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Scottish Charms and Amulets
Mare Stanes


The belief that the nightmare was caused by a wicked hag or ogress named "Mara" crushing or trampling on a person during sleep was common among the Teutonic races, and is only recently extinct in Scotland,—if indeed it really be so. The Mara was also in the habit of taking horses out of their stables during the night and riding them about; and horses so ridden were found in the morning with tangled manes and bodies dripping with sweat. A "self-holed" stone, or naturally perforated pebble, known as a “hag-stone“ in England and as a “mare-stane” in Scotland, hung about the bed or in the stable was sufficient to keep the Mara at a distance. Butler refers to these perforated stones in Hudibras in speaking of Lilly the astrologer who could—

“Chase evil spirits away by dint
Of sickle, horse-shoe, hollow flint.”

Pennant mentions his having been told by a farmer at Pentonlins, Dumfriesshire, “that a pebble naturally perforated was an infallible cure, hung over a horse that was hag-ridden, or troubled with nocturnal sweats.” The same custom was followed in Nithsdale in 1766. In Angus the stone was one such as is “often found by the sea-side or on the banks of a river, with one or more natural holes in it.” There is no specimen of a mare-stane, so called, in the National Museum, such as has been used to protect horses from being mare-ridden, but there is a naturally perforated pebble of greenstone which was hung up in a byre at Cumbernauld, Dumbartonshire, to protect the cattle from witchcraft.

A small pebble of greenish sandstone, with two perforations, and with the name William H Scott scratched on one face, found in the ruins of an old cow-byre in Dumfriesshire, is also in the National Museum.

In the Ynglinga Saga is an account of King Yanland, who was bewitched by a Finnish sorceress (seidkonu) named Hulda, who caused him to be trampled to death by a “mara.” Three “mare-stanes” formerly used at Marykirk, near Montrose, were exhibited at a meeting of the Anthropological Institute, in June 1877, and described as follows:-

“One of the stones has two human teeth inserted and fixed in the natural holes in the stone. It was known to have been seventy years in one house, and was given to Mr A—, of Marykirk, by an old lady. She had used it to ward off bad dreams.

“The other two are thus described by the person who procured them:— ‘Mare-Stanes were very common in this district (Marykirk), and many are used yet, but those who are in possession of them do not like to own it. They are still common in the fishing villages along our coast. “‘The old grandfather of Mrs N. sometimes comes to Marykirk on a visit, brings his mare-stane in his pouch, and hangs it in his bed. He comes from Stonehaven, and is an old fisherman.

“‘Sandy M.’s wife, while she stayed at B., always kept the mare-stane in the bed; and a Mrs G., of Edinburgh, a lady who came to B., many years, always liked that stone in her bed.

“Old Susan S. assures me that when the females of a house had all the work, and were ‘stinted’ to do a given amount of work at the spinning-wheel before they got any supper, and so much before they went to bed, they were very liable to take the ‘mare’ (i.e., nightmare) owing to anxiety connected with their stints, and the ‘stane’ was a regular preventative. Married ladies, she says, when in an interesting condition, were very particular in having the mare-stane in the proper place, and she has known ‘stanes’ hung in byres, behind cows expected to calve, to ensure safety.”

A “mare-stane” now in the Museum was obtained a few years ago by Sergeant M’Millan of the Wigtownshire Constabulary, who found it in actual use at Gordieston Mill, Dalry, Galloway. It is a small naturally-perforated concretion of flint, and was kept hung within the bed for the purpose of keeping away the nightmare and evil dreams. A second “ mare-stane” found in use in Penninghame Parish was, after a good deal of persuasion, secured by Sergeant M’Millan for a number of jubilee coins. In a letter to me Sergeant

M’Millan says, the old woman in whose possession it then was, stated that her mother, her grandmother, and herself kept it hanging at the bed head “for luck.” The day after the stone was sold, its late owner walked a distance of six miles to the sergeant’s house to get it back again, stating that “she had not got one single wink of sleep the previous night, and that she could account for it in no other way than by the fact of her having parted with the charm. Being assured that she should have it returned to her, she set off on her six mile journey home, and no doubt she has the charm doing duty in her bed at the present day.”


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