Nicola Sturgeon has issued a posthumous apology to the thousands of people persecuted as witches in Scotland, underlining that the deep misogyny that motivated this “colossal” injustice is something women today still have to live with.
As she responded to a petition demanding a pardon for the more than 4,000 people in Scotland – the vast majority of them women – who were accused, convicted and often executed under the Witchcraft Act of 1563, the first minister told the Scottish parliament that she was acknowledging “that egregious historic injustice” and extending a formal posthumous apology to all those who were so vilified.
Speaking during the Scottish government’s debate on International Women’s Day, Sturgeon explained: “Those who met this fate were not witches, they were people, and they were overwhelmingly women.
“At a time when women were not even allowed to speak as witnesses in a courtroom, they were accused and killed because they were poor, different, vulnerable or in many cases just because they were women.”
According to the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, a comprehensive database of known prosecutions, between the first execution in 1479 and the last in 1727, at least 2,500 people were killed.
The moral panic around witchcraft and devil worship that convulsed post-Reformation societies across Europe and colonial America was especially fierce in Scotland, which carried out five times the European average of executions per capita.
Sturgeon described this as “injustice on a colossal scale, driven at least in part by misogyny in its most literal sense: hatred of women”.
Over the past few years, there have been growing calls for a national monument to commemorate those who died as well as a formal apology for their persecution, and campaigners on Tuesday welcomed “the first formal recognition of this terrible miscarriage of justice”.
Sturgeon told MSPs there were three reasons why this generation should say sorry for events that took places centuries ago.
“Firstly, acknowledging injustice, no matter how historic is important. This parliament has issued, rightly so, formal apologies and pardons for the more recent historic injustices suffered by gay men and by miners.
“Second, for some, this is not yet historic. There are parts of our world where even today, women and girls face persecution and sometimes death because they have been accused of witchcraft.
“And thirdly, fundamentally, while here in Scotland the Witchcraft Act may have been consigned to history a long time ago, the deep misogyny that motivated it has not. We live with that still. Today it expresses itself not in claims of witchcraft, but in everyday harassment, online rape threats and sexual violence.”
Modern misogyny, intensified by an increasingly polarised public discourse and amplified by social media, had a significant impact on women now questioning whether politics and public life are safe environments for them, Sturgeon added.
Sturgeon also welcomed in principle the recommendations made by Helena Kennedy’s working group on misogynist abuse, published on Tuesday morning, stating her government would respond formally as soon as possible.
She added: “This report matters beyond the detail of the specific recommendations it makes. It matters because it acknowledges and it gives powerful voice to the stark realities of everyday life for women.
“It recognises that misogyny is endemic, and that it blights the lives of women every single day.”