Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Witching the Archives

Annie Tailzeour, an Orkney woman, was accused of witchcraft in 1624. Among the evidence brought against her:

1. She took profit off cattle and off the corn
2. She predicted the finding of a whale
3. She cured a boil
4. A man recognised her face among a crowd of cats
5. She cast a sickness on a man, and then removed it
6. She sent a girl into a frenzy
7. She caused a storm to come up and the sea take a woman’s peats

She was sentenced to be “wirried at ane staik, and brunt to asses.”
“wirried” = “worried” = “strangled”; “brunt to asses” = “burnt to ashes”

She would have been dragged up to the top of the Clay Loan in Kirkwall, probably in an open cart, tied to a stake, garrotted by the hangman, then her body burnt.

Orkney Archives are full of fascinating documents stretching back centuries. This poor woman’s fate was recorded by Ernest Marwick whose papers the archives hold.

George Mackay Brown wrote about such a trial and execution in ‘Witch’, a story in his first collection A Calendar of Love 1967.

To the World

To be slightly odd or eccentric or mad in the seventeenth century was dangerous. To have mental health problems in the 21st century still attracts stigma, lack of understanding, sometimes mockery. The GMB Fellowship, Orkney Minds and See Me have combined efforts to produce To the World, a compelling, timely and very handsome anthology of creative writing by people in Orkney affected by mental health difficulties, as well as other interested contributors. The anthology grew out of workshops run by poet John Glenday and counsellor and writer Rosie Alexander.

This poem is by the library’s own Gary Amos:

Out in Rain

in my fumbling

folded in
on myself
too many times

in the landscape
as invisible

as the earth’s

on which
things tilt

but do not

Let’s face it, most of us experience these difficulties in our lifetimes, and when we’re not going through it ourselves, we know others who are.  Very many writers go through dark times.  Orkney’s own – George Mackay Brown, Edwin Muir, Ernest Marwick – all suffered from periods of deep depression.  And still they wrote.

To the World is available to buy from Kirkwall and Stromness libraries.


  1. Poor Annie Tailzeour! I wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes in those days.
    I read a brilliant book 'The Redemption of Alexander Seaton' by Shona MacLean about 15th century Banffshire which had a lot in it about witch hunting and witch trials. It was really fascinating to read about Scotland at that time but also terrifying to think that you could be considered a witch and therefore killed just for knowing things about plants!
    A really good read though - I also learned that at that time Scottish people were very suspicious of maps as the only people who used them were spies!

    1. Poor Annie indeed. Don't think many of us would have lasted then.
      I've replied to this twice already, but don't know where the replies have gone.
      Thanks for sharing the info about The Redemption of Alexander Seaton - sounds fascinating. Love the idea that maps were only for spies!
      Right - see if I can press the right button this time! Alison x


Tell me your stories about reading; share your experiences of Orkney Libraries; let me know your favourite books and tell me why you like them.