I recently visited the studio in Alloa of the wonderful artist Karen Strang to discuss a project we're doing together on the Scottish witch trials. Already fascinated, I was about to learn so much more about an area that I had rarely visited – not only about the appalling fate of these women – but the geology, archaeology, culture and history of Clackmannanshire. Karen incorporates all of this into her powerful, beautiful paintings.
Scotland witnessed a paroxysm of paranoia and hysterical condemnation of women whose supposed supernatural activities were believed to be the cause of Scotland's woes in the 17th and 18th centuries. Alloa did not escape the hysteria. Karen, in partnership with inspirational local historian and dramatist Janette Archibald, produced a booklet which is based on Janette's play 'The Devil's Mark,' with Karen's paintings as illustrations.
In modern times we usually associate witch trials with the irrationality of religion, or rather, men's use of religion to persecute troublesome women. But Karen made a significant observation in our discussions, namely that the focus on religion misses a deeper cause. She had discovered that witch trial sites in Scotland, e.g Ayrshire, were mapped closely to the burgeoning of industrialisation. The trials were not rural pursuits as often portrayed. Only after James VI took reign did the trials become legal, at the same time as mining and salt-panning became sources of wealth.
I didn't know this so when I got home I dug out an academic book I hadn't yet read: 'Caliban and the Witch,' written by the feminist activist Silvia Federici who argues that the witch trials are really about the rise of capitalism, with religion serving merely as a cover for economic interests. Her key idea is that early modernity, i.e., the 16th and 17th centuries, is really a 'feudal reaction' to the collapse of the social contract of the middle-ages which had been brought to its knees by a series of heretical movements in which women had prominent roles.
All of these movements sought to bring about a more egalitarian society, when '…all the branches of mankind shall look upon the earth as one common treasury to all.' The old powers, now including the bourgeoisie along with the aristocracy and the church, had to find new ways to preserve their elevated social status.
The witch trials were just one, barbaric, way of introducing divisions into the ranks of the increasingly assertive proletariat. Karen is on to something. Her astonishing paintings provide a fascinating and significant visual narrative for those wanting to delve deeper into this harrowing subject. I can't wait to go back.
Darren 'Loki' McGarvey is a remarkable man. I first 'met' him on Twitter shortly after the 2014 referendum. You may have come across him for the first time on 'Question Time' last week, or read his Scotsman columns. What you maybe don't know is that he is also a musician – a rapper. This sparked my interest, rap music being one of my 'guilty' pleasures. I love Eminem. The best rap is pure poetry and profound social commentary, often brutal in its searing observation and intensity.
I posted one of Loki's raps on Facebook once and probably scandalised my more delicate friends given the number of likes I didn't get. I met him properly at one of his rap gigs in collaboration with his partner, the beautiful singer-songwriter Becci Wallace in the Glad Cafe. My interest was sparked too because his auntie was one of my philosophy students in the 90s – a humorous and deeply thoughtful student who went on to become an MSP: Rosie McGarvey Kane. She is now settled into a better life as a performer, raconteur and 'giver of giggle and song' characterised by wisdom and experience. That's some auntie to have.
On the publication of his book 'Poverty Safari' – nominated for the Orwell Prize for political writing – Darren began his UK tour at the Edinburgh book festival. That same evening, Eminem was playing in Glasgow. Much as I love Marshall Bruce Mathers III, I'm pleased to say I chose the right rap. Darren was nervous, thinking that few would turn up or that he would be given a hard time. But that event made clear that social media does not reflect or influence public thinking.
The venue was packed, and he received a standing ovation. Before the event began he sat on stage awaiting the chair. His face, at rest, has the etchings of a life that has seen too much. I have seen that look before in children as young as 10. As Orwell himself once said 'At 50, everyone has the face they deserve.' What Orwell didn't say is that at 10, stressed, abused and deprived children have the face they don't deserve. But the transformation when he breaks a laugh or smile is a delight. Anyway, it was with nervous anticipation that I watched 'Question Time' last week. I needn't have been. He was impressive.
In a week that saw the re-emergence of the independence debate with the publication of the Growth Commission report, it is a tribute to the man's authenticity and persuasive power that despite his wariness of the report's recommendations, he almost single-handedly (with Andrew Wilson) changed the nature of the debate, and won the trust of Scots from across the political spectrum. That's the influence of the man. It's important to note, too, that Darren is also a hard-working social activist in prisons, community centres and elsewhere – wherever he thinks he can help and by god, he does.