• Dr Ragnhild Ljosland at St Magnus Cathedral

Walking in the footsteps of Orkney's witches

With Halloween fast approaching, many people are on the lookout for ghostly goings on and spooky stories to enjoy.

A special walking tour through the centre of Kirkwall on the night itself will offer all of the above, alongside an important message about prejudice and tolerance.

The guided walk, led by local academic and tour guide, Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, will explore Orkney’s historical witchcraft trials, held over 300 years ago. More than 70 people were taken to court accused of witchcraft during those dark days.

“Orkney’s witchcraft trials happened between 1594 and 1708 at a time when countries across Europe were worried about magical harm and the Devil’s influence,” says Ragnhild. “Here, it all began when the Earl of Orkney, Patrick Stewart, was nearly poisoned in a murder attempt by his own brother. He ended up bringing the woman suspected of mixing the potion to trial.”

That woman was Alison Balfour, who confessed under torture during Orkney’s first witchcraft trial. The trials continued long after Patrick’s time; when they finally ended, more than 70 people from across the islands had been taken to court.

Ragnhild’s tour will tell Alison’s story, as well as those of ‘the spitting witch’, Jonet Rendall, and Jonet Forsyth, known as ‘the Westray storm witch’. “We’ll also hear about Marjorie Paplay, the mother of Kirkwall’s richest man at the time, who spent decades trying to battle the rumours that his mother was ‘the greatest witch of all’,” says Ragnhild.

As you’d expect from a tour of such a historic town centre, there are some fascinating locations to take in. The route begins at Parliament Close to hear how a law passed in 1563 made ‘witchcraft, sorcery, and necromancy’ a capital offence. Those taking part will see site of the old Kirkwall Castle, and the former Tolbooth where some witches were imprisoned.

The exteriors of St Magnus Cathedral and the Earl’s Palace will offer stunningly spooky stops, before the tour concludes at the town’s execution site – now home to a special memorial - where folk can pay their respects to all those who lost their lives during the trials.

At its heart, the walk is a historical tour, but Ragnhild believes there are many parallels to the present day too. “I really feel it’s important to talk about the witchcraft trials now, because in today’s society we still struggle with prejudice towards people who are perceived as poor, ill, or different,” she says.

“Even if people no longer believe there is a secret society of witches led by Satan, there are still many conspiracy theories around online on a similar theme, so it seems we are still scared of the same things. If we can use the witchcraft trials to reflect on such things as what is truth, who defines the truth, what frightens us, how does prejudice lead to foregone conclusions, and how can we get better at critical thinking and tolerance, then we have come a long way.”

The Witchcraft Walking Tour of Kirkwall will be held on Halloween, October 31st. The walk begins at the Brig Larder, 1 Albert Street, at 7pm and ends at the top of the Clay Loan. The route will take around 90 minutes. It costs £10 per person and there is no need to book in advance, with cash payment to be made on the night.

Find out more about Ragnhild’s other tours via her official website.

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