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Scottish Charms and Amulets
Miscellaneous Charms, &c


Snail-Stones.The snail-stone is one of the few amulets mentioned by Lhwyd, who describes it as "a small hollow Cilinder of blue Glass, composed of four or five Annulets: So that as to Form and Size it resembles a midling entrochus. This, among others of its mysterious Virtues, cures Sore Eyes." The Rev. John Fraser, in his letter to Wodrow already quoted, also mentions these stones as having "the exact figure of the snaile," and says they "are much comended for the eyes, and I’m confident their cooling vertue is prevalent against pains bred by a hott cause." The engraving of the snail-stone given by Sir Robert Sibbald shows it to be nothing more than an oblong glass bead of early type, constricted round the circumference so as to resemble four disc-shaped beads joined together.

Mole-Stones.—So far as I am aware, the only writer who mentions these stones is Lhwyd, and he only briefly refers to them as "Rings of blue Glass, annulated as the aforesaid Snail-Stones."

Cock-knee Stone.—Lhwyd describes the Cock-knee stone as an Echinites pileatus minor, of flint, and states that the Highlanders firmly believe it "to be sometimes found in the Knees of old Cock[s]; and a Fellow in Mul protested to me (though I was never the nearer believing him) that he had with his own hands taken one of them out of a Cock’s Knee ; and named two or three others who had done the like."

Fraser mentions having had "a ston of the diamiter of half ane inch that grew as ane excrement upon a cock’s knee, and made him halt at the weight of it;" but he does not ascribe any virtues to it. Pennant states that when in Islay a present was made to him of a clach clun ceilach [sic] or cock-knee stone, but that he had unluckily forgotten its virtues. He adds: "It very much resembles a common pebble." There is another cock-stone, the Alectorius, which is found within the body of a castrated cock of three or four years of age. "Gemma haec colore est pellucido crystalli specie, magnitudine fabae." It does not appear to have been used as a charm in Scotland, but Fraser mentions it in connection with the knee-stone, and says: "the cock-ston is reported by Levinus worn near the skin—’vehementer excitare ad res venereas.’ It would look to be reasonable, because the cock himself in whose gasorde it’s found is a creature full of lust."

Aetites or Eagle-Stone. The only writer who mentions the Eagle-stone in connection with Scottish superstition is Ure, and what he says is little more than a summary of Pliny’s account of it. The stone was believed to be found only in the nests of eagles, being brought there by the birds themselves to facilitate the hatching of their eggs and to drive away serpents. Among other virtues it was believed to be of great value to women in rendering childbirth easy and safe, and also for detecting theft. "These stones are formed of two different substances, the one much harder and more compact than the other; the Nucleus, which is of a softer Matter than the surface, shrinks as it petrifies, thereby leaving a cavity between the harder circumference and itself, and being of course loose, must necessarily rattle." In Iceland a powerful charm, known as the Lausnar-stein, possessed, like the aëtites, the power of loosening the pains of labour. It has to be sought for in the nests of eagles, and is also distinguished as male and female. It appears to be the fruit of Mimosa Scandens.

Toad-Stone. —The belief that the toad bore a precious stone in its head was formerly common throughout Western Europe, and in Scotland at least the belief can hardly be said to be extinct. The superstition has also become classical in English literature, through Shakespeare’s allusion to this stone :

"Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head."

Similarly, Ben Jonson alludes to the toad-stone set in rings:

"Were you enamour’d on his copper rings,
His saffron jewel with the toad-stone in’t?"

The stone is described by Lhwyd in his letter from Linlithgow already quoted, as "some Peble, remarkable for its Shape and sometimes variety of Colours. This is presumed to prevent the burning of a House, and the sinking of a Boat: And if a Commander in the Field has one of them about him, he will either be sure to win the Day, or all his Men shall fairly dye on the spot." Nicols’ describes the stone as of a "brownish colour, somewhat tending to redness; convex on the one side; and on the other side, sometimes plain, sometimes hollow ;" and he adds: "It is reported of it that it is good against poyson if it be worn so that it may touch the skin, and that if poyson be present it will sweate, and that if any inflations procured by venomous creatures be touched with it, it will cure them." According to Mizauld, to obtain the stone it was necessary to bury the toad in a hole to remove the flesh; and the legitimacy of the stone was proved by holding it near a toad, when the animal immediately raised itself and snatched at it. Another method was to place the toad on a red cloth, when it immediately disgorged the stone. Boetius mentions his having tried the experiment, and says he sat up all the night watching the toad, but the only result was the loss of a night’s sleep. Toad-stones were simply "the bony embossed plates lining the palate or the jaws, and serving instead of teeth to a fossil fish, an arrangement observable in the recent representatives of the same species."

Two so-called Toad-stones formerly in use in Scotland are still in existence, one of which is in the Museum at Kirkcudbright and the other in private hands. They differ from the true toad-stones already mentioned in being merely small pebbles. The stone in the Museum at Kirkcudbright is known as the "Cowan’s Taid-stane," and is traditionally assigned to the founder of Cowan’s Hospital, Stirling. This amulet is a small pebble of mottled jasper, flattish-oval in form, measuring 3/4 inch in length by 11/16 inch broad and 9/16 inch thick, and is mounted in a broad band of silver, with a loop for suspension. The silver-mounting appears to have been twice broken, and as often repaired. The stone is stated to have possessed great curative properties, especially in diseases of cattle; and it is said that an entry was inserted, in Cowan’s time, in the St Ninian’s, Stirlingshire, Kirk-Session Records, denouncing the belief in it as superstition, and forbidding the parishioners to use the charm in any shape or form. A search through the Kirk-Session Records, however, has hitherto failed to find any such reference. In 1859 the stone was in the possession of the late C. S. Finlayson, Postmaster of Kirkcudbright, who inherited it from his mother, Marion Cowan, a lineal descendant of the founder of the hospital, through whom again it can be traced to her great-grandfather. After 1859, the stone passed into the hands of the Rev. Mr Underwood, Kirkcudbright, at whose death it was deposited in the Museum.

The second Toad-stone, which has already been described in the Proceedings (vol. xxiv. pp. 157—159), differs in its origin from all other toad-stones in that it grew not in, but on, the head of a toad. This stone "is in shape and size like a small orange of a dark chocolate colour;" and is "an impure chalcedony, coloured with ferric oxide, and has probably come from an amygdaloidal cavity in some igneous rock." It was used for healing various ailments, but of what nature it is not mentioned. "Sometimes the charm was applied directly to the seat of pain, and at other times it was dipped in water from a running stream, over which an incantation was said, and the patient was made to drink of the water, and had some of it sprinkled over him."

Dr R. de Brus Trotter, in his letter already quoted, states that a man in Kirkmichael, on the Water of Ae, Dumfriesshire, offered him a toad-stone "which was used for taking out adder poison and stopping bleeding," but he declined it, thinking that toad-stones were frauds. "The stone was a smooth polished black substance of oval shape, about 3/4 inch in length by 1/2 inch in diameter, and very light, not heavier than cork. The man gave me a rhyme to be said when it was placed on the wound, which is as follows

"‘The water’s mud [?wud] and runs aflood,
And so does thy blood.
God bade it stand and so it did.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, stand blood!’"

Bats’ Stones.—In a letter dated "Inveraray, Apryle 20, 1702," from Mr John MacLean to the Rev. Robert Wodrow, the writer states that he had received "a cylindricall white stone, and a little stone which they call bats’ stones, because they heall horses of the worms they call bats. They grow out of a rock near the sea in Mull." These stones are also found in Skye, and are referred to in the "Description of Skye" contained in Macfarlane’s Geographical Collections. "Under the sands are found stones of a finger-length, and pyramid shape, which they call botston, because it kills worms in horse, which they call bots. This is confirmed by daylie experience; they drink of the water wherein it is steeped." Martin also refers to these stones in Skye, and describes them as Velumnites which grow in banks of clay; "some of ‘em are 12 Inches long, and tapering towards one end." They are probably fossil belemnites.

Cramp Stones.—These stones are mentioned by Martin, who refers to them as follows:—"Some Banks of Clay on the East Coast [of Skye] are overflow’d by the Tide, and in these grow the Lapis Ceranius, or Cerna Amomis [? Cornu Ammonis], of different shapes. . . . These Stones are by the Natives call’d Cramp Stones, because (as they say) they cure the Cramp in Cows, by washing the part affected with Water in which this Stone has been steep’d for some hours."

Auchmeddan Stone.—A globular ball of ironstone about 1 1/4 inch in diameter, mounted in four bands of silver like the crystal balls already described, is in the possession of Mr W. N. Fraser of Findrack, and has probably been used as a charm. This ball was formerly in the possession of the Bairds of Auchmeddan, and is known as the "Auchmeddan Stone." An inscription on the silver mounting, probably engraved at the beginning of the present century, states that the stone "belonged to the Family of Baird of Auchmeddan from the year 1174." In the absence of documentary evidence in support of this statement, probably no great importance need be attached to it.

To Dr Joass of Golspie I am indebted for the following notice of a glass nodule now in his possession, and which is supposed to be the charm referred to in the note:

"Rather over forty years ago a case was tried in the Dornoch small debt court when "a man of skill" from Lairg, prepaid to cure a cow, declined to remit the fee although he failed to effect the cure. The present sheriff-clerk, who writes that he distinctly remembers the case, says that the sheriff pressed hard to find out the usual methods employed by the wizard but could get no other reply than "that is my secret." At last a hint of imprisonment (without option) brought out the admission that a glass charm was placed in water with which, after invocation of the Trinity, the head, especially the nostril, was washed and the ceremony concluded by a solemn assurance to the owner of the ailing beast that according to his faith it should fare with his property. All this he had carefully done on the occasion in question, so that he had earned his fee, he said, and could not be blamed for the failure.

Some years ago, during trenching near the Wizard’s Cottage, a glass-nodule was found containing a clear liquid shut in when the glass was so hot that a crack was formed which almost reached the surface. This is believed to have been the wizard’s so-called Jewel, discredited and thrown away."

Frequent mention is made in the witchcraft trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the use of certain pebbles for the cure of different diseases. The stones were sometimes applied directly to the seat of the pain, but more often they were laid in water, which thus became endowed with healing properties. Thus in 1590 Hector Munro of Fowles was accused of having consulted a witch named Marioune Mclngaruch, and with having received from her "thre drinkis of watter furth of thre stainis, quhulkis sche had." Ewfame MeCalzane was accused in 1591, among other things, "of consulting and seiking help att Anny Sampsoune, ane notorious Wich, for relief of your payne in tyme of the birth of youre twa sonnes; and ressauing fra hir to that effect ane boirdstane, to be layit under the bowster putt under your heid." Katherine Cragie was accused in 1640 of having brought three stones to Janet Cragie’s house for the purpose of finding what kind of spirit troubled the latter’s husband :~

"Ye the said Katharein cum to the said Jonet’s house befor day, and brocht with you thrie stones, which ye put on the fyre, wher they continowed all the day till eftir sone sett; and than ye took thame out of the fyre, laying thame vnder the threshold of the doore, where they continowed all night till vpon the morow timeous befor sun rysing, ye took tharne vp frome vnder the said doore threshold, and taking a veshell filled with water, ye put the stones thairin severallie, on after another; of which stones, being thus put into the said water be yow, the said Jonet Crogie hard on of thame chirme and churle into the water, wharvpon ye said to the said Jonet on this maner: Jonet, it is a kirk-spirit which troubleth Robbie your husband. Thairefter ye gave the vessel with the water to the said Jonet, wharinto ye haid put the thrie stones, and directed her to wasch hir husband thairwith."

This she was accused of repeating three times. The same woman was further charged with curing Thomas Corse in a somewhat similar manner also by means of three stones, "quhilkis tymous in the morneing, ye laid in thrie corneris or nookis of the hearth, quher the samen continwit till about day-setting ; and then ye did, with your awin handis, tak vp the thrie stones from their severall places, and laid thame behind the dore all night ; and tymous in tire morneing, ye did tak vp these thrie cold stones, and put thame in ane vessell, with water," &e. In 1643 another witch named Jonet Reid was accused of having charmed Elspeth Sinclair of the boneshaw, and that she "vsit besyd wordis, nyne blue stones, quhilk shoe did putt in ane vessell with water, twitching her joyntis with each of the severall stones, which ye keipit in your lap, and went fourth with; and efter washed her with, the water that was in the wessell in which the stones lay."

The Rev. Robert Wodrow in a letter to Sir Robert Sibbald dated "23 Nov. 1710," says he received "severall other flints and bleu stones of noe regular figure, which wer in the hands of [a] woman that made use of them as a charm. She boyled them in watter, and poured out the watter within a little after it came to the boyl (as a libation to Satan noe doubt), and then put a second watter on them, and let it boyl a little, and poured it of for use, viz., a soveraigne to all poison, pains, etc. The watter, she told me, would be of noe use unless the first wer poured out."

In- 1624 James Keith of Benholme, a landed proprietor, was accused of the " tressonabill and theftious steilling by way of Maisterfull-thift and Stouthe-reiff" from the house of George, Earl Marischal, numerous articles of value, among which was "ane jasp stane for steming of bluid, estimat to fyve hundreth French Crownes." Another blood-stone is mentioned in the "Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland" as follows: "Feb. 9, 1504. Item, to the said Williame [Foular, potingary], for ane bludestane, and thre vnce upir stuf for the Queen, for bleding of pe nese; eftir ane R. (recipe) of Maister Robert Schaw, xxij s."

The altar slab in the old church at lona, for some reason or other, appears to have become suddenly endowed with many valuable qualities, such as preserving from shipwreck, fire, etc. From being almost entire in 1688, by 1773 (the year of Johnson’s visit with Boswell) it was entirely destroyed. Sacheverell in his "voyage to I-columb-kill" in 1688, describes the slab as follows:—" There is one thing yet which is very noble in its kind, which was the ancient altar of the church, one of the finest pieces of white marble I ever saw; it is about six foot long, and four broad, curiously veined and polished; it is all yet entire, except for one corner, which has been broken by accident." Eighty-five years later, Dr Samuel Johnson writes:—"In one of the churches was a marble altar, which the superstition of the inhabitants has destroyed. Their opinion was, that a fragment of this stone was a defence against shipwreck, fire, and miscarriages." Pennant also refers to the superstition and adds that "a piece of it [the slab] conveyed to the possessor success in whatever he undertook."

Among the articles exhibited in the temporary museum of the Archaeological Institute in Edinburgh in 1856, was "a necklace of blood-stone, and two ornaments of beautiful workmanship; one of them has on both sides a gem engraved in cameo; the other bears an enamel representing a figure holding a tablet. A portion of this rich ornament had been esteemed as of special efficacy, like the eagle-stone or aetites, in child-birth."

In Martin’s time there lay on the altar in St Ronan’s Chapel, North Rona, "a big Plank of Wood about 10 Foot in length; every Foot has a hole in it, and in every hole a Stone, to which the Natives ascribe several Virtues: one of them is singular, as they say for promoting speedy Delivery to a Woman in Travail." The stone was probably removed from its place on the altar when required.

A stone implement which, from the description of it, is apparently a small whetstone of Bronze Age type, was found at Stoer Head, Assynt, about sixty years ago. "It is said that at the place where it was found the cattle used sometimes to drop down dead without any apparent cause. The stone was warm when it was found, owing, it is believed, to its having been newly thrown or shot at some of the cows by the invisible members of the elfin world. These stones are credited with the power of being able to vanish the instant you take your eye off them, that is, if they are not secured the moment they are first seen. The belief is common on the West Coast that if you keep one in a house it will be a protection against fire, but this belief is unknown among the people of the Lewis."

A small flattish oval pebble of quartzite, measuring 2 1/2 inches in length by 1 1/2 inches in breadth, now in the National Museum, was formerly worn as a charm by a farmer in Forfarshire, who died in 1854, at the age of eighty-four. The stone was kept in a small bag which was hung round his neck by a red string. Unfortunately no further particulars as to its use are given.

Bronze implements used as Charms.—A bronze axe of the type with flanges and slight stop-ridges, now in the Museum, found near Perth about sixty years ago, was in use till about 1877 as a charm. It was kept hung up in the cow-byre by a farmer, and was believed to possess the power to make the cows yield well (see ante, p. 373). A small bronze knife or dagger with tang, 4 inches in length, found at Nordhouse, Sulem, Northmavine, Shetland, presented to the Museum in 1876, is stated to have been "long used as a ‘trow’s sword’ for magical purposes."

"Barbreck’s Bone."—A charm long known in Argyllshire as "Barbreck’s Bone, was presented to the museum in 1829 by Frederick William Campbell of Barbreck. It is a smooth slab of elephant ivory, 7 1/2 inches in length by 4 inches in breadth and is 3/8ths of an inch in thickness. Unfortunately little or nothing is known about it save that was "celebrated in ancient times for the cure of madness, when it was deemed of so much value that a deposit of £100: was always exacted for its safe return."—(MS. Letter of Donation).

Goose’s Thrapple.—A goose’s thrapple bent round into the form of a ring and containing a number of small duck-shot was presented to the Museum in 1888 by Sir Herbert Maxwell, along with his collection of Antiquities. Sergeant M’Millan of the Wigtownshire Constabulary informs me that he obtained the charm from an old woman in Balmaghie Parish, Kirkcudbrightshire. "It was worn hung round the neck by her mother when a child, and was considered an almost infallible preventative against whooping cough, or at least any fatal effect from the same." Sergeant M’Millan further states that the use of such a charm was common in past times in the county, but that the one now in the Museum is the only one known to him to have been preserved.

A charm from Ardgour used "chiefly in the alleviation and cure of infantile ailments was exhibited and described to the Society in 1890, by the Rev. Dr Stewart of Nether Lochaber. On examination it was found to be nothing more than a toy universal calendar about the size of a sixpence, intended probably to be worn hung to a watch chain, and not older than the beginning of the present century. The letters on it were believed to be "charmed letters which nobody could read."

A sixpence of George II., called a "crossie-croon shilling" by the country people, was presented to the National Museum by Dr Gregor of Pitsligo, who obtained it from a farmer’s wife in the parish of Pitsligo, by whom it was used as a charm. It was placed in the milking cog when a cow was milked for the first time after calving, for the purpose of preventing the witches from taking away the cow’s milk.

Miraculous Powers of Saints' Relics, &c. - St Drostan’s bones were preserved in a stone tomb at Aberdovvyr, where many sick people were restored to health (Breviarium. Aberdonemse, pars hyem., fol. xix b). St Marnock’s head was washed every Sunday in the year, amid the prayers of the clergy and the blazing of lights, and the water drunk by sick persons on account of its curative properties (ibid., fol. lx., lxi.). The silver head [i.e. shrine] of St Modan was in pre-Reformation days carried in procession through the parish for the purpose of bringing down rain, or clearing up the weather (New Statistical Account, Aberdeen, p. 168). The bachul or pastoral-staff of St Fergus cast into the waves caused a storm to cease (Brev. Aber., pars estiv., fol. clxiv). The bell of St Fillan (now in the Museum) was placed on the heads of persons suffering from insanity, to assist in their cure. If stolen from its resting-place it returned of its own accord, ringing all the way (Old Statistical Account, vol. xvii. p. 378; Proceed. Soc. Ant. Scot., voL viii. p. 267). The shirt in which St Columba died was carried round the fields by the monks for the purpose of bringing down rain (Adamnan, Vita Sancti Columbae, lib. ii. cap. 44; ed. Reeves). The shirt of St Margaret (" Sanct Margaretis sark"), wife of Malcolm Canmore, was worn by the queens of Scotland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when undergoing the pains of labour, in the belief that the wearing of it would mitigate their suffering (Invent. de la Royne D'Ecosse, intro., p. xiv.; see also Accounts of Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, 1473—98, vol. i., preface, p. lxxiii., and Exchequer Rolls of Sotland, 1437—54, vol. v. p. 447). Sir David Lindsay says (Poetical Works, ed. Chalmers, 1806, vol. iii. p. 7) that women invoked St Margaret to aid them when about to undergo the pains of labour:

"Sum wyffis Sanct Margaret doith exhort,
Into thair birth thame to support."

The shirt of St Duthae, which hung in one of the churches within his sanctuary at Tain, was worn by the earls of Ross in the fourteenth century on going to battle (Invent. de la Royne D’Ecosse, intro., p. xiv.). The church of St Adrian on the Isle of May was famous for its miracles, and women went to it in hopes of having offspring (Brev. Aber., pars hyem., fol. lxiii.). St Ninian’s staff was stolen by a youth who embarked with it in a boat, where it served the double purpose of sail and anchor. On reaching the shore he stuck it in the ground, when it immediately sprouted and became a good sized tree (Ailred, Vita Niniani, apud Pinkerton, Vita Sanctorum Scoticr, cap. x. pp. 18, 19).


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