The Memorial Project Commemorating the Victims of the Orkney Witchcraft Trials
Between 2013 and 2019, Dr Ragnhild Ljosland and Helen Woodsford-Dean worked with the Orkney Heritage Society to install a small memorial to the victims of Orkney’s witch-trials. The original inspiration for the project came from a lecture given by Professor Liv Helene Willumsen in 2012, invited by the Centre for Nordic Studies, University of the Highlands and Islands, in which she made comparisons between the witch trials in Northern Norway with those in Scotland, and spoke about the modern memorial at Steilneset in Finnmark, Norway (Willumsen 2020, 19-30).
Although an installation of the scale at Steilneset was unlikely to be viable in Orkney, discrete memorials to those accused of witchcraft already exited elsewhere in the UK, which had been met with quiet approval from the public. For example, a brass horseshoe plaque has been laid at Paisley to commemorate the execution of seven people accused of witchcraft there in 1697. The memorial at Forfar Loch Country Park is a simple headstone in a clearing, inscribed with the words “The Forfar Witches, Just People.”
From its inception, Gallow Ha in Kirkwall was the preferred location for the Orkney memorial, as this was the site of public executions. Gallow Ha is situated at the top of Clay Loan (HY 453 104), with a magnificent view over the city of Kirkwall. Today it takes the form of a bare patch of green land, strangely undeveloped amongst otherwise quite densely built residential housing. The initial preference was for the installation to be sited allegedly on the site of the town gallows in the past. Several ideas and materials were discussed, including a sundial because of the combined symbolism of sunlight as a natural, positive image, together with time as a healer. The design of the sundial was directly within the circular area of box hedging which was taken from the grave slab of Patrick Prince (died 1673), which can still be seen in the south side of the west end of the nave of St Magnus Cathedral. The sundial would be made of a single piece of blue-grey Orkney sandstone, shaped like one of the Standing Stones of Stenness, inscribed with a memorial text.
The next task was to raise awareness and interest in the project by consulting with interested parties including local officials, heritage charities and organisations, community representatives, faith representatives, and residents.
As the land at Gallow Ha belongs to Orkney Islands Council (OIC), it was suggested that the proposal be put to OIC’s Asset Management Sub-Committee, with a detailed report to elected members. OIC advised that their preference was to communicate via a lead organisation. The Orkney Heritage Society (OHS) were approached for this purpose, because of their expressed interest and excellent reputation, and their experience of successfully delivering heritage projects. In addition, the Society’s founder member, Ernest Marwick, did extensive research on the Orkney witch trials and made relevant court records available in transcription (c.1950s). OHS’ Committee responded supportively to the detailed proposal, but raised practical concerns about the costs, future maintenance, viability, insurance and, most importantly, the health and safety issues associated with a metal gnomon sticking out at eye-level of the sundial. In response to these concerns, the memorial design was simplified and reduced in size. The revised suggestion was to exchange one of the existing flagstones, leading up to the circular box-hedging area, with an inscribed piece of blue-grey Orkney sandstone and the sundial rendered in a symbolic and abstract form. The suggested inscription was “They were just folk,” in Orcadian dialect. The design was intended to be sensitive and decorative, without being macabre or offensive. This met with approval by the OHS and the proposal was accepted by OIC’s Asset Management Sub-Committee on 2nd June 2016.
OHS formed a sub-group for the purposes of advancing this project. The working group thus had six members: Helen Woodsford-Dean, Ragnhild Ljosland, Tanya McGill (who had valuable experience with making funding proposals), Lucy Gibbon (who had valuable archive experience), Hayley Green (who had project managing experience) and chaired by Spencer Rosie. Early in 2018 Tanya led OHS’ funding Illustration 5 Finished memorial by Colin Watson. 10 application to OIC’s Cultural Fund which awarded £1000 towards the installation, a creative day, and inauguration events. OIC further advised that no additional permissions were required from them: Planning Permission was not required, and the permissions already granted by elected members in 2016 still stood, as long as the installation was to the standard expected by OIC and this would be most easily achieved by using an OIC approved builder. Orkney Builders Ltd generously offered to complete the installation free of charge.
To make the memorial itself, Colin Watson, who had been the St Magnus Cathedral’s stonemason (now retired), was approached to build as many links with the cathedral as possible due to its historical involvement in the trials. Colin procured a suitable stone, shaped it, and carved the chosen design upon it. Colin is a speaker of Orcadian dialect, and he translated the phrase “they were just folk” into Orcadian: “they wur cheust folk,” completing the carving in early August 2018. The physical installation took place early in 2019.
All members of the project working group were keen to involve the Orkney community, so Tuesday 30th October 2018 was chosen to hold a creative workshop day. This date was the nearest viable date to the traditional festival Samhain and within the school holidays – the intention was to make the day accessible to families.
Ragnhild and Helen facilitated a day of creative and reflective activities around the whole concept of witch-trials, focusing on their relevance to contemporary society by reflecting on how easily people still ‘blame’ others. The intended end-product was for the Orkney community to produce material to go into a time-capsule to be buried under the memorial stone at Gallow Ha. About 40 participants attended the creative day. In the morning, historical background information was provided as a stimulus to creativity. This was sourced from material from the Orkney Archive (Lucy Gibbon) plus recent archaeological finds (Dan Lee) and presented together with songs (Sarah Jane Gibbon) and storytelling (Marita Lück). After lunch, creative workshops were held participants were encouraged to make music, tell stories, write, paint, and print. Several of Orkney’s talented writers, artists, musicians and storytellers contributed by performing and running the workshops.
Sheena Graham George made digital voicerecordings of workshop participants reading out the names of the recorded victims of the Orkney witchcraft trials. Jeanne Bouza Rose led a printmaking session, where participants printed colourful designs based on traditional protective marks such as the “witches’ rose.” Amber Connolly led a creative writing workshop, inviting participants to write poems or short stories prompted by a collective brainstorming on the theme of “whispers.” Marita Lück taught participants an Orkney folk story, aided by drawing. Corwen Broch led a song writing workshop, where participants chose lines from genuine 17th century poetry and put it together as the lyrics for a special memorial song. Corwen put the words to a known melody from the period and composed a second part using the words from Christian Gow’s charm quoted above.
Ragnhild ran one of the workshops; it involved writing letters to some of the accused victims of the witchcraft trials, as a way of communication with the past and future. Workshop participants, in the present, wrote letters addressed to the past victims, that is, named individuals whose court records are preserved, letting them know how their future now views the trials they underwent. These letters would then be preserved in the time capsule to be buried under the memorial stone, intended to be discovered and opened at an unknown point in the future. The letters would thus become letters from 2018 to a future still unknown, letting people of the future know how those in 2018 viewed the witchcraft trials. In preparation, Ragnhild had made ‘victim profiles’ with silhouettes representing a selection of the accused victims, each accompanied by a list of the ‘crimes’ for which they had been taken to trial.
To raise awareness ahead of the creative day, these victim profiles were posted on the project’s Facebook page. This inspired Helen to write a poetic response to each victim, some of which were also posted online. The notes on the accused and poetic responses were then published as an e-book They Wur Cheust Folk (Available from: https://www. spiritualorkney.co.uk/books#TheyWurCheustFolk).
Throughout the creative day, participants were invited to fill and ‘charge’ a ‘witch-bottle,’ which was kindly made and donated by Andrew Appleby (also known as the “Harray Potter”). ‘Witch bottles’ were one of the forms of counter-magical protection used against witches and witchcraft in the past, particularly the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most often recovered from East Anglia, Essex and Suffolk, they are also known throughout Scotland (Merrifield 1987, 163-68); it is possible that some have been identified in Orkney and these are on display in the Orkney Museum. Needless to say, the witch bottle created for this project was not intended as a trap against witches; instead, it was filled with tears, gathered throughout the creative day. This witch bottle was buried in the time capsule with the other output from the day, where one might imagine it would convert any projected ill-thoughts to kindness.
Much of the material produced on the creative day was too large for the time capsule, so it was given to the Orkney Archive to hold. Reduced-size photocopies of these materials were instead put in the capsule. A selection of items was chosen to go in the time capsule, including the witch bottle and a book of prints designed by Jeanne Bouza Rose and produced by workshop participants. The time capsule also contained a USB drive on which all material produced, including outsized and sound recordings, had been stored digitally. A copy of the material on the USB drive is also stored on a DVD held by the Orkney Archive.
At the end of the creative day, the Orkney Museum was visited to view some relevant artefacts, followed by spending some contemplative time at St Magnus Cathedral. At the cathedral, a talk was given about Marwick’s Hole (the dungeon in which many of the accused may have been held) and some of the ‘witch’ marks that had been scratched on the walls, possibly for protection. Fran Flett Hollinrake played her haunting tune on fiddle: “Marwick’s Hole” which she had composed for Sheena Graham George’s sound installation.
In the early evening, Ragnhild and Helen provided a guided ‘witchy walk’ through Victoria Street, Kirkwall, to the bottom of Clay Loan. This tour was originally devised by Fran Flett Hollinrake as part of the Kirkwall Town Heritage Initiative (Hollinrake 2015). Although there is a more direct route from St Magnus Cathedral to Gallow Ha via Palace Road, it is possible that the condemned were taken via the road now known as Victoria Street to maximise their exposure to the population of Kirkwall – this public condemnation being an important element of the torture and destruction of an alleged witch. From the bottom of Clay Loan, the condemned would have continued up 12 the steep hill of Clay Loan to Gallow Ha and their deaths.
The memorial inauguration day was held on Saturday March 9th, 2019. This date was chosen because it was the Saturday immediately following International Women’s Day and it was a way of acknowledging that the majority of those accused were women. Honoured guest for the day was Professor Liv Helene Willumsen from the Arctic University of Norway – the original catalyst for the project – who opened the day with a short speech and took part in key aspects of the main activities.
The day started at King Street Halls with Kate Fletcher and Corwen Broch teaching all present the memorial song which had been composed at the creative day in October. Then the St Magnus Players performed a shortened version of George Mackay Brown’s play Witch, directed by Penny Aberdein (Brown 1977. The text of this play is based on the short story, “Witch,” originally published in A Calendar of Love, 1967, directed by Penny Aberdein. The play was first performed at the St Magnus Festival 1991.). This was a chilling and emotionally charged performance, performed with excellence and feeling. Next, awardwinning writer Ashleigh Angus read her short story Unknown, Unknown, death c.1629.
From King Street Halls, participants walked to St Magnus Cathedral for a memorial service of reflection in St Rognvald’s Chapel. Musicians Kate and Corwen played background music from the period. Then, arranged in a circle, eight speakers had been preselected to say the Lord’s Prayer, one line at a time, in a variety of dialects and languages which were likely to have been spoken in St Magnus Cathedral during the past 400 years: standard English, Orcadian, Scots, Norwegian, ancient Greek, Latin, Orkney Norn, and Flemish. The speakers were arranged as male / female alternating voices to represent the Orkney community. In the middle of the circle, facing outwards, the lines of the prayer were repeated silently back by Sarah Wilkins and Fran Flett Hollinrake in British Sign Language. This was designed to be symbolic of the way that so many of the alleged historical victims were unable to reply to the charges. Accompanied by Kate and Corwen, Fran Flett Hollinrake then played her composition: “Marwick’s Hole.”
After the cathedral ceremony, participants walked together as an act of contemplation, along Victoria Street and up Clay Loan, retracing the probable route which the condemned took to their deaths.
Once at Gallow Ha, a group of about 50 people gathered for the unveiling of the memorial, including invited guests such as Professor Liv Willumsen, MP Alistair Carmichael, and Rev Fraser McNaughton of St Magnus Cathedral.
Thirteen sheets of material had been prepared and laid to cover the flagstone, along with thirteen short readings. Thirteen readers each read two lines of the following poem, composed by Rev. David McNeish and Helen. With each reading, one ‘veil’ from the flagstone was removed:
The flames die down,
the embers grey
The wind whips up their dust
Another victim’s bones decay
And cry of breach of trust
How many stood in judgement here
Accepting what was done?
In silence, hope will disappear
Injustice then has won
Remember then those that they chose
And grieve at cruelty
They could not win, could only lose
Accusers walking free
Pain, anger, blame, and hurt, and hate
Rejection, terror, fear
This act demands they dissipate
No scapegoats needed here
Our witches now have diff’rent names
Yet still we dread their sight
The powerful making more false claims
That just inflame the fright
Truth will illuminate these lies
And heal this ancient crime
Sunlight bestowed upon the skies
Redeems the passing time
We pledge to stand against the crowd
When might’s not right but merely loud
The topmost veil was black to represent a shroud, then ten sheets of red flame-like material, followed by a grey sheet to represent ash, and finally a white sheet to represent fresh starts. The last reader, Rev. David McNeish, led those assembled to repeat the final rhyming couplet as a community oath. The symbolism was about recognising how easily witchhunts can take place and about being brave enough to stand up, as a lone voice, against mob rule when required – and as necessary today as in the past.
To conclude the inauguration, Kate and Corwen led those assembled in singing the memorial song specially composed for the project. After a brief pause for lunch, participants returned to King Street Halls for an afternoon of academic lectures. Chaired by Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, the speakers were Professor Liv Helene Willumsen, Tim Morrison, Jocelyn Rendall, Dan Lee and Marita Lück. The papers from this mini conference formed the core of the publication Commemorating the Victims of the Orkney Witchcraft Trials (New Orkney Antiquarian Journal, Volume 9, published by Orkney Heritage Society) as part of an attempt to create a legacy of the project, comprising printed output and digitally accessible materials. The day’s events finished in fine Orkney tradition with a raffle, the main prize being a bottle of Highland Park whisky generously donated by the distillery.
Although this project took seven years from inception to inauguration, taking time was necessary because the historical events which it commemorates are painful ones for any community to revisit. Many people in Orkney are aware, and embarrassed, that they had ancestors who had been accused of being 14 witches. As this project had the potential to become controversial, Orkney Heritage Society wanted to ensure that the project progressed gently and considerately in full consultation with the community and stakeholders throughout, to make certain that everyone with concerns had been fully listened and addressed. The process was as important as the result.
Ragnhild, Helen and the other working group members were motivated throughout by a joint belief that it is appropriate, viable and desirable for Orkney to have its own memorial to the victims of the historic witch-trials. The intention was to install a positive memorial with the message of “never again” and to commemorate an important episode in Orkney’s history, and to be thankful that such cruelty no longer occurs at an institutional level. The aim behind the project was to look ahead together to the future as a community; a community that is free of prejudice and remains optimistic about continuing to be so in the future. The memorial incorporates a quiet and persistent power in its unobtrusiveness, with a different type of potency to a more highly visible monument. The finished installation has now been handed back to OIC, and it is hoped that the costs of future maintenance will be minimal.
Still in the process of creation, on an updated website for Orkney Heritage Society, is a section known as the “virtual memorial,” containing historical information, information about the project, and creative outputs produced for the project such as poetry and other creative writing, artwork made by the community, sound recordings, scans of output from the creative day, and photos. Some of the artwork produced on the creative day has meanwhile also been exhibited on the project’s Facebook page, and this page remains open as a forum for discussion and interaction.
The memorial itself has become an additional, albeit minor, tourist ‘attraction’ for Kirkwall and highlights a fascinating part of Orkney’s history. It features on a Kirkwall guided app (The Kirkwall Heritage App., developed through Kirkwall Town Heritage Initiative) launched in 2019. It is hoped that the memorial site may become a place for quiet reflection.
There is further potential for developing the memorial site at Gallow Ha by replacing other existing flagstones with inscribed stones, commemorating other victim-groups who were executed at Gallow Ha; perhaps the whole path might eventually become a line of different memorials in due course?
We have also been contributing to the work of Remembering the Accused Witches of Scotland (RAWS) and their recent petitioning of the Scottish Parliament for a pardon and national monument. We are still adding into other projects, including a live-action role-play, funded to help the Orkney community recover from COVID. This memorial is very much an on-going project, especially thanks to SPF for their generous donation to the project.
This project would simply not have happened without a great deal of patience, encouragement, time, generosity
and support. Thank you. Apologies to anyone inadvertently missing off this list – it is not exhaustive and not in any
order other than, for individuals, alphabetically by surname.
Orkney Heritage Society
The Orkney Library and Archive in Kirkwall (and all
The Orkney Museum
St Magnus Cathedral
Orkney Builders Ltd
Kirkwall and St Ola Community Council
Highland Park Distillery
BBC Radio Orkney
The Orkney News
St Magnus Players
Centre for Nordic Studies
The Church of Scotland
Voluntary Action Orkney
The Scottish Pagan Federation
Orkney Islands Council
The communities of Kirkwall and Orkney
Hazel, Allan & Nikola Borland
Jeanne Bouza Rose
Alistair Carmichael MP
Sarah Jane Gibbon
Sheena Graham George
Fiona Morag Grahame
Rev. Fraser Macnaughton
Liam McArthur MSP
Rev. David McNeish
Prof. Liv Willumsen
Helen Woodsford-Dean is the Deputy Presiding Officer of the Scottish Pagan Federation.