The persecution began in the 1500s and lasted almost two centuries. Nearly 4,000 people were accused of witchcraft, a vast majority of them women. They were arrested, brutally tortured and coerced into false confessions. Two-thirds of those accused were executed, according to historians.
Unlike the United States, whose own shameful history of witch trials in Salem, Mass., led to official exonerations and victim memorials, the Scottish government had never apologized for the atrocities committed against its citizens, according to activists who have campaigned for a formal apology.
That changed on Tuesday, when Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, addressed Parliament and apologized for the persecution.
“It was injustice on a colossal scale,” said Ms. Sturgeon, who made the statement on International Women’s Day as part of a speech that also called on Scottish leaders and the public to combat modern-day misogyny.
“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,” she said.
“As first minister, on behalf of the Scottish government,” she continued, “I am choosing to acknowledge that egregious, historic injustice and extend a formal, posthumous apology to all those accused, convicted, vilified or executed under the Witchcraft Act of 1563.”
That law, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament and made witchcraft or consulting with witches a capital offense, enabled the execution of an estimated 2,500 people, according to the Witches of Scotland, an organization that has been lobbying Parliament to apologize for the atrocities, pardon those who were accused and convicted, and build a memorial to commemorate the victims.
The Witchcraft Act reflected the superstition and panic over the supernatural that spread throughout parts of Europe and in the American colonies.
In Massachusetts, 14 women and six men were executed after they were accused of witchcraft, and hundreds of people were executed in England, which passed a witchcraft law similar to Scotland’s in 1542. But the persecution of people in Scotland was particularly brutal, according to historians. More than 80 percent of the estimated 3,800 people accused of witchcraft were women, according to the Witches of Scotland. Many of them were tortured with sleep deprivation, needles that pricked the skin and other violent means. Often, the torture was conducted in public.
In Scotland, witch trials were especially politicized, encouraged by the Protestant clergy and conducted at the local level, where judges had less oversight and could use torture with more laxity and extract more confessions, said Michelle Brock, an associate professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia who teaches about the histories of the supernatural.
“It was an environment of heightened religious anxiety,” she said. The clergy, local magistrates and the monarchy “cooperated in the project of building a godly state,” Professor Brock said.
“And a godly state can’t countenance witches,” she said. Women were especially vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, in part because they were seen as more susceptible to Faustian bargains, Professor Brock said.
“Who is most likely to be vulnerable to the devil, who is most likely to make a pact to exchange their soul in return for goods and power,” she said. “People imagined women because they didn’t have the same degree of power in society.”
In her speech, Ms. Sturgeon said the “deep misogyny” that motivated the Witchcraft Act had not been consigned to history.
“We’re left with that still,” she said.
Ms. Sturgeon said the apology was part of an ongoing recognition of Scotland’s history of marginalizing vulnerable people. She noted that Parliament had apologized for the government’s treatment of gay men and for forcing adoptions of children born to unmarried women.
“Some will ask why this generation should say sorry for something that happened centuries ago,” Ms. Sturgeon said. “But it might actually be more pertinent to ask why it has taken so long.”
Claire Mitchell, a lawyer in Scotland who began campaigning for an apology in 2020 with Zoe Venditozzi, a writer, said they were both “delighted” with the speech.
“Today, the most amazing thing happened,” Ms. Mitchell said on the podcast she hosts with Ms. Venditozzi.
“It has been hundreds of years since these people have died,” she continued. “No one has ever formally responded to what happened to these people. No one has ever formally apologized.”
But she said that the campaign’s efforts would not stop until Scotland formally pardoned the victims and erected a monument to them.
“We want there to be a state national monument that will mark what happened,” Ms. Venditozzi said, “let people know what happened if they’re traveling to the country, and will stand for us to remember this terrible miscarriage of justice for many, many, many years to come.”
Professor Brock said Ms. Sturgeon’s apology should serve as a reminder that practices that are widely accepted today, such as capital punishment, could be seen as barbaric in the future.
“The people who prosecuted witches believed they were doing the right thing,” she said. “This apology from Nicola Sturgeon is a call to be more empathetic, more humble and more self-aware.”