Our Digital Humanities award-winning interactive map (witches.is.ed.ac.uk) caught the public’s attention when it launched in September 2019 and has helped to change the way the stories of these women and men were being told with a campaign group, Witches of Scotland, successfully lobbying the Scottish Government into issuing a formal apology from the former First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, for the grave wrong done to these persecuted women.(BBC News, 2022)

The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft

The map is built upon the landmark Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database project. Led by Professor Julian Goodare the database collates historical records about Scotland’s accused witches (1563-1736) in one place. This fabulous resource began life in the 1990s before being realised in 2001-2003. It’s a dataset that has the power to fascinate.

However, since 2003, the Survey data has remained static in an MS Access database so I invited groups of students on the University of Edinburgh’s Design Informatics MFA/MA to consider at the course’s annual “Data Fair” in October 2017 what could be done if the data were exported into Wikipedia’s sister project, Wikidata, as machine-readable linked open data? Beyond this, what new insights & visualisations could be achieved if groups of students worked with this real-world dataset and myself as their mentor over a 6-7 week project?

Design Informatics students at the Suffer the Witch symposium at the Patrick Geddes centre displaying the laser-cut 3d map of accused witches in Scotland. CC-BY-SA, Ewan McAndrew

The implementation of Wikidata in the curriculum presents a huge opportunity for students, educators, researchers and data scientists alike. Especially when there is a pressing need for universities to meet the demands of our digital economy for a data literate workforce.

“A common critique of data science classes is that examples are static and student group work is embedded in an ‘artificial’ and ‘academic’ context. We look at how we can make teaching data science classes more relevant to real-world problems. Student engagement with real problems…has the potential to stimulate learning, exchange, and serendipity on all sides.” (Corneli, Murray-Rust and Bach, 2018)

The ‘success of the Data Fair’ model, year on year, prompted questions as to what more could be done over an even more extended project. So I lobbied senior managers for a new internship dedicated to geographically locating the places recorded in the database as linked open data as the next logical step.

Recruiting the ‘Witchfinder General’

Geography student Emma Carroll worked closely under my mentorship and supervision for three months in Summer 2019 with her detective work geolocating historic placenames involving colleagues from the National Library of Scotland, the Scottish Studies Archive, the Scottish Place-Name Society. The website creation itself involved my working with the creativity and expertise of the university’s e-learning developers.

Geography undergraduate student, Emma Carroll, our first ‘Witchfinder General’ intern in Summer 2019.

Since the map’s launch, this project has gained media coverage across Scotland and the world in allowing users to explore, for the first time, where these accused women resided, local to them, and learn all about their stories in a tremendously powerful way. It also shows the potential of engaging with linked open data to help the teaching of data science and to fuel discovery through exploring the direct and indirect relationships at play in this semantic web of knowledge, enabling new insights. There is always more to do and we have since worked with another four student interns on this project since 2022.

Our latest, Ruby Imrie, will be returning following her exams and a Summer break on 15th July to continue her work quality-assuring the vast amount of Scottish witchcraft data in Wikidata and creating new features, new visualisations, fixing any bugs and generally making our Map of Accused Witches in Scotland website as useful, as engaging and as user-friendly as possible so that when it is ready for relaunch in Autumn/Winter 2024 we have something that truly does justice in respecting all the work that has gone before and all the individual women and men persecuted during the Scottish witch trials.

Ruby Imrie and Professor Julian Goodare, Project Director of the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft at University of Edinburgh Library 23 August 2023

Almost five years on – the legacy of the project

The legacy of the project is that our students, year-on-year, are highly engaged and motivated to learn important histories from Scotland’s dark past AND the important data skills required for Scotland’s future digital economy. Many of our colleagues at the University (and beyond) also seek our advice on how to meet research grant stipulations that they make their research outcomes open both in terms of producing open access papers and releasing their data as open data. Lukas Engelmann, History of Medicine, is using Wikidata to document the history of 20th century epidemiology. Dr. Chris Langley and Asst. Prof. Mikki Brock have worked with myself to create a similar website, Mapping the Scottish Reformation, (as a proof-of-concept Project B to our Project A) and have shared their experiences with other similar projects such as: the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Military Museum in Stirling; Faversham Local History Group, Places of Worship in Scotland database team and more.



1. “Nicola Sturgeon apologises to people accused of witchcraft”. BBC News. 2022-03-08.
2. Corneli, J, Murray-Rust, D & Bach, B 2018, Towards Open-World Scenarios: Teaching the Social Side of Data Science.

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