Proof in witchcraft cases

The courts in Scotland in the 17th century recognised four ‘proofs’ of witchcraft. Having a bad reputation, being a ‘quarrelsome dame’ or having a history of bad behaviour was the first proof. This proof was the weakest the courts recognised but was all too easily gained. Much of life was lived publicly and an argument in the market place could easily result in a woman being labelled ‘witch.’ The second proof was being delated or named as a witch by another witch was the second proof.  A suspected with could easily name a friend or neighbour when under interrogation. The investigating ministers always wanted more names.

The third proof was confession. Many of those arrested soon confessed. Days of intense interrogation, brutal treatment and, in some cases, torture, soon resulted in an admission of being a witch if for no other reason that being allowed some rest. The fourth proof was that of having the Devil’s Mark on your body. It was believed that the Devil would mark his followers. And just as the Devil was unnatural so the Mark would be unnatural and not bleed if pricked or brodded with a steel bodkin. If a stubborn witch refused to confess the witch pricker or with brodder would be sent for to find the Devil’s Mark.

But there was one more proof that mattered. The Calvinist Kirk of Scotland was obsessed with the Devil. They knew they were God’s Elect and of course who would the Devil attack? Auld Nick had no reason to attack his followers, he was after the souls of the most Godly, the most pious. If a minister found a witch, the handmaiden of the Devil, in his parish this ‘proved’ the minister was Godly. The more Godly you were, the more witches would attack you: the more witches you found the more Godly you were.

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An Edinburgh ‘witch’

I am currently writing the story of an Edinburgh woman who was put on trial in 1645 as a witch. An ordinary woman she was trying to survive in a world of famine, plague and civil war with an absent king and an out of control kirk. The more I research the more fascinating she becomes not least because she was not a typical sweet little old lady gathering herbs to heal a sick child. She was a real person with all the flaws of a real person. But she was a strong character and did not go down without a fight. When she stood up in the court room she was resolute in her defence and had even managed to get two lawyers to represent her. From the tenements of the back streets of Edinburgh she would challenge even the Lord Provost of the city. Her story is one that I feel should be told.

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Florian Poels the Printer

Meet Florian Poels, a printer from my book Beside The Annexe

‘I’m sorry Mr Poels but Mr Frank is not here and left no word about any order with you.’ Florian glared at Miep as she sat calmly behind her desk. This was typical of Jews, just disappear into the night abandoning everything while he was left to pick up the pieces. It had taken him several weeks to persuade Otto Frank to place an order with him for labels and now he had disappeared off to Switzerland of all places. Florian didn’t believe a word of it. People just didn’t disappear like that, they just didn’t. He had met Frank only the previous week and they had discussed the details. They had sat in the café drinking coffee, discussing the war and how their businesses were affected. Frank had been perfectly polite. ‘Come into my office next week, Mr Poels, and we’ll agree the final details and get a contract signed.’ All very nice and polite. Good God they had shaken hands on the matter and now this Miep woman said she knew nothing about it. Florian had even seen Frank on the street with his wife and daughter just a couple of days before. It had been quite early in the morning. He had waved over at them but they seemed distracted and had just hurried on, probably to get out of the rain. And now they had gone. Just like that, up and left everything. He nodded stiffly at Miep and left the office. Bloody Jews.

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Borders Witch Hunt

My talk at the National Library of Scotland about the 17th century witchcraft trials in the Scottish Borders.

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Leo Smit – Grocer, collaborator

One if the characters from my latest book ‘Beside the Annexe’

Leo took a final look round the shop. Everything was in order. He smoothed down his white apron and positioned himself behind the counter.

            ‘Open the door, Dirk.’

            ‘Yes, Mr Smit.’

            From the window Leo could see the queue that had formed that morning. Always a good sign. He had more families registered with him than any other grocer in the area. He had…

            ‘Can’t get the door open, Mr Smit.’

            ‘Pull the bolt to the side, unhook the chain and then turn the key.’

            ‘The bolt won’t move, Mr Smit.’

            ‘Idiot boy.’

            Leo came out from behind the counter. He hated that. He liked to greet his customers from behind the counter like the captain of a ship. He walked over to the door and pushed Dirk out of the way.

            ‘It’s perfectly simple. Pull the bolt to the side, then…’

            The bolt didn’t move. He tried again, nothing. Taking a fold of his apron he wrapped it round the bolt and tugged. Suddenly the bolt shot back.

            ‘See?’ He looked at Dirk and then noticed the oil stain on his apron. ‘Idiot.’ He hit the boy across the head and retreated behind his counter.

            ‘Now open the door, Dirk.’

            Nothing there either. Scrawny old hen. God knows how she managed to feed the pastor on what she bought but she did. No one else this morning. Slim pickings. Well there was still the mid-morning crowd to come. They were always better. Younger, lazier, a different generation. Didn’t like to stint themselves and prepared to spend in order to get what they wanted. Yes, that was the crowd he liked. A little smiling here and there. “I put this by just for you” and “now don’t tell the others” yes, they were better. Plump little chickens, worth plucking.   

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The tale of the lonesome pine cone

I went for a walk this morning and found a pine cone. How exciting! How thrilling! What a way to start a story. But when I found the pine cone I was in the middle of one of two roads that had divided in the woods. The road I had travelled ran through fields with no trees in sight, not one, and certainly not a tree that has pine cones. So where had it come from?
Had it rolled there? Had it dropped from a fir tree and rolled all the way down the hill and somehow onto the road? Except, there was no hill.
Or was it dropped by a migrating African Swallow. Flying high up in the clear blue sky clutching its treasure before its grip failed and the pine cone fell to earth. Perhaps, but it was a very ordinary pine cone. There was nothing to attract a Swallow.
Perhaps it had been carried there. A child might have collected it when out walking and then dropped it by accident as they became tired on the walk home. Maybe their daddy picked them up to carry them home for Sunday lunch and the pine cone fell from their hand.

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Had it been a find by a squirrel that was then challenged as a thief? Running from its pursuers was the squirrel forced to relinquish its precious? No. Squirrels might take a pine cone but not out of the woods and onto an open road.
I looked at the pine cone and found myself transported back to a little café I like in Amsterdam that has a fir tree outside. A café where I have sat and watched the sun go down while eating Madeleines.
I shook myself. Perhaps it had been placed there by God. As a test. Arriving in a shaft of sunlight from the heavens it would puzzle and bemuse, but would it lead to faith?
Now the pine cone was starting to annoy me. I turned my back. I walked on. A little later I returned.

The pine cone was no longer there.

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I love stories

I love stories.
I have been entranced listening to a story teller who made me laugh and cry.
I have curled up with a book on a wet Sunday afternoon and lost track of time.
I have sat in the dark of a cinema mesmerised by the images on the screen.


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One of my earliest memories is sitting on my mother’s knee with the big story book in front of me. I remember the pride when, at the age of four, I was given my first library ticket. I can recall the excitement of diving under the Christmas tree for the book shaped present that I knew was mine. I’ll never forget squabbling with my sister over ‘Little Women’ because we both wanted to be Jo. I wrote my first story at the age of eight and was amazed at what I had created.

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Stories run through us like the blood in our veins and I am puzzled when I hear people argue over ‘real’ books or digital books or about books or films. Why does it matter? Stories matter. How you come to the story is purely choice. Rather than argue over ‘real’ books versus digital why not celebrate the wealth of stories that abound, the creativity of the story tellers and the ingenuity of their medium.

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And I was a much better Jo than my sister. I was born in November. My sister wasn’t.

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Mata Hari: the enduring fantasy

Mata Hari is a name that still resonates 100 years after her execution for espionage. But why do we find female spies in general and Mata Hari in particular so fascinating?
Why should we remember a woman who betrayed her adopted country, a self-proclaimed international woman and a serial fantasist? Was it the times in which she lived, the mysteries of spying? Or was it the woman with immense sex appeal and sheer bravado that broke all the rules that still fascinates today?

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No-one can think about Mata Hari without thinking about her sex appeal. A woman who boldly declared:

‘From the time that I was a child I loved men: a strongly built male brought me to a state of ecstasy’.

Even those who know nothing about her cannot help but be attracted by the images of her in her eastern costumes. The craze for exotica was all the rage in Paris in the early 1900s and Mata Hari exploited that for all it was worth. Using her black hair and dark liquid eyes she knew how to excite men. She never danced naked but gave sensual performances that captivating audiences. She was the embodiment of the sexy spy; unattainable and dangerous she was every man’s dream. Even the name Mata Hari, eye of the dawn, entices and tempts us. The real spies were, of course, mousey creatures that no-one gave a glance and their names, if we ever knew them, have long been forgotten. We do not want the reality, we crave the excitement of the fantasy. An intriguing name, declared love of sex, a carefully crafted exotic image and dancing in transparent chiffon, Mata Hari could not fail to entrance. The women of the time were still in corsets and floor length skirts while she moved sinuous hips and arms across candle lit stages. The can-can girls of the Moulin Rouge were fun, enthusiastic French girls, but here was a creature from the east that promised everything.

Of course she wasn’t from the east at all, being from a small Dutch town in Friesland but she was a fantasist that loved life. In a world of work and responsibilities, the rest of us are often bemused by those who live their fantasies and she did just that. She blurred the lines between reality and fantasy years before ‘fake news’ was ever coined as a phrase and did it with such style and élan that even when her lies were exposed she was always forgiven. Mata Hari claimed she never spied for Germany but took their money as ‘payment’ for her furs that they had impounded at the start of the war. We may believe her or not but to take the money and not do any spying? Now that takes nerve. And to do so with a smile and a kiss on the lips? That took Mata Hari! Those work-a-day successful spies whose names we have long since forgotten give us stories of worthy heroism but she gives us fantasy. And for all she was amazing and wonderful she was also human with a million human flaws, just like us. She was stupid but sharp-witted, she was promiscuous but loving, enchanting but ruthless, self-willed and self-obsessed, simple but scheming, mercenary but spendthrift, infuriating but alluring. Mata Hari was just like us and yet was not. She defies categorisation but remains fascinating. A girl from a small town that became an international woman.

An international woman who danced easily into the hidden world of spying and intrigue. A world that is utterly fascinating, probably because it is so hidden. The enduring success of the James Bond franchise is proof of that. The fantasy of James Bond allows us to ride fast cars, visit exotic locations, outwit other countries’ secret agents, all from the safety of a cinema seat. With Mata Hari we can equally live the life of the international spy but with the added edge of excitement that come from the fact that hers is a true story. How could this social butterfly with no apparent head for politics worm secrets out of her many lovers? Well we can all imagine how. The reality of espionage work; copying files, passing information in brown envelopes may be vital but ultimately dreary work. Making love in the afternoon on the chaise lounge of a general’s office with the excitement of potential discovery at any moment? That is the stuff of fantasy, that was Mata Hari’s life.

But this was a life being lived against the backdrop of the Great War. The tragedy of the war to end all wars that resulted in the deaths of so many millions. The world can be a scary and unpredictable world. Society creates rules that give order and comfort, especially in times of stress. If the rules are broken, then what? In peace time those who break the rules are daring, exciting and even to be admired, even while their antics are still somewhat constrained. You can go so far, but no further. But Mata Hari? She went further, she always went further than anyone else. Which was fine until war broke out. In war time, we all buckle down, even most rule breakers, and ‘do our bit’. Mata Hari did not buckle down. She did not change her clothes for the sombre greys and browns of the Paris matrons. She did not stop drinking champagne and flirting with officers. She had been the colourful butterfly that we all, secretly, wanted to be. But then it was time for all to pull together. The joke of taking the Germans’ money but doing no spying was no longer funny. And then when it all went wrong and she ended up in front of a firing squad, we could all heave a sigh of relief; the rule breaker had been punished, the social order restored, everything was going to be all right. And yet…the memory of that colourful butterfly remained.

Like the ‘safe’ scare of a fairground ride, the story of Mata Hari allows us to dip into her world of fantasy, albeit at a safe distance. We can look at her photographed in all her ‘eastern’ glory and imagine how ‘we’ would have done things differently; we would not have got caught. A fantasist with sex appeal who dabbled in the world of espionage and broke all the moral codes of the day, she was the ultimate female spy and remains, unlike many of her more successful colleagues, unforgettable.

This blog was originally published on The history Press website

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Books I have loved

I have loved books all my life. They have made me laugh and cry. They have had me screaming in anger and frustration and one – I may name it later- got chucked out the window. A friend recently challenged me to name my favourite three books. I failed the challenge, miserably, as I could only cut the list down to ten after several days of deliberation, aided by a couple of glasses of wine. So for those that are interested, here are the final ten, in no particular order.




1 The thirty years war: C.V. Wedgewood

The most brilliant narrative story telling of the history of the thirty years war. Every detail is there, every motive examined. History as it should be written.

2 Hotel Savoy: Joseph Roth

A searing view of Europe in 1932. The Hotel Savoy is full of drifters, penniless aristocrats and intriguing revolutionaries all waiting for something to happen.

3 The Tortoises: Veza Canetti

The Nazis have marched into Austria and into the life and home, literally, of  writer Andreas Kain. He has to flee but how and where?

4 The Discovery of Heaven: Harry Mulisch

Religion, friendship, the meaning of life, this books contains it all. And it starts with a conversation between two angels!

5 The Transylvanian Trilogy: Miklós Bánffy

The fall of the idyllic pre-industrial world of Hungarian Transylvania into the Nazis and then the Communists. The crumbling of certainty into self destruction.

(And yes I know I’ve sneaked three books in under the guise of one – I did say I’d failed the challenge.)

6 The Diary of a young girl: Anne Frank

The young woman who inspires me to write every day.

7 Dreamers: Elaine Feinstein

Imperial decline and societal change in 1848 Vienna. Dreamers follows the lives of women and Jews as they negotiate a changing world.

8 The Wide Sargasso Sea: Jean Rhys

The lush heavy atmosphere of Jamaica explores the early life of Antoinette Cosway before she ever saw the England of Jane Eyre.

9 Summer before the Dark: Volker Weidermann

Set in Ostend in 1936 a mix of artists and intellectuals spend the summer dreaming and discussing themselves, their beliefs and the looming spectre of fascism.

10 Peacemakers: Margaret MacMillian

An unflinching look at the Paris Peace conference of 1919. If you want to understand European and Middle Eastern politics today this is the book for you.


And the one that got chucked out the window? The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. I gave up half way through the first chapter and tried to throw it onto my desk but it slid off out the open window and landed in the garden.



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How Belgium ‘lost’ the Great War.

In August 1914 German troops crossed the Belgian border and the Great War started. In 1919 Peace Conference in Paris decided on the German reparations, the borders between Romania and Hungary. The worked on the issues of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Austria, Poland and Italy. In April 1919, the Belgian delegates arrived and asked why they had been forgotten.

Almost all of Belgium had been occupied in the war. They had suffered all the usual depredations of war but in addition the German war machine had stripped the country of anything useful including; machinery, factories, transport and livestock. By the winter of 1918/1919 the country was starving and had to rely on food aid from the Allies. By April 1919 demonstrators were on the streets of Brussels with placards that read ‘Has England forgotten August 1914?’

The Council of Four: President Woodrow Wilson; Prime Minister Lloyd George; Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau and Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando had indeed forgotten Belgium. When reminded, their response was less than gracious. Wilson ignored them and concentrated on ‘bigger issues’. This had been his response to many of the smaller countries in Europe and underlined his lack of understanding of European history, politics and geography. Lloyd George thought the Belgians were being greedy in their requests for extending their territory on the German border and was reported to have said ‘Belgium lost comparatively few man in the war… they had not made a greater sacrifice than Great Britain.’ It was a crass remark and did little to enhance his reputation in Europe. Clemenceau supported Lloyd George’s position and suspected that the Belgians were using the peace negotiations to annexe Luxembourg. In one bitter exchange between Clemenceau and Paul Hymans the Belgian foreign minister, Clemenceau told Hymans ‘the best thing you can do for Belgium is die or resign’.

The main demand from the Belgians was to receive war reparations, including a priority payment to get the country on its feet. In Belgium’s case the costs of war included all the borrowing their government had been forced to take on as well as the destroyed industry, agriculture and infrastructure. While Wilson was sympathetic and put forward a figure of $500 million. Lloyd George and Clemenceau disagreed and spent the following years whittling the figure down as much as they could. Germany delayed payment as long as possible and Lloyd George and Clemenceau both refused to put pressure on the Germans to pay. Belgium did not receive its priority payment until 1925 and never received its full payment from Germany.



The cloth hall in Ypres.

It has never been satisfactorily explained why Belgium was treated so shabbily at the Peace Conference. The Council of Four were tired; they were dealing with several contentious issues; Wilson and Lloyd George had domestic politics that were demanding their attention. This was all true but had been true throughout the conference and Belgium was an ally that had been lauded as ‘plucky little Belgium’ in 1914. The diaries of Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Orlando remain frustratingly blank on this issue.


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