Tag Archives: Orkney Isles

Witchcraft in the Orkney Isles: The torture of Alesoun Balfour

In my book Eternal Witch, I feature as a side-plot the story of Alison [sic] Balfour, who lived on Mainland, the Orkney Isles, towards the end of the sixteenth century. This was a period during which Witch-hunts were prevalent in Scotland (King James VI, the future James I of England, was particularly eradicating them). So much so that ‘Witch’ became a dirty-word – calling someone a ‘Witch’ was tantamount to accusing them of being in league with the Devil, and also put them in serious danger of them being arrested, tortured and executed.

As with most Witch-hunts later in England, many of the women so accused were not witches in any sense of the word at all, but were in fact people whom their accusers did not like (e.g. they were Catholics instead of Protestants; they were caught up in an inter-family vendetta; etc).

Alison Balfour was unique amongst women accused of Witchcraft, in that, as a herbalist and ‘cunning-woman’ she was the closest thing to being a ‘Witch’ in the true sense of the word – i.e. a ‘Wise Woman.’ Moreover, her crime was not that of getting caught up in a falling-out between neighbours, but of being scapegoated during a politically-motivated murder plot. She protested her innocence vehemently – even under torture – and only made a confession (which she later retracted) when she was forced to watch her family being tortured in front of her.

When I first heard her story it struck me that Alison Balfour was probably the best example in the British Isles of a woman who was a genuine witch, and who used her skills and powers only to help people, yet who came to a bad end nonetheless because of the machinations of others (i.e. men).

Source: Witchcraft in the Orkney Isles: The torture of Alesoun Balfour

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