Witchcraft on Bute: the first insight

FOUR women were burned to death in Rothesay in 1662 for the crime of witchcraft. Two more followed 12 years later.

Though such executions were not unheard of in Scotland at the time - indeed, that very year was particularly notorious for the burning of women accused of witchcraft - the reasons for the Rothesay burnings have remained unclear.

Until now, that is. Historian and author William Scott has spent the last two years researching the subject, and the fruits of his labours were unveiled to the public on Sunday with the launch of his 327-page book on the topic, entitled simply The Bute Witches.

The book is not just an academic analysis of the available historical documents on the subject, interesting though that would have been to keen students of the topic. Mr Scott has also chosen to use those documents - among them records of the Rothesay Kirk Session and the town council - to form the basis of a reconstruction of events leading up to the executions.

And while critical readers could argue that reconstructions of any kind rely on an awful lot of guesswork to fill in the gaps, any such guesswork becomes a good deal more credible when presented against a backdrop of good, solid, written evidence.

The reason, ostensibly, for those six women being burned to death for witchcraft was because they had made a covenant with the devil. Now, this is not the devil as we might popularly imagine him; in fact, in this case, according to the reconstruction, the devil is a human.

Exactly who he is, and why he is taken to be the devil, won't be revealed here; suffice it to say that Mr Scott has reached an apparently pretty logical conclusion as to his identity, and that if his conclusions are indeed true it's not at all far-fetched to imagine the danger our 'devil' posed to the island establishment at the time.

Certainly the reconstruction is an interesting insight into the 'herd' mentality which has prevailed among mankind throughout the centuries, though if we, in this more enlightened age, are expected to feel some sympathy with the man who was the devil, that was a step too far for this reviewer, who couldn't help but feel that our anti-hero brought everything squarely upon himself.

That is not to say that the same applies to the witches, who, though far from perfect, could at least be excused some of their behaviour on the grounds of the extreme poverty so common at the time, for our 'devil' promised them anything they wanted if they would only agree to serve him; since many of our witches might quite easily have been left to starve to death otherwise, it's hardly surprising that they agreed to make their fateful covenants.

The key piece of evidence which underpins the reconstruction appears in the appendices at the end of the book: contained there are the contents of a 28-page paper entitled The Inveraray Document, meticulously detailing each witch's pre-trial confession, peppered throughout with Mr Scott's own explanatory notes, though the document alone makes fascinating, if often rather gruesome and frequently uncomfortable, reading.

As the first piece of academic research into the Bute witches and the circumstances which led to their deaths, The Bute Witches is a formidable benchmark. Others might well read the same documents and reach an entirely different conclusion to that of William Scott. If they do, the results should make for a fascinating debate: what more could any historian wish for?