Hex: Giving voice to the accused witches of Scotland

Who knows the story of young Scots woman Geillis Duncan’s last night on earth? As one of some 3800 people accused of witchcraft in early modern Scotland, her official story is available to us via the record of her trial in 1591. From this we know that “She gave a detailed confession and told about several meetings with the Devil and named all the key players” as one of the first accused in the infamous North Berwick witch trials. But if the official record condemns Duncan as a witch conspiring to sink Queen Anne’s ships on the way back from Denmark, how might we imagine another story of her life?  Earlier this year GENDER. ED hosted a reception to mark acclaimed Edinburgh author Jenni Fagan’s new novella, Hex.

Image: GENDER.EDs reception room for the launch of Hex by Jenni Fagan

In this reimagining, Geillis is visited by Iris, a witch from our time who travels back to offer companionship, comfort and sustenance on the eve of Geillis’ execution. Geillis tells her story that brings her to life as a gifted healer, a loving granddaughter, and a free spirit who walked alone in the moonlight. She is one of the first people recorded to play the Jew harp, reputedly forced to play for the King after her conviction.  Hex is by turns funny, brutal and poignant.  It vividly brings to life the systematic and legally-justified gender-based violence of the Scottish witch hunts. In turn, the present-day Iris makes clear that, whilst many things have changed, women still face violence, misogyny and cruelty. Amidst the tunes of another Jew harp some 500 years later, audiences at the GENDER.ED reception contemplated the lives diminished and destroyed  by virtue of being branded witches.

Sianne Moodie

Image: Sianne Moodie playing for us at the GENDER.ED reception

At a beautifully decorated and airy room with high ceilings, a small group of guests assembled before Jenni Fagan’s conversation with journalist Sally Magnusson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 18th (later broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland). The décor and snacks were curated in keeping with literary references from the book—hence the presence of rare grey roses and cheeses similar to what Duncan might have enjoyed. Siannie Moodie played the clarsach and was later  joined by guest, musician Steven Kettley, on the Jew Harp. Around the reception room, pop-up banners and informational brochures and postcards showcased GENDER.ED’s’ collaborations, including the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence blogathon, the Dangerous Women project, and the Equalities at Work project.

GENDER.EDs Founding Director Addresses Audience

Image: GENDER.EDs Founding Director addresses the audience

GENDER.ED’s Founding Director, Dr. Fiona Mackay, welcomed guests and highlighted some of the projects that GENDER.ED supports and promotes. Perhaps most significant to the event  is the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft project that has digitized and geo-located nearly 4000 records of accused witches and witchcraft belief using maps and interactive timelines to bring this often-forgotten chapter of Scottish history to broader audiences through open access data. Little is spoken about Scottish witchcraft trials despite the large numbers of those accused. In comparison, the Salem Massachusetts witchcraft trials involved only about 200 people but are widely known and documented. Jenni Fagan joined the event to listen to University of Edinburgh’s Wikimedian-in-Residence, Ewan MacAndrew  and Maggie Lin (Scottish Witchcraft Data Visualisation intern), present details of the project that has produced  an accessible and searchable database built from the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft website, as this blog details.

As the audience filed downstairs for the official book event, we were still brimming with the melodies of the harps and the rich online archive of lives that had been lost and mutilated by the accusations of witchcraft. We were ready to imagine other histories and futures. In the Bailley Gifford Sculpture Court, packed to capacity, Jenni Fagan read from her novella, inviting us to imagine Gelie Duncan (as she called her) as a young woman, loved and cared for, and yearning to be free, before she became entangled in the accusations of witchcraft. In keeping with other efforts to revisit the official archives and move beyond the court  files and police records as offering the only history we can know, Fagan’s story places the life of Duncan at its heart rather than the official condemnation. As we journeyed back in time, and up to the coast at North Berwick, the event and the reception offered a crucial reminder of why the figure of the witch has been so crucial to feminism and why we must hold on to her.

Image credits: Commissioned photographs for the event