October 30, 2004

Barons and Witches

Some of the last feudal powers in Scotland are due to be abolished next month. Barons will no longer have the right to dispense justice on their lands. What is the world coming to? On November 28, the Abolition of Feudal Tenure (Scotland) Act 2000 enters into full force and legal effect. Why the effective date was set four years after the passage of the Act, I don't know.

Prior to the passage of the Act, the civil and criminal jurisdiction of barons was preserved by the Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act 1746. The criminal jurisdiction was restricted to cases of "assaults, batteries and smaller crimes". Punishments were limited to a fine of up to £1 or confinement in the stocks for up to three hours in the daytime. The civil jurisdiction was limited to cases with a value of up to £2 and cases for the recovery of "rents or other dues of a like nature."

So you might thing this is much ado about nothing. It's quaint; it's historic; it's Scottish. Oh no, the Government takes these things very seriously. The Scottish Office's "Report on Abolition of the Feudal System", which provides the basis for the Act, states, "A privately owned criminal and civil jurisdiction, even if limited and fallen into disuse, is such an anachronistic and objectionable relic of feudalism that it must clearly be abolished. The jurisdictional rights of barons have no value and compensation for their abolition would be inappropriate and unnecessary." So they have no value but they must clearly be abolished.

The last baronial judicial act is set for tomorrow. The 14th Baron Prestoungrange will be issuing a public declaration of pardon to the 81 people and their cats executed for witchcraft in his barony in the 16th and 17th centuries. The last execution for witchcraft in Scotland was in 1727.

According to the findings of the the Court, “Most of those persons condemned for witchcraft within the jurisdiction of the Baron Courts of Prestoungrange and Dolphinstoun were convicted on the basis of spectral evidence – that is to say, prosecuting witnesses declared that they felt the presence of evil sprits or heard spirit voices.

“Such spectral evidence is impossible to prove or to disprove nor is it possible for the accused to cross-examine the spirit concerned. One is convicted upon the very making of such charges without any possibility of offering a defence.”

This, I think, is a good thing. Don't get me wrong. Clearly, practicing witchcraft is a capital offence. Every Christian nation (before the influence of the humanist so-called "Enlightenment") had no problem following the plain wording of the Bible in this regard. But if you can't apply the biblical standard of evidence (corroborating eye witnesses), you can't apply the biblical sanction.

It is probably for this reason that in pre-Reformation Scotland executions for witchcraft were almost unknown. After the Reformation, it has been alleged that as many as 3,500 people were killed in the witch hunts.

Witchcraft is increasing in poularity in Scotland just as everywhere else. Witches (or Pagans or Wiccans) openly declare themselves. But now the Baronial courts won't even be able to give them three hours in the stocks.

Posted by david at October 30, 2004 01:53 PM | TrackBack

Are there any lists of names of persons killed in these early witch hunts?

Posted by: Pam at November 1, 2004 01:14 PM

I don't know. I would think that given the round numbers alleged, there are names for far fewer than 3,500. I believe the 81 people pardoned by the Baron Courts of Prestoungrange and Dolphinstoun are specifically named, because about 32 relatives were present at the ceremony yesterday. However, I have not seen a list of those names published anywhere, including the website of the Baron Courts of Prestoungrange and Dolphinstoun.

Posted by: Dave at November 1, 2004 11:36 PM