Edinburgh Castle is bigger than it looks on a tin of shortbread. It imposes, drawing attention away from a dry drinking fountain planted with green, white and purple flowers beneath a little plaque.
The Witches Well memorial honours women who were accused, tortured and executed in Edinburgh for crimes such as having sex with the Devil, being old, left handed, having a birth mark, or all of the above.
On International Women’s Day a group of women and candles defied the weather to remember 4000 women persecuted as witches by ancient Scotland, and to consider the tradition’s revival with “terf” as the new witch.
Beneath a castle lit in Suffragist purple concerns were shared. Worry about lost funding for a refuge. Sadness about feeling politically homeless. Fury for girls enduring daily sexually aggressive behaviour in school. Some kept their masks on, hoods up and mouths shut because women in Scotland have been sacked, arrested, kicked out of uni, threatened, assaulted, and harassed for having opinions about sex and gender.
Women’s thoughts, opinions and nipples continue to epitomise evil on digital platforms.
We listened to the story of Agnes Sampson, a midwife accused of being a witch in 1591. Three days of torture encouraged her to remember she had indeed plotted with the devil to drown the King. Poor Agnes was garrotted and burned where we now stood and shivered. We nursed our wrath to keep ourselves warm as her prayer for easing the pain of labour was read and we agreed that Edinburgh can be a very bleak place.
And then we went to the pub and figured out which denunciation would have been ours.
Maggie Osbourne was burned alive in Ayr because “she spake unadvisedly with her lips”, while delirious with an “attack of brain fever”. Her illness did not warrant leniency because the Bible was clear — “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. Unhelpfully, the record does not detail which words are best avoided.
Scotland’s Bard, Robert Burns described Old Ayr as a town that “nane surpasses, for honest men and bonnie lassies”. He’d know because he grew up there before heading off to gift prose to the world and pregnancy to most of Scotland.
I also grew up in Ayr and a romantic might wonder whether my great great great granny stood in the same crowd as Burns’ great gran and watched a feverish Maggie Osborne suffer on a pyre.
It was inevitable that Burns would write about witches. His mother, gran and great gran each lived with the threat of torture and the execution of a neighbours. For two hundred years little girls were taught that silence meant safety. If you want to avoid the “witches bridle”, the iron halter with prongs that pierced Agnes Sampson’s tongue and cheeks, then you’d best learn to “wheesht”.
On paper, Scotland has equality. 47% of our Parliamentarians are female; which is why it’s especially disappointing that so few of them are willing to define what a woman is. Political survival relies on knowing when to wheesht.
The 1486 wikiHow of witch finding, the “Malleus Maleficarum” states that “when a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil”. Women’s thoughts, opinions and nipples continue to epitomise evil on digital platforms.
When social media aimed it’s “Strident Missile” at one particular woman many others noticed that #bekind is largely one way traffic.
JK Rowling escaped a violent, abusive man; made a fortune from her talent; took up philanthropy to avoid being a billionaire and then “spake unadvisedly” by sharing her belief that “sex is real”.
Anime avatars declared that they had not and would not read JK Rowling’s thoughtful and compassionate words, but punished her for what she did not say and does not think. For three years now a cloud of keyboard Witch Finder Generals have bombarded Scotland’s new Bard with “enough death threats to paper my home”.
Women’s anger is tactical and slower than the more popular and destructive male version, which is why the spectacle of strength and speed in men’s rage gets all the publicity and sponsorship. Every refuge, women’s charity, or rape crisis centre was built by a woman so exasperated by an unaddressed need that she fundraised, petitioned and collaborated and built a solution. If you make the time to understand it, the fury of females can be a beautiful thing. A smart politician would realise none of us are playing a game.
On International Women’s Day, Annalise Dodds, Labour Equalities Shadow Minister spluttered all over BBC’s Woman’s Hour studio, when asked “how do you define a woman?”.
In Holyrood Shona Robison MSP said “There is no evidence that predatory and abusive men have ever had to pretend to be anything else to carry out abusive and predatory behaviour”.
On the anniversary of Sarah Everard’s death, killed by a man who pretended to be an on duty police officer in order to pretend to arrest her in order to actually kidnap her so he could eventually kill her, my Cabinet Secretary made a tactless and factually incorrect statement. In doing so, she made herself look like an absolute balloon, and a new wave of women realised that #bekind is not for the likes of them.
Joanna Cherry MP, guilty of saying with her lips “women don’t have penises” is an “undeniable biological fact”, said in her International Women’s Day speech “What you cannot define, you cannot protect and what you cannot name cannot be properly discussed and debated”.
The word “woman” describes and protects those of us who are, on the whole, smaller, weaker and slower than the other sex class.
This descriptor has been quietly removed without debate and, staggeringly, without any consideration of the impact on the people it protects in law.
For instance, in the Olden Days, when “woman” meant “adult human female”, everyone knew who went to which jail. As “woman” now includes people who are born male but have a sense of femininity the female prison estate became mixed sex. To the surprise of no one with any common sense, it turns out that a woman who has both a penis and a conviction for sexual offences misbehaves around female inmates. Women outraged by the addition of rape to custodial sentences found each other, analysed the law, engaged politically and a campaign to Keep Prisons Single Sex was born.
The conflation of “sex” and “gender” in Scottish legislation has compromised women’s rights to privacy, dignity and safety. A growing number of groups are appearing to address the consequences which disproportionately impact women and children.
The word “mother” came within a baw hair (a Scots unit of measurement) of being removed and replaced with “birthing parent” in policy. Parents of babies born from their bodies who do not wish to be known as a mother are welcome to choose any descriptor for themselves, but I want my word.
In heath care “person centred” means respecting pronouns and using gender inclusive language. The near total lack of curiosity about the effect the blanket change of language has had on maternity and women’s health services is striking. It seems no one considered “who does inclusive language exclude?”
“Witch” is a word which once had so much power it made 4000 women disappear
If you don’t recognise yourself as a “cervix haver” you are unlikely to attend your smear test. Cervix is an uncommon word describing a hidden body part so unless “woman” is used to invite women to screening those with learning disabilities, dyslexia, English as a second language or lower education attainment are excluded. Some of them might then die of cervical cancer. I don’t think that is ok.
A recent international paper examined cases where gendered language caused harm or confusion, and it makes for grim reading. It is hard to understand why adding barriers to healthcare for those already marginalised is championed as inclusion.
I was so cross about all this that my birth injury became my muse. My episiotomy scar is a zig zag shape and I read somewhere that lightning bolt scars can be powerful…so, if need be, I will gather crowd of women, march to Holyrood and whip out our scarred pudendas and bellies, prolapses and piles, mastitis infested breasts and our fierce capacity to love and demonstrate that we earned the word “mother” and we won’t give it up without debate.
“Witch” is a word which once had so much power it made 4000 women disappear. Conversely, the least powerful word at any time, in any language, is a woman’s “no”.
If women’s consistent, insistent and persistent “no” upsets you, I gently suggest that you focus your efforts on improving the behaviour of males so that women require fewer protections rather than bullying women and calling it activism.
No one knows how many women in Scotland are working to retain our sex based rights. There’s no executive, no register of members, no manifesto. Polling women’s opinions doesn’t help because if a billionaire can be abused and women in public office can be silenced most keep our masks on, hoods up and opinions to ourselves.
They must be many in number because crowd funders raise hundreds of thousands of pounds, one fiver at time, to pay for court cases; judicial reviews; replace lost income and provide security at women’s meetings. All this is achieved by women who have no funding, no time and no resources, and are playing the long game. They will not stop until our newfangled “demoncratic process” listens.
The pinot-grape-vine communication system looks similar to the “Twilight Bark” in 101 Dalmatians — a hidden-in-plain sight global pass-the-parcel of messages, only these women don’t bark, they tweet.
There are secret Discord, WhatsApp, Slack, Facebook, Intranet and Instagram groups where information, ideas and mutual support are shared. Mumsnet has 30k ostentatious posts a day about nappies which draw the eye away from the small but seditious “sex and gender” board where mothers go to be radicalised. These places are where resources, templates, petitions and strategies are built by the anonymous to force Government to at least meet and hear concerns. So far, no good.
Every day at 1pm a gun fires from the castle’s rocky crag to make tourists jump and tell locals it’s lunchtime. Women might be tempted to pull the gun towards Holyrood, raze it to the ground and start over.
The Scottish Parliament was built on four words with big aspirations. “Wisdom. Justice. Compassion. Integrity” are engraved on our ceremonial mace, the end of which looks pleasingly like a vulva.
The last Scottish Parliament was described by Burns as a “parcel o’ rogues”. The rogues are back only this time they are wielding that silver mace to batter holes in laws which exist to protect women.
As one of the speakers said sadly at the Witches Well “I don’t even recognise my country any more”.
I confided in someone I admire “I can’t bear the damage that is being done to my society, to women and our trans communities by weak leaders who turn a blind eye to flawed arguments and bad law”.
“You must bear it” she gently replied “and you must speak up”.
I am a woman and I won’t wheesht.
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