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Speech, Sexuality, and Witchcraft in Modern Scotland

In 1671, Janet McMuldroch and Elspeth Thomson were both arrested and tried for the serious crime of witchcraft in Dumfries, Scotland. As with many other alleged witches, testimony against these women focused on their quarrelsome nature and their tendency to scold or curse those who entered into disagreements with them. Elspeth Thomson, for example, was reported to have quarrelled with Regina McGee and her husband after she was not invited to the birth and baptism of their child; in retaliation she promised “to doe them ane ill turne and to cause them to rue it,” words that supposedly caused Regina McGee to immediately fall ill. In the nearby parish of Girthon, several witnesses testified to experiencing similar negative consequences following the curses and ill wishes of Janet McMuldroch. In one case, Janet McMuldroch “went away cursing” after being kicked by an “accidental tuitch” of John Murray’s foot; she was subsequently held accountable when John Murray lost two calves and a horse several weeks later.

These depositions were gathered by the local presbytery and presented to the Justiciary Court, which reviewed the evidence and passed sentence on both Janet McMuldroch and Elspeth Thomson. In addition to this local testimony, the records of the Justiciary Court also included indictments of diabolism with both women being accused of entering into a pact with Satan, agreeing to become his servant, receiving his “marks” upon their flesh, and having “carnall dealing or copulaoune [copulation] with the devil.” The inclusion of these diabolical features at a later stage in the trial was a relatively common practice in the prosecution of alleged witches, which demonstrates the court’s concern with documenting and disciplining the supposed deviant sexuality of accused witches.

In both of the above cases, the women involved were accused of witchcraft as a consequence of their willful and disorderly speech; yet, in the course of the witch trial, they were also accused and convicted of participating in an unnatural sexual relationship with the devil. Countless other cases demonstrate similar concerns with alleged witches’ speech and sexuality, a trend that indicates that these two characteristics were critical aspects of the “witch” as constructed in contemporary Scottish witch belief. In examining the trial records in Scotland a certain image of the witch emerges, but what was it about this image that made this person such a threat to society? Why were these characteristics and behaviours considered so frightening that they could only be controlled by systematic hunting and extermination within the Scottish population? This essay attempts to address these questions by using the records of the witch trials to reconstruct the witch in contemporary Scottish belief. By looking at the specific qualities embodied by the witch, we can better understand how these stereotypes functioned not only to promote fear and conformity within the population but also as part of a larger discourse on the legitimacy and authority of speech.

Historians of the Scottish witch trials have recently begun to look more specifically at how witch belief was constructed in Scotland. By sifting through the numerous court proceedings against alleged witches, scholars have been able to reconstruct many contemporary beliefs about witches and, therefore, the cultural values and fears of the society that produced them. Several authors have utilized this approach, focusing on such topics as the regional and social variation of witch belief, explorations of fairy and demonological beliefs, investigations of witch trial narratives, and the social and global context of witch beliefs. In exploring witch belief, these works and others have been fundamental in establishing a methodological approach to understanding and deconstructing Scottish witch belief.

Interestingly, while discussions of witch belief abound, applications of this approach have, in general, tended to avoid the question of gender. This is perhaps surprising in light of the fact that the vast majority of accused witches were female. Of the thousands of individuals accused of witchcraft in early modern Scotland, it is believed that about 85% were women. Although men could be and indeed were accused of witchcraft, being female greatly increased one’s likelihood of being labelled a witch. While not all witches were women, the fact that the archetypal witch was identifiably female suggests that ideas about gender must have influenced — and been influenced by — contemporary witch belief. On the other hand, the fact that men were also accused of witchcraft indicates that witch hunts should not be seen as the simple misogynistic targeting and oppression of women. Clearly, these patterns demand that we include gender in the study of witch belief as well as look beyond it in order to understand the witch hunt as a whole.

This is not to say that gender has been overlooked entirely in the study of Scottish witchcraft. Christina Jessy Larner was one of the first to specifically address this relationship, articulating many of the links between negative characteristics of femininity and witch-hood. As Julian Goodare points out, however, Christina Jessy Larner stopped short of explaining why witches were women, arguing instead that witch hunts were sex-related rather than sex-specific. In his work on women and witches, Julian Goodare attempts to draw these connections to their logical conclusions, arguing that women were associated with witchcraft as a result of the church and state’s promotion of moral conformity, which often sought to suppress and demonize sexuality. In another work on gender and witchcraft, Lauren Martin has argued that witch belief in Scotland revolved heavily around ideas of women’s work and the domestic sphere. For instance, many witch’s curses resulted from quarrels between female neighbours and often targeted the tasks of the domestic woman, such as milk production and dairying, brewing, healing, and child-rearing. Martin argues that these and other associations between women and witchcraft resulted in the demonization of female domesticity and a devaluing of women’s roles in society. However, Lauren Martin’s examples can also be used to support the opposite conclusion: in attacking female domesticity, witchcraft actually normalized women’s work in the home by demonizing those who sought to disrupt it. Nonetheless, in studying gender not as a direct cause but as a function and corollary of witch belief, Lauren Martin provides an important methodological approach for deconstructing witch belief as evidence of contemporary gender relations.

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