In recent years ‘witch fiction’ has become very popular with readers and it shows no sign of slowing up any time soon, with notable publications in 2023 including Kirsty Logan’s Now She is Witch and Philip Paris’s The Last Witch of Scotland. However, sometimes the truth behind myths and legends is more fascinating and terrible than could ever be imagined. Allyson Shaw’s Ashes and Stones: A Scottish Journey in Search of Witches and Witness examines the Scottish witch hunts and trials of the 16th to 18th centuries, when thousands were persecuted, uncovering stories untold and bearing witness to the people behind them. The book is part-historical investigation, part-travelogue, part-memoir, with Shaw unearthing, sometimes literally, various landmarks and memorials, including standing stones, trails, mazes, caves, and other places used or created to mark the atrocities of the past.
During her journeys around Scotland she also discovers the attitudes of people in the present day, which reveal a different country to the one she previously knew. The prevalence and power of the state and religion may be less powerful than in previous centuries, but they still pertain.
The most important aspect of the book can be summed up with one word in the subtitle – ‘witness’. Ashes and Stones wants to reach out through time to ensure that these atrocities and tragedies are not forgotten, but also wants to bear witness to the author’s own life and the events which have shaped it. This personal story is what makes Ashes and Stones unlike any other book you’ll read this year. It links Allyson Shaw’s own experiences with those of other women and invites readers to do likewise. As with the memorials discovered, Ashes and Stones is its own reminder of a dark period in Scotland’s past, but also carries a warning for the present day: that the fetishisation and Disneyfication of the witch in popular culture is in danger of trivialising and even disrespecting the way women were, and often continue to be, persecuted because they are deemed by wider society to be different. This is not the book you think it is, and it is all the better for it.
Ashes and Stones is available now, published on the Sceptre imprint of Hodder & Stoughton