: “I believe that it is a good thing to honour the memory of these individuals. It is also a valuable and unique way of emphasising the history of the town.”
Dunbar-based historian Roy Pugh will publicly declare the pardons at Sunday’s ceremony.
Mr Pugh, whose book The Deil’s Ain sparked controversy on publication in 2001 for its strong criticism of the role played by the Church of Scotland in persecuting supposed witches, said he was delighted to be associated with the Prestonpans event.
“The crimes committed against these individuals were nothing less than a mini-holocaust and I wish that more baronial courts across Scotland had followed the example of Dr Prestoungrange,” he said.
“The climate of hysteria stirred up by the Church of Scotland and the monarchy of the time was unbelievable.
“People were being strangled and burnt at the stake for doing nothing more harmful than brewing up a few home-made remedies or possessing a black cat.
“It’s too late to right the wrongs of the past, but at least this goes some way towards symbolically honouring these individuals who were so cruelly persecuted.”
One of the most notorious events in the area’s witchcraft folklore was the North Berwick witch trial of 1590.
On that occasion it was alleged that a coven which gathered in St Andrew’s Old Kirk in the town had been used to sink one of the ships in the fleet bringing King James VI from Denmark.
The alleged conspiracy was said to fuel the king’s fervour for ordering witch-hunts.
Dr Prestoungrange, an English-based retired lecturer and academic publisher, whose mother was from Musselburgh and whose grandfather was a miner at Prestonpans, bought the ancient Prestoungrange Estate in 1998.
He spends much of his time away from the area but takes an active interest in the Prestonpans Historical Society as well as the town’s arts festival.