The Story of ‘Witchfinder’ our October/November exhibition

“The show, “Witchfinder”, draws its inspiration from the Scottish Witch Trials, the Scottish
Witchcraft Act of 1563,” says the artist Megan Archibald, “and the tales of the men and women hung as witches that carry on through our culture today — in fact, very near where I grew up, there’s a roundabout reputedly named after a witch (Lizzie Brice), there’s the “witches graves” near Aberdeen, there’s the grim history of pleasant Princes Street Gardens’ past as the Nor Loch, the site of dunking the witches.”
“So it might be surprising that there isn’t a single literal depiction of a witch here. Not a
pointy hat or cat to be seen,” she continues. “I recall so clearly leaving the Aberdeen City Archives in a state of catatonia — it’s odd, to hold in your bare hands the death warrant of another human being, even if a few centuries separate you from them. It’s even odder to hold the bill, itemised and macabre, of
the cost of burning them. Seas of time separate you from them — your humanity ties you together.
And even grimmer to realise, they weren’t witches. Well, of course they weren’t witches. But
they weren’t the kitschy cute story we like to tell either — of healers, charmers and psychics. Yes,
sometimes their dittays accused them of making charms, of having familiars, of helping in
childbirth and curing diseases. Sometimes, they even really did these things — in a world before
modern medicine, or the ability to predict a tempest at sea, you could make a little money selling
red ribbons tied as charms to fishermen’s wives, or aiding the sick. But really — they were poor,
they were forgotten. They went against norms, using today’s language we might have said some
struggled with alcohol addiction, or had mental health problems. In amongst these fantastical ideas
of charms, healing and magic dogs called Vinegar Tom, there were accusations of drunken and
disorderly behaviour; pursuing the wrong lover; acting irrationally; jealousy; hatred; brawling with
a neighbour; fighting with a friend. Who reading this can put their hand on a Bible and tell me that
they’ve never gotten drunk and acted silly, never fallen for the wrong person and taken leave of
their senses, had a fight with their neighbour, or been jealous of another?”

Whilst there were exceptions to this, overwhelmingly those accused as witches came from
the underclass of society. And when this was the exception, there was always a political reason to
accuse the higher ranking person (I’m looking at you, King James, and your accusing a woman of
witchcraft and burning her at Edinburgh Castle because you…wanted her castle and her husband
was dead). Turning on the television today, tells me that often we still look to those who have least,
who have addictions, or even disability and mental health conditions, as the “problem”, as the
“plague on the good people”. As the threat.
It’s difficult, living in Scotland today with a pretty clear division between Church and State,
to fully visualise just how much of a shake up the Reformation gave to Scottish daily life. The first
Reformation Parliament, the one that passed the Witchcraft Act, was also dealing with not
insignificant concerns about marriage laws, property laws. Some have argued that the Witchcraft
Act was actually an anti-Catholic sentiment, snuck through under the nose of Mary Queen of Scots,
just to get another one-up on the Catholic Queen from her Protestant Parliament. When your
whole world, your whole culture, has just been shaken from the ground up, the laws are being re
written, the church you knew is gone, and martyrs have burned, Leith has been under Siege, and
marital law was declared in Perth — no wonder people were terrified, no wonder people began to
turn on each other. The atmosphere must have been incredibly tense, before we consider the
carnage that the years of fighting had wrought on the country. In times of tribulation and change, it
is easy to pick on the easiest victim; it is easy to sew moral panic; it is easy to blame another for our
misfortunes. It’s easy to draw parallels to Brexit, COVID-19, Scottish Independence…

My favourite piece here is Black No. 1. He’s named after the colour of ink he’s printed in. I
found the photograph I worked from as a reference for that woodcut in a junk store in Aberdeen,
not a stone’s throw from where the accused witches were held in their makeshift prison, before
their trials, in the spire of St Nicholas Kirk. The story apparently goes, that at sometime in the late
18th or early 19th century, a local photographer either didn’t get paid, or people didn’t come back
to collect their portraits. This box of unknown people, Aberdeen locals, photographed right there
on the street the accused witches were sentenced on, somehow made it through a century and to
me, and I promptly bought it. I know nothing about any of these people, not even their names —
but they served as a connection through the city’s past, staring out at me from the studio walls as I
read the dittays. Maybe he has nothing to do with it — maybe he has everything, the visual
reminder to myself that people have always been people; and that seas of time and cultural shifts
change the backdrops, but that the threads that tie us together stay.”
With my sincerest thanks to:
The Aberdeen City Archives, The Seven Incorporated Trades of Aberdeen, City of the
Dead Tours, Jamie Corstorphine, Leonard Low, Old Aberdeen Bookshop, and The
Church of Scotland Ministers and Reverends who so warmly invited me in, especially
the community in Aberdeen, Peacock Visual Arts + The Glasgow Print Studio.
And my friends, who somehow don’t hate me after a year of talking about John Knox

The exhibition runs until Saturday November 11.

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our Collective?

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