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Popular Superstitions of the Highlands
Belton Eve


"Now the sun’s gone out o’ sight,
Beet the ingle, snuff the light;
In glens the fairies skip and dance,
And witches wallop o’er to France."
RAMSAY.

Belton is derived from two Gaelic words conjoined: "Paletein," signifying Pale’s fire, and not Baall's fire, as some suppose. The strange relic of Pagan idolatry which gave rise to this feast was no doubt introduced into these countries, like many others of our more prominent superstitions, by the Druids. Pales (of whom we read in the Heathenish mythologies) was the Goddess of Shepherds, and protectress of flocks. Her feast was always celebrated in the month of April, on which occasion, no victim was. killed, and nothing was offered but the fruits of the earth. The shepherds purified their flocks with the smoke of sulphur, juniper, boxwood, rosemary, &c. They then made a large fire, round which they danced, and offered to the goddess milk, cheese, eggs, &c. holding their faces towards the east, and uttering ejaculations peculiar to the occasion. Those interesting relics of the religious opinions of our ancestors, until of late, remained pretty entire in some parts of the Highlands. But they have now, however, declined into those childish ceremonies above described.

BELT0N EVE is a night of considerable importance and of much anxiety to the Highland farmer, as being the grand anniversary review night, on which all the tribes of. witches, warlocks, wizards, and fairies, in the kingdom, are to be reviewed, by Satan and his chief generals in person, and new candidates admitted into infernal orders. When such a troop, under such a commander, are let loose upon the community, it is natural to suppose that much misery and devastation will follow their train; and when rewards are only conferred on those most consurnate in wickedness, and those most adept in cutting diabolical cantrips, it is natural for every honest man to feel anxious that they may not obtain promotion at his expence. In order, therefore, to be perfectly secure from the machinations of so dangerous a society, every prudent man will resort to those safeguards that will keep them at the staff’s end. Messengers are therefore dispatched to the woods for cargoes of the blessed rowan tree, the virtues of which are well known. Being formed into the shape of a cross, by means of a red thread, the virtues of which too are very eminent, those crosses are, with all due solemnity, inserted in the different door lintels in the town, and protect those premises from the cantrips of the most diabolical witch in the universe. Care should also be taken to insert one of them in the midden, which has at all times been a favourite site of rendezvous with the black sisterhood. This cheaply purchased precaution once observed, the people of those countries will now go to bed as unconcernedly, and sleep as soundly, as on any other night.

While those necessary precautions are in preparation, the matron or housekeeper is employed in a not less interesting avocation to the juvenile generation, i. e. baking the Belton bannocks. Next morning the children are presented each with a bannock, with as much joy as an heir to an estate his title-deeds; and having their pockets well lined with cheese and eggs, to render the entertainment still more sumptuous, they hasten to the place of assignation, to meet the little band assembled on the brow of some sloping hill, to reel their bannocks, and learn their future fate. With hearty greetings they meet, and with their knives make the signs of life and death on their bannocks. These signs are a cross, or the sign of life, on the one side; and a cypher, or the sign of death, on the other. This being done, the bannocks are all arranged in a line, and on their edges let down the hill. This process is repeated three times, and if the cross most frequently present itself, the owner will live to celebrate another Belton day; but if the cypher is oftenest uppermost, he is doomed to die of course. This sure prophecy of short life, however, seldom spoils the appetites of the unfortunate short-livers, who will handle their knives with as little signs of death as their more fortunate companions. Assembling around a rousing fire of collected heath and brushwood, the ill-fated bannocks are soon demolished, amidst the cheering and jollity of the youthful association.


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