The Scottish parliament looks set to pardon nearly 4,000 people convicted of and, in most cases, executed for witchcraft. The last of these killings came as recently as 1727, and the legislation that enabled the Scottish witch-hunts was repealed in 1736. Heal & Harrow, a project by the harpist Rachel Newton and the fiddler Lauren MacColl, remembers the victims and some of the perpetrators in 10 vignettes, based on stories commissioned from the writer Mairi Kidd, on this self-titled album.
“You’ll find me on the shoreline,” sings Newton on the opening track, “Lilias”. But the romantic scene turns into a tale of horror. Lilias Adie was around 64 when she was accused of witchcraft by a neighbour, confessing after a month of interrogation. Because she died before a formal trial, her body could not be burnt during execution, so she was buried under a stone slab in a liminal tidal zone: “Underneath the sandstone among blue is where I’ll be.” The music combines harp that sparkles like surf and a chill wind of fiddle with electronics that stutter and shift. “And if I am a witch,” sings Newton over and over, “will the devil help me now?”
British folk music has tended to make witchcraft into a glamorous joke — albums such as Dave and Toni Arthur’s Hearken to the Witches Rune ascribed real power to witches but at the same time trivialised them. Here, there is no magic in play, but a theatre of cruelty.
“Isobel” imagines Isobel Gowdie’s confessions extracted under sleep deprivation (“It is written down and then there is sleep,” whispers Newton like an interrogator); “An Teine (The Fire)” tells the story of Catherine MacKinnon, a woman from Skye who was tortured to death by the local tacksman (a landholder in Highland communities) more than a decade after the repeal. This latter case perhaps explains why accusations of witchcraft persisted so long in Scotland: they were a means of control in a hierarchical society terrified of disruption.
The album also needles at complicity. “Behind the Eyes” tells of Margaret Aitken, accused who turned accuser in an unsuccessful bid to save her life; “Judge Not”, with an unsettling tiny pattern of synthesiser, is told in the voice of Christian Caldwell, a “witch pricker” who stuck pins into accused witches to see if they bled. “I had a job to do,” sings Newton, “better I should do it.” It is the album’s most chilling moment.
‘Heal & Harrow’ is released by Shadowside