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Reminiscences of Cromar and Canada
Chapter X - Superstitions


IN the beginning of the eighteenth century, notwithstanding the formal acceptance of the truths of Christianity, gross superstition still continued to hold in thrall large numbers, if not the majority, of the peasant population of Scotland. Faith in God Almighty who rules on earth and in heaven, and whose presence and providence guides and guards every believer, struggled for existence in competition with faith in charms, omens and incantations as defences against the fell powers of the great satanic Adversary, which, as was believed, were exercised, not only by the great arch enemy himself, but mediated also through his agents in the form of witches and wizards or warlocks, of whom there would seem to have been not a few in every locality. These, I understand, were belied yet to have been, in consideration of a certain stipulated reward, self-sold and self-devoted, each to the hellish service of the great deceiver.

Around the victims of superstition in every circumstance or operation of daily life, from birth to life's ending were malign and sinister agencies, whose machinations could only be counteracted by some charm, incantation, senseless observance or performance. Even if they cherished faith in, or fear of, the Lord, they trusted more to the creatures of their own imagination. To utter aloud the name chosen for an infant, until first declared by the officiating clergyman accompanied with the name of the glorious Trinity in the sacrament of baptism, would give opportunity to malignant spirits or fairies to substitute for the child a changling or bring upon it some other fell misfortune. To express praise of child or chattel without adding, "God bless the bairn." or "Luck fare the beast," was regarded as almost equivalent to a curse, and when misfortune followed, the omission of the prescribed formula was regarded as the procuring cause.

The evil eye, productive of much evil as it was supposed to be seems to have been regarded less as something blameworthy than as a misfortune.

Sometimes such possession was believed to injure the fortunes of the possessor not less than those of his neighbours.

To the man obsessed with the idea of being himself the unwilling possessor of such an eye, life must have become indeed a dreary burden. One such is represented as finding it necessary to avert his eye as the milk was being carried from the byre, lest his gaze should turn it sour, and while passing his own lambs, as deeming it a necessary precaution to shut his eyes lest his unlucky vision should affect his flock. So careful was he of his neighbour's prosperity that he dared not look him in the face lest some evil should follow.

To others of less scrupulous character the reputation of such a possession or faculty became a source of profit to be taken advantage of for the purpose of playing upon the fears of the credulous for the extortion of compensation or reward for restraint of malign potency. This is also true of old hags and others, the reputed possessors of the potency of witchcraft, who before, as well as after, the laws forbidding witchcraft had ceased to operate contrived to make the popular superstition contribute to their means of subsistence. I have not learned the date of the repeal of the laws against witchcraft (if indeed they ever were formally repealed), but I believe the last execution thereunder in Scotland, took place in 1722.

One unfortunate victim of these laws, from the parish of Coldstone, named Katharine Ferusche was burned at the stake in the city of Aberdeen in 1597, having been first tried by the kirk session of the said parish, on the 10th of April of that year. A copy of the minutes of that meeting and trial is given in Mr. Michie's "Coldstone." The several charges found proved against her to the satisfaction of the session are set forth in full, but no hint is given as to how the evidence was taken, or as to whether witnesses were examined in the presence of the accused or not. Whatever her character, and however conscientious the session may have been, there can be no doubt whatever that her execution was a judicial murder.

Among educated people, the grosser forms of superstition had largely lost their hold before the commencement of the 19th century, but notwithstanding the teaching of the church to the contrary, the ridiculous beliefs and practices both pagan and so called Christian which had been received from their ignorant ancestry, still clung to the peasantry. for need we he surprised, for at the present day, even in circles calling themselves intelligent there are to be found in Canada those men, for instance, regard Friday as unlucky, or dread to be included in a party of thirteen. That our fathers of over a century ago regarded it as an unlucky omen to meet a hare, or to first behold the new moon over the left shoulder with empty hands, need not therefore cause surprise.

HALLOWE'EN EARLIER AND LATER

In pre-Christian days, the Beltain festivals on the first of May and the first of November in each year, seem to have been occasions of special religious observances. The latter, entirely dissociated from religious observance, is still preserved to us in the festival of Hallowe'en. In Aberdeenshire, I understand, the observance of that festival has continued to enshrine ancient forms more closely than elsewhere in Scotland. It seems to have been a night among the ancient Celts in which witches and spirits were much at large. It occurred at a time of the year when the harvest, if any, had been secured for winter use. Then something of the joy of harvest would fill the hearts of the rude denizens of the forests of Caledonia. Besides, here was the evening of the year, the sun was rapidly receding, and perhaps by some ceremonial acceptable to the great lord of day he might be induced to retrace his steps and to provide light, life and fertility for another year.

So, on every hearth must the fire be extinguished, and, in response to priestly invitation, every householder prepared a "sounock" or torch, and all repaired to the central place, probably some high and approved eminence, where a new and holy fire would be lighted by the priest. Having thus assembled, fire was produced by rubbing one dry piece of wood upon another, or by means of what was called a fire churn. At the fire so produced every sounock was lighted, and a new fire, betokening the returning sun, and consequent joy and peace and plenty, was lighted on every hearth.

Down to my day came the tradition that in earlier times the flaming sounock had been carried around every farm as a sure antidote against the malign potency of witches and all the unseen powers of darkness, though long before my day its use had dwindled down to a gleeful sport around the central fire. It was customary also to run through the remains of the fire when the risk of injury was not great, but that custom which had become a mere freak, or an exhibition of bravado, is supposed lo be the attenuated remains of what originally had been a human sacrifice.

The festival had a variety of sports peculiarly its own. First, in my day, came the great bonfire and the sounocks. Then the whole company of the young folks marched into the kail-yard or garden, blind-folded. Each was in that condition, required to pull a "kale Mock." Every plant so pulled was then deposited on a shelf or recess over the main door of the house in regular consecutive order, and the christian names of the callers of the next following week as they respectively synchronised with the kale-Mock number represented by a depositor of the opposite sex, would determine the name of the future life-partner of the person so represented. In such ways, with much fun and make-believe, the young people tried to follow the time-honoured injunction! "Crack your nuts and pu' your stocks and haud your Hallowee'en."

There were other games played which had no place at any other time of the year, which also, no doubt, owed their origin to ancient superstition. In the generation before mine, it was said that a girl, probably accompanied by one of her own companions, would carry a ball of blue worsted to the top of a limekiln and there unwinding the thread, would allow its weighted end to sink down to the bottom of the kiln and then rewind the thread, repeating as she did so, the words "Wind, wind the blue clew. Wha hands the end?" I never heard of any result, but can imagine that a response may sometimes have come from a very substantial spirit.

A strange story was vouched for by my Aunt Jane Farquharson of Dingwall, which was as follows. At Grandfather's home at Tillymutton, a boy of the name of Geordie Sherris had been hired as a herd and chore-boy. He had come from a very poor home, and during his first meal was observed to cry. To an enquiry as to the cause, he replied "Maun I eat a' this?" He had never before found it necessary to leave a remnant, and did not know what under the circumstances was the proper thing to do. When hallowe'en came, a game was being played which was no doubt a relic of pure heathenism. It made pretence of being a means of ascertaining one's career or fate. The prescribed ordeal, was to go out alone in the dark, carrying the coal-rake, a wooden rake used for scraping into the "ess backet" (the ash bucket) each morning, the peat ashes accumulated during the previous day. How the implement was to be carried I do not know, but the aspirant had to carry it around the house if not the farm, which, in either case, in a day when the tracks of the retreating goblins and fairies were still fresh, would be, to a boy of tender years, no light matter.

Poor Geordie went the round, but returned white as a sheet, and terror-stricken. In answer to enquiry he said he had been met by a great red bull. What had given him that impression is not known. Possibly he had been actually met by such an animal, though none such was known to be around, or possibly it was merely his own imagination highly excited at the time and working along the lines of his own cattle-herding experiences and associations. Be that as it may, the poor boy was afterwards, and as I understood during the same year, on another farm, gored to death by a bull such as he had described. Such a coincidence could not fail to have its effect on the community, and may have helped to put a stop in the district to eager prying into that future which, for wise reasons, is hid from mortal eyes.

REMNANTS IN MY OWN DAY

When it is remembered that in the first quarter at least of the eighteenth century, the belief in witchcraft, from the king downwards, was universal, it is little wonder that in remote places, unsunned by the ever advancing light and untouched by the tides of commerce and modem intercommunication, vestiges of superstition should continue to linger for some time. Of course, even in my day it may have had a limited influence upon some who, because of its growing unpopularity, refused to admit it, but I have to say for my native parish that I cannot think of a single person not older than myself, who admitted faith in what is now regarded as superstition,— Friday and the number thirteen both included. That was not true of all the older people. Among them still lingered stories of "dead candles," and funeral processions, and of men yet older would still be found some who would tell of witches who would turn themselves into hares or other animals, in which form they could be shot only by the use of a crooked sixpence instead of lead. Cases were reported in all seriousness in which a shot at a hare in that orthodox fashion, manifested its results in a gun wound on the person of an old woman who was known to be a witch.

As already remarked, I have reason to believe that my paternal grandfather was more free than most of the peasantry of his time from the superstitious of the day, but it would seem that the old leaven had not been purged from his household in the early years of the 19th century.

This is illustrated by the following incident which my father was wont to relate with great mirth. The pig had got sick, and as in those days only one or two were kept at a time, their care devolved chiefly upon the women folk. Several of the neighbour women had come to visit, or possibly for consultation as to the proper remedy for the sick porker. Their medical skill was not great and, with Scotch caution, they might have regarded as a safe prescription, a drink of cold water, which, according to an old proverb then current, "never did a sick soo ony ill." But to give the remedy special potency, my father's step-mother and the other ladies resolved to try a drink of "unspoken water." My father, who at the time was a little fellow, was accordingly despatched across a field for a jugful of the prescribed element. Whether or not any injunction in restraint of speech had been impressed upon the little messenger I do not know, but unfortunately he was met on the way by a neighbour who accosted him with the question "Where are you going, Charlie?" to which he replied. "For a drink of unspoken water for a sick soo." "O, then you may just as vveel come back hame wi' me," she replied. How it fared with the sick animal I never heard, but the efficacy of the prescription was not, on that occasion at any rate put to the test.

In the early days it was well known that "The rantry and the red threed ca's a' the witches tae their speed," and accordingly care had been taken to have rowan trees planted around or near every home.

Mrs. Anderson, a good neighbour of ours had made arrangements for a party of young folk around the Christmas time. Although in comfortable circumstances, she had no farm or cows of her own, and therefore arranged with Mother to provide butter for the feast. Poor Mother prepared the cream and in good time, commenced the churning process, and applied with all diligence both skill and muscle, but that butter would not come. The day wore on and Mother began to fear that she would be unable to implement her agreement. Toward evening the good lady appeared, and seeing the situation, immediately explained it as a case of witchcraft, and solemnly prescribed as a long tried and unfailing remedy, a little piece of the rowan tree in the churn. Much to her friend's disgust, Mother spurned her advice and bravely and persistently plied the churn, and succeeded just in time to secure the long expected product, and incidentally to snatch from her friend an added proof of the potency of her favourite remedy. So far as I remember, that was the only occasion on which I was witness of an actual suggestion of a defence by magical means, against the powers of darkness in the material world. That I consider a wonderful record of progress, considering the conditions prevailing less than a century before.
Stories of ghosts I have reason to believe were common in Cromar in my younger days, but in our home we as youngsters were protected as much as possible from their recital, and for that reason I am less acquainted with local lore of that kind than I otherwise might have been. The only real ghost story of local origin that I can recall, relates to a murder that seems to have taken place in the long ago.

The murderer had himself gone to his final reward, though his crime had not been discovered on earth. He had buried his victim secretly near what was known as "McRob's Cairn" in the woods of Blelack, and had no doubt congratulated himself on his escape from the human penalty attached to such a crime. But in the other world he discovered that his sin had found him out. From the consciousness of his guilt, and the terrible remorse that harrowed his soul, there was no escape, nor had he hope of the remission of his terrible penalty. But, if he could with the help of some one on this side have the remains of his victim transferred to consecrated ground, he imagined that his trying thus to do something to make amends might bring him some sense of relief. Accordingly, in some way, he got approach to a man living near the scene of his crime, to whom he confided the heavy secret that had proved to him so terrible a burden, and promised rich reward if he would disinter his victim's remains and bury them again in consecrated ground. With much reluctance the man undertook the task, engaging to set about it after dark at an appointed hour. Armed with the necessary implements he kept his appointment and commenced his eerie task. Soon he reached a depth beyond which he deemed it unreasonable to expect success, and resolved to quit his job without further effort. Immediately the ghost was at his elbow, and, giving his arm a shove that might have implied ability on the Dart of the ghost to accomplish the work himself, urged him in sepulchral tones: 'Dig deeper." Thus prompted, the man pursued his work until he found the remains, which, as instructed, he carried to the cemetery and buried in consecrated ground. The ghost expressed gratitude, and asked the man what reward would be acceptable.

The man replied that he would like to obtain the favour of God. "That," replied the ghost "I cannot give, for alas, I have lost it myself."


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