Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Looking at historic objects from the Scottish witch trials

Last week I posted this photo, taken at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. In it I'm posing (rather nervously!) close to some lethal looking thumbscrews from the time of the witch trials in Scotland! *shudder* I promised I'd share a couple more of the amazing artefacts in the museums collection.

First up, a bit of background to my interest in this type of collection.

As many of my readers know I've been writing stories inspired by the history and folklore from the time of the Scottish witch trials for the last few years. My interest in Lowland's folklore first came about when we visited Fife back in 2003. We stayed in a fisherman's cottage in the East Neuk of Fife and the main plan was to kick off work on a historical set on the coast, while Mark (my Real Life Hero) went mountain biking in the area. Success on all fronts -- Mark covered many miles and I did some good writing while I was there. The cottage we stayed in was right on the seafront (much like Her Haven, in RAMPANT ;-) and I made notes and wrote several scenes for a historical novel I'd had an idea for. Then I stood by the window and wondered who had lived in the house. As I looked out at the fisherman pulling in their crab baskets, the character of Annabel McGraw from RAMPANT came to me in this line:

She used to stand here, looking out at the fishermen hauling in their catch. She watched their muscled arms work while she decided which of them she would win away from his wife that night...

The line appears in RAMPANT, and it's our first introduction to Annabel's ghost. :-)

While we were out and about in Fife I'd begun to learn about the history of witchcraft and persecution in the area, and that set its own wheels in motion for stories set in Fife. Annabel was a persecuted witch and she is the catalyst for everything that happens in RAMPANT. She is also featured in her own little introductory story, YIELD TO ME, which is a free online read at the Harlequin site. Annabel is the character I've had most feedback from readers about, and she is loved -- even though she was a bad girl and did wrong. ;-)

Since that first trip we've been back to Scotland several times and I always combine research time with leisure time. Edinburgh has a wealth of history in the galleries and museum collections, and each time we visit I see and learn something new. Because of my background in art history I always like to use primary sources where possible when writing (i.e. I'd rather study objects from the time, or a painting done during the actual period I'm writing about, than read a book about it) and there's so much extant history to see and learn about in the UK that I consider myself lucky to be able to get to it. At the National Museum of Scotland they have heaps of amazing artefacts from right across Scotland's history, including quite a collection of metalwork and wooden stocks from the witch trials. These are the grim gadgets that could force a confession from a total innocent wrongly accused, or perhaps a widow woman who knew how to use herbs to cure the odd ailment.

In the photo below you can see another set of thumbcrews with padlock and key, and iron branks with a gag - an item used by the Kirk particularly to silence women accused of gossip. Nice, huh?

Below, manacles and more thumbscrews - someone was having fun creating lots of various designs and ways to crush bones here. Often the accused were kept in these devices for days, without food, water, or sleep, to get the necessary.

Branks with a chain, below, also called "witches bridles." The jagged edge cuts into the skin on the neck to enforce a confession. Often times the cause of the accusation was something as simple as talking in one's sleep...

It's hard to take in how brutal these items are, and the fact that torture and pain were used to extract a "confession" which would then often result in death, but this was a harsh time where lack of knowledge bred fear and those in power could manipulate and use that fear.

I've included the photo below, although this particular item was used on enemies of the crown or government, not witches. Known as "The Maiden" it is a shocking and crude execution device. (No quick, sharp blades here, just heavy bludgeons!) For those accused of witchcraft the preferred means of execution was a public hanging, followed by burning of the dead body – just to be sure, I guess... Stoning and even more brutal deaths were reported, including one case where a woman was crushed to death beneath a house door, by fellow villagers who'd been convinced of her true nature by those who had extracted the confession.

The reason I'm giving a little smile in this photo? A school trip were fleeting through the exhibition while we were taking our photos and this one little lad was intent on chasing a pal, until he paused to look at what we were photographing and squealed loudly when he realised what it was. I couldn't help smiling so you've been spared the grim expression I had when first approaching the gruesome object.

I'm still learning about the legacy of persecution and there is much more to explore. Importantly, it’s the element of secrecy that such trials might have brought about that characterises my fictional accounts of practicing pagan witches during those times. The foundation of paganism is belief in nature and its power. My editor felt that was what was appealing about my stories -- that the magic was covert, and its pagan origins led to convincing scenarios for a paranormal erotic world, a world that secretly existed beneath the ongoing fear and turmoil in Scotland throughout times of religious and political upheaval, the battles and subsequent union with England.

The fictional characters began to multiply in my imagination, each with their own tale to tell! My editor particularly loved Annabel's back story in RAMPANT, and went on to commission THE HARLOT, a novel that is set wholly in the early 1700's, where both the legacy of persecution and the nature of pagan sexmagic are further explored. THE HARLOT is due out in a couple of months. The heroine in that story is called Jessie Taskill, and she (along with her two siblings, Maisie and Lennox) witnessed their mother's execution for witchcraft when they were children. They were subsequently separated, but their inherited and learned powers thrived in secret, and as adults they each hope to seek each other out. Later this year I will be writing THE LIBERTINE (Lennox Taskill's story) and THE JEZEBEL (Maisie Taskill's story.)

In the meantime you can read a sample from THE HARLOT here. ARC's will be available for reviewers at Netgalley very soon!

It is a Dark Era, one when a lusty lass will do what she must to survive. Even if it means bartering flesh for a palmful of coins…

Forced to watch her mother burned at the stake and separated from her siblings in the aftermath, Jessie Taskill is similarly gifted, ripe with a powerful magic that must stay hidden. Until one night when she's accused by a rival, and Jessie finds herself behind prison walls with a roguish priest unlike any man of the cloth she has known.

In reality, Gregor Ramsay is as far from holy as the devil himself, but his promise of freedom in return for her services may be her salvation. Locked into a dubious agreement, Jessie resents his plan to have her seduce and ruin his lifelong enemy. But toying with Gregor’s lust for her is enjoyable, and she agrees to be his pawn while secretly intending to use him just as he is using her.

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