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Reviewed by:
  • Witchcraft and Belief in Early Modern Scotland
  • P. G. Maxwell-Stuart
Julian Goodare, Lauren Martin, Joyce Miller, EDS. Witchcraft and Belief in Early Modern Scotland. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Pp. xiii + 264.

For a considerable time, Scottish witchcraft studies have been dominated by Christina Larner's work, which, groundbreaking though it was and invaluable though it still is, based its conclusions on a relatively limited number of cases drawn largely from the seventeenth century. In recent years, however, historians have returned to the subject and have begun to open fresh perspectives, mainly by discovering and commenting on the remarkable wealth of information that has hitherto lain unexplored in Scottish national and local archives, and now the researcher has an online source, The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, 1563–1736 (, which has built on and vastly increased the material contained in Larner, Lee, and MacLachlan's Source-Book of Scottish Witchcraft (Glasgow, 1977). The essay collection reviewed here has benefited considerably from the new online survey—indeed, it reads in places rather like an extended advertisement for it—and so the reader is introduced to a wider and more varied range of material than that generally used before.

The book consists of an introduction and ten essays, some of which are extended versions of papers delivered at a conference held in Edinburgh in 2003, and their content reflects some of the disparate facets of witchcraft and magic to be found in the online resource that provides the common thread in what is otherwise a varied collection without a connective theme. Five essays are concerned directly with witchcraft and five with related topics such as other forms of magic and demonic possession. The introduction by Good-are and Miller immediately asks an important question. When we talk of people believing in magic and witchcraft, what does "belief " mean in that context? One answer provided defines popular beliefs as "an amalgamation of traditions, customs and practices that have evolved over generations" (p. 9), a definition that actually glides away from the question and enters the [End Page 231] realm of atheistic, or at best agnostic, presuppositions. Little better, unfortunately, is Lauren Martin's proposition that "witchcraft beliefs emerged from specific concrete material and social contexts and actions" (p. 120), which also evades legitimate questions about any specific relationship between religion and magic. To be fair, however, it is clear that the book's focus is actually directed elsewhere, so it may be asking too much to wish that the topic of "belief," having been raised, should have been dealt with here. But it remains an important question and deserves to be taken up.

Goodare also contributes an essay putting Scottish witchcraft into its European context, drawing on studies on fairies in particular to indicate the importance of encounters between humans and nonhuman entities of this kind to any discussion of the claims some witches made to have derived their magical knowledge or powers from fairy sources. Fairies make their appearance again in one of the most interesting contributions to this collection, Owen Davies's essay on Scottish cunning folk and charmers. As one significant source of preternatural power for healers and charmers, he suggests, the fairy tradition lost importance among men especially as a result of the Protestant Reformation's emphasis on literacy and the consequent spread of the published word that increasingly formed the basis of practiced magic. Davies also draws a distinction between the Scottish use of the word "charmer" and "witch," noting that the former generally refers to healers (as opposed to "cunning folk"), although the Scottish Witchcraft Act, inspired to an extent by reformist anti-Catholicism, lumped together all practitioners of magic and their clients as worthy of the severest punishment since they were all equally offensive to God and equally stumbling-blocks to the establishment of a presbyterian state.

Edward Cowan pursues a related topic in his discussion of the persecution of magic and witchcraft in Lowland Scotland during the last decade of the sixteenth century in particular, and describes a large number of magical acts, both hostile and benevolent, which reinforce the realisation that magic was ubiquitous and...


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