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Scottish town pardons executed witches, cats

Accused witches — and their cats — executed during a wave of hysteria and religious ferment several hundred years ago will be pardoned on Halloween in a small Scottish town.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Accused witches — and their cats — executed during a wave of hysteria and religious ferment hundreds of years ago will be pardoned on Halloween in this Scottish township, a court official said Friday.

Sunday’s ceremony will publicly pardon 81 people executed in the 16th and 17th centuries for being witches. The pardons have been granted under ancient feudal powers due to be abolished within weeks.

“There’ll be no witches’ hats, dress-ups or that sort of thing — it will be a fairly solemn occasion,” said Adele Conn, spokeswoman for the baronial court granting the pardons.

More than 3,500 Scots, mainly woman and children, and their cats were killed in witch hunts. Many were condemned on flimsy evidence, such as owning a black cat or brewing homemade remedies.

Prestonpans region recorded one of the largest numbers of witch executions in Scotland, said Conn, who is the “mountjoye,” or official spokeswoman, for the Barons Courts of Prestoungrange & Dolphinstoun.

Absolute pardons
Gordon Prestoungrange, the 14th baron, granted the pardons in the last session of his court, which is due to be abolished Nov. 28, she said.

“Most of those persons condemned for witchcraft within the jurisdiction of the Baron Courts of Prestoungrange and Dolphinstoun were convicted on the basis of spectral evidence — that is to say, prosecuting witnesses declared that they felt the presence of evil sprits or heard spirit voices,” the court said in its written findings.

“Such spectral evidence is impossible to prove or to disprove; nor is it possible for the accused to cross-examine the spirit concerned. One is convicted upon the very making of such charges without any possibility of offering a defense.”

The court declared an absolute pardon to all those convicted, “as well as to the cats concerned.”

Descendents invited
Conn said 15 local descendants of executed witches had been invited to attend the ceremony and inaugural Witches’ Remembrance Day, which will become an annual event in the township each Halloween. The fishing village is located about 20 miles east of Edinburgh.

One of those descendants, graphic designer Andrew White, 39, said he was intrigued by the idea of having a potential witch in the family.

“You have to remember that in those days you could have got burned at the stake for just about anything,” he said. “But I’ll be trying my secret powers with the lottery next week.”

White, who was told of his ancestor by the Barons Court just three weeks ago, said the community was welcoming of pardon.

“It’s too late to apologize but it’s a sort of symbolic recognition that these people were put to death for hysterical ignorance and paranoia,” said local historian Roy Pugh, who presented evidence to the court supporting the pardons.

The last execution for witchcraft in Scotland was in 1727. Such cases were outlawed by the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which made it a crime only to pretend to be a witch.