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Witchcraft: From crime to prime time

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PostPosted: 18-09-2004 03:26    Post subject: Witchcraft: From crime to prime time Reply with quote

Interesting article about our changing attitudes:

Fri 17 Sep 2004

How witchcraft went from crime to prime time


FOR centuries they were burned alive at the stake or hanged for their heresy. Those accused of practising witchcraft were hunted down and put to death throughout Europe - and Scotland is believed to be Europe’s biggest persecutor of witches.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Scotland put to death more than 4000 alleged witches. A small well on Edinburgh Castle’s esplanade marks the spot where, over 250 years, 300 women accused of witchcraft were burned to death.

The last witch was hanged in Scotland in 1728 - but the persecution continued under the Witchcraft Act of 1736. Under that law, anyone found practising or claiming they practised witchcraft faced hefty fines or imprisonment for their beliefs.

That Act was only repealed in 1951 - just a few years after the last time it was used by the legal machinery of the state.

Helen Duncan, a psychic from Stirling, was arrested for performing a seance in Portsmouth. Duncan lived in Portsmouth during the Second World War and on two occasions she was allegedly contacted by deceased sailors who had just been killed when their ships had been torpedoed.

In both instances, she found out the details of the tragedies months before they were officially confirmed by the War Office, which was suspicious about her powers.

While performing a further seance in 1944, the 47-year-old was arrested and tried under the Witchcraft Act and was sentenced to nine months. Just 60 years later, our perception of witchcraft is quite different. Witchcraft and magic are subjects of family entertainment - from Harry Potter to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Hollywood heroine Nicole Kidman is soon to star in a film named after and based on the American TV series Bewitched.

A current exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has included Wicca - one of the modern branches of witchcraft - in a series of pictures depicting different faiths, including Buddhism, Church of Scotland and Roman Catholicism.

And this week even saw the announcement of the country’s first official "witch wedding" which is due to take place in Edinburgh next Tuesday and will be presided by a Coven grand master - one of the Capital’s highest-ranking witches.

So why, in 60 years, has witchcraft gone from being a crime to a fully tolerated, and popular, religious practice in Scotland?

The prime catalyst was the repeal of the 1951 Act, which came about because of pressure put on the Government from psychic mediums, such as fortune tellers. After that, witchcraft began to raise its head above the parapet.

"It’s been a long process," says George Cameron, also known as The Hermit, who is the grand master of the Temple of the Source Coven of the Blue Dragon in Niddry Street.

"Until the Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951, there were hardly any followers of these type of rituals and certainly no where near as many as there are today.

"However, in the 60s and 70s people who were interested in witchcraft and paganism started to publish books that described what witches were and what they actually did, which attracted more followers."

Modern witchcraft has roots in pagan traditions and "white" magic. Followers worship a god and goddess, although some believe that the two are linked together into one deity that is largely unknowable, which is sometimes called "The All". Spiritual rituals include magic, spell-casting and the consecration of a sacred space.

Wicca, the coven-based branch of witchcraft, is widely regarded as being founded by Gerald Gardner, a British civil servant who wrote a series of books on witchcraft in the 40s. However, there are also other branches of witchcraft including Alexandrians - an older order who follow "celebrational" magic - and traditionalists, who follow the pagan "old religions" which have their roots in Celtic mythology.

Sandy Christie, a follower of Wicca since the 70s, says there are now thousands of witches practising in Scotland.

SHE believes that the change has come about because young people are no longer attracted to more orthodox religions such as Christianity. She says: "Paganism in general is one of the fastest-growing religions in Britain today.

"We’re finding that people are not only interested in things of a spiritual nature, but also of a magical and cyclical nature as well. Patriarchal religions such as Christianity are simply not satisfying enough any more. At church, you sit in a congregation and it’s a very passive experience, whereas with paganism or Wicca it’s a much more involved process."

Cameron adds: "There are a lot of witches around - not only in Edinburgh, but across Scotland and around the world. A few years ago, there were only 100 or so websites set up to promote and explain witchcraft but now there are thousands of them. More people are becoming interested in witchcraft, but there’s still a great deal of suspicion surrounding us. Some people, including the Christian church, don’t accept us and probably never will, which seems strange considering Christianity uses the same types of rituals as we do.

"Every one of the festivals in Christianity shares a link with those that are practised in the old faiths such as witchcraft - for instance, Christmas is celebrated at the same time as our winter solstice ‘Yule’."

Christie, a 61-year-old divorcee, adds: "Everyone participates in Wicca and there is no hierarchy - everyone has an equal standing. I think part of the reason that it is becoming so popular is that it ties in with a sense of ecological spirituality which young people are looking more and more at exploring.

"In these days of global warming and the destruction of the environment, people are becoming more inclined to search for something with a natural spirituality that brings them into balance with the world."

Professor David Jasper, a senior divinity lecturer at the University of Glasgow, agrees that there seems to have been a change in people’s perceptions of witchcraft and paganism over the past 20 years.

He says: "Witchcraft has been much misunderstood and has certain connotations attached to it that are unjustified, but it seems to have become more popular in recent times. It’s not exactly a ‘religion’ as such, but rather is a sense of spirituality that is linked with ecological questions and attitudes to nature."

He adds that, as an Episcopal minister himself, he has not seen any particular backlash within his church and says that most other "orthodox" religions in Scotland seem to accept and tolerate other, smaller religious groups.

However, not all religions appear to be so understanding. When asked about the popularity of witchcraft, the Church of Scotland declined to comment.

However, Bill Wallace, a former convener of the Church of Scotland’s board of social responsibility and a minister in Wick, has said that the trend was a "sad reflection on the state of our country".

Speaking about the white witch wedding, he said: "This illustrates people’s desperate need for some spiritual dimension in their lives and their willingness to go to any wild extreme. It emphasises all the more need for Christian affirmations."
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PostPosted: 29-10-2004 19:33    Post subject: Reply with quote


FOR centuries they were burned alive at the stake or hanged for their heresy. Those accused of practising witchcraft were hunted down and put to death throughout Europe - and Scotland is believed to be Europe’s biggest persecutor of witches.

Apparently not any more, well in this century at least...


Town pardons executed "witches"

Dozens of "witches" executed in a Scottish town more than 400 years ago are to be pardoned to mark Halloween.

Prestonpans, in East Lothian, will grant the pardons under ancient feudal powers which are about to disappear.

Descendants and namesakes of the 81 people executed are expected to attend Sunday's ceremony.

More than 3,500 Scots, mainly women, were executed during the Reformation, for crimes such as owning a black cat and brewing up home-made remedies.

The atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion reached its peak under the rule of King James VI - later King James I of England.

On Sunday evening, 81 pardons, secured in the Prestoungrange Baronial Court on 27 July this year, will be publicly declared and a wreath laid at a specially-commissioned plaque.


It will recognise the crimes that were perpetrated against these people
Roy Pugh

Local historian Roy Pugh, who helped secure the pardons by presenting evidence to the court, will make the declaration in what he described as a "simple and solemn" ceremony.
He said: "It will recognise the crimes that were perpetrated against these people.

"It's too late to apologise but it's a sort of symbolic recognition that these people were put to death for hysterical ignorance and paranoia."

Dr Gordon Prestoungrange, the 14th Baron, decided to convene his court to consider the pardon before it was abolished on 28 November under legislation passed by MSPs in 2000 to end Scotland's feudal system.

The court also ruled that there should be an annual ceremony, including re-enactments of the "tragic events", in the town.

Mr Pugh's book, The Deil's Ain, caused controversy in 2001 for its strong criticism of the role played by the Church of Scotland in persecuting supposed witches.

'Kangaroo courts'

He said many of the accused were tried without defence lawyers by "kangaroo courts" - chaired by local lairds with no legal training and assisted by the Kirk.

Adele Conn, the Montjoye of the court - the ancient equivalent of a marketing manager - said the pardons were for the convictions under the Witchcraft Act 1735, although only the monarch could pardon them of treason.

She said: "A lot of local people are intrigued by what we are doing, so we hope to get a good turnout on Sunday.

"There were some concerns that we've got the ceremony on Halloween but we couldn't have a witches remembrance in the middle of March.

"People associate Halloween with witches and the ceremony will not be flippant.

"It has a serious purpose, we're respecting these unfortunate individuals."

One of the area's most notorious episodes was the North Berwick witch-hunt in which Agnes Sampson confessed under torture to leading a coven responsible for a storm allegedly intended to sink King James VI's ship as he returned from Denmark with his fiancée, Anne.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2004/10/29 15:33:38 GMT

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PostPosted: 29-10-2004 22:11    Post subject: Re: Witchcraft: From crime to prime time Reply with quote

Emperor wrote:

How witchcraft went from crime to prime time[/b]


Do we know if he's any relation to Cotton?

Bit of an interesting coincidence if so...
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PostPosted: 29-10-2004 22:42    Post subject: Reply with quote

I was considering gatecrashing the Prestonpans thing on Sunday... no idea when or where it is, though.
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PostPosted: 30-10-2006 11:58    Post subject: Reply with quote

The witch ceremony thing posted by Quixote above is apparently an annual thing. Helen Duncan was not able to be pardoned since she was tried in Portsmouth not Prestonpans.

SHE was the last person in Britain to be tried as a witch - in a 1944 case Winston Churchill called "obsolete tomfoolery".

Her ability to inform relatives about loved ones who had died abroad during the Second World War led to her family being demonised. Even 54 years later, then-Home Secretary Jack Straw refused to grant her a posthumous pardon.

But now Helen Duncan is to receive a special mention in a ceremony to remember 81 people from Prestonpans who were killed during the witchcraft trials of the 16th and 17th century.

Ms Duncan, who lived in Niddrie at the time but travelled the country putting on seances for relatives, was convicted in 1944 under the 1735 Witchcraft Act for "pretending to raise the spirits of the dead". She was sentenced to nine months in Holloway prison.

Her granddaughter, Mary Martin, 72, from Craigmillar, who will lead tomorrow's ceremony at the Prestoungrange Gothenburg pub in Prestonpans High Street, said: "I still remember it. My brother and I were at school at the time and it was awful, we got called names like demon child.

"It's still upsetting thinking about it. The whole family were devastated. When she came home she seemed to have lost all her will to live, she was never the same again. I am so proud of her - she did nothing wrong. I loved that lady and I still miss her after all these years."

She said her grandmother should never have been tried under the ancient law.

"She was arrested and tried for witchcraft, but she wasn't a witch. It was farcical.

"She was a spiritualist, and at the time they were getting tried for vagrancy. If that had happened she would have got a fine."

The ceremony - the only one of its kind in the UK - is now in its third year. It was started following the pardoning of the Prestonpans witches in 2004 by the Baron of Prestoungrange.

Although Ms Duncan lived in Niddrie, she could not be pardoned by the Baron, as she was tried in Portsmouth.

However, her case is so well known she is being included as a special guest to mark the 50th anniversary.

Kristine Cunningham, from Prestoungrange Arts Festival, which is organising the event, said: "It will be a sombre occasion. We want to focus on the injustice so people know what happened to her."

Campaigners are trying to clear her name through the European Courts. Her story was made into a Channel Four drama documentary in 1999 and at one stage there was talk of a Hollywood film.

It was in Portsmouth in 1941 that she claimed to have been contacted by a sailor from the HMS Barham, who said the ship had been torpedoed.

The Government was yet to reveal the details for fear it would affect morale.

The War Office feared Ms Duncan could also see and reveal the secret site chosen for the imminent D-Day landing, and the top-secret Enigma operation to break German codes.

So it was decided to try her under the ancient law, which had not been tried for more than 200 years. Ms Duncan had many famous clients, including Winston Churchill.

As prime minister, he repealed the Witchcraft Act in 1951, recognising spiritualism as a religion. Despite this, a seance Ms Duncan held in Nottingham in 1956 was still raided by police.

She was in a trance at the time and was grabbed by police officers. It was this which supporters claimed killed her.

Mrs Martin said the interference of the trance when her grandmother was grabbed caused ectoplasm - a whitish, pliable substance said to take the shape of spirits and enable the dead to communicate - to recoil back into the body causing severe burns. She added: "When we saw her body it was covered in burns"

Mrs Martin said she would continue to fight on in the hope of clearing her grandmother's name.


Helen Duncan was born in Callender on November 26, 1897. She married a cabinetmaker, who was disabled after suffering an injury in the First World War.

The couple moved to Dundee then Edinburgh. Mrs Duncan fell pregnant 12 times but only six children survived.

Her first brush with the law was in 1933, when she was found guilty at an Edinburgh court of practising as a false medium.

During the Second World War Helen travelled the country carrying out seances.

In 1941, she alarmed the authorities when she told a seance in Portsmouth about attacks on the British warships Hood and Barham before their losses had been made public.

Three years later one of her seances was raided by the police and Navy.

She was charged with conspiracy, which was a hanging offence, but it was later dropped to contravening the Witchcraft Act of 1735 by pretending to raise the spirits of the dead.

A bid by her lawyers to get Mrs Duncan to perform a seance in court was rejected.

A total of 44 witnesses, including a justice of the peace and journalists, spoke in her defence, but she was still found guilty and sentenced to nine months at Holloway.

During her time in jail, Mrs Duncan received many visitors, including Winston Churchill. She was released on September 22, 1944.

Mrs Duncan died in 1956 after allegedly being assaulted by two police officers during a seance and was cremated at Warriston Crematorium.
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PostPosted: 13-06-2014 08:30    Post subject: Re: Witchcraft: From crime to prime time Reply with quote

Mighty_Emperor wrote:
Interesting article about our changing attitudes:

Fri 17 Sep 2004
How witchcraft went from crime to prime time


Wicca, the coven-based branch of witchcraft, is widely regarded as being founded by Gerald Gardner, a British civil servant who wrote a series of books on witchcraft in the 40s.


[url] [/url]

And now, this:

Gerald Gardner: Blue plaque for 'father of witchcraft'

Gerald Gardner, regarded as the founder of modern paganism, is being honoured with a blue plaque at his former home.
The plaque, donated by the Centre for Pagan Studies, is being unveiled at the house in Highcliffe, Dorset, exactly 130 years after Gardner's birth.

His first book, High Magic's Aid, was published in 1949, two years before the repeal of the Witchcraft Act.
The only other witch to be honoured with a blue plaque is Doreen Valiente, the high priestess of Gardner's coven.

Ashley Mortimer, Trustee of the Doreen Valiente Foundation, said: "Gerald would have been 130 years old on Friday the thirteenth - a full moon, to boot." Cool

Gardner spent his early adult life working as a British civil servant in the Far East.
It was during his years living in Highcliffe, during World War Two, that he became involved in witchcraft and dedicated the rest of his life to writing about and promoting it.

Gardner died of a heart attack in 1964 on his way home from Lebanon. He was buried in Tunis, the ship's next port of call, and the only attendee at his funeral was the ship's captain.
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PostPosted: 13-06-2014 10:50    Post subject: Reply with quote

I will sacrifice 13 xtians to mark this happy occasion.
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PostPosted: 24-07-2014 22:04    Post subject: Reply with quote

Wasn't Helen Duncan exposed as a fake?
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PostPosted: 03-10-2014 21:01    Post subject: Reply with quote

About Helen Duncan...
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PostPosted: 03-10-2014 21:51    Post subject: Reply with quote

Scribbles wrote:
About Helen Duncan...

Thanks for posting that. Another mainstay of lazy Forteana bites the dust!

It was written back in 2010 but I had not caught up with it. Some writers will never want to catch up with it! Confused
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PostPosted: 04-10-2014 10:47    Post subject: Reply with quote

Excelelnt link Scirbbles. I hadn't seen that before.
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PostPosted: 05-10-2014 15:39    Post subject: Reply with quote

Interesting, isn't it? I once read something quite comprehensive about the whole affair, but can't remember what or where I read it.
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PostPosted: 05-10-2014 15:51    Post subject: Reply with quote

I /think/ that the Unexpained partwork dealt with it at some length and wasn't adulatory. My copies seem to have vanished however, I'm hoping not into recycling...
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