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Scottish Charms and Amulets
Elf-Arrows


The prehistoric flint arrowheads so numerous in Scotland were long considered by the peasantry to have fallen from the clouds, and to have been used as weapons by the fairies to shoot at human beings, and especially at cattle. A peculiarity of these elf-arrows or elf-bolts is that they were never to be found when looked for, but turned up in the most unexpected localities and circumstances. Thus Sir Robert Gordon of Straloch, the Scottish geographer, who wrote over two centuries ago, describes these elf-arrows, and states that a man, while riding, found one in his boot, and that a woman found one in the breast of her dress, both in an unexpected way. In 1590 occurred the remarkable trial of Katherine Ross, Lady Fowlis, who was accused of witchcraft and sorcery in attempting the destruction of some of her husband’s relatives by causing clay images of them to be made, and shooting at these with elf-arrowheads. No mention is made of the manner of discharging the arrowheads, but probably they were shot in the manner described by Isobel Gowdie in her confession, quoted further on. In the "Dittay against the Pannell," Lady Fowlis is accused—

"In the fyrat, Thow art accusit for the making of twa pictouris’ of clay, in cumpany with the said Cristiane Roiss and Mariorie Neyne M’Allester, alias Laskie Loncart, in the said Cristian Roisis westir chalmer in Canorth; the ane, maid for the distructioune and consumptioune of the young baird of Fowlis, and the vthir for the young Ladie Balnagoune; to the effect that the ane thairof sould be Putt att the Brig-end of Fowles, and the vther att Ardrnoir, for distruetioun of the saidis young Laird and Lady: And this sould hail bene performit at Alhallowmes, in the year of God Im. ye. lxxvij zeiris: Quhilkis twa pictouris, being sett on the north syd of the chalmer, the said Loskie Loncart tuik twa elf arrow heides and delyuerit ane to ye (you) Katherene, and the vther, the Mid Cristian Rois Malcumsone held in her awin hand; and thow schott twa schottis with the said arrow heid, att the Mid Lady Balnagowne, and Loskie Loncart schott thrie schottis at the said young Laird of Fowlis. In the meane tyme, baith the pictouris brak, and thow commandit Loskie Loncart to mak of new vthir twa pictouris thaireftir, for the saidis persounes; quhilk the said Loskic Loncart tuik vpoun hand to do."

In the remarkable confession of Isobel Gowdie, one of tho Auldearn witches, in 1662, there is the following curious account of the manufacture and use of elf-arrows :—

"As for Elf-arrow-heidis, the Divell shapes them with his awin hand, [and syne delivers thame] to Elf-boyes, who whyttis and dightis them with a sharp thing lyk a paking neidle; bot [quhen I wes in Elf-land ?] I saw them whytting and dighting them. Quhen I wes in the Elfes howssis, they will haw werie...... them whytting and dighting; and the divell gives them to ws, each of ws so many, quhen...... Thes that dightis thaim ar litle ones, hollow, and boss-baked. They speak gowstie lyk. Quhen the divell gives them to ws, he sayes,

‘Shoot thes in my name
And they sall not goe heall hame !’

and quhan ve shoot these arrowes (we say)—

‘I shoot yon man in the Divellis name,
He sall nott win heall hame !
And this salbe alswa trw;
Thair sall not be an bitt of him on lieiw !’

We haw no bow to shoot with, but spang them from of the naillis of our thowmbes. Som tymes we will misse: bot if they twitch, be it beast, or man or woman, it will kill, tho’ they haid an jack wpon them."

When a cow has been elf-shot it "refuses its food, looks languid, and breathes hard. The old knowing women rub and search the hide of the beast, where they pretend to find holes, not in the hide, but in the membrane under it. These they rub well with their fingers, and bathe them with salt and water. When all the holes are thus found out and rubbed, two table-spoonfuls of salt are dissolved in half a Scotch pint of cold water, a little of it poured in the ears, and the remainder poured down its throat; and after some time is thus spent in going through this process, the animal generally recovers. Some silver is put in the water when the salt is dissolving in it." And the writer adds, "I do not pretend to account for this distemper or cure, but I have felt what they termed holes, and have seen all the ceremonies performed." Another cure recorded by Pennant is to touch the cow with an elf-arrow, or make it drink the water in which one has been dipped. In the united parishes of Sandsting and Aithsting the cure was effected by folding a sewing-needle in a leaf taken from a particular part of a psalm-book and securing it in the hair of the cow. This was considered not only an infallible cure, but served also as a charm against future attacks.

According to the late Dr John Hill Burton, cited by Sir John Evans, it was an article of faith in Scotland, so late as 1872, "that elf-bolts, after finding, should not be exposed to the sun, or they are liable to be recovered by the fairies, who then work mischief with them." In Sutherlandshire, it is stated by Mr Hew Morrison, a Fellow of the Society, that in his younger days "arrowheads of flint were religiously consigned to the nearest loch, or buried out of sight, as instruments of evil;" and he adds, "Even so late as 1866 or 1867 I saw a cow which was said to have been killed by the fairies with these weapons; and when I pointed out to the owner of the animal that her death had been caused by rolling over, and her long horns penetrating the ground and keeping her in a position from which she could not rise, I was told that that was the common way in which the cows fall when struck by the arrows of the shithich or elf-bolts."

Of Scottish flint arrowheads which have been mounted in silver for use as amulets, the following specimens are either in existence or on record. Figs. 3, 4 represent the full size, the obverse and reverse, of a specimen now in the Museum at Lausanne, Switzerland, but brought from Edinburgh. The arrowhead is enclosed in a mounting of silver, which is engraved on the back with the initials A. C. separated by a star. The silver mounting is probably early 17th century work. Another which was worn suspended from the neck by an old Scottish lady for half a century is shown in figs. 5, 6. The reverse of the silver mounting is engraved with the initials I I R below which is the figure 8 and a "broad-arrow."

A third specimen, which is exhibited by Mr James Cruikshank, of Elgin, is of lozenge form, mounted in pewter, and with a loop for suspension like the two already described. The reverse bears the engraved initials E R separated by a "broad-arrow." Two specimens mounted in silver, each with a loop for suspension, were exhibited in the temporary Museum of the Archaeological Institute in Edinburgh in 1856.


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