Witches of Scotland

Agnes Finnie and Witch Pricker at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, characters in the Edinburgh Dungeon Witch Hunt tour_Nick Mailer Photography

Agnes Finnie and Witch Pricker, characters in the Edinburgh Dungeon Witch Hunt tour © Nick Mailer Photography

Few things beat a good ghost story for making your skin crawl, and a dead witch has to be among the spookier ideas.

This year marks the 420th anniversary of Scotland’s Great Witch Hunt, and the country is going all out to seriously send chills down our spines with a series of events marking this dastardly episode.

The Great Witch Hunt of Scotland took place between March and October 1597, instigated by James VI. According to the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, more than 3,800 people, both men and women, were accused of witchcraft in Scotland during the period 1563 to 1736, which is when the Witchcraft Act was enforced in Scotland*. It’s believed that two-thirds of those accused were executed.

Discover this shady period and source inspiration for your own dark tales by visiting some of the key locations.

From the Witches Well at Castlehill in Edinburgh to monuments and rock formations attributed to witchcraft, there’s plenty to fire you up.

I’m intrigued by the revelation that the seaside town North Berwick was the setting for Scotland’s first mass witch trial, on 31 October 1590. Used to get rid of anyone who made the crown uneasy, accused witches from across Edinburgh and the Lothians were accused of attempting to prevent James VI bring his prospective bride home from Denmark through rituals such as throwing a cat into the sea. Almost all of the accused were tortured into confessing witchcraft, with the ‘Devil’s mark’ apparently found on their necks.

Then there’s the sculpture of Helen Duncan at Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum. Helen Duncan was the last person in Britain to be prosecuted as a witch, but this was far more recent than seems palatable. Born in Callander in 1897, was eventually tried at the Old Bailey in London in 1944, after scaring folks at the séances she held through Britain. On the night of 19th January 1944, one of Helen’s séances in Portsmouth was raided by police. Disturbingly, officers failed to stop the ectoplasm issuing from Helen’s mouth! After some order had been restored, Helen was formally arrested, and eventually brought to trial at the Old Bailey in London.

Equally unsettling is the memorial at Maxwellton Cross in Paisley, where a circle of cobblestones surrounds a steel horseshoe centered within a modest bronze plaque. Located in the middle of a busy intersection, it may not seem like much at first glance, but actually marks the final resting place of seven people put to death on charges of witchcraft. All seven bodies were burned, and the ashes buried at Maxwellton Cross, where the intersection of Maxwellton Street and George Street now stands.

Finally, don’t miss the Witch Hunt tours at Edinburgh Dungeon.

According to records, Agnes Finnie was one of Edinburgh’s most infamous witches. She reportedly lived in the Potterrow Port area of the city and was convicted of Witchcraft in 1644 with a total of 20 charges made against her.

Evidence of her dark magic include a retaliation to a young boy calling her names. Agnes publically cursed him, and within 24 hours he had completely lost the use of his left side and became bedridden with “so incurable a disease” that one week later, he was dead.

You can find out all about Agnes at the Edinburgh Dungeon Witch Hunt’s interactive tour, and even discover if you would be accused of being a witch yourself! If you happen to be a creative writer or artist, then I’m thinking the answer is probably yes.

The Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition

Arnoa Vale Cemetery cr Judy DarleyIn these early days of the year with so many hours to each dark night, The Fiction Desk invites you to seek a home for your spooky scribblings by submitting an entry to their annual ghost story competition.

They say: “’Ghost story’ can mean a lot of different things, from an encounter with an actual phantom to more unusual paranormal phenomena and unexplained events. All types are welcome, so feel free to experiment: we’re very unlikely to disqualify a story for stretching the definition of a “ghost”. Keep in mind that our general readership (and by extension our judge) may be more likely to respond well to psychological chills and unexplained mysteries than in-your-face gore.”

Prizes of this writing contest

  • 1st prize is £500
  • 2nd prize is £250
  • 3rd prize is £100

Rules of this writing contest

Entries should be between 1,000 and 5,000 words in length. The entry fee is £8 for each story submitted.

The deadline for entries is January 31st, 2017. Entry costs £8, and stories should be submitted online at www.thefictiondesk.com/submissions/ghost-story-form.php.

The competition is judged by Rob Redman, editor of the anthology series and founder of The Fiction Desk.

And in case you need a little prompt, The Fiction Day clarify that a “’Ghost story’ can mean a lot of different things, from an encounter with an actual phantom to more unusual paranormal phenomena and unexplained events. All types are welcome, so feel free to experiment: we’re very unlikely to disqualify a story for stretching the definition of a “ghost”. Keep in mind that our general readership (and by extension our judge) may be more likely to respond well to psychological chills and unexplained mysteries than in-your-face gore.”

Find full details here.

Writing prompt – spooky settings

ss Great Britain by Judy DarleyWith Halloween almost upon us, it’s got me thinking about ghost stories and what makes them work. In my opinion, a large part of this is the setting you choose, whether that’s a cemetery, a cave, a toyshop (a la Angela Carter), a ship… There are so many options, each of which can be mined for their own particular creepiness.

Last night I read a scary tale at Redcliffe Caves, as part of Bristol Festival of Literature’s Writers in the Caves event. My ghost story is set in the caves themselves. I read it surrounded by flickering by candlelight, in the darkness of the man-made caverns.

And then on Saturday, I’m excited to be heading to Brunel’s ss Great Britain, a beautiful ship built more than 170 years ago, and now set in a dry dock on Bristol’s harbourside. In association with Bristol Old Vic, actors will brings the ship’s history to life (or, rather, underneath), in the manner of a haunted house. Eeeps!

This week, I urge you to consider an intriguing or unsettling location and use that as the starting point of an eerie tale.

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Writing prompt – trapped

Metal handprint cr Judy DarleyWith Halloween just days away, I want you to think of a story to chill your readers to the bone.

This photo was taken at a local farm. The dented metal caught my eye – notice that the pattern almost resembles a handprint as though someone is trapped behind it and desperate to escape.

What happened here? Who was trapped and why? What was the outcome? You decide, just make sure it’s eerie enough to raise goosebumps on your arms as you write, and make you wonder if that creak you just heard needs investigating…

If you write something prompted by this idea, I’d love to know. Just send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com. With your permission, I’d love to publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Write a ghost story for Emerald Street

The Ghost of Clearwell Caves cr Judy Darley’tis well and truly the season of ghost stories, so why not follow in the footsteps of Susan Hill and scare yourself (and everyone else) silly?

Emerald Street, the fab online mag affiliated with Stylist magazine, have launched their first writing competition and invite you to enter!

In collaboration with Little Brown’s digital imprint Blackfriars (which is on the search for new writing talent), the winning entry will be published as a free ebook. The winner and the first two runners up will win a Kobo e-reader and the entire shortlist will have their stories published on emeraldstreet.com.

Emerald Street had an enormous impact on the writing career of a SkyLightRain favourite Rachael Chadwick, so being feature by them is a pretty fabulous prize in itself!

To enter the writing competition you need to write an original ghost story or supernatural thriller of 2,000-3,000 words (in English) “with a fresh and distinctive voice.”

Entering is free, but you must be subscribed to the Emerald Street email (also free) to submit your story. The deadline for submissions is Monday 5 January 2015.

Find full rules and entry details here.

Entries will be judged by the Emerald Street team, and winners will be notified by email. The results of the competition will be announced in Emerald Street in January 2015.

Night Watchman sought for Arts Theatre

Theatre tomb cr Judy DarleyThis may not seem like the kind of job I would normally mention on SkyLightRain.com, but in fact, it’s less a job than an opportunity to step into your very own ghost story.

The applicant search, launched by playwrights Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, is for a new role at the Arts Theatre created to explore spooky incidents at the theatre.

The theatre is currently hosting a production of West End play Ghost Stories, by afore mentioned playwrights, and has been best by curious happenings since the run began.

‘Whilst neither of us believe in ghosts, there is no doubt that there have been a couple of very odd occurrences at the Arts theatre,” say Jeremy and Andy (presumably in unison). “Whilst we are sure there is a perfectly rational explanation for them, neither of us would be prepared to spend the night alone in there.”

The successful applicant will work the 8pm to 4am night shift on Friday 13 June, required due to the reluctance of any members of staff to be there overnight on that date. If chosen, you will be expected to record and attempt to explain any supernatural occurrences that might take place.

Applicants must be over 18 “and brave”.

Publicity stunt? Quite possibly, but also a great opportunity to become part the legends of a living, (or possibly ‘undead’) theatre world.

Apply at www.ghoststoriestheshow.co.uk.

The deadline for submissions is 6pm on Friday 23 May 2014.

A ghost story

We’re already into October, and the run up to Halloween. Britain never celebrates this most gruesome of fiestas with as much fervour as I’d like, but I’m hoping to make up for that with as many relevant posts here as possible over the next few weeks. You may already have spotted my posts about zombie tag and zombie chic fashions.

Cellar cr Judy Darley

The crowded cellar that inspired ‘Unwanted Guests’

This is also the time of year when ghost stories are most successful, so I’m really pleased to have one of mine published by the wonderful Origami Journal.

My tale, Unwanted Guests, was inspired by a rental property I moved into where the cellar was filled with the previous tenant’s possessions – everything from old pots and pans to gymkhana ribbons and old teddy bears – seriously eerie! Why on earth would anyone leave those kinds of things behind? That was the seed – read the result here.

Enter The Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition 2013

Arnos Vale Cemetery cr Judy DarleyWhen I think of classic British ghost stories I get a satisfying shiver down my spine, not least because it’s an area women writers seem to excel in, from Mary Shelley to Susan Hill!

The Fiction Desk are straying from their preference for more or less realistic tales for a competition focusing solely on the genre of the ghost story, saying “some genre fiction should be part of any balanced reading diet. One genre that we’d like to feature more of in our pages is the ghost story.”

The closing date for entries is 31 May 2013. Continue reading