I’ve long been fascinated and horrified by the European (and American) witch craze as a particularly deadly tool of misogyny in our collective history. During the European and British witch hunts of the 1400s–1700s as many as 4,000 accused witches were executed in Scotland—where the novel takes places—out of 60,000 or more in all of Britain and Europe. The hardest part for me to imagine has been the lived experience and inner worlds of the individuals in these communities, particularly the accused witch herself—and yes, the accused were most often women. Nancy Kilgore does a fascinating job imagining all of this for us.
The novel takes place in the 1660s, during the restoration of the monarchy in Scotland, amidst religious fighting between Catholics and Protestants (specifically Presbyterians, my own forebears). This coincided with a particularly active time of witch hunting in Scotland, and history has gifted us with detailed records of the trial of Isobel Gowdie and her vivid confessions. Kilgore’s story begins a couple years before Isobel’s trial, introducing us to the village of Auldearn and its inhabitants. Mostly told through the eyes of Margaret, a curious and open-hearted seventeen-year-old who is the daughter of a prominent Laird, the narrative also shifts to the points of view of other characters, including the local witch-obsessed minister and Isobel herself.
Kilgore paints a world in conflict between folkloric beliefs of fairies and magic—views held by the common folk and by many in the upper class—and adherence to Presbyterian beliefs and practices. Adding complication are the differing beliefs among pious Presbyterians as to whether witchcraft is real (and should be punished) or merely a delusion. I appreciated Margaret’s interest in expanding her traditional Presbyterian worldview by seeking out knowledge about fairies and charms from the “cunning woman” of the village, Isobel Gowdie. Margaret grows close to Isobel despite the class divide, but Margaret is challenged when she must grapple with the possibility of “dark magic” and being associated with a potential witch. Isobel Gowdie is portrayed as an ambivalent figure, neither completely a victim nor a total monster.
Through Margaret’s experiences, the reader comes to understand how different beliefs coexisted and which beliefs benefited those in power. Additionally, the novel has a number of feminist threads, illustrating injustices the female characters face and the ways they seek to be masters of their own fates. All of this is set amongst the lush green and rocky scenery of a seaside village filled with fairies.
At times I wanted more nuance in the writing, but I did want to keep reading to find out the fate of the accused witch and those close to her. I was intrigued by the world Kilgore built and I appreciated her explanatory notes at the end. She provided factual information about the historical individuals the characters were modeled after, and she gave a list for further reading. In the novel I found new ways to imagine the world and people of the “burning times.” I came away with a richer understanding and more questions to explore.