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Online Exhibitions

Witchcraft and Lore in South West Scotland

Witchcraft and Lore in South West Scotland

This online exhibition is a surveyed representation of how witchcraft lore was expressed within the South West of Scotland, showcasing a strong affinity to superstition and fears relating to local anxieties. These trends generally manifested through art, superstitious practices, literature, legislation and religion; where they would come to permanently cement into local folklore.

This exhibition was curated by Carlie Manners (Museum Intern 2017), a Canadian student, who completed her Museum and Gallery Studies degree with us.  

 The European witch-hunts spanned from roughly 1450-1750, and saw an estimated 50,000 women and men executed under witchcraft convictions.  The grandeur of the European witch-hunts does not make this event an anomaly. In fact, witchcraft lore has existed in some capacity in almost every human culture throughout history. While it holds varying definitions in each culture, witchcraft is predominantly seen as evil and associated with the devil. In a European context, witchcraft was largely understood as a power that is distinguished from any physical force or natural phenomenon understood by the society concerned. During the Early Modern Period, the threat of witches and the devil was seen to be a very real and imminent threat to daily life and church authority. With this in mind, it is important to note that each country holds their own interpretation of witchcraft beliefs, while still subscribing to certain patterns of traditional lore.

 In Scotland, the 1563 Witchcraft Act defined witchcraft and all consultation with witches, as a crime punishable by death. Following this, prominent literary works Newes From Scotland and Daemonologie were published in 1591 and 1597 respectively, as the first works on Scottish witchcraft.  At the same time, Scotland began to see major periods of witchcraft persecutions in 1590-1597, 1640-1644 and 1660-1663. During these outbreaks, it is estimated that one in 330 people in Scotland would be accused of witchcraft. The last witch was executed in Scotland in 1727 and eight years later in 1735, the death penalty for witchcraft was officially abolished.

The Dumfries and Galloway region stood as a centre for witchcraft trials and persecutions during the 16th and 17th centuries in the South West of the country.  The study of witchcraft in South West Scotland generally looks at Dumfries and Galloway, Wigtown, Ayrshire and Kirkcudbright whom at times, all worked in conjunction to bring about persecution for confirmed witches. In fact, it is estimated that the South West of Scotland saw 158 combined cases of witchcraft.  The accusations in this area of Scotland were predominantly concerned with troubles with agriculture, family and neighbours.  They included offenses like using magic to kill cattle, crop damages, bewitching livestock, and cursing resulting in death.  What is seen as a unique occurrence in South Western witchcraft is little mention of the Devil or demonology in surviving trial documentation.  Certainly, local beliefs included the understanding of the Devil's hand in creating witches; however the occurrence of demonic witchcraft did not hold the same prevalence as seen within continental Europe.

Ideas regarding the behaviours of witches tended to echo a local focus in South West Scotland. In fishing villages, witches are seen scaring away fish and within agricultural villages witches are bringing about crop destruction and killing cattle. In this way witchcraft lore in the area tapped more into local anxieties than the larger demonological mythology of witches.