Resurrecting Scotland’s Witches with C. J. Cooke and Zoe Venditozzi

Image of a white woman with long brown hair.

A large audience on a stormy Saturday evening says two things: firstly, that C.J. Cooke is a popular author and secondly, the subject matter of her new novel ‘The Lighthouse Witches’ is of growing relevance in contemporary Scotland.

This Paisley Book Festival event took the format of a conversation between the author and Zoe Venditozzi who, among other things, is co-host of the Witches of Scotland podcast https://www.witchesofscotland.com/podcast

C.J Cooke set the mood by reading an excerpt from her sixth novel, the Lighthouse Witches. When asked how she got the idea for the book, C.J. said she’d always been interested in witches as well as being actively engaged in writing about mother-daughter relationships. Settling in Scotland only two years ago, and having begun research for the novel, C.J. had no idea that so many women were tried as accused witches. Like many, C.J Cooke was unaware of the extent of the witch trials in Scotland, having previously thought that such injustices were unique to places like Pendle in England or Salem in the US.

It is testimony to the hidden (and perhaps suppressed) history of Scotland, that few people are aware of the fact that Scotland killed many more women (85% of those executed) and men under the auspices of the Witchcraft Act of 1563 than any other country. Compared to England during the same period, Scotland executed four times the number of witches, despite having only a fifth of the population. In light of these emerging facts, it is easy to see why the subject matter has captured the attention and indeed the imagination of a growing number of people in-and-around Scotland.

Discussing the book itself, C.J Cooke, while not wanting to give too much away, explained that the story was set within three distinct timelines; 1998, 1692 and 2021. This was an extremely engaging event, with the conversation oscillating between the historical context, which provides the backdrop of the book and the story itself, set on a haunted Scottish island.

What makes this story so interesting is the fact that ‘reality’, in the case of the historic accusations against witches, is often much stranger than fiction. Gothic creativity, it seems, thrives in the dark spaces between the blurred lines of historic reality and Scottish-noir.

One of the inspirations for the many interweaving stories of the book, came from Cooke’s own research which identified a number of common confessional tropes. One cannot fail to be fascinated by the regularity with which tortured people, mostly sleep deprived, confessed to very similar types of ‘impossible’ activity. As Zoe explained, the common accusations and confessions were so ‘incredible’, they actually beggar belief.

Ranging from physical transformation into animals, to cavorting with the devil, an entire array of impossible practices was attributed to those accused under the Witchcraft Act of 1563. Fantastical fodder for a writer like C.J. Cooke, who did make her own confession – “I have tried to write ‘happy’ stories, but ‘happy books’ are not me.”

The event finished with a flurry of questions which were addressed by both C.J. and Zoe. As well as general questions about Scotland’s world leading role in the persecution of women and children as accused witches, there was some interest in Zoe’s podcast with people expressing a desire to find out more about the history of the accused witches of Scotland.

Fans were delighted by the news that C.J. Cooke is about to submit her seventh novel to her publisher in March. Ghost Woods, set in a ‘mother-and-baby home’ in the Scottish Borders in the 1960s will be out in October this year. Fantastic news for the readers of a fantastic writer whose books combine a very contemporary ‘atmospheric’ narrative with the spells cast from Scotland’s dark past.

Written by our volunteer blogger Joe Smith