To celebrate Halloween I decided to do something different and post an article on the Forfar witches focusing on Helen Guthrie, the last witch to be executed when the witch hysteria that was endemic all over Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was coming to its end. This article was previously published in The Highlander.
THE WHITE WITCH AND THE PRETTY DANCER
Fear of witchcraft was common in 1661, when witch-fever was at its height in Forfar, a small country town in the north east of Scotland.
Most people thought that any misfortune befalling them was caused by magic. Loss of livestock, bad crops, illness and death, were thought to result from spells cast by witches. Accusations of witchcraft in the town were rife and the archives of Angus Council bear testimony to many witch trials and executions.
Witch hysteria reached its height in Britain during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, resulting in witchcraft becoming a capital offence in 1563. Witch persecution sent many people to their deaths until the witchcraft laws were repealed in 1736.
Between 1661-1663 forty-two Forfar people were accused of witchcraft. Seven of those accused were executed while the fate of some of the remainder is unclear. One woman, Helen Guthrie, played a major role, and although she was not responsible for the start of the witch hunts she did have some influence on their continuation.
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It's that time of year again. It's time for my annual excursion to Stirling to attend Bloody Scotland. This is Scotland's very own crime writing festival, and it's hard to believe this the fourth year it has been running, and it just keeps getting better and better.
This year was slightly different though, because I took my thirteen year old granddaughter with me, and she had a ball. I have no doubt she enjoyed it because she wants to go again next year.
The other thing that was different was the hotel. The Stirling Highland Hotel was completely booked, so we checked into the Golden Lion. It was an older hotel, but the service and accommodation were top class, although the lift was deadly slow. On the other hand, we didn’t have to climb the hill to get to the hotel. I swear that hill up to the Stirling Highland Hotel gets steeper every year.
Because Amy was coming with me to Bloody Scotland, I had to wait until she finished school for the day, so we weren’t able to get to Stirling in time for the first event which was a shame because it meant we missed Val McDermid and Peter May in conversation. However, we were in time for Whose Crime is it Anyway, three top crime authors improvising a crime story on stage from clues and prompts from comedian Hardeep Singh Kohli, the audience, a spinning wheel, and phrases from a copy of Katie Price's (Jordan) autobiography.
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Although death and dying are celebrated in some cultures, people living in Britain tend to shy away from it. Despite the fact that this is something that will happen at some point, the subject is rarely discussed. However, there is an exception to this, and that is crime writers. Perhaps they don’t speak about death, but they certainly embrace it in their fiction. In fact, looking at my own crime books, there is only one which doesn’t have dead or death in the title, and that is the first book of the Dundee Crime Series named Night Watcher. Book two is Dead Wood, and book three is Missing Believed Dead. Even my new series features this taboo word, and we meet my new investigator, Kirsty Campbell, in The Death Game.
So, when an invitation to be a friend’s plus one, on a visit to Dundee University’s new mortuary appeared in my email inbox, I jumped at the chance. I was positively drooling at the opportunity to inspect this state of the art facility.
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Bill Murphy before he became a policeman