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Behold the Hebrides
Highland Superstition

The Persistence of Old Schools in the Isles


THAT superstition dies hard is very evident from the fact that even in regions where the people has acquired a certain degree of education, and has received in recent times a considerable measure of enlightenment, several distinct and obvious traces of it are still deeply rooted in the minds of many respectable, well-meaning, and God-fearing men and women.

It is scarcely to be wondered at that ancient man laboured so much under the influences of fear and awe and reverence, when we consider that, with his limited capacity, and with his still more limited outlook, he could not comprehend certain natural phenomena, which only in comparatively modern times have been satisfactorily explained by the progress of science, and the consequent spread of knowledge and intelligent thought. Will-o’-the-wisp, for example, confused the minds of men until science came along and explained that this strange appearance was the result of highly inflammable natural gases, such as methane, given off by bogs and marshes.

The ancient Greeks, in many ways a greatly enlightened people, held irrational beliefs in the supernatural, and indulged in divination and sorcery, and brought the study of omens to a fine art. And so, before going to war, the general consulted the famous oracle at Delphi to ascertain whether or not the fates were propitious. True, the answer of the oracle was ambiguous; but this circumstance safeguarded the priestess, Pythia, with the result that, whichever way the event at hand should turn, her forecast was always sure to be correct.

The classical example is contained in the words which Pythia addressed to Pyrrhus: ‘Aio te, Pyrrhum Romanos vincere posse.’ The Romans, too, were a superstitious people, and held views on the supernatural not dissimilar to those of the Greeks.

But our forebears were as superstitious as any; and to this day in the remoter corners of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland various superstitions exercise so powerful an influence over the lives of many communities that we may be entitled to say that these ancient beliefs are dying hard. For the survival in Ireland and in most of the Outer Isles, the Roman Catholic Church is largely responsible, in that it has consistently and persistently kept the people in ignorance, partly for reasons of personal and pecuniary advantage which it still derives from poor and humble peasants. At any rate, it has denied its adherents that wider outlook and truer perspective of things that the Reformation secured for many of us.

A great deal of superstitious ceremony is still observed in the Hebrides in connection with the sea; and innumerable incantations survive even to this day among the several seafaring communities, which gain practically their entire means of livelihood from fishing. In some islands, after the sails are hoisted, a prolonged prayer is offered up in which the ship is blessed before putting out to sea, it being the belief that disaster will inevitably befall the fishermen if certain observances such as this should be neglected. Many very old Gaelic and Erse prayers and invocations refer almost entirely to seafaring, and concern the safety of those who go down to the sea in order to partake of the abundance of ‘Mary’s Storehouse.’

We have evidence of the regular blessing of boats before sailing in Alexander MacDonald’s celebrated beannachadh of the Birlinn of Clan Ranald, where the priest commenced the ceremony by going aboard the boat first and sprinkling the deck with holy water, which he carried in a jar especially consecrated to the purpose. Barra fishermen still take to sea with them a bottle of holy water with which they anoint themselves when they imagine that they are in danger of being wrecked in a storm. Each year on that island the fishing-season is inaugurated by a religious service which is celebrated on Latha Fheill Brighde—St Bride’s Day.

Other superstitions associated with the sea necessitate the preliminary 'sailing round sunwise (deasil) before bearing for a particular place. Then, again, it was considered unlawful to approach certain islands with an easterly, or, maybe, a westerly wind. Those who accompanied the sheep-hunting expedition from Lewis to the Flannan Isles, as I have mentioned elsewhere, returned home without attempting to land if the wind changed its direction, even though they should happen to be within a few hundred yards of the accustomed landing-place.

It was the unfailing custom for fishermen detained on Fladda-Chuan by a contrary wind to resort to the ruined Columban chapel there, and to wash a certain blue stone in the expectation that a favourable wind would immediately be sent. An early chronicler tells us that this stone never failed to produce the required result, particularly when washed by one who was not a native. This stone was further credited with the property of being able to relieve effectively persons troubled with stitches, if properly applied to the side of the invalid.

The same historian informs us that twice he attempted to sail from Islay to Colonsay, but that on both occasions the oarsmen would persist in first rowing round sunwise, with the consequence that adverse winds forced them to return to the shore. Eventually he decided to make a third attempt, and this time from Jura; and the boatmen, having dispensed at his request with the customary sunwise turn, were greatly surprised that it was possible to effect a landing without any mishap. This voyage, at any rate, ‘hath convinced the crew of the vanity of this superstitious ceremony.’

The belief in the healing power of water from certain holy wells was so widespread that almost every island community possessed a well to which the peasants might resort in times of affliction and distress, because most of these wells were regarded as ‘catholica’ for all kinds of ailments and diseases and adversities. But the subject of holy wells, and the various properties attributed to their several waters, is a vast and almost inexhaustible one. With it I have dealt elsewhere. However, as I write, there occurs to me one interesting case recorded in connection with the persistent belief held in the power of holy water. It was customary for the fishermen of a particular Roman Catholic family to apply to the priest for a small quantity of holy water before they went fishing, so that they might besprinkle their nets ere they dropped them into the sea.

We are told that the Protestant fishermen observed with unconcern this ridiculous piece of ritual; but the Papists, being impatient and full of expectations, arose one morning betimes to draw in their nets, ‘and being come to the place they soon perceived that all the nets were lost; but the Protestants found their nets safe and full of herring,’ which was no small mortification to the priest and his proselytes, and exposed them to the derision of their neighbours.

In the Outer Isles, especially in the Roman Catholic parts, certain objects had —and, as a matter of fact, still have—a special significance. For instance, a man coming towards you is considered an excellent sign; while a man standing is held to denote that some sick person is fast recovering from an illness. Similarly, a bird on the wing is looked upon as a good omen; and a bird winging towards you presages the arrival of a long-expected letter, or of glad tidings. Ducks (tunnagan) are supposed to be lucky, particularly for sailors, for they are said to indicate safety from drowning. Then, peacocks, crows, and sparrows are thought to be unlucky; whereas larks and doves are regarded as messengers of prosperity and of peace. That the lark is included among the sacred birds is evinced by the fact that it is not infrequently referred to as Uiseag Mhoire, the lark of the Virgin Mary; while in a number of old Orcadian MSS. it is spoken of as ‘Wir Lady’s Hen.’

A cat is supposed to be good luck only for MacKintoshes for others it is rosadach, or untoward. In the same way a pig is declared to bring luck to the Campbells. Then, it has long been considered unlucky to shoot seals and to kill spiders. And, since witches are said to transform themselves into hares, the crossing of your path by a hare is a bad omen. It is surely Ben Jonson who writes:

A witch is a kind of hare,
And marks the weather
As a hare doth.

Northern fishermen till within recent times turned home again if on their way to the boats they encountered a woman, a parson, or a hare, being firmly convinced that they would have no fortune that day.

It was taboo, when visiting the Flannan Isles, to call certain objects by their proper names, and to kill a fowl after vespers or before every member of the fowling party had disembarked. Of the Flannan Isles I have told you elsewhere. Then, the natives of Barvas (in Lewis) used to send a man very early in the morning of Latha bealtainn, the first day of May (Beltane was the first day of the year according to the ancient calendar), to cross the Barvas River, because they believed that, should a woman be the first to cross, the supply of salmon for the ensuing year would be seriously diminished. One could extend the list of such illustrations indefinitely.

An enormous amount of superstition is still associated with cows and milk in the more outlandish islands. It was long affirmed in many parts of Scotland that by a charm women were able to convey the increase of their neighbour’s cow’s milk to their own use. Certain women, who were proficient in the ‘black art,’ could cause milk to curdle; while those who possessed the ‘evil eye’ were accused of inducing cows to fall ill, or of taking substance out of milk, with the result that it refused to churn. Against such witchcraft suitable blessings were pronounced on the cows before they were driven to the shielings in the summer-time; and nuts, called ‘molluka beans,’ were used as amulets. Nuts were often placed in milk-pails in order to charm cows, as well as to improve the quality and quantity of milk; and, indeed, children were sometimes obliged to wear a string of nuts round their necks as a means of protection against the ‘evil eye.’

It is declared in some parts of the Highlands that an increase in milk is at times prevented by trout, if it should happen that the pails in which the milk is usually kept have been rinsed in a stream or rivulet wherein there are trout; and they say that, in order to recover such a loss, a little milk should be poured into the mouth of a live trout, which, they affirm, ‘doth presently curdle, if it was taken away by trouts.’

That a witch was able to avenge herself by taking the substance out of the milk of a neighbour’s cow was long believed in Ireland; and the following seventeenth-century indictment against a woman in Shetland illustrates that witchcraft was regarded as a dangerous practice among a law-abiding people: ‘Item: Ye the sd. Marion Pardown ar indyttit and accusit for that zeers syne James Halcro, having a cow that ye allegit had pushed a cow of yours, ye in revenge thereof by yr. devilish art of witchcraft made the sd. James his cow milk nothing but blood, whereas your awin cow had na harm in her milk.’

The Highlands and Islands, with their wild majesty, afford a soil wherein the seeds of superstitious beliefs have thriven for many centuries. Sir Walter Scott gives us an endless variety of such beliefs, several of which he noted personally in his own lifetime. In Alan MacAulay he portrays the taibhsear, the man of the ‘second-sight,’ who can foretell the future. The vision in gray, which made its appearance at death to every chief of his clan, represents the beanshith—the banshee, or ‘Woman of Peace.’ Then, in the Black Dwarf; Scott describes the influence of fear on an ignorant community believing in witchcraft.

Thomas Campbell also introduces a seer, who predicts the result of Culloden in the lines:

Lochiel I Lochiel! Beware of the day
When the Lowlands shall meet thee in battle array!

In parts of the Hebrides superstition is so much a second nature with some people that everyday occurrences are recognised as the handiwork of the arch-fiend himself. A well-known and much respected Islesman of my own acquaintance was returning home slightly under the influence of Highland dew, and fell asleep near a farm where a number of goats were kept. Some time afterwards he was rudely awakened by a bearded billy-goat butting at him; and the poor man was discovered utterly out of his wits, and could not be convinced that the devil had not come to claim his own.


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