"The Last Witch of Scotland" by Philip Paris is a reminder of an especially dark period in Scotland's history. Between 1563 and the early 1700s, over 3,800 people, 84% of them women, were tried as witches in Scotland. Two-thirds of them were found "guilty" and executed, mostly by being strangled and then burned. Scotland was uniquely enthusiastic in its hunting of witches and over this period more than five times as many people were executed here on a per capita basis than across Europe as a whole.
The last witch to be tried and executed in Scotland - or in Britain - was Janet Horne, who met her terrible fate in Dornoch in Sutherland in 1727. Philip Paris has taken the historical background of the Scottish witch hunts and of Janet Horne and woven a gripping tale that brings to life someone whose story deserves to be told: though in many ways the central character is Janet's daughter Aila.
The publisher's blurb sets the scene: "Scottish Highlands, 1727. In the aftermath of a tragic fire that kills her father, Aila and her mother, Janet, move to the remote village of Loth. Aila, who was badly burned in the fire, attracts the eye of suspicious and superstitious villagers, especially the new Reverend McNeil, a man determined to cleanse the village from evil. Then arrives a motley troupe of travelling entertainers from Edinburgh, led by the charismatic but mysterious Jack, further unsettling peace in the village and stoking something new in Aila - a kind of hope she hasn't known since her father's death. Trouble is brewing, and if Aila and Janet aren't careful, everything may yet end in flames."
The characters are nicely drawn and the story is told in a way that pulls the reader along and keeps you gripped - and sometimes appalled - as it builds towards its conclusion. This is a book we'd highly recommend to anyone with an interest in Scottish history. And it's a little sobering to think that while the sort of misogyny that was reflected in the Scottish witch hunts may have mutated over the centuries, it is still all too present in modern society. Go and look at the comments directed at almost any female celebrity on Twitter if you are in any doubt about that.