The Colours of Cluny is a recently established outdoor sound and light show held on Cluny Hill in Grant Park in the picturesque town of Forres in Moray during the late autumn. This event is organised by the Forres Features Community Interest Group and produced by the same producers as the famous Enchanted Forest in Pitlochry. However, in the past Cluny Hill was better known for its place in Scotland’s dark history: a place where witches were tried using trial by ordeal. Today the Witches Stone, found at the base of Cluny Hill, is the sole remnant of that nefarious practice.
Witchcraft in Scotland
During the 16th and 17th centuries, a culture of fear and panic spread across Europe and cast a dark shadow over Scottish history. Witchcraft was used to explain the unexplainable and in this wave of ignorance and superstition, the Witchcraft Trials were born. There are some records of people being tried as witches in the late Medieval period, but things were about to change as religious fervour, in the wake of the Reformation, spread across Lowland Scotland. The passing of the Witchcraft Act of 1563 made the practice of witchcraft or consulting with witches a capital offence.
It is estimated that the Witch Trials resulted in some 1,500 people being put to death in Scotland. Many of those accused were marginal figures on the fringes of society. They were nearly always women. Most were healers, herbalists and midwives. Their services were sought after until something went wrong: an incurable illness, a death, an abnormality at birth. The victim had been cursed and the perpetrator of the curse must surely be the healer!
Judicial torture was justified, because if the accused confessed it provided the ultimate evidence to get a conviction. After all, witches supposedly had made a diabolic pact with demons or the devil himself and were also guilty of heresy. One of the commonest forms of torture was sleep deprivation. After three days the accused would begin to hallucinate, and a confession could be secured.
The Witches Stone and the Curse
The Witches Stone is found at the base of Cluny Hill, ironically next to the Police Station, where it commemorates a grisly enforcement of law and order. In Forres, those accused of witchcraft met a horrific fate. It is a far cry from the gentle fun of Colours of Cluny. The sign next to the stone states:
“From Cluny Hill witches were rolled in stout barrels through which spikes were driven. Where the barrels stopped they were burned with their mangled contents. This stone marks the site of one such burning.”
According to local folklore, the witch in question was one of the three witches who prophesied that Macbeth would one day become King of Scots. A second stone is said to exist in the garden of nearby Trafalgar Place. The third stone was broken up in 1802 when the remaining stone was also damaged. In 1040 AD King Duncan arrived with his troops in Moray for a punitive show of force. The men of Moray led by Macbeth defeated and slew the King at Pitgaveny outside Elgin. However, I feel that the Witches Stone most likely dates to the Witch Trials of the 15th and 16th Centuries. Could these have been victims of the notorious witch pricker, Christian Caddell?
It is said that the Witches Stone is cursed and in 1940, an article in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country recounted that for many years fires would break out on Cluny Hill whenever it was forested. The curse of the Witches Stone was blamed for the infernos. Today, the stone has been split into three pieces and is held together with iron staples. Apparently, this happened when someone decided that it would make good building material. According to one account, he was stopped by anxious locals fearing ghostly retribution should the stone be broken up further and removed from its resting place. Another account states that after being split in three the stone was used to build a nearby house. Afterwards, when the occupants fell ill with fever, the house was said to be bewitched and ended up being demolished. The stone was salvaged, put together and returned to its rightful place.
Cluny Hill Today and the Colours of Cluny Sound and Light Show
In 1806, the inhabitants of Forres decided to celebrate Admiral Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar by building Nelson’s Tower top of Cluny Hill. For many years it has been a focal point when travelling through Forres. However, in 2016, the Colours of Cluny established Nelson’s Tower as the crowning jewel of their sound and light show, using it as a canvas for a fantastic light display. The trees are lit up in a kaleidoscope of colour for the hill has long since been forested. Has the Curse of the Witches Stone finally been been put to rest?
After attending Colours of Cluny I wrote the following poem:
The Colours of Cluny
So, with the darkening of autumn nights
Your slopes are filled with shinning lights
And on your paths the people mill
To see the colours on Cluny Hill
An enchanted world of rainbow hues
Of reds, and ambers and greens and blues
An arboreal pageant made to thrill
Those who venture on Cluny Hill
Spooky shadows fill the gloom
Where light has caught an ageing tomb
A graveyard lies on your foothill
Upon the trail to Cluny Hill
And passing through a light-filled bower
To summit capped by Nelson’s Tower
Walls awash with patterned spill
From the show on Cluny Hill
Music quickening, crescendo crashing
Lightning bolts and fire flashing
Then a sight your blood to chill
The firewalker on Cluny Hill.
From the shadows it appears
Stirring our primeval fears
With outstretched wings and raptor’s bill
An ominous presence on Cluny Hill.
Our eyes feast on a primitive sight
That has our hearts beat in delight
But beware for superstition’s thrill
Has seen blood split on Cluny Hill
For rules were made in yester year
Based on ignorance and fear
With women taken against their will
And tried as witches on Cluny Hill
Once accused death was assured
With trial by ordeal to be endured
In blade-filled barrels and cast downhill
The fate of those tried on Cluny Hill.
Those who reached the witches stone
Unscathed and without broken bone
Must have escaped through sorcery’s skill
And thus, were burnt on Cluny’s Hill
There are those who say in whispered tone
A curse lies on the witches stone
And so today the stone lies still
At the foot of Cluny Hill.