Interesting customs at St. Kilda—The water-cross at Barra—Ocean
Meat—Curious wooing custom in the Western Islands—Annual Festival in
honour of St. Barr—The fiery circle—Old customs in the Island of Lewis —
Singular cute for Scrofula — Strange custom regarding forced
fire—Devotion to St. Flaunan — Salmon-fishing Superstition — The Sea-god
Shoney—Burying custom at Taransay— Michaelmas custom at Liaguy—Customs
regarding fowling expeditions.
INTERESTING CUSTOMS AT ST.
THE primitive inhabitants
of the lonely island of St. Kilda formerly left oft working at twelve
o’clock on Saturday, as an ancient custom handed down from their
fathers, and went no more to it again till Monday morning. They used a
set form of prayers at the hoisting of their sails. They lay down at
night, rose again in the morning, and began their labours always in the
mime of God. Upon the anniversary of All Saints, the inhabitants of St.
Kilda had an annual cavalcade; the number of their horses never exceeded
eighteen. These they mounted by turns, having neither saddle nor bridle
of any kind except a rope, which managed the horse only on one side.
They rode from the sea shore to their houses, and when each man had
performed his turn the show was at an end. On this festival they baked a
large cake in form of a triangle, but rounded, and it had to be all
eaten that night. Their marriages were celebrated in the following
manner. When any two of them had agreed to take one another for man and
wife, the officer who presided over the island summoned all the
inhabitants of both sexes to Christ’s Chapel, where, being assembled, he
enquired publicly if there were any lawful impediment why these parties
should not be joined in the bands of holy matrimony. If no objection was
made to the proposed union, he then enquired of the parties if they were
resolved to live together in weal and woe, etc. After their assent, he
declared them married persons, and then desired them to ratify this
solemn promise in the presence of God and the people. In order that they
might do this, the Crucifix was tendered to them, and both put their
right hands upon it, this being the ceremony by which lovers swore
fidelity one to another during their life-time.
Their baptisms were
formerly conducted in the following manner. The parents called in the
officer or any one of their neighbours to baptise the child, and another
to be sponsor. He who performed the office of clergyman, being told what
the child’s name was to be, said (naming it), “I baptise you to your
father and your mother in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
Then the sponsor took the child in his arms, as also did his wife as
god-mother, and ever after this there was a friendship between the
parents and the sponsor esteemed so sacred and inviolable, that nothing
was able to set them at variance and it reconciled those who had been at
There is a famous stone
in St. Kilda, known as the Mistress Stone. It exactly resembles a door,
and is in the front of a perpendicular rock twenty or thirty fathoms in
height. Upon the lintel of this door, every bachelor-wooer was by an
-ancient custom obliged in honour to give the beloved one the following
singular proof of his affection. He had to stand on his left foot,
having the one half of it over the rock. He then drew his right foot
towards the left, and, in this posture, bowing, put both bis fists
further out to the right foot. After he had performed this feat he
acquired no small reputation, being even accounted worthy the finest
woman in tbe world. It was firmly believed this achievement was always
attended with the desired success.
Martin (1696) tells us
that the Steward of St. Kilda was accustomed in time of a storm to tie a
bundle of puddings made of the fat of sea-fowl to the end of his cable,
and let it fall into the sea behind the rudder. This, he said, hindered
the waves from breaking, and calmed the sea. The scent of the grease,
however, attracted the whales, so says Martin, which put the vessel in
OLD CUSTOM AT BARRA.
A stone in the form of a
cross stood near to St. Mary’s Church, in the Island of Barra. The
natives called it the Water Cross, the ancient inhabitants having a
custom of erecting it to procure rain, and, when procured, the cross,
was laid flat on the ground.
OCEAM MEAT AT KISMULL.
The inhabitants of the
Island of Kismull bad formerly a custom that when any ^strangers from
the northern islands resorted thither, the natives, immediately after
their landing, obliged them to eat, no matter how heartily they may have
eaten before starting on their journey. This meal was styled Biey Tai,
i.e., Ocean Meat. Whatever number of strangers came there, or of
whatever quality or sex, they were hospitably installed one each in a
family. According to this custom, husbands and wives were forced to live
apart while in this island.
CURIOUS WOOING CUSTOM IN
THE WESTERN ISLANDS.
In the good old times,
when a tenant’s wife, in the Island of Linnell or the adjoining islands,
died, he at once addressed himself to MacNeil of Barra, and begged him
to provide him with another wife to manage his affairs. Upon this
representation, MacNeil found out a suitable match for him; and,
informed of the woman’s name, he immediately went to her with a bottle
of whisky, for their entertainment at their marriage, which at once took
place. When a tenant died his widow in similar fashion was soon provided
with another partner.
ANNUAL FESTIVAL OF ST.
All the inhabitants of
Barra formerly observed the anniversary of St. Barr, being the 27th of
September. The ceremony was performed riding on horseback, and the
solemnity was concluded by the cavalcade going three times round St.
Barr’s Church. They had likewise a grand procession on St. Michael’s day
in Killor village, where they also took a turn round the church. Every
family, as soon as the solemnity was ended, were accustomed to bake St.
Michael’s cake, and all strangers, together with the members-of the
household, were obliged to eat the bread that night.
THE FIERY CIRCLE.
It was formerly the
custom in the Island of Lewis to make a fiery circle about the houses,
corn, cattle, etc., belonging to each particular family. A man carried
fire in his right hand and went round. This practice was called Desill;
the right hand being in ancient language called dess. Another ancient
custom observed in this Island by the Catholics on the second of
February was this. The mistress and servants of each family took a sheaf
of oats and dressed it in woman’s; apparel, put it in a large basket,
and laid a wooden club by it; and this they called brides-bed. Then the
mistress and servants shouted aloud, “Brud is come—-Brud is welcome.”
This they did just before going to bed. In the morning when they rose
they looked anxiously amongst the ashes expecting to see the impressions
of Brud’s club there. If seen, it was reckoned a true presage of a jjood
crop and a prosperous year.
OLD CUSTOMS IN THE ISLAND
In the Isle of Lewis it
was customary for the seventh son to give a silver sixpence with a hole
in it to each scrofulous patient. The coin was strung on a thread, and
the sufferer wore it constantly round his neck. Should he lose it, the
malady returned. Age was -of no account in regard to this magic gift.
The smallest child might heal the aged man. All that was requisite was,
that some one should take the little hand and apply it to the sore. The
belief was pretty general throughout the North-Western Highlands and
Isles, that scrofula would certainly be cured by the touch of the
seventh son of a woman, who had never a girl born between.
The inhabitants of Lewis
formerly made use of a fire called Tin-Egia, a forced, or fire of
necessity, which they used as an antidote against the plagut, or murrain
in cattle. It was prepared thus. All the fires in the parish were
extinguished, and then, eighty-one married men, that being considered
the necessary number, took two great planks of wood, and nine of them
were employed alternately to rub one of the planks against the other
until the heat thereof produced fire. From this forced fire each family
was supplied with new fire, which was no sooner kindled than a pot of
water was quickly placed on it. The people infected by the plague, and
the latter suffering from the murrain, were afterwards sprinkled with
water from the pot.
In Martin’s tour (1696)
in the Hebrides, it is stated that when the men of Lewis mad&
expeditions to the rocky Island of St. Flannan in pursuit of sea fowl,
as soon as they had effected the different landings they uncovered their
heads and made a turn sunwise, thanking God for their safety. They then
repaired to the little chapel of St. Flannan, on approaching which they
advanced oil their knees towards the chapel, and so went round the
little building in procession. They then set to work, rock-fowling till
the hour of vespers, when the same ceremony was repeated. They held it
unlawful to kill any sea bird after evening prayer, and in any case
might never kill a bird with a stone. The contrary was regarded a bad
The inhabitants of the
village of Barva, Lewis, long retained an ancient custom of sending a
man very early in the morning to cross Barvas river, every first day of
May, in order to prevent any female from crossing it first. For that,
they said, would prevent the Salmon from coming into the river all the
year round. This assertion they maintained to be true from experience.
THE SEA-GOD SHONEY.
The inhabitants in the
vicinity of Siant had an ancient custom of sacrificing to a sea-god
called Shoney, at Hallow-tide, in which the inhabitants of the
neighbouring islands also took part. They assembled at the Church of
Mulvav, having each man his provisions along with him. Every family
furnished a peck of malt, and this was brewed into ale. One of the
number was picked out to wade into the sea up to the middle, carrying a
cup of ale in his hand. Standing in this posture he called, oat in a
loud voice, saying, “Shoney, I give you this cup of ale hoping that you
will he so kind as to send us plenty of sea-ware for enriching our
ground this ensuing year." With these words the ale was thrown into the
sea. This was done in the night time. On his returning those assembled
all repaired to church where there was a candle burning upon the altar.
After standing silent for a little while, one of them gave a signal upon
which the candle was put out, and all adjourned to the fields, where
they drank their ale, and spent the remainder of the night in dancing
OLD BURYING CUSTOM AT
It was formerly the
custom in the island of Taransay never to bury a man in St. Tarian’s
Chapel, or a woman in St. Keith’s, otherwise the corpse, it was firmly
believed, would be found above ground the day after its interment.
MICHAELMAS CUSTOM AT
The natives of the island
of Lingay had an anniversary cavalcade on Michaelmas day, and then all
ranks of both sexes appeared on horseback. The place of rendezvous was a
large piece of fine sandy ground on the seashore, and there they had
horse-racing, for small prizes, which were eagerly contended for. There
was an ancient custom here by which it was lawful for any of the
inhabitants to steal his neighbour’s horse the night before the race,
and ride it all that day provided he returned it safe and sound to the
owner after the race. The manner of racing was rather curious. It was
engaged in by a few young men who used neither saddles nor bridles,
except two small ropes, nor any sort of spurs but their bare heels, and
-when they began the race they threw those ropes on the horses necks,
and drove them vigorously with a long piece of sea-ware in each hand
instead of a whip, which had been dried in the sun several months
previously for that purpose. The men had their sweethearts behind them
on horseback, and they gave and received mutual presents. The men
presented the women with knives and purses, while the women gave the men
pairs of garters of divers colours. They presented them also with a
quantity of wild carrots.
FOWLING CUSTOMS AT THE
ISLAND OF MORE.
The island of More bears
the ruins of a Chapel dedicated to St. Flannan. When the inhabitants
came within about twenty paces of the altar they, stripped themselves of
their upper garments and laid them upon a stone which stood there for
that purpose. Those who intended setting out upon a fowling expedition
prayed three times. The first day they said the first prayers, advancing
towards the Chapel on their knees. Their second prayers were said as
they went round the Chapel. The third were said close by or in the