Some interesting customs and superstitions in Shetland—Observance of
Yule-tide—Strange funeral custom—The water of health—The healing thread
— Curing ringworm — Curing burns — Elf-shot — Wearing charms—Singular
calving custom—Belief in fairies—The doings of fairies—The high land of
the trows—’Superstition regarding neighbour’s profits.
INTERESTING OLD CUSTOMS IN
THE ancient customs of
guising or masquerading—a pastime peculiar to the observance of Yuletide
in Shetland—is still kept up with some of its accustomed spirit. The
streets of Lerwick during the morning, to some extent, present the
appearance of a Continental town during a carnival.
In some parts of
Shetland, on a funeral procession passing, the by-standers used to throw
three clods, one for one, after the corpse.
There is a spring in Unst
called Yelaburn, or Hielaburn, the water of health. It was customary in
former times, on first approaching the well, to throw three stones
towards it as a tribute to the source of these salubrious waters. But
its reputation has declined with the flight of time, and the
superstitious offering is no longer religiously paid.
THE HEALING THREAD.
In these parts, in former
times, when a person received a sprain, it was customary for him to
apply to an individual practised in casting the wresting thread. This is
a thread spun from black wool on which are cast nine knots. Tying it
round the affected limb, the wise man said, but in a low tone of voice,
so -as not to be heard by the by-standers nor by the person operated
"The Lord rade
And the foal slade;
And He righted.
Let joint to joint,
Bone to bone,
And sinew to sinew,
Heal in the Holy Ghost’s name.”
It was a custom with some
to barn the straw on which a dead body had lain, and to examine the
ashes narrowly, from the belief that the print of the individual’s foot
who was next to be carried to the grave would be discovered. The straw
was set on fire when the body was lifted and the funeral company leaving
The person afflicted with
ringworm takes a few ashes, held between the forefinger and thumb, three
successive mornings before tasting food, and, applying the ashes to the
part afflicted, says—
“Ringworm! ringworm red!
Never mayest thou either speed or spread;
But aye grow less and less,
And die away among the ase (ashes),”
At the same time he
throws the ashes, held between the finger and thumb, into the fire.
CURING A BURN.
To cure a burn, the
following words were used—
“Here comeI to cure a
If the dead knew what the living endure
The burnt sore would burn no more.”
The operator, after
having repeated the -above, blows his breath three times upon the burnt
place. The above recipe was believed to have been communicated to a
daughter who had been burned by the spirit of her deceased mother.
BELIEF REGARDING ELF SHOT.
It was fully believed in
Shetland that when a cow was suddenly taken ill she was elf-shot—that
is, that a particular kind of spirits called Trows, who are different in
their nature from fairies, have discharged a stone arrow at her and
wounded her with it. Though no wound could be discovered externally,
there were different persons, both male and female, who pretended to
feel it in the flesh, and to cure it by repeating certain words over the
cow. They also folded a .-cinder in a leaf taken from a particular part
of the psalm-book, and secured it in the hair of the cow. This was not
only considered an infallible cure, but was believed to serve as a
-charm against future attacks.
This practice was nearly
allied to one which was very prevalent, and of which some traces still
exist in what would be esteemed a more enlightened part of the world,
i.e., wearing a small piece of the branch of the rowan tree wrapped
around with red thread and sewed into some, parts of the garments, to
guard against the effects of the evil eye or witchcraft—
"Rowan tree and red thread
Will drive the witches a’ wud.”
SINGULAR CALVING CUSTOM.
When a cow calved it was
the custom with some, as soon after as possible, to set a cat on the
calf’s neck and draw it along her back and then to seat it on the middle
of the cow’s back, draw it down the one side and pull it up the other,
tail foremost. This ceremony was. supposed to prevent the cow being
carried away while in a weak state by the trows. This practice was
styled, enclosing the cow in a magic circle.
THE DOINGS OF FAIRIES.
As the trows were said to
have a remarkable relish for what was good in the way of eating or
drinking, whenever a cow or sheep happened to turn sick or die it was
firmly believed they had taken the real animal away and something of a
trow breed substituted in its place. Those persons-indulged with a
glimpse of the interior of a t-row’s dwelling, asserted they had beheld
their own cow led in to be slaughtered while at the same time their
friends on the surface of the earth saw her fall by an invisible hand
and tumble over a precipice.
Sometimes, also, the
trows required a nurse for their children, they also having a time to be
bom and a time to die, and therefore females while engaged in nursing
their own children required to be watched very narrowly lest they should
be carried off to perform the office of wet nurse to some little trow,
of gentle birth who had either lost its mother, or whose station amongst
her own race exempted her from the tlrudgerj of nursing her own
There is a place in
Shetland called Trow-land, a name which indicates the superstitious
notions regarding it, as it signifies “ the high land of the trows.” The
internal recesses of knolls were considered the favourite residences of
the trows, and they were seldom passed without fear and awe by the
primitive Shetlanders. And if after night-fall there was a necessity for
passing that way, a live coal was carried to ward off their attacks.
In order that a person
might take away and secure for herself the summer profits of her
neighbour’s cows, it was the practice to go clandestinely and pluck a
handful of grass from the roof of the byre, and give it to her own cows,
in the belief that the milk and butter which should have been her
neighbour’s would by this means become hers. In order to regain the
profits thus transferred it was usual to milk privately a cow belonging
to the person suspected of having taken them.
There was a trow called
the neagle, somewhat akin to the water-kelpie of other lands, who made
his appearance about mills, especially during grinding hours, in the
shape of a beautiful pony. That he might attract the notice of the
miller, he seized and held the wheel of the mill. Naturally, the miller
went out to ascertain the cause of the stoppage, and, to his
astonishment, a beautiful pony, saddled and bridled, stood ready to be
mounted. If the miller should neglect warnings, and put his foot into
the stirrup, his fate was sealed. Neither bit nor bridle availed him
anything. Off went the pony, undeterred by bog or bank, and stinted not
his course till in the deep sea he had thrown his venturesome rider,
when he himself vanished in a flash of fire. Fortunately, however, most
millers were proof against the temptation, and, instead of mounting the
pony, saluted him on the nose with a fiery brand, which at once rid them
of his presence.
CASTING THE HEART.
It was formerly believed
that when an individual was attenuated by sickness, his heart was worn
away or taken from him by some evil genii. A person skilled in casting
the heart was at once sent for, who, with many mysterious ceremonies,
melted lead and poured it through the bowl of a key or pair of scissors
held over a sieve, which was also placed on a basin of cold water. The
lead was melted and poured again and again till it assumed something
like the form of a heart —at least the operator strove to persuade his
patients and his friends that such was the case. This was hung suspended
from the neck till the cure was completed.