RCN Foundation funds historical research project

Stories of nurses and midwives accused of witchcraft in Scotland

The RCN Foundation has funded a history of nursing research project to document the stories of nurses and midwives accused of witchcraft in Scotland, as part of its programme of work to celebrate the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife.

The Foundation has awarded a Monica Baly Education Grant to a team of researchers from Edinburgh Napier University to investigate almost 150 witches recorded on the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft as being folk healers and midwives.  The team from the Nursing and Midwifery Subject Groups in the School of Health and Social Care, comprising of Dr Nicola Ring, Nessa McHugh and Rachel Davidson-Welch, will investigate the stories of these individual nurses and midwives, documenting who these individuals were, and reflecting on their practices from today’s healthcare perspective. 

Scotland’s Witchcraft Act was introduced in 1563 and remained law until 1736. During that time nearly 4,000 people, mainly women, were accused of witchcraft. The accused were imprisoned and brutally tortured until they confessed their guilt – often naming other ‘witches’ in their confessions.  Most of those accused are thought to have been executed as witches, being strangled and then burned at the stake, leaving no body for burial. 

People were accused of being witches for many reasons- some were mentally ill, some had land and money others wanted. However, many of those accused and executed as being ‘witches’ were guilty of nothing more than helping to care for others during sickness and childbirth – they were early practitioners of midwifery and nursing. 

Dr Nicola Ring says, ‘I am delighted we have been awarded funding from the RCN Foundation to investigate this over-looked part of nursing history.  Telling the stories of these Scottish women and men cruelly and unfairly accused and punished for helping the sick and women in childbirth highlights the injustices these people faced.  It supports Claire Mitchell QC and Zoe Venditozzi in their ‘Witches of Scotland’ campaign, which seeks posthumous justice - a pardon for those convicted of witchcraft, an apology for all those accused, and a national memorial dedicated to their memory’. 

Deepa Korea, Director of the RCN Foundation says: ‘We are very pleased to fund this project as part of our programme of work to mark the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife. This is an important project which will not only document the experiences of these early nurses and midwives and the injustices they faced but provide a fresh look at the early role and perceptions of nursing and midwifery, prior to the accepted Victorian archetype.’

Claire Mitchell QC says: ‘Zoe Venditozzi and I (Witches of Scotland) are delighted that this work is being done to investigate and record the history of Scottish women and, in particular, those who were caught up in witchcraft allegations. We know from our research that some of the women and men were healers – involved in folk medicine and early midwifery – were prosecuted for witchcraft and paid with their life.   This work shedding a light on this tragic history is important.’

For further information contact grants@rcnfoundation.org.uk