Scotland in 1687 was a dangerous place. Deep political and religious divisions threatened to tear society apart, and the tensions that would lead to the "Glorious Revolution" just two years later were coming to the fore. Meanwhile the Reformation that took place 127 years earlier left the country with a majority religion governed by what would today be regarded as zealous extremists and fundamentalists. Add in a deep and abiding belief among the majority that witchcraft was literally true and the scene was set for a series of witch-hunts across Scotland over a period of a century or more in which some 3,500 people were accused of witchcraft, and 1,500, mainly women, were executed as witches. All it took was a "confession" under torture by one alleged witch that implicated others, and the tentacles of the witch-hunt could spread ever wider: with no-one, whatever their position in society, able to feel safe from accusation.
Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt is a thoroughly well told and entertaining historical crime drama played out against this backdrop. Edinburgh-based advocate John MacKenzie receives a letter from Grizelle Hay, the widow of an old friend and client which begins with the ominous words: "If you are reading these words set down by my own hand, I am no longer in this world..." She goes on to implore MacKenzie to keep her daughters safe. John MacKenzie and his God-fearing assistant Davie Scougall set out for Lammersheugh near Haddington to try to discover what led to Grizelle's death.
It soon emerges that Grizelle had been named as a witch by another woman, since executed for witchcraft: and that her eldest daughter has been likewise implicated. Can MacKenzie and Scougall unravel the complex web of plot and counter plot that has led to this, and save the life of Euphame Hay?
Historical fiction needs to be well researched, but from a reader's point of view the results of the research need to be woven into a narrative in a way that appears effortless. Douglas Watt has succeeded admirably in immersing the reader in a Scotland very alien to the one we see around us today. The historical settings and characters feels just right, and the result is a book which both entertains and informs.