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Popular Superstitions of the Highlands
Origin and History of Witchcraft


Of their Professional Powers and Prcctices

ON a nearer examination of a witch’s character, we will find her face a very correct index to her heart. She is the arch-enemy of whatever is good and amiable. Invested as she is with as ample powers of seduction and mischief as Satan himself, she is equally expert in accomplishing the ruin of the soul and body of the objects of her malignity. In order to convey to the reader an idea of those powers with which she is invested, and which she never fails to exercise, we shall detail them in their order, illustrating our statements, as we go along, with proofs from the best authorities.

The most formidable of all the powers conferred on a witch consists in the torture and destruction of human beings by infernal machination. There are various processes by which those; hellish practices are accomplished, but the most common process is that invented and used by that eminent and distinguished witch, "Crea Mhoir cun .Drochdair," who was burnt and worried at a stake at Inverness, about two centuries ago, for bewitching and keeping in torment the body of the provost’s son. Crea made an effigy of clay, and other hellish ingredients, into which she stuck pins and other sharp instruments. This effigy of the provost’s son she placed on a spit at a large fire, and by these cantrips the hag communicated such agonizing torments to the young gentleman, that he must have had speedily fallen a victim to his sufferings, had it not been for the happy discovery made by means of a little grandchild of Crea Mhoir’s, who divulged the whole secret to a little companion, for the small gratification of a piece of bread and cheese. But although Crea, honest woman, was long ago disposed of, to the great comfort and satisfaction of her countrymen, who naturally enough ascribed to her all the calamities which happened in the country during her lifetime, she left behind her the immortal fruits of her genius, for the benefit of her black posterity, in those mischievous inventions practised by the witches of the present day, who understand the knack of torturing their unhappy contemporaries in all its branches.

The next important power of a witch, and a warlock, consists in their control over air and water, whereby they raise most dreadful storms and hurricanes by sea, and by land, and thus accomplish the destruction of many a valuable life, which otherwise might have been long spared. The following account of the loss of a most excellent gentleman exhibits too melancholy an instance of the success of their experiments in this way:

"John Garve Macgillichallum of Razay was an ancient hero of great celebrity. Distinguished in the age in which he lived for the gallantry of his exploits, he has often been selected by the bard as the theme of his poems and songs. Alongst with a constitution of body naturally vigorous and powerful, Razay was gifted with all those noble qualities of the mind which a true hero is supposed to possess. And what reflected additional lustre on his character, was that he never failed to apply his talents and powers to the best uses. He was the active and inexorable enemy of the weird sisterhood, many of whom he was the auspicious instrument of sending to their ‘black inheritance’ much sooner than they either expected or desired. It was not therefore to be supposed, that, while those amiable actions endeared Razay to all good people, they were all calculated to win him the regard of those infernal hags to whom he was so deadly a foe. As might be naturally expected, they cherished towards him the most implacable thirst of revenge, and sought, with unremitting vigilance, for an opportunity of quenching it. That such an opportunity did unhappily occur, and that the meditated revenge of these hags was too well accomplished, will speedily appear from this melancholy story.

"It happened upon a time, that Razay and a number of friends planned an expedition to the island of Lewes, for the purpose of hunting the deer of that place. They accordingly embarked on board the chieftain’s yacht, manned by the flower of the young men of Razay, and in a few hours they chased the fleet-bounding hart on the mountains of Lewes. Their sport proved excellent. Hart after hart, and hind after hind, were soon levelled to the ground by the unerring hand of Razay; and when night terminated the chase, they retired to their shooting quarters, where they spent the night with jovialty and mirth, little dreaming of their melancholy fate in the morning.

"In the morning of next day, the chief of Razay and his followers rose with the sun, with the view of returning to Razay. The day was squally and occasionally boisterous, and the billows raged with great violence. But Razay was determined to cross the channel to his residence, and ordered his yacht to prepare for the voyage. The more cautious and less courageous of his suite, however, urged on him to defer the expedition till the weather should somewhat settle—an advice which Razay, with a courage which knew no fear, rejected, and expressed his firm determination to proceed without delay. Probably with a view to inspire his company with the necessary degree of courage to induce them all to concur in the undertaking, he adjourned with them to the ferry-house, where they had recourse to that supporter of spirits under every trial, the usquebaugh, a few bottles of which added vastly to the resolution of the company. Just as the party were. disputing the practicability of the proposed adventure, an old woman, with wrinkled front, bending on a crutch, catered the ferry-house; and Razay, in the heat of argument, appealed to the old woman, whether the passage of the channel on such a day was riot perfectly practicable and free from danger. The woman, without hesitation, replied in the affirmative, adding such observations, reflecting on their courage, as immediately silenced every opposition to the voyage; and, accordingly, the whole party embarked in the yacht for Razay. But, alas! what were the consequences? No sooner were they abandoned to the mercy of the waves than the elements seemed to conspire to their destruction. All attempts to put back the vessel proved unavailing, and she was speedily driven out before the wind in the direction of Razay. The heroic chieftain laboured hard to animate his company, and to dispel the despair which began to seize them; by the most exemplary courage and resolution. He took charge of the helm, and, in spite of the combined efforts of the sea, wind, and lightning, he kept the vessel steadily on her course towards the lofty point of Aird in Skye. The drooping spirits of his crew began to revive, and hope began to smile upon them— when, lo! to their great astonishment, a large cat was seen to climb the rigging. This cat was soon followed by another of equal size, and the last by a successor, until at length the shrouds, masts, and whole tackle, were actually covered with them. Nor did the sight of all those cats, although he knew well enough their real character, intimidate the resolute Razay, until a large black cat, larger than any of the rest, appeared on the mast-head, as commander in-chief of the whole legion. Razay, on observing him, instantly foresaw the result; he, however, determined to sell his life as dearly as possible, and immediately commanded an attack upon the cats—but, alas! it soon proved abortive. With a simultaneous effort the cats overturned the vessel on her leeward wale, and every soul; on board were precipitated into a watery grave. Thus ended the glorious life of Jan Garbh Macgilichallum of Razay, to the lasting regret of the brave clan Leod and all good people, and to the great satisfaction of the abominable witches who thus accomplished his lamentable doom.

"The same day, another hero, celebrated for his hatred of witchcraft, was warming himself in his hunting hut, in the forest of Gaick in Badenoch. His faithful hounds, fatigued with the morning chase, lay stretched on the turf by his side,—his gun, that would not miss, reclined in the neuk of the boothy,—the skian dhu of the sharp edge hung by his side, and these alone constituted his company. As the hunter sat listening to the howling storm as it whistled there entered at the door an apparently poor weather-beaten cat, shivering with cold, and drenched to the skin. On observing her, the hairs of the dogs became erected bristles, and they immediately rose to attack the pitiable cat, which stood trembling at the door. ‘Great  hunter of the hills,’ exclaims the poor looking, trembling cat, ‘ I claim your protection. I know your hatred to my craft, and perhaps it is just. Still spare, oh spare a poor jaded wretch, who thus flies to you for protection from the cruelty and oppression of her sister-hood.’ Moved to compassion by her eloquent address, and disdaining to take advantage of his greatest enemy in such a seemingly forlorn situation, he pacified his infuriated dogs, and desired her to come forward to the fire and warm herself. ‘Nay,’ says she, ‘in the first place, you will please bind with this long hair those two furious hounds of yours, for I am afraid they will tear my poor hams to pieces. I pray you, therefore, my dear Sir, that you would have the goodness to bind them together by the necks with this long hair.’ But the curious nature of the hair induced the hunter to dissemble a little. Instead of having bound his dogs with it, as he pretended, he threw it across a beam of wood which connected the couple of the boothy. The witch then supposing the dogs securely bound, approached the fire, and squatted herself down as if to dry herself. She had not sitten many minutes, when the hunter could easily discover a striking increase in her size, which he could not forbear remarking in a jocular manner to herself. ‘ A bad death to you, you nasty beast,’ says the hunter; ‘you are getting very large.’—’Aye, aye,’ replied the cat, equally jocosely, ‘as my hairs imbibe the heat, they naturally expand.’ These jokes, however, were but a prelude to a more serious conversation. The cat still continuing her growth, had at length attained a most extraordinary size,—when, in the twinkling of an eye, she transformed herself into her proper likeness of the Goodwife of Laggan, and thus addressed him: ‘Hunter of the Hills, your hour of reckoning is arrived. Behold me before you, the avowed champion of my devoted sisterhood, of whom Macgillichallum of Razay and you were always the most relentless enemies. But Razey is no more. His last breath is fled. He lies a lifeless corpse on the bottom of the main; and now, Hunter of the Hills, it is your turn.’ With these words, assuming a most hideous and terrible appearance, she made a spring at the hunter. The two dogs, which she supposed seemly bound by the infernal hair, sprung at her in her turn, and a most furious conflict ensued. The witch, thus unexpectedly attacked by the dogs, now began to repent of her temerity. ‘Fasten, hair, fasten,’ she perpetually exclaimed, supposing the dogs to have been bound by the hair, and so effectually did the hair fasten, according to her order, that it at last snapt the beam in twain. At length, finding herself completely overpowered, she attempted a retreat, but so closely were the hounds fastened in her breasts, that it was with no small difliculty she could get herself disengaged from them. Screaming and shrieking, the Wife of Laggari dragged herself out of the house, trailing after her the dogs, which were fastened in her so closely, that they never loosed their hold, until she demolished every tooth in their heads. Then metamorphosing herself into the likeness of a raven, she fled over the mountains in the direction of her home. The two faithful dogs, bleeding and exhausted, returned to their master, and, in the act of caressing his hand, both fell down and expired at his feet. Regretting their loss with a sorrow only known to the parent who weeps over the remains of departed children, he buried his devoted dogs, and returned home to his family. His wife was not in the house when he arrived, but she soon made her appearance. ‘Where have you been, my love?' inquired the husband - ’Indeed,’ replies she, ‘ I have been seeing the Goodwife of Laggan, who has been just seized with so severe an illness, that she is not expected to live for any time.’—’ Aye aye!’ says he, ‘what is the matter with the worthy woman?‘—‘She was all day absent in the moss at her peats,’ replies the wife, ‘ and was seized with a sudden cholic, in consequence of getting wet feet, and now all her friends and neighbours are expecting her demision.’.—’ Poor woman,’ says the husband, ‘ I am sorry for her. Get me some dinner, it will be right that I should go and see her also.’ Dinner being provided and dispatched, the hunter immediately proceeded to the house of Laggan, where he found a great assemblage of neighbours mourning, with great sincerity, the approaching decease of a woman whom they all had hitherto esteemed virtuous. The hunter, walking up to the sick woman's bed in a rage, proportioned to the greatness of its cause, stripped the sick. woman of all her coverings. A shriek from the now exposed witch brought all the company around her. ‘Behold,’ says he, ‘ this object of your solicitude, who is nothing less than an infernal witch. To-day, she informs me, she was present at the death of the Laird of Razay, and only a few hours have elapsed since she attempted to make me share his fate. This night, however, she shall expiate her crime, by the forfeiture of her horrid life.’ Relating to the company the whole circumstances of her attack upon him, which were too well corroborated by the conclusive marks she bore on her person, the whole company were perfectly convinced of her criminality; and the customary punishment was about to be inflicted on her, when the miserable wretch addressed them as follows: ‘ My ill-requited friends, spare an old acquaintance, already in the agonies of death, from any farther mortal degradation. My crimes and my folly now stare me in the face, in their true colours, while my vile and perfidious seducer, ‘the enemy of your temporal and spiritual interests, only laughs at me in my distress; and, as a reward for my fidelity to his interest, in seducing every thing that was amiable, awl in destroying every thing that was good, he is now about to consign my soul to eternal misery. Let my example be a warning to all the people of the earth to shun the fatal rock on which I have split; and as a strong inducement for them to do so, I shall atone for my iniquity to the utmost of my ability, by detailing to you the awful history of my life.’ Here the Wife of Laggan detailed at full length the way she was seduced into the service of the evil one,—all the criminal adventures in which she had been engaged, and ended with a particular account of the death of Macgillichallum of Razay, and her attack upon the hunter, and then expired.

Meanwhile, a neighbour of the Wife or Laggan was returning home late at night from Strathdearn, where he had been upon some business, and had just entered the dreary forest of Monalea in Badenoch, when he met a woman dressed in black, who ran with great speed, and inquired at the traveller, with great agitation, how far she was distant from the church-yard of Dalarossie, and if she could be there by twelve o’clock. The traveller told her she might, if she continued to go at the same pace that she did then. She then fled alongst the road, uttering the most desponding lamentations, and the traveller continued his road to Badenoch, He had not, however, walked many miles when he met a large black dog, which travelled past him with much velocity, as if upon the scent of a track or footsteps, and soon after he met another large black dog sweeping along in the same manner. The last dog, however, was scarcely past, when he met a stout black man on a fine fleet black courser, prancing along in the same direction after the dogs. ‘Pray,’ says the rider to the traveller, ‘did you meet a woman as you came along the hill?’ The traveller replied in the affirmative. ‘And did you meet a dog soon after?’ rejoined the rider. The traveller replied he did. ‘And,’ added the rider, ‘do you think the dog will overtake her ere she can reach the church of Dalarossie ?‘—‘ He will, at any rate, be very close upon her heels,’ answered the traveller. Each then took his own way. But before the traveller had got the length of Glenbanchar, the rider overtook him on his return, with the foresaid woman before him across the bow of his saddle, and one of the dogs fixed in her breast, and another in her thigh. ‘Where did you overtake the woman?’ inquired the traveller. ‘ Just as she was entering the churchyard of Dalarossie,’ was his reply. On the traveller’s return home, he heard of the fate of the unfortunate Wife of Laggan, which soon explained the nature of the company he had met on the road. It was, no doubt, the spirit of the Wife of Laggan flying for protection from the infernal spirits, (to whom she had sold herself,) to the church-yard of Dalarossie, which is so sacred a place, that a witch is immediately dissolved from all her ties with Satan, on making a pilgrimage to it, either dead or alive. But, it seems the unhappy Wife of Laggan was a stage too late."

There is another power given to them, which is a most mischievous one, and proves the fruitful source of almost all the crimes and miseries which deluge the land,—that of sowing the seeds of discord amongst mankind in public and private life. We will say nothing of the degree of secret influence which these worthies probably enjoy in overruling the councils of our nation, and thwarting the judgment of our ministers so as to answer their private purposes, as it would be out of our strict line of delineation. But we speak from the best authority when we say, that they are the common and secret instigators of those deplorable quarrels and divisions which sometimes happen between those who ought to be one flesh. Whenever we see a broken-hearted wife, mourning over the misconduct of her husband, who, once tenderly affectionate and attentive to the discharge of his domestic duties, is now changed into, the domestic tyrant and whisky-bibber, we need never hesitate for a moment to pronounce the cause to be witchcraft. And the same rule holds good in regard to the misconduct of the wife, vice versa. Behold, again, the man of sin, clothed in the garment of disgrace, that sits "girnan on the creepy." Ask him what blindfold infatuation could have induced him to have defiled his neighbour’s bed, and he will tell you, with a groan, it was "Buchuchd."

Nor are their operations confined to the injury of a person’s spiritual interest alone—they even descend to the lowest incidents in a man’s tailing. If the reader should see a termagant of a wife raise over the caput of her poor cuckold of a husband, the tongs or spurtle, demanding of him, with vehement eloquence, the cause of purchasing a horse or a cow at double its value, his answer to her will certainly be-.—. "Me ve ar mu Buchuchd."

Thus the ruination of our spiritual interests is not enough to satisfy their inveterate malignity,—they must likewise injure our temporal interests, which, however incomparable to the former in point of intrinsic importance, yet causes the sufferer fully as much grief. Indeed, so dearly do the most of the people of this world love their temporal means and estate, that we feel fully persuaded, that did those agents confine their operations to the injury of our spiritual interests alone, which,. as Satan’s instruments, we should naturally suppose to be their proper line of business, the clamour against their ruinous and abominable practices would be much less violent than it is. This much, however, of the Highlander’s liberal disposition the sly sounding witch is intimately acquainted with, and for this very reason she redoubles her diligence to cause him all the loss in her power, as the most effectual way of completing his misery. Hence, it often happens, that should a horse, an ox, or a cow, of unequalled symmetry and beauty, be so unlucky as to attract the favour of its affectionate owner;—by whatever means the sagacious witch discovers the secret we know not, but certain annihilation, accomplished by some means or other, will be the poor animal’s lot. Such a calamity as this is sufficiently mortifying, but it is a small one when compared to the loss of a person’s whole stock, which too frequently follows the loss of one. Having once inserted the infernal pillow into some snug corner, its influence will give the finishing stroke to all the cattle and creeping things on a farm. This pillow, not to give it a worse name, is a little four-cornered bag, packed with diverse exterminating diseases, in the familiar likeness of hair, grease, pairings of nails, shoe-tackets, salt, powder, and other infernal knick-knacks, too tedious to be described, which, when thrown into the fire, makes a noise the like of which has seldom been heard.

No sooner is this bag deposited in a cleft in the stable or byre than it commences its destructive career, producing the death of the bestial in whole lots, until the last lien on the roost will fall a sacrifice to its deadly influence. Nor is this all; they will attach some infernal cantrips to the farming-utensils that no good crop will follow their operations, and what may escape the influence of the baggie is commonly destroyed by frost, rain, lightning, and other calamities, which the craft can produce at their pleasure, so that it is unfit for the use of man or beast. In short, of all the ills incident to the life of man, none are so formidable as witchcraft, before the combined influence of which, to use the language of an honest man who had himself severely suffered from its effects, the great Laird of Grant himself could not stand them if they should fairly yoke upon him.


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