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Scottish Charms and Amulets
Adder Beads and Stones


The ornamented beads of vitreous paste found throughout Britain, and commonly known as "adder-beads," were formerly believed by the peasantry to have been made by adders, and to be of the greatest efficacy in the cure of numerous diseases. It was believed "that about Midsummer Eve (tho’ in the time they do not all agree) ‘tis usual for snakes to meet in Companies, and that by joyning heads together, and hissing, a kind of Bubble is form’d like a ring about the head of one of them, which the rest by continual hissing blow on till it comes off at the tail, and then it immediately hardens and resembles a glass ring; which whoever finds (as some old women and children are perswaded) shall prosper in all his undertakings." It is remarkable that this account of the origin of these beads is identical with Pliny’s description of the origin of the ovum anguinum, or serpent’s egg, which was also believed to possess numerous virtues. At the time of Lhwyd’s visit to Scotland in 1699, these beads appear to have been in common use as charms, as he mentions having "seen at least fifty differences of them betwixt Wales and the Highlands;" and he adds, "not only the Vulgar, but even Gentlemen of good Education throughout all Scotland are fully perswaded the Snakes make them, though they are as plain Glass as any in a Bottle." Tire says: "The adder-stone, or the beads and rings substituted in its place, is thought by superstitious people to possess many wonderful properties. It is used as a charm to insure prosperity, and to prevent the malicious attacks of evil spirits. In this case it must be closely kept in an iron box to secure it from the Fairies, who are supposed to have an utter abhorrence at iron. It is also worn as an amulet about the necks of children to cure sore eyes, the chincough, and some other diseases; and to assist them in cutting their teeth. It is sometimes boiled in water as a specific for diseases in cattle; but frequently the cure is supposed to be performed by only rubbing with the stone the part affected." Pennant adds that "the vulgar of the present age attribute to it other virtues ; such as its curing the bite of an adder, and giving ease to women in childbirth, if tied about the knee."  The Rev. Dr Joass, of Golspie, in recording the discovery of a bead of dark blue vitreous paste, ornamented with inlaid spirals of yellow enamel, in a cist at Eddertoun, Ross-shire, says another bead of exactly the same size and pattern "was for many generations in possession of a family in Skye, from whom it was occasionally borrowed by people from a great distance on account of its supposed efficacy in the treatment of diseased cattle, which were said to be cured by drinking of water into which the charm-bead had been dropped." And he adds:

"Such beads were known among the Highlanders as CLACHAN NATHAIREACH, serpent-stones, from their peculiar markings, as some of them suppose, while others assert that their name and virtue are derived from their connection with a very venomous serpent, which carries a set of such beads on his body or tail." Another bead of the same type, exhibited by Mr James Cruikshank, Lhanbryde, Elgin, was formerly used in the parish of Dallas, Elginshire, for the cure of adder-bites. Unfortunately no particulars have been preserved as to the manner in which it was used.

A ribbed melon-shaped bead of greenish vitreous paste is exhibited by Dr B. de Brus Trotter, who states that "it belonged to a famous witch of Drooth, Gordieston, Galloway. It was acquired by the late William Bennett, of Burntisland, formerly editor of the Glasgow Examiner, and I think Morning Chronicle, and author of several books, from an old woman in New Galloway or Minnihive (Moniaive), I forget which. He wore it by a ribbon round his neck for many years to bring good fortune, and he gave it to my father about 1847, who also wore it for many years. It was supposed to have various curative powers by being placed in water." A similar bead now in the National Museum was kept by an old woman in the neighbourhood of Glenluce as an" Ethir-bore stane."

Three small beads of vitreous paste and a small naturally perforated concretion of flint, formerly used collectively for the cure of adder-bites in the parish of Lochwinnoch, Ayrshire, have been presented to the National Museum by Mr B. W. Cochran-Patrick, LL.D. Of the beads, the first is of yellow paste, an inch in diameter, and irregularly globular in form; the second is 5/8 inch in diameter, of clear blue glass, with an irregular band of white enamel round the circumference; and the third is 3/8 inch diameter, of dark coloured paste, marked with small dots of white and red. The naturally perforated concretion is whorl-shaped, 1 3/8 inch in diameter and inch in thickness. The manner in which these beads were used in the cure of adder-bitten persons is described in the following quotation:—

"It may be twenty-five or thirty years ago that a child of a farmer in the parish of L—h was bit or stung by an adder on the back of the foot, which, as well as the leg and thigh, in consequence became very much inflamed and swollen. The child’s life was considered in danger; and various means of cure were resorted to by the parents, on the advice of their friends and neighbours. Among others, a pigeon was procured, killed, cut open, and immediately, while warm, applied to the wounded foot. The flesh of the pigeon, it is said, became very dark or black; but yet having, as it was believed, no good, or at least very immediate effect, this other cure was had resource to. In the same parish a family of the name of C—g resided. They had been proprietors of the land they occupied for several generations, and in possession of a so-called adder-stone and four Druidical beads, some of which, or all conjunctively, had been efficacious in curing various complaints, but more particularly those in cattle. At the solicitation of an intimate friend, these were obtained (although never before allowed to go out of the custody of some of the family), and used according to instructions received, of this import:—that a small quantity of milk, some two or three gills, should be taken from a cow, and that while warm the stone and beads, which were arranged on a string, should be put into it, and then thoroughly washed with the milk. A slough, or some slimy matter, it was said, would be developed on the stone, which behoved to be cleaned off by and mixed with the milk, and that the latter then should be applied in bathing the wounded part and all the limb, which was afterwards to be swathed. This was done accordingly, yet after an interval of two or three days from the time the sting was received; and it is reported by those alive and witnessing the application that, even by the following morning, there was a visibly favourable change, and one which resulted in a complete cure. The child arrived at manhood, got married, and is yet alive. As the parents of the child were afterwards advised, the same good result would have ensued if only the head of the adder (which was found and killed) had been cut off, and the wound well rubbed with it."

Allied to and of the same origin as the adder-bead, and in popular superstition reckoned equally potent for the cure of diseases in cattle, is the adder-stone or snake-stone, which is merely the ordinary stone whorl formerly used in spinning with the distaff and spindle. Four of these so called adder-stones in the National Museum were obtained in Lewis, where they had been used as charms for the cure of snake-bitten cattle. Formerly it was the current belief in the Lewis, when cattle became sick, that they had been bitten by snakes; and in order to effect a cure the adder-stone was dipped in water, with which the affected part was washed, or the animal was given the water to drink. Commenting on this superstition, the late Capt. F. W. L. Thomas says: "Not the least curious circumstance connected with this superstition is the fact that there are no venomous snakes in Lewis. The blind-worm is not uncommon, but it is quite innocuous. However, there is a full belief that if a sheep, for instance, were to lie down upon one of them, the wool and skin would both peel off; and the man is probably alive who trod upon a righinn [ribhinn]—the local name for the blind-worm (from a tradition that it is a princess metamorphosed)—and in consequence the skin came off the sole of his foot." Another adder-stone found about fifteen years previous was said to have cured a girl at Back, Lewis, of a supposed snake-bite in 1872.

Four spindle-whorls now in the collection of Dr B. de Brus Trotter, of Perth, were formerly used for the cure of various ailments. They are described by Dr Trotter as follows:—

"(1) A flat whorl of hard sandstone, which belonged to the famous witch called Meg Elson, who lived in the Fingaul district of Kirkmaiden, Wigtownshire, about the beginning of this century. It was used for curing elf-shot kye. A red woollen thread was put through the hole, and it was dipped three times in water taken from a well on which the sun did not shine, by a young girl with red or yellow hair. A rhyme, in what was supposed to be Gaelic, was said over the water, which was then given to the cow to drink. I never could get any words of the rhyme. (2) Is of steatite, about the same size and thickness as number one, and was used in the same manner and for the same purpose. It was got by my brother about 1860 from Alexander M’Leod, Kinloch-Follart, Skye, by whose people it had been used for generations to cure elf-shot cows. (3) Was given to one of my brothers about 1858-9 by Hugh M’Caskill (chief of the clan Caskill), Dunanellerich, Bracadale, Skye, in whose family it had been for a long time. It was used for curing elf-shot cows by dipping it in water, which was afterwards given to the cattle to drink. I mind my father telling me that some time before then [1858], the Free Kirk minister of Bracadale ordered the people to deliver up all the elf-shot, adder-beads, and charms they had in their possession, as he was determined to root out the devil and all his superstitious rites from among them. It was said that he got two creels full of them (another account said half a boat-load), which he took into the middle of Dunvegan Loch (Loch Follart) and threw overboard. (4) Is a flat piece of greenish glass, made into an imperfect whorl, which I got about 1855 from an old man at a clachan in Kirkmichael, on the Water of Ae, Dumfriesshire, in whose family it had been for many generations, and was used for the cure of the kinkhost, by dipping it in water, which was given the child to drink."

Henderson gives an account of a labourer at Pitlochrie, Perthshire, who was bitten by an adder. "Severe pain came on, and a terrible swelling, which grew worse and worse, till a wise woman was summoned with her adder’s stone. On her rubbing the place with the stone, the swelling began to subside."


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