LONDON – A Scottish township plans to mark Halloween by officially pardoning 81 people – and their cats – executed centuries ago for being witches.
“There’ll be no witches’ hats, dress-ups or that sort of thing – it will be a fairly solemn occasion,” Adele Conn, spokeswoman for the baronial court that granted the pardons, said in a telephone interview Friday.
Today’s ceremony in Prestonpans will publicly declare pardons for 81 people executed in the 16th and 17th centuries. The pardons were granted under ancient feudal powers due to be abolished within weeks.
More than 3,500 Scots, mainly women and children, and their cats were killed in witch hunts at a time of political intrigue and religious excess. Many were condemned on flimsy evidence, such as owning a black cat or brewing homemade remedies.
Prestonpans has recorded one of the largest numbers of witch executions in all of Scotland, said Conn, spokeswoman for the Barons Courts of Prestoungrange & Dolphinstoun.
She said Gordon Prestoungrange, the 14th baron, granted the pardons in the last session of his court, which is due to be abolished on Nov. 28.
“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 pardon to all those convicted, “as well as to the cats concerned.”
Conn said 15 local descendants of executed witches had been invited to attend the ceremony and an inaugural Witches’ Remembrance Day, which will become an annual event in the township each Halloween.
“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 historian Roy Pugh, who presented evidence to the court in support of 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.