By Kelly Craig
When we talk about Witchcraft Trials, Salem automatically springs to mind, and the 19 people that were executed there in the 17th century. Until very recently, I, an Ayr native had no idea about the brutality that took place in my hometown but, thanks to Ayr North Time Team and their recent theatre production, Hystayria, I’ve learned that 29 women and one man were tortured and sentenced to death in the streets we walk to this day.
Ayr North Time Team is a group of local historians who got together during lockdown with the clear purpose of shedding light on the rich history of our town. Their goal is to raise awareness of little-known local stories, so that we too, as a community can learn about tales of days gone by. In the summer of 2022 they set out to deliver their first History presentation in a creative way, telling the tale of the Great Fire of Ayr. Such was the success of their presentation that they decided to challenge themselves in their next venture by writing and staging a play about the Witchcraft Trials of Ayr.
They spent summer 2022 researching and planning, and in autumn they invited our team at The Iris to support them with the production. They knew that they wanted to tell the stories of the women, and how the roots of their treatment lay in misogyny under the rule of Reverend William Adair. But with so many stories to choose from, and the trials taking place over a period of almost 100 years, it was difficult to decide which of the stories to bring to life on stage.
A group of six men and three women who had never written a script or been on a stage before found the courage to learn how to write and act so that they could raise awareness of this important local history. Group member Cathy talks about the injustice served on the people, predominantly women, who were tried and executed, and how they hope, that by creating a theatre piece to highlight the cruel, torturous murders, they can work towards seeing those sentenced to death for Witchcraft pardoned.
Brian from the group talks about translating the women’s stories to stage: “James VI considered himself to be an expert on Witchcraft and wrote ‘Daemonolgie’. William Adair was inspired by this and felt threatened by women who were educated or had money of their own. We had to make sure we conveyed that in the story and tackled the root cause of the brutality that he subjected them to. Group member Libby adds that the women were isolated and subjected to the cruellest treatment in their town and how the psychological torture drove families apart. Brian says: “We had to portray this carefully and it was challenging to show this on stage because they treated women so brutally.”
The Time Team wanted to deliver an accurate and honest portrayal and show how the women were locked up and tortured and burnt at the stake. They created a film to support their theatre production, shot in the former court and cells beneath the town hall. The film is bold and supports the action on stage courageously. You would never know that this was the team’s maiden voyage into the world of acting.
Theatre is communication, it changes the perception of communities, so telling the truth in a creative way was important to them. The team wanted to use their play as a medium to engage their community so that people would sit up and take notice of the injustice that was served upon those who lost their lives. The group is facilitated by South Ayrshire Thriving Communities and Heather Davidson, who supports the group and leads on South Ayrshire’s Violence Against Women Agenda, was keen to tie the performance into the 16 Days of Action. “The play highlights a historical form of Violence against Women, and the production became a key event in the 16 Days of Action campaign. It is now being developed into a film, and we intend to use it as a resource in schools and in the community to generate discussion around Gender Based Violence.”
I’m inspired by the bravery of the group, choosing to write and perform and very proud to support them to bring this to the stage. Such is their passion for telling local stories and their exceptional work ethic, that they put their nerves aside to learn new skills, and an original and exciting theatre piece was born. The unjust trials of women accused of Witchcraft has been the subject of plays like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Rona Munro’s The Last Witch. What allows a community production like Hystayria to stand side by side with classic plays like this is the commitment to telling the truth.
Their debut in December 2022 sold out and created a buzz that an exciting new piece of theatre should, leaving audiences with an appetite for more. The Time Team are currently working on a film version of Hystayria and will reprise the performance in the spring to coincide with International Women’s Day.