Monday, 16 December 2013

The Last Day of Summer

This article was originally published in SPIN winter 2013.

My happiest memories are nearly always associated with warm, sunny days; few of my peak experiences have occurred in the dark, or the rain, or the snow.  Ask me to recall a time when I was content and it will usually be whilst looking around a castle or archaeological site, but it will be a sunny, bright, dry and warm day – but not too hot to burn, just right, perhaps with a robust breeze, not wind, breeze, but enough to know it is there.

I love the long summer days in Orkney and dread the equally long tortuous nights of winter.  Every summer, as it draws to an end, there always seems a final gift of one last perfect day.  And I always seem to know it instinctively: that there won’t be another for about six months or so.  When the last day of summer comes, I know it mustn’t be wasted by staying inside with housework, instead I must be out and walking ... so we do, as my husband needs even less persuasion than I do.

The last perfect day of summer 2012 came about mid-September and the day was glorious.  There had been a period of several dry days just before so I knew that our favourite walk along the old bridal way near to us would be accessible ... and I had particular hopes of being able to get over to the crannog on Wasdale Loch.

Our house backs onto peat bog, good for little except as a sanctuary for wildlife.  Hen harriers hunt here as do the short-eared owls (the only type of owl in Orkney and not the type of owl to restrict itself to nocturnal hunting), all seeking the Orkney vole.  At the very bottom of the peat bog runs (according to old maps) the Firth-Harray Parish boundary, so we are placed fairly liminally, on the edge of two parishes.  This boundary would have been a footpath, an access route for centuries past, and there is evidence for this in the form of some “cobbelling”, particularly in the places where the path crosses streams.  The old Birsay-Kirkwall road runs in the same direction along the other side of the loch too.

Beyond the peat bog, there is the Loch of Wasdale; Wasdale being the burn which trickles down from the hills above Finstown.  The Loch of Wasdale drains, in turn, through Binscarth Wood, then on to The Ouse and out into the Bay of Firth, around which the stone homes of Finstown nestle.

The Loch of Wasdale is not one of the largest lochs in Orkney nor is it well known.  We hardly ever see anyone fishing there, save for the local farmers, but watching the swans flock there at dusk is a sight to behold.  On the loch there is a crannog.  Crannogs are artificial islands, built in prehistory, some date to the Bronze Age (about 1500 BCE), others are more recent and may have been built as late as 500 CE.  No one knows why prehistoric folk liked to construct, and then presumably live on, artificial islands, but they occur all over Scotland, although there are relatively few in Orkney.  The usual interpretation of their function is that they were defensive, despite the fact that the short distance to the shore would probably not have been too much of a deterrent to a persistent attacker, although their sole path (usually stepping stones) would certainly have been a way to control access: only room for one to approach at a time and only by a set prescribed route.  Other suggestions have been that crannogs could have been an attempt to escape the most tenacious of Scotland’s predators: the midge.

Built on this crannog are the remains of a broch.  Most brochs date from the Iron Age (about 500 BCE to 500 AD), which blends into the Pictish period in Orkney.  These structures are also usually interpreted as being defensive in function as they take the form of stone towers, sometimes with little houses clustered around the outside, and, when they are not sited on naturally defensive locations such as crannogs or the edge of cliffs, with additional earthen defences.  Brochs are quite prolific in Orkney and the north of Scotland, occurring around the coastline at regular and quite close intervals, as well as inland.  Their nearest equivalent in England, Wales and southern Scotland is probably the hillfort.  In the Iron Age people seem to have had a need to build defensive sites, possibly as a result of a general increase in violence in society which was perhaps arising over disputed assets such as land.  Such sites may also have been built for prestige or as a deterrent to any violent threats.  There is also a possibility that brochs were sacred sites in some way as several have underground chambers, ostensibly wells, but full of potential for contacting the chthonic deities – the Gods of the Iron Age seem to have lived underground, or some of them did ... This relationship between authority and belief is common in pre-state societies where secular and religious power are often intricately linked (consider the medieval concept of the Divine Right of Kings).  

When the broch on Wasdale Loch fell out of use, its stone was reused for a chapel.  I have been reliably informed that, until recently, one of the local older farmers would periodically repair the dry-stone walls of the chapel, but that no longer happens and today all that is visible are low circular stone walls to about a maximum height of a metre.

So Wasdale Loch is host to an artificial island, built as some sort of retreat, perhaps embodying a symbolic sense of safety, to which access is possible but restricted, and on which are built a series of ritualistic monuments: first a broch and then a chapel.  It virtually screams that it is a special place.  

And every time we’d walked there previously, the water level in the loch was so high that I wouldn’t have got over without a soaking.  But during that dry period at the end of last summer, I knew there was a chance of being able to cross over the stepping stones which were usually submerged, but that the stones would no doubt be loose and wobbly and slippery with slime.  So I went prepared with stout walking boots, hiking poles (two legs good, four legs better) and clothes which wouldn’t mind getting wet.

My preparation paid off and after over three years of wanting to cross over, I finally managed it.  It was quite an achievement: the path was not easy, many of the stepping stones rocked quite a bit and the slime was treacherous in places.  But it was worth it – there was a wonderful sense of getting to somewhere secret that was finally yielding itself, a place that others could only observe from outside.  This was somewhere to which access was offered only sporadically; luck, timing, and dexterity were required.  It was like passing a test.
Once on the crannog I sat and absorbed the atmosphere; the day was bright, sunny, warm, and the sky was a great open dome the way it can be in Orkney.  The breeze was gentle and the loch’s surface was reflective at times; it was quiet and peaceful.

So I shifted my attention inwards to see what impressions might come through and I contacted the spirit of a young woman.  She was pale and fair and dressed in a dark, rough, woven cloth, like tartan but not as complicated a pattern.  She was poor, dirty and hungry and she asked me for money.  I had none on me to give her (or else I would have left a gift), but I had no coins with me.  I could have left jewellery for her, like a ring, but I suspected she would be in more trouble if she was found with something that precious.  Her name sounded like Erin or Earn or similar.  I promised that when I came back I would bring money for her but that it would be a while before I would be able to get back over – it was, after all, the last day of an Orkney summer, getting back over in winter, and possibly most of spring and early summer, would be impossible.  I wonder about Erin and what her story is; I hope she will tell me.

The cows that were loose around the crannog were taking an increasing interest in the people in their midst, and did not seem in the least perturbed about getting wet, so we decided to leave the crannog and walk all the way up Wasdale, following the burn which was little more than a trickle.  The path was not always obvious and often, particularly at places where the land plateaued, it was waterlogged.  On the way up we passed abandoned crofts and huts, each progressively more ruinous, as if those highest up had been left first, like a retreating army of stone structures.  The flora changed as we climbed through the hills, but always there were bees and butterflies.

Right at the top there was an Ordnance Survey triangulation point (so we knew we were at the top!) and amazing views over the stone circles of West Mainland and the Hoy Hills to the west.  The top of the hill, which formed a ridgeline running almost north to south, was sodden and saturated in places – heavy peat, with evidence of cutting both ancient and more recent, that held the water in moss rather than letting it drain away.

It was a place to enjoy views and revel in the landscape being revealed.  Perhaps Neolithic wayfarers might once have passed this way on pilgrimage to the Ness of Brodgar?  Perhaps the earliest shepherds may have shared the delight of these vistas?

And then I got it!  My light bulb moment!

Through looking down at Wasdale Loch and the crannog and the idea of the island sanctuary – which is what all of Orkney is to me anyway, once I leave Caithness and am on my way back home to these islands –  I understood how this idea of the island in a lake is such an ancient archetype from world myth.  I think of Fisher Kings, and giant frogs on lily pads, and golden rings being cast into sacred ponds ... and the concept is resonating in my head and I know I am dealing with ancestral memories that are older than the written word but which are inscribed in my deep thoughts.  And beyond Wasdale Loch, the far older site of the Ness of Brodgar, straddling the isthmus between two lochs, and those lochs being in the middle of land, and all around the land is ringed with hills, fringing in like a natural cauldron.  And I realise that I am gazing upon that place that is being called upon in my psyche: the place within a place within a place, the inner sanctuary, the Blessed Isle, where peace and healing and transformation can, will and must take place.

Friday, 5 July 2013

A meditation on landscape - a sense of place

I submitted this meditation as part of my Bardic review for the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) course, to show my work with the elements.  I allowed myself to mentally sink into the landscape here in Orkney and imagined that I was part of the land and had deep ancestral roots, as if I had been here for thousands of years.  I tried to locate and root myself in Orkney for this exercise but I don't have Orkney ancestry (to the best of my knowledge) and there will be some who proclaim I do not have the right to dream these thoughts; but I did dare to do so and this is the result:

            North - Earth
To the North is the cold, ice, barren; fierce stern women who judge with their stare.  Winters of permanent night.  The north wind is to be feared for it brings snow and snow brings silence and isolation as we are cut off unable to leave the house, unable to get out.  The north is the realm of the old Gods, Odin and Thor and Loki, they do not suffer fools gladly and it is no good approaching them as a penitential victim.  The north is dark and constant, permanent and ever-threatening.  The north is winter, always present, always hanging over us like a curse at the dining table.  The north is mysterious and magickal too – the Northern Lights, the aurora borealis, the Merry Dancers – and from whence the Fin Folk come to enchant maidens away to their ethereal island homes.  To the north is our ancestry, our authority in Norwegian Courts until but recently; the north is from where we are owned, to where we are tied.

East - Air

To the East is wind.  Cool wind, blowing in from the North Sea.  The east brings sunrise and daybreak.  An otherworldly light.  To the east is Kirkwall, our capital city, and an urban centre for this tiny island nation.  The east is intellect and thought and it has a presence there in the annex of a university.  There is a Norwegian Consulate based there too, many would like to be passed back to Norwegian rule, instead of lax Holyrood’s to the South, or worse still, Westminster’s.  To the east lie trade routes for us and the closer fishing.  There are sunken landmasses to the immediate east, forgotten land with drowned homesteads, memory and recall of things past and passing.  Our immediate government is to the east, the local council, cathedral, hospital, ferry ports, airports, library and archive, police, and where our MP is based; all east from here.  East is thought and logic and sometimes cool imposed reason without quite thinking through the care of it.  The fierce, bleak Rendall hills are to the east, I would not want to get lost out there.

South - Fire

To the South is warmth and luxury and decadence.  To south is our modern authority, the rest of the UK that does not understand or appreciate the harshness of our existence on these god-forsaken rocks.  From the south comes petty and hot-headed dictates that threaten our way of life and our culture,  Most of the traffic comes from and goes to the south.  Our planes fly south.  Our ferries sail south.  When we get away, we “gan sooth”, a short stretch across the treacherous Pentland Firth to a huge landmass where commodities are abundant and cheap and so much choice!  We know south envies us and our island ways.  South is warmth.  The Gulf Stream, our saviour, brings warmth from far south.  South is civilisation and treasures.  South brings incomers and their strange habits.  South is where our young people abandon us to go to find jobs that match their long training.  South is packed and jostling and land so expensive.  I do not want to go back south, even though I miss the warmth.

West - Water

To the West is water.  The Atlantic Ocean.  A vast tract of sea, no land until America, or Newfoundland, to be precise.  West is where we go to see seals and orcas and puffins.  To the west is the sunset.  Magnificent sunsets and the best sunsets are in Harray (the parish where we live).  Nothing but sea and a vast expanse of water for thousands of miles until the New World.  We went west.  Long ago.  The Norse / Northmen went there a-Viking and a-raiding and they stayed and stuck it out, stubborn that they were.  More recent we went west in search of fish and oil and brought back strange little nut-brown wives with thin eyes that bore us equally strange bairns.  To the west the golden sun dips into the ocean, slowly in summer, fast in winter and almost south in winter.  The west is the point which calls for adventure – come, see what is over the horizon!  The west, here, is exposed, on our other sides there are other, nearer land masses, but not to the west.  We are open, exposed, raw and emotional.

One of the lessons of OBOD is: “We can’t fully experience the magic of life if we don’t know where we are, if we don’t feel like we belong to the earth beneath our feet.”  This is what I have been trying to explore with this exercise, I am trying to feel the earth beneath my feet: back where I was raised, Hampshire in the central south of England, I was used to clay with chalk, now I have to deal with the depths and organic nature of peat.  “To discover true magic we have to stop and take root ... we have to discover the stories that hum in the streets and fields around us.”  So it would appear that I have to get to know peat ...

Photographs by the amazing Mark Woodsford-Dean - see more at

Friday, 14 June 2013

The Italian Chapel – a lesson in learning not to cut my nose off to spite my face.

During both World Wars, Orkney was strategically important for protecting the North Sea and Scapa Flow, the massive natural harbour fringed by the south isles, was the home of the British home fleet. The eastern approaches to Scapa Flow were known to be a weak link in the defences, with the short stretches of water between the islands of Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay being vulnerable to exploitation by submarines or small warships.  During World War I, attempts had been made to block Kirk, Skerry, East Weddell and Water Sounds with old rusting steamships that were requisitioned and sunk, thus forming an obstacle to any attacker.

However, by the outbreak of World War II, many of these blockships had moved and shifted in the strong tides and German aerial photo-reconnaissance had spotted a potential gap.  Thus, on the night of 13 October 1939, U-boat 47, under the command of Gunther Prien slipped into Scapa Flow through Kirk Sound – the short gap of water between Mainland and the southern island of Lamb Holm.  They were aided by an unusually high tide and light from the Merry Dancers – the Northern Lights.

Fortunately, most of the British fleet was away on exercise, but HMS Royal Oak was at anchor.  U-47 torpedoed HMS Royal Oak, and she sank rapidly with over 830 serving men and boys losing their lives from a crew of 1200.  Gunther Prien and his crew got back to German where he enjoyed a hero’s welcome and was personally decorated with the Iron Cross by Hitler himself.

This was the first great disaster of World War II and Winston Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty, personally visited Orkney and ordered that the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow be permanently blocked.  Construction of what became known as the Churchill Barriers began in 1940 by the construction company Balfour Beatty but by 1942 more labour was needed to speed up the work and 1200 Italian prisoners of war were brought up to Orkney to work on the project, of whom 600 were put into a prison camp on the island of Lamb Holm.

Of course, according to the Geneva Convention, POWs’ labour should not be used to aid one’s captors militarily, and so the Italian POWs at first refused to work, but they were put on short rations for a few days until they accepted the British explanation that the barriers were being built to make travel easier for the inhabitants of Burray and South Ronaldsay.  With the barriers costing a total of £2.5 million, for a civilian project, the rations surely must have been the more persuasive argument.

The prison camp on Lamb Holm was called Camp 60 and some, but not many, remains can still be seen in the fields, mainly in the form of the concrete foundations for the dozen or so huts.  The POWs asked for a chapel, somewhere they might worship, and they were offered two Nissen huts which they joined together and transformed – it is these huts which are now known as the Italian Chapel or the Miracle of Camp 60 (HY488006).

One of the prisoners, Domenico Chiocchetti, had worked as a church decorator before the war and his talent was known to the camp commander.  Chiocchetti’s home town was Moena in the Dolomites.  It was Chiocchetti who designed the interior of the chapel, but everything was made by the POWs and the ornate appearance belies the simple raw materials, mainly from scrap and salvage, with which the Italians worked.


 The outside of the chapel has an elaborate red and white concrete facade with entrance pillars, but inside the huts are beautifully painted so that the interior resembles carved stonework with brick.  The Italians used any materials they had available and the most plentiful was concrete, many items are cast from cement including the facade, the altar and the altar rail; this was carried out by a mason called Bruttapasta.  The wood around the altar was obtained from the blockships and the candlesticks from stair-rods; the hanging lamps were made from corned-beef (“bully-beef”) tins.  The iron for the altar gates was salvaged from the blockships by the smith, Palumbo, who fashioned a forge from a 40-gallon oil drum.  Where these gates close together, on the floor, is set a small iron heart,  because whilst in Orkney, Palumbo fell in love with a local girl but he already had a wife and family back home in Italy, so he left the heart as a permanent symbol of his affection. 

The main item which was not available to the POWs was paint, so the Italians would make small items, such as models, which they traded with locals for the money to purchase paint. 

This chapel is dedicated to the Queen of Peace: Regina Pacis and She is depicted on the large central altarpiece.  This was painted by Chiocchetti himself with the design being based on a holy postcard, which he always carried with him, of a painting by Nicolo Barabino of the Madonna and Child.  There are symbols throughout the chapel which reminds us of this dedication to the Queen of Peace: the Christ child carries an olive branch, the cherub to the right is sheathing a sword, whilst the cherub on the left holds the coat of arms of Moena: the ship shown is sailing from the dark clouds of war into the calm seas of peace; the white dove in the centre of the ceiling, above the symbols of the four evangelists, symbolises the Holy Spirit and peace.

To either side of the altar piece are two stained glass windows which are really just painted glass – but convincing as stained glass.  On the right is St Francis of Assissi, and on the left is St Catherine of Siena, both are the two patron saints of Italy.

It is the altarpiece which first draws the eyes, together with an astounding sense of peace which envelops the spiritual tourist.   I find this a humbling and holy place because those Italian POWs were conscripted into a war, captured in North Africa, and brought to Orkney in January.  That is some contrast in weather!  Now, if that had been me, I wouldn’t have built a chapel to peace, oh no, I would have been Mrs Grumpy-pants: I would have moaned and whinged and made sure everyone around me knew how miserable I was.  I wouldn’t have turned defeat and forced labour into a triumph of peace like those POWs did, and because of that knowledge of my baser self, I remain humbled by their spirit.

I have resisted writing about the Italian Chapel for those stupid Mrs Grumpy-pants reasons, despite the fact that it is one of the most spiritual places in Orkney.  Why?  Stupid Mrs Grumpy-pants had been asked to perform a legal wedding at the Italian chapel, this would have been some three or four years ago now, and I had asked the custodians for permission and been told in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t do it, it was only “recognised religions” that could use the place for weddings and other services and Paganism was not recognised – neither was Buddhism, Islam or a couple of other religions, so I was in good company, but I was so angry about this!  It was illegal!  It was rude!  It was the worst sort of bigoted stubbornness!  

So I decided to punish the chapel: I didn’t take visitors there when I took folk on the “Grand Tour” of Orkney, we’d drive straight past on our way to the Tomb of the Eagles or even worse, we’d sample some wines at nearby Orkney Wine and I’d just gesture to the chapel as an afterthought.  I was being mean.  I was taking my revenge.  I was being resentful and taking it all out on the chapel.  

And then I trained to be a Tourist Guide for Orkney and I had to learn about the chapel.  I learnt about the symbolism to peace and every time I had to tell the story in training, my eyes started to well up.  Even now, tears start to fall when I guide at the chapel.  I cry because I am ashamed of myself in comparison to those Italian POWs, they were the real folk who triumphed after the war.  I cry because despite my punishing the chapel for the past few years, the chapel still enfolds me in a sense of peace and awe when I enter.  The chapel forgives and I am welcome there still, when I had assumed I was not.

Neither story ends there.  

When the Barriers were finished in 1944, the POWs were sent down to another camp in Yorkshire, all then returned to Italy at the end of the war and the chapel started to fall into disrepair and was affected by damp.   Chioccetti returned several times in the 1960s to repair and renovate the chapel, following a BBC television documentary which tracked him down.   He then passed the chapel to the care of the people of Orkney and a lasting friendship has since been built between the people of Moena and Orkney with exchange visits between choirs and schoolchildren.  The twelve wooden Stations of the Cross were carved in Moena and gifted by Chioccetti and his wife Maria.  In the intervening decades, several of the POWs have returned to Orkney, with a warm welcome, but there are less of them with every passing year – although Chioccetti’s own grandchild came over in an exchange visit.  The chapel is dedicated to Roman Catholicism and Mass is said on the first Sunday of every month in summer; it remains a popular place for weddings, Christian ones.

Outside, in the car park, the position of the camp square is marked by a concrete statue of St George and the dragon.  This was built of barbed wire covered in cement and originally there was a roll with the POWs’ names inside the base, although this has now perished.  This statue symbolises the triumph of the human spirit.  Around the base is a link of chains and in the middle of each chain is a pentacle, upright, but there.  This is not a modern fence because a photograph from the 1940s shows the fence and pentacles clearly there from the outset.  I have been unable to find out what an occult symbol is doing in an overtly Christian place, but every time I see it, I secretly punch the air for triumph that yet again a subversive Pagan symbol has succeeded in being sneaked in: something of “ours” in one of “their places” – albeit this being far more audacious than a Green Man.

You will need to forgive me, I am still Mrs Grumpy-pants and I still haven’t fully slain my inner dragon.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Orkney Witches

This article was originally published in SPIN issue 65 Winter 2012/13.

At the top of Clay Loan, amidst a housing estate and with a magnificant view over the city of Kirkwall, there is a bare patch of green land, mysteriously undeveloped (HY453104).  This is Gallowha, the site for public executions in Orkney, but unmarked as such.  A few of us have begun the process to install a small memorial to the victims of the witch-trials which mainly took place between the 1590s and the 1650s.

Most of the stories of Orkney witches and their associated witch trials date from the early seventeenth century; a period in which there was a genuine and widespread belief in the existence of witches and when no one seemed to expect God to do good in compensation.  These beliefs were fuelled by superstition, high mortality, and poor access to health care and propelled by a particularly twisted Christian theology and a judicial system that was constructed around it.

Folk beliefs and magical practices were abundant at this time and appear to have been widely practiced.  Many of the Orkney charms and rituals seem to have their counterparts with those from the rest of the British Isles and may have been imported and adapted, but Orkney has always had a close relationship with Norway and the Norse traditions also contributed.  In Norse mythology, death and disaster were caused by malevolent spiritual beings working magic against humans.  Only by working a more powerful magic could these influences be countered.  Most Norse witches used magical formulae or rituals – in the Christian period, these often including the sign of the Cross or the name of Christ.  Another influence upon the Orkney variant of witchcraft may have been the vagabonds known throughout Scotland at this time as “the Egyptians”; they were infamous for using magic to take the “profit” from other’s crops and livestock for themselves.

Witches were believed to derive their supernatural powers from the devil or from evil spirits such as the fairies, and it is this association which was the issue upon which witches were tried, whether that was in a theological or legal proceedings.  Any mysterious happenings, or coincidences, could be used to infer this relationship, or witches could have been seen in the devil’s or fairies’ company or might confess to it.

For example, Marion Richart (tried 1633) was seen with the devil “in likeness of a black man”.  And the devil apparently taught Jonet Irving (tried 1616) “if she bore ill-will to anybody” to look on them “with open eyes and pray evil for them in his name so that she should get her heart’s desire”.  Issobell Sinclair (tried 1633) was accused that during seven years “six times at the quarters of the year, she has been controlled by the fairies; and that by them, she has the second sight”.

Orkney witches were not often associated with familiars, although there are many folk stories about witches shape-shifting into cats and cats were often an integral element of a spell.  Marion Richart (as before, tried 1633) was accused of washing a cat’s head and feet in the water in which a fisherman kept his bait, then pouring this water over the man and his baskets – presumably as a spell to increase his catch. 

The main allegations against witches were causing or curing death and disease in humans and in livestock.  Some of the magical formulae, charms and rituals that were used have been preserved and many of them have actions that are carried out three times or contain a number of lines or words that are divisible by three.  This charm was for curing sprains:
Oor Saviour rade (= rode),
His foal slade (= slid);
Oor Saviour lichtit doon (= alighted).
Sinew tae sinew,
Vein tae vein,
Joint tae joint,
Bane tae bane,
                Mend du i’ Geud’s neem (= God’s name)!

Many of these charms have references to Christianity, such as this one used by Christian Gow (tried 1624) to cure a bewitched or forspoken horse:
                                                                Thrie things hath the forspoken,
                                                                Heart, tung, and eye almost;
                                                                Thrie things sall the mend agane,
                                                                Father, Sone, and Holie Ghost.

Stones, water and sea-water are often used alongside these charms.  For example, Margaret Sandieson (tried 1635) touched her patient’s head three times with each of three small stones which cured the patient.  Katherine Grant (tried 1623) pushed a distempered cow backwards into the sea until it was washed by nine surges.  Three handfuls of each wave were then washed over its back and it was brushed with a bunch of burnt malt straw.

Witches also had the power to transfer disease from person to person, person to animal, or from animal to animal.  For example, Katherine Grieve (tried 1633) took sickness from her patient and cast it onto a calf, whereupon the calf died.  Katherine Bigland (tried 1615) cast a sickness on her master, then transferred it to his servant, and then back to her master.  Cirstane Leisk (tried 1643) spread her hand over a man’s back to make him sick and repeated the action to make him well again.

Doing anything withershins or witherways was malevolent behaviour.  For example, Marion Cumlaquoy (tried c.1630) “turned herself three times witherways around the fire” in a farmer’s house and that year his crops were rotten.

Witches often used items from the deceased as a talisman or a cure.  For example, Katherine Craigie (tried 1643) used a dead woman’s snood (=a ribbon used to tie a woman’s hair) around a man’s waist to cure abdominal pain.  The same Katherine Craigie was also accused of killing Annabell Murray by binding three grasses in a knot and hiding them in a cloth.  Rarely are Orkney witches accused of using herbs although James Knarstoun (tried 1633) rubbed the arms and legs of a woman with an “oyle, made of mekillwort” (=deadly nightshade) as a cure for sciatica.

The cause and effect of magic working could be even more subtle than this as Orkney witches were believed to be able to hex and to heal simply by looking, ganting (=yawning or blowing breath) and touching.  They might also issue vague threats, sometimes quite specific ones, or loosen their hair to fortify their workings.

Many witches were believed to have second sight or the ability to see into the future.  The men of the southern island of Hoy would ask Bessie Skebister (tried 1633) if the fishing boats would come safely home or not.  There was a proverb on Hoy that “Giff Bessie say it is weill, all is weill”.  The Orkney Storm Witches, made famous by Sir Walter Scott, mainly flourished in Stromness later in the nineteenth century.

Whilst considering the type of magic being performed, a large proportion of it appears to be what Terry Pratchet would label “headology”.  It appears to consist of some basic hypnotism and suggestion, augmented by an individual’s reputation for power, and a pervading belief in the supernatural that thrived at this time.  There also seems to be an ability, or perceived ability, to transfer energies.  In such a climate, it was probably only the coincidences that gullible people remembered, the many threats that did not come to pass were probably conveniently forgotten.

But were they witches?  Possibly not in the modern sense; although there are parallels with some of the practices performed by present Pagans, the accused almost certainly would have considered themselves to be Christians, as would have almost everyone at that time.  They seem to be operating within a mental framework structured around a Christian cosmology, as evidenced by the references to Christian deity within their charms.  They may well have tried to “sell their soul” to the devil in some way, perhaps in a desperate bid for earthly power, but the charms they were using and their magical practices seem, from the trial records, to have been part of a tradition of folk magic that was in common usage – indeed, this argument is often presented as part of their “defence” at trial.

Once accused of witchcraft, a couple of witches in Orkney had “justice” meted out to them immediately by their neighbours, but usually they were tried first before a minister and a Kirk session as there was a special injunction placed upon the Kirk to seek out witches.  Civil Court was subsequently held in St Magnus Cathedral, with the accused being held in Marwick’s Hole – St Magnus Cathedral has the dubious honour of being the only cathedral in the British Isles with its own dungeon!  15 men were chosen as jurors.

Torture was used to extract confessions but the psychological stress of the judicial process and the discomfort of being held in Marwick’s Hole would probably have been enough to break anyone of a nervous disposition.  Many of the accused were brought to Kirkwall for trial from some of the remote northern islands, the whole experience for them must have been terrifying and confusing.  On some of the trial indictments are annotations such as “The panel denyet not, scho said scho was vncouth, and wist not quhat to say” (=The accused denied not, she said she was uncouth, and did not know what to say).  The only victim whose torture is known in detail is Alysoun Balfoure (tried 1594) who was accused of being involved in a plot to murder Earl Patrick Stewart.  Alysoun was kept in the caschielawes (=torture involving weights) whilst her husband, son and daughter (only aged 7) were tortured in front of her.  Most witches were sentenced to be strangled and burnt at Gallowha.

There has been some research carried out into the type of persons who were alleged to be witches in Orkney.  They were predominantly women (of the 70 known trials in Orkney, only 12 are of men), usually poor and on the margins of society, but it was not unusual for them to be married or widowed with surviving children.  Many of them were vagabonds and were labelled as “wanderer” in the Court records.  This was because some alleged witches, who had escaped a sentence of execution, perhaps on insufficient evidence, had been subsequently banished from their native county and had to survive on their wits whilst being hounded from place to place.  Perhaps it is not unreasonable that, given their lack of options, such women may have pretended to or cultivated supernatural power as their only viable means of livelihood.  Thus they would have lived by exploiting the credulous through either conferring favours for bribes or running a “protection racket”.  For example, Jonet Rendall (tried 1629) asked Gilbert Sandie for “ane plack (=sum of money) of silver in almis fra him for his mearis (=mares), that they might be weill over the year”. 

Prior to trial, these witches may even have been tolerated by their communities and been allowed to build a reputation for power, until such time as their community no longer needed them, or needed to be rid of them.  It is particularly tragic that many of those who bear witness against these women were the same people who benefitted from their healing.  Often there is a 10 to 15 year gap between the events that indict them and the trial, yet there is never any Court reference as to why there is such a long delay between the events and the accusation, there is never any questioning of the witnesses’ memories or their motivations.  The accusation, trial and execution of these victims are a direct result of a collusion of community, church and state to institutionally abuse individuals.  The accused never stood a chance.

And that is why Orkney needs a memorial to these victims of the witch-trials, not as a religious Pagan monument, nor to seek apology from any other parties, but rather to construct a positive memorial with the message of "never again" and to commemorate an important episode in Orkney's history.  Our intention is to look ahead together to teh future, in thanks that such cruelty no longer occurs at an institutional level and to mark an intention that it should never do so again.  The suggestion has been made that a fitting memorial might be a small stone ornament such as a sun dial, perhaps appropriately engraved with details of what it commemorates.  And ornament of this type would be fairly cheap to install, be unobtrusive, be decorative and useful, yet also would not be macabre or offensive, nor would it need maintenance (an important consideration given Orkney's weather!).  Symbolically too, the combination idea of sunlight as a natural positive image and time as a healer is particularly apt.  Given that we plan for it to be located in the middle of a housing estate, our intention is to be sensitive to the current residents - many of whom don't know the sad history of their little patch of grass! - and install something that will attract no more attention than, say, a memorial to the fallen of WWII currently does.  We hope, however, that some sort of inauguration ceremony might take place when the installation is first opened. 

The following sources were used as reference for this article:
Marwick E W (1991) “Northern Witches” in “An Orkney Anthology – Selected Works”. Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh
Rendall J (2012) notes taken from her lecture “The Orkney Witchcraft Trials” given as part of the “Women’s Things” Conference to mark International Women’s Day, Stromness