A petition has recently been submitted to the Scottish Parliament with three demands in relation to 4000 witches who were executed under the Witchcraft Act 1563 demanding: a pardon for all those convicted under the act; an apology; a national monument.
The petition has drawn a mixed response from people: Solicitor advocate Andrew Stevenson called it “shameful and absurd”, examining the legal issues around the petition; the historian Dr Peter Maxwell-Stuart of St Andrews University called it a “dishonest gesture”, an attempt to rewrite history; supporters of the petition insist that “victims of witch trials deserve a pardon”.
As both a campaigner for religious freedom, as someone who advocates for justice, and as a historian, I also have reservations about the the idea of a pardon and an apology; but support the idea for a monument.
As a historian, I feel that the trend to demand apologies and pardons for historic and unpleasant events or injustices is an attempt to hijack and rewrite history, which does neither the victims of the past, or, potentially, victims of the future, any justice. For politically correct or feel-good reasons, campaigners feel the need that if the narrative of history is added to, that in some manner it will be changed, but in doing so, they will deny a dark narrative for which the living can gain from. History is only useful if the story is something that the living can learn from, so that it is never repeated. History is saturated with injustice and dark events, but, if obscured by rewrites, people lose part of what made them what they are; for individual, community and society is the sum of all that has gone before.
The injustices and dark events of history only are helpful to the living, if they stand raw, bloody and nasty for all to see. Pardons and apologies does nothing for the dead; it does nothing to undo what the victims suffered, their lives cut short. The dead do not care, they are dead; even if some believe there is life-after-death; the dead have moved on to other things such as via reincarnation. The narrative of history is useful to the living, if people can emotionally react to the raw unfettered narrative, not a rewritten feel-good version.
I have to deal with a modern day version of witch hunting against alternative religions and innocent individuals. Just as in the days of witch hunting, people are being accused of rape, torture, murder and eating of children in “Satanic” rituals. The whole community of Hampstead in London have suffered years of witch hunting, accused of Satanic Ritual Abuse, for which they are still being harrassed for seven years after the allegations were first made in 2014. A vindictive individual called Becki Percy has accused her family and the people of Hull UK of the systematic murder, rape and eating thousands of children in Satanic Rituals. It is because of the allegations from individuals like Percy that many innocent people were murdered in Scotland due to false allegations of being witches; and it is because of allegations by those like Percy, that people in the modern day could be harmed. But, if we cannot learn from the raw narrative of injustice in history, because it has been rewritten by apologies and pardons, then the injustices of what the dead suffered will be repeated upon the living.
I ask: why must the child feel shame and apologise for the sins of the parent? The living, and the instititions they run, are not responsible for the injustices that killed thousands of people hundreds of years ago. Why must those individuals take upon themselves the shame, the responsibility of their ancestors, for apologising for the decisions and deeds of people have been dead for hundreds of years? Someone of the living is being asked to take on the burden of thousands unjustly murdered in order to justify an apology for those injustices. Shall the one who apologises, be also expected to walk naked through the streets of Scotland, pelted by rotten fruit? This is how stupid this idea is to ask the living to apologise for the deeds of the dead hundreds of years before.
The laws of the time was what applied for the beliefs and needs of the time. It is a nonsense to attempt to try and rewrite the laws and judgements made hundreds of years before by trying to use modern legal systems to rewrite those long since invalid laws to satisfy modern cultural opinions and feelings. What does this achieve legally? We, in the modern world, may dislike the decisions and events of laws of hundreds of years before, but that is what they believed and acted upon in their society and time. Those peoples of hundreds of years before will seriously hate and oppose the modern laws and deeds of our modern age.
It would be legally unsafe and unreasonable in my view to do a blanket pardon for crimes of witchcraft of hundreds of years ago. If it has been the decision of the people of the time that if black magic has happened, that on conviction, the penalty is death; and if black magic is real, and there has been a victim of black magic, then amongst those thousands of cases there will be some cases justified for that outcome. If the position is taken that black magic is superstition, but that there have been people who have used the superstion of people to harm them, for which they then get accused of witchcraft, and executed; are they the agents of their own misfortune? There are ocultists in the modern age such as Nathaniel Harris of Bristol UK, who is actively casting ritualistic curses on the victims he is harrassing; and there would have been a number of individuals like Harris who have been executed for this type of abuse amongst those Scottish “witches” who have caused untold suffering on a very superstitious people. It is belief that gives many magical systems such as Voodoo their power over people, thus if an indivual believes they will die by a curse, they can die from it. In addition, in the age when witches were executed, people could be executed for stealing a horse; so if some fraud had gained a horse by reason of claiming to be a witch, the penalty of stealing that horse by the fraud is much the same as stealing it – death. To give a blanket pardon is not justice; because to be just one has to examine each case individually, where records are poor and would take up an awful lot of resources that would be better applied to the cases of unjust allegation making of the living.
Having a monument to the injustices visited upon innocent people of allegation making of witchcraft is something I fully support. A monument draws attention to the cruelty, injustice and superstition that caused the deaths of so many innocent people. Many of those victims, who a few minutes before they died due to the charge of witchcraft hundreds of years ago in Scotland, would have a position that their descendents never suffer a similar fate. A tribute to the fate of those victims would be to give them a monument, but never obscure their narrative with empty pardons and apologies; because the legacy they would have wanted is to have their fate not visited upon the children of the modern age; the deaths of those victims will be for nothing, if their raw bloody story has been lost to history thanks to politically correct touchy-feely sentiments, who dislike the dark narrative of what those victims suffered.