Thursday, 2 June 2022

Scotland - Witchcraft, Apologies, Misogyny and criminal justice

On 8 March 2022, Scotland's First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon MSP) apologised for the "historical injustice" suffered by those, mostly women, executed for witchcraft in Scotland between 1479 and 1727 - Meeting of the Parliament: 08/03/2022 | Scottish Parliament Website.  More than 2500 individuals suffered as a result of the law embodied in Witchcraft Acts - The Guardian 8 March 2022.

History shows that James VI of Scotland had an obsession with witches. He ruled Scotland from 1567 to 1625 and, upon the death in 1603 of Queen Elizabeth I, he also became King of England and Wales. James married Anne of Denmark in 1589. On his voyage back to Scotland

there was a fierce storm at sea in which the King almost lost his life. He blamed the storm on spells by witches and ordered a witch hunt held, perhaps most notably, in the coastal town of North Berwick. - North Berwick Witch Trials (  

The witch hunt was brutal with confessions extracted by severe torture, often of a psycho-sexual nature. Trials were held, conducted by all male courts. The inevitable verdict  was guilty and many suffered death by burning at the stake.

As King of England, James published a book - Daemonologie - which explored areas of witchcraft and "demonic" practices. Many individuals suffered in England - Parliament / Witchcraft. Perhaps the most well-known witchcraft trials were held at Lancaster in 1612 - The Witches of Pendle - but that was by no means the only set of trials. Overall, some 500 people in England are believed to have been executed for witchcraft and they were mostly poor, elderly women.

Apologies for historical events have become commonplace. For example, on 12 March 2000, Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) issued his famous Prayer for Forgiveness for the Sins of the Church.  Another example is what appeared to be an apology in 1997 by Prime Minister Tony Blair for the failure, by British government in the 1840s, to send food to Ireland to alleviate the potato famine. A third example is the apology in 2010 by Prime Minister David Cameron for the events on so-called "Bloody Sunday" - Bloody Sunday: PM David Cameron's full statement - BBC News. Cameron's statement followed the publication of the Saville Inquiry report. 

The transatlantic slave trade continues to resonate - 'Not enough to say sorry' for slavery links - BBC News. On a recent visit to Jamaica, Prince William expressed "profound sorrow" about slavery but stopped short of an apology - Prince William expresses 'profound sorrow' over slavery in Jamaica speech - BBC News. In my opinion, the politicians ought to have kept the prince above politics. Nonethless, Prince William said that slavery was abhorrent, should never have happened and forever stains out history. Who would seriously argue against that view today?

In his interesting book "Law in a Time of Crisis", Lord Sumption (former Justice of the Supreme Court) included a chapter "On apologising for history."  Sumption concluded - "History is morally neutral. We have a duty to understand why things happened as they did, but apologising for them or trying to efface them is morally worthless. It gets in the way of understanding. Once the relevant actors have left the scene, there is no longer a live moral issue, no longer a perpetrator to be contrite or a victim to forgive. For those left behind, there are only lessons to be learned."

In her speech on Scottish witchcraft, Nicola Sturgeon pointed to three reasons for the apology - (1) to acknowledge injustice, (2) in the present day world there are places where women and girls face persecution and sometimes death because they have been accused of witchcraft, (3) the form of misogyny that motivated the law against witchcraft has not been consigned to history - today it expresses itself "not in claims of witchcraft, but in everyday harassment, online rape threats and sexual violence."

Misogyny may be described as prejudice, malice toward or contempt for women.

On 8 March 2022, a report was published in Scotland calling for a new criminal offence of misogyny - Kennedy report calls for new misogyny offences | Law Society of Scotland ( The report is the outcome of a working group headed by Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws QC. Three new criminal offences are recommended, along with statutory misogyny aggravation - report of the working group on Misogyny and Criminal Justice in Scotland 

Scotland has control over its own criminal law and, as far as I can see, there is no parallel development in England and Wales but "Hate Crime" is now recognised in English criminal law - Hate crime | The Crown Prosecution Service ( 


Law in a Time of Crisis - Sumption, Jonathan - published by Profile Books, 2021.

A programme well worth watching is BBC Two - Lucy Worsley Investigates, Series 1, The Witch Hunts

2 June 2022

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