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Scottish villagers are hunting for the bones of a 17th century witch for this feminist reason

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Megan Murray
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Fife’s local government has launched a campaign to find the remains of a 17th century witch – and it’s all in the name of feminism, believe it or not.

The nights have already started getting shorter, the mornings darker and the August bank holiday feels like a fading dream. So with rust-coloured leaves crunching under foot and Halloween just around the corner (we’ve already looked into spooky staycations for October), the news that the inhabitants of a village in Fife, Scotland are hunting for the bones of a witch who died 300 years ago feels eerily of the season. 

In 1704, Lilias Adie, a woman who lived in the village of Torryburn in Fife was accused and put forward for trial for witchcraft. Her crime? Apparently having sex with the devil. She was accused by her female neighbour who started to feel delirious while intoxicated (the two things were apparently entirely unrelated) and blamed it on Adie, claiming that she must have summoned the devil as an explanation to her feeling ill. 

Adie, then in her 60s, was taken to prison and was most likely subjected to torture before ‘confessing’ to her crime and being forced to publicly state her supposedly sordid dealings with the devil – an act which was no doubt designed to humiliate and rile her peers against her.

Common practice at that time was to strangle and burn suspected witches at the stake. However, Adie passed away before she met that fate. Historians believe that she died by suicide in prison and was then buried away from the village in the mud. Indeed, in an attempt to stop Adie’s spirit coming back to haunt the living, locals apparently positioned her body between the high and low tide mark and under a large, heavy stone.

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While you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled upon a ghost story, though, this tale has more feminist credentials than you might first think. Because, although Adie was accused by another woman, she did her best to keep her fellow females safe by refusing to give up the names of any more ‘witches’ under torture.

Historian Louise Yeoman says of Adie: “I think she was a very clever and inventive person. The point of the interrogation and its cruelties was to get names.

“Lilias said that she couldn’t give the names of other women at the witches’ gatherings as they were masked like gentlewomen. She only gave names which were already known and kept up coming up with good reasons for not identifying other women for this horrendous treatment – despite the fact it would probably mean there was no let-up for her.”

Now, 300 years after she was wronged, locals have asked for Adie’s remains to be recovered and given a proper burial, as a small way of apologising for the brutal treatment so many women received who suffered the same fate. Fife’s local government is behind it too, with West Fife and Coastal Villages councilor Kate Stewart commenting to The Courier: “Lilias is not forgotten, she has never been forgotten. We need to get her back. This has been a great injustice and we need to reverse that.

“It’s important to recognise that Lilias Adie and the thousands of other men and women accused of witchcraft in early modern Scotland were not the evil people history has portrayed them to be, but were the innocent victims of unenlightened times. It’s time we recognised the injustice served upon them,” she added. 

Fife, where witch hunts were rife, at dusk.

While punishments varied, Scotland was known particularly for using the method of burning witches at the stake. And, while men were also accused of using magic, it was predominantly used as a way to control and do away with those outspoken women that the authorities didn’t like. Indeed, it’s a term that’s stuck, with the word ‘witch’ still generally regarded as a way to insult a woman, often of power.

You will have noticed, though, that modern women are taking back ownership of the word and the increasing fascination in the likes of crystals and astrology have made an interest in topics relating to witchcraft much more widespread. 

From it being cool to be in a coven to the amount of beautiful coffee table books on wicca, it was about time the power behind the word witch was actually harnessed by women – as it is that authorities are now apologising for horrific crimes against those women who were accused of being such.

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Megan Murray

Megan Murray is a digital journalist for stylist.co.uk, who enjoys writing about London happenings, beautiful places, delicious morsels and generally spreading sparkle wherever she can.

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