Beyond the Witch Trials: Witchcraft and Magic in Enlightenment Europe

By Owen Davies; William de Blécourt | Go to book overview

5
Witchcraft and magic in eighteenth-century
Scotland

Peter Maxwell-Stuart

On 20 October 1711 Defoe published in the periodical Review his well-known and unambiguous opinion on the subject of witches:

There are, and ever have been such People in the World, who converse
Familiarly with the Devil, enter into Compact with him, and receive Power
from him, both to hurt and deceive, and these have been in all Ages call'd
Witches, and it is these, that our Law and God's Law Condemn's as such; and
I think there can be no more debate of the Matter.

He was not alone in this opinion, but it may be significant that it was written only a few months after one of his extended stays in Scotland; for Defoe was a man who knew the Scottish Lowlands well and had even been on an extended trip via the east coast, the north, and the west coast of the Gaidhealtachd. Can we suggest, then, that his attitude was, or at least may have been, influenced by the popular beliefs and judicial practices he saw or heard there? If we were to judge from one Scottish reaction to the repeal of the Witchcraft Acts in 1736, we might be tempted to do so. 'The Law of God hath been despised, and a Toleration upon the Matter, given to Diabolical Arts and Practices, by the Act repealing the penal Statutes against Witches', was a stern rebuke delivered to the Associate Presbytery at Edinburgh on 3 February 1743.1 But it was given by Seceders, that is to say by clergymen who thought the official Presbyterian establishment had compromised with rationalism on the one hand and 'enthusiasm' on the other, thereby betraying fundamental doctrines and diluting the Calvinist confession.

The Scotland with which Defoe had acquaintance was, in fact, no unified or monolithic state, but a concatenation of cultural and religious systems existing uneasily with each other – the Gaidhealtachd and the islands (still largely Gaelic speaking), the Lowlands and the Borders, much more open to English influences, each harbouring and cherishing its own differences, each ill at ease with the others, each diverse, indeed, within itself. A description of Scotland, therefore – or perhaps one should more accurately say, a

-81-

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