Town to officially pardon executed witches

3,500 women and children killed in witch hunts

Friday, October 29, 2004 Posted: 12:00 PM EDT (1600 GMT)

PRESTONPANS, Scotland (AP) -- Accused witches -- and their cats -- executed during a wave of hysteria and religious ferment centuries ago will be pardoned on Halloween in this Scottish township.

"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 by telephone interview Friday.

Sunday's ceremony will publicly declare pardons for 81 local 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.

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

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

She said Gordon Prestoungrange, the 14th baron, granted the pardons for the convictions in the last session of his court, which is due to be abolished on November 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 an absolute 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 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 local 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.