2 Folk Lore in Lowland Scotland

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Folk Lore in Lowland Scotland
Chapter VII - Witches and Wizards


"....... Graves at my command,
Have waked their sleepers: oped and let them forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic I here abjure."
The Tempest.

SUPERSTITION, which has been accurately defined as "beliefs and practices founded upon erroneous ideas of God and Nature," clung round the subtle spells, the magically-acquired powers of the uncommonly wise and world-famed wizards of Scotland. Of witches our land reared a full harvest. Shakespeare etched for us amid the storm the three weird sisters seen in lurid glimpses on the blasted heath with their presages and incantations. The generality of prophetic hags were mostly harmless old women bowed down with toil and trouble, mayhap versed in cures, who were doomed to be hunted to death because superstition had led kings and judges to credit these feeble crones with the craft to harm with a "blink from an ill ee." But Scotland's wizards, who loom forth from far-away centuries, were men of thought, cultured, far in advance of their time, well-dowered with property and intellect. Their words have become household sayings, part and parcel of our constitutional credence.

It was owing to the wizard of the nineteenth century, Walter Scott, that much of the old lore of Scotland was in the first place hearkened to, then collected and preserved. That good knight, Sir Walter, the master of romance, had a predecessor, one of his own clan, Michael Scott. This scholarly necromancer, like his successor, Thomas of Erceldoune, was a man of mark in his own time. Their thirst for knowledge, their consequent learning, made them far surpass in thought and sagacity not only their contemporaries, but their era. The coming wizard, Michael Scott, was born at Balwearie in Fife's kingdom early in 1200. A student from his youth, the Scotch laird went to Oxford and on to Paris, where his skill as a mathematician brought him renown, and there also this Fife "lad o' parts" took his degree as a doctor of divinity. Ever unsatiated in the pursuit of study, he went from Paris to Padua and on to Toledo, for Spain was then a lamp of learning to Europe. There his smattering of Arabic acquired at Oxford came to the fore. Reading Aristotle's works in Arabic he began to translate them into Latin, finishing this task in Germany. During his travels he met with Dante, and the Italian poet describes the Scotsman as meagre of flank," and after many wanderings the lean, spare-formed Sir Michael, the scholarly ambassador, returned to Scotland and settled down in his old family home. There he lived in fame and honour, pursuing his favourite studies, a man who deeply impressed the imagination of his countrymen. The very meagreness of flank of which Dante speaks would help to foster the idea that the far-travelled sage was a necromancer. He ofttimes stood on the battlements of his tower at Balwearie, silhouetted against the clear sky-line, studying the stars, reading the stories of the heavens. His neighbours, high and low, viewed with awe the stately figure of the venerable astrologer, believing he was communing with the uncanny powers of the unseen world, so they dubbed him wizard. He is best remembered around Kirkcaldy, which is close to Baiwearie, by the trick he played the devil, who came to claim the recompense of long service. Mr. Geddie says in his Fringes of Fife, "That must have been a dull-witted member of the infernal hierarchy who was sent to cope with the shrewd Fife Faust, for he undertook as a last labour to twine a rope out of the sand of Kirkcaldy Bay. Who has waded like us through the dry, loose mounds behind Linktown breakwater must feel sorry for the lubber fiend. He laid him down wearied with his fruitless toil, and Kirkcaldy, listening pitifully to his moan, ' My taes are cauld,' has kept adding stone to stone to its length-an allegory doubtless of the triumph of human will and persistence over the perverse powers of Nature. Some say the deil's dead and buried in Kirkcaldy; others there are who stoutly deny it to this day."

Michael Scott, in ballad story, is said to have turned a monk and died in fair Melrose, where he lies buried with his "mighty book." This book was sought for in his tomb by his successor in necromancy, Thomas Learmont of Erceldoune. A Lord Soulis was over-skilful in the black art, and none could conquer or kill him, so Thomas unearthed the book of Sir Michael, followed its instructions, and the wicked Lord Soulis, rolled in lead, was burned to death in a cauldron, and the ninestane-rigg, where no heather grows, marks the spot to-day. Learmont of Erceldoune, commonly known as the Rhymer, was, like Michael Scott, a man of wealth and learning. He was a poet, and wandered meditatively by Leader Haughs that looked down into the valley of unrivalled Tweed. He lived, as far as documentary evidence can prove, after the middle of the thirteenth century. The remains of his home at Erceldoune is but a remnant of masonry and stands near to the village of Eariston, which won renown later for the lasting qualities of the ginghams its weavers wrought. Thomas Learmont, having written a poetical romance, Tristram and Iseult, became known as the Rhymer. As lie solitarily paced, busy "rhyming" and thinking, there grew a belief in his powers of seeing with penetrating vision what was to come to pass. There was a tree on the Eildons below which he sat, and from it it was believed he was borne off to the fairies, where lie was inconveniently endowed with the tongue of truth. In Elfinland he learned much of what is hidden from the ken of ordinary mortals. He might, if he came alive again now, be surprised at the amount of jingling-worded prophecies that are attributed to him, while the poems he had wrought at are forgotten. Certainly his present-day fame rests on the bans or blessings which he is said to have uttered. The name of Haig is made perennial on Tweedside by his couplet:—

"Betide, betide, whate'er betide,
Haig shall be Ilaig of Bernersvde."

We well know that prophecies bring about their own fulfilment. There were none but spinsters in Bemersyde last century, and it seemed as if the Rhymer's ivy-mantled remnant of home would have new neighbours, but the truth-speaking prescient Thomas's words had eternally fortified the name of Haig along with the possession of Bemersyde. The ladies who had near of kin on the spindle side, sought and found a branch of the family who bore the name of Haig and to them left the old Peel. True Thomas gave voice to many malisons and desolating prophecies. He put a "gowk whate'er hefa'" in a neighbouring hall to Bemersyde, and in regard to his own home at Erceldoune he said:-

"The hare shall kittle on the hearth stane,
And there never will be a Laird of Learmont again."

He made many historic forecasts, having foreseen the battles of Bannockburn, Prestonpans, and Pinkie. Of the former he said:—

"The burn of Bried
Sall run fu' reid;"

and again of the later fights between Seton and the sea:-

"Mony a man shall die that day."

According to a ballad, Thomas anticipated a bloodless victory for Scotland over her bitter foe. Brave Dunbar asked the seer—

"What man shall rule the isle Britain,
Even from the North to the Southern sea?"

He replied:—

"A French Queen shall bear the son,
Shall rule all Britain from sea to sea.
He of the Bruce's blood shall come,
As near as the ninth degree.

The waters worship shall his race,
Likewise the waves of the farthest sea;
For they shall ride over the ocean wide,
With hempen bridles and horse of tree."

So it came to pass. Mary, Queen of Scots, who was also Queen of France, bore that son, and his representative was recently, from pier and shore of Leith declared to be not only King of Great Britain and Ireland, Emperor of India, but ruler also of the British Dominions beyond the seas.

Thomas the Rhymer, perhaps depressed with the sad mechanic exercise of verse-making, seems by his prognostications to have felt his native land had much war and sorrow to wade through before " our auld enemies " the English became Scotsmen's peaceful fellow-subjects. He mentioned on what day such a storm would burst on Scotland that the effects thereof would last for generations. The day dawned fair, but before midnight the false step of a horse on the brow of a cliff at Kinghorn changed the course of our nation's history. Scotland tasted to the dregs of that cup of bitterness Solomon speaks of, Woe to thee, 0 land, when thy king is a child." The hapless Stuarts succeeded one another with fated swiftness. None of the gallant Jameses lived beyond the earliest chapter of middle age, and each left for their successor a child. Alexander the Third's granddaughter and heiress was the Maid of Norroway. Sir Michael Scott had been one of the ambassadors chosen to sail to Norroway to bring the little Margaret, the future Queen of Scots, to her motherland. She sickened on the voyage and died in Orkney. It needed no occult-power to foresee, as did Michael the Wizard, gazing on the dead face of the eight-year-old princess, that dark and troubled days were in store for Scotland. Alexander III. was old, and as his descendants were gone before him when his horse fatally stumbled and left his realm kingless, the storm burst on unruled Scotland with full fury.

Prophecies are usually couched in ambiguous language, such as Thomas saying that "the teeth of the sheep shall lay the plough on the shelf." Sure enough they did, and another four-footed people, the deer, whom the chiefs have fostered for sake of sport and money have ousted the befleeced flocks from the hills. Folk lore has it that Thomas the Rhymer never died but sleeps in the Eildons, and that the hour will bring forth the man. Since his disappearance from the earth he has steadily collected horses and men. He and they will awake from slumber and come forth to aid his country in its direst need, when foes invade our shores. Arthurian legends cling to the grassy sides of the triple- headed Eildons. Merlin is said to rest there too. There is a spot called Merlin's grave beside a thorn by the Pawsail close to the kirkyard of Drumeizier. This Merlin, Sir Thomas Dick Lauder suggests, might be some local soothsayer skilled in magic, to whom the name of the Welsh wizard was given. A well-known prognostication attributed to True Thomas says:-

"When Tweed and Pawsail meet at Merlin's grave,
Scotland and England shall one Monarch have."

An unprecedented flood took place on the day James VI. was crowned at Westminster, and the Tweed overflowed and met the smaller stream sure enough by Merlin's grave. Many of Thomas's prophecies have yet to be realised; one of a bloody battle on an " after day " when a three-thumbed wight shall hold three kings' horses, and where for three days, three streamlets shall run red with the blood from those who fall therein. Near by Threeburn Grange in Berwickshire a child was born at Coldingham with three thumbs, and as Napoleon then shadowed the land with fear of invasion, it was believed the holder of the kings' horses had come, and the "bloody fray" would follow.

There was a wizard who dwelt at Yester, Adam de Gifford, about the thirteenth century. A gift of his made by his magic unperishable, still remains to testify to his powers. A neighbouring youth, a Broun of Coalstoun, courted his daughter. The lover sought his future father-in-law to inquire into his bride's dower. He found the old gentleman ruminating in his garden. The "braw wooer," hoping doubtless for a farm which lay temptingly near to his own property, broached the subject. Adam Gifford paused in his meditative stroll and pulled a pear.

"This," he said, "is my daughter's dower. As long as it is preserved your lands, which will go to her descendants, will remain intact." Young Coalstoun had to be content with his economically-dowered lass. Centuries later an inquisitive bride of the Brouns tried to bite a piece out of the patriarchal pear to see how it tasted. She left marks of her teeth on the fruity heirloom, and soon after a bit of land had to be sold, so the magician's now mummified dower was placed for safe keeping in the hank, and there this Methuselah among fruits remains to-day. These wizards mentioned were all men of property and influence whose scholarship and wisdom made them all the more notable in the dark ages of ignorance, so their untutored neighbours surrounded them with a halo of mystery.

Poorer-born warlocks, seers and witches fared badly at the hands of a populace fearful of magic. The gipsies, the reputed wandering tribe from Egypt, have been famed since they came from out the East for their occult powers. Their women could give warning of coming evil or call down malisons at will. Scott drew his Meg Merrilies from authentic tales. Gipsies were ever useful in fact and fiction for their supernatural knowledge, their craftiness, their beguilements. No feat of daring was too hard for them to attempt and to accomplish. Gipsies had an inherited art of glamour. The Countess of Cassius, who was a daughter of the Earl of Haddington, when her gipsy lover Faa and his comrades came to the gates of the earl's castle by the Doon and sang "sae sweetly," came tripping down the stairs, and they "cuist the glaumourie owre her." So she left her three bairns and her earl and went off with Johnny Faa, but he and his band were caught and "fifteen well-f aured men" hung on the dule tree at the castle door. The " one fair wanton lady" whom they had lured forth was imprisoned till the end of her wrecked life in May- bole, whose walls during her long confinement, when Charles I. was king, she covered with tapestry. It was mostly the gipsy women with their supposed knowledge of palmistry that brought them within the reach of law and under the ban of witchcraft. There was a very wonderful warlock, an uneducated man gifted with second sight whose prophecies north of Tay rival True Thomas's. He is known as the Brahan Seer. This Kenneth Mackenzie divined what was to be in a pebble his mother bequeathed to him, having received it from a dead Norse princess who was buried in Scotland. When the graves gave up their dead for an hour at midnight she had far to journey overseas to revisit her native land. Mrs. Mackenzie, watching her flocks one night, saw the emptied kirk- yard refill, Tit the one who came in the track of the Norland wind was delayed, and being a brave woman, Kenneth's mother laid the staff, which she had been herding the cattle with, across the grave. The spirit could not enter, and desired the woman to remove the hindering stick, promising her as a reward a stone for her son Kenneth in which the future would be reflected. She told his mother, how she, a daughter of the King of Norway, was drowned while bathing, and that her body had drifted to Scottish shores and was there buried. It was thus, so tradition avers, that Kenneth Mackenzie, who lived in the seventeenth century, became possessed of the stone which gave him the power of divination. He was only a day labourer, but he was sought after by the gentry throughout the length and breadth of the land, and no special assembly was complete unless the shrewd- witted Kenneth was there. He foresaw ships, full-rigged, sailing eastward and westward through the land, or as another Gaelic version of the coming Caledonian Canal puts it, "The day will come when English mares with hempen bridles shall be led round the back of Tomnahunch." A gentleman who was writing down the seer's prophecies, when he gave tongue to this, flung them all in the fire, as he deemed this was too absurd. " The day will come when the hills of Ross will be strewed with ribbons," Kenneth had told him, and any one of us who has climbed an eminence in the Highlands and looked down sees below the Brahan Seer's "ribbons," the white roads among the heather. He also foretold that a white house would be on every hillock, and schools and shooting lodges verify this statement. Big sheep," vowed Mackenzie, " will overrun the country until they strike the Northern Sea," and whether it is deer or improved flocks he meant we wot not, for we have driven the clansman from his " lone shieling on the misty isle " to seek new homes in the British Dominions over the ocean. The humble seer, Kenneth, was doomed to die a cruel death. He was at a gathering at Brahan Castle, and infuriated by his keen insight in regard to those present Lady Seaforth ordered him to be seized. He fled, and before his capture he prophesied ill of the Seaforths and then flung his magic pebble into a cow's footprint, where it disappeared. He was hurried off there and then and burned in a tar barrel, and his curses came home to roost.

Dumb and deaf people seemed to he dowered with a knowledge of impending events. Many tales are told up to recent times how some sense- deprived " warlock " saw the shroud creeping up on one present or saw three women standing beside a man and enlightened him as to the names of his future spouses. These foreseers, like Kenneth Mackenzie, even as they are now, were sought for by those who are anxiously inquisitive to lift the veil from what is to come. Dante, in his Vision of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise represents those who on earth pretended to foretell the future going along weeping with their faces turned backwards for evermore as a punishment for their presumption in looking ahead. Among those so condemned was the "lean of flank" Michael Scott of Baiwearie. But as a rule, those who divined what was to come to pass seldom fell under the ban of the law for their uncanny presages. But those who were suspected of witchcraft had a grim time of it, especially under the rule of James VI. Helpless old crones, with that economical housemate, a cat (for its foraging propensities made it independent of bite and sup) for their only companion, were credited with being in league with the powers of darkness. If the aged bodies' knowledge of the world, gained through their long pilgrimage therein, led them to hint that they knew aught beyond ordinary ken, woe betide the soothsayers. Maybe_ an old wife would remark a sick child would not recover, a marriage turn out ill, and their words were remembered. A man is either a fool or a physician at forty, the proverb says, and lifelong experience had taught many an ancient, solitary dame how to cure sickness by concocting medicines from the herbs around. These " simples were as a rule innocuous or healing, but when they failed and the patient grew worse the prescribing sybil paid a deadly debt. Two witches, in 1576, who suffered for their skill in doctoring, said they were instructed by spirits what to order. Bessie Dunlop lived in Dairy, Ayrshire, in the sixteenth century. She said the spirit of a Thomas Reid, who had tried to lure her to Elfinland, told her of herbal medicines, with which she healed many. The same was the case with Alison Pearson, who lived about the same period, and whose cousin was truly her spiritual adviser, one William Sympson. These two supernaturally-inspired doctoring women do not seem to have killed the twelve which an able medical man to-day says every student who takes an M.D. degree on an average does extinguish in his novitiate, either by stupidity or over- zeal. We speak of the credulousness and ignorance of the Middle Ages, but there are more things in earth and heaven than are dreamt of in our philosophy, and now in the twentieth century spiritualists, as they are now called, prescribe for ailments in that hub of the universe, London. They say they are directed by doctors who have gone hence but thirst to continue their healing art in this sphere. Their agent practises safely now in our Edwardian era, but gruesomely painful deaths befell the women who attempted to do so in Elizabeth's or James's time. An infirm crone, bent with age, hobbling along to her solitary hearth, mumbling to herself as she, staff in hand, stopped to peer at some passer-by, was noted. It was seen how her cat (probably some forlorn waif) greeted her return home. An inquisitive wayfarer looking into her cottage would spy her crouching over her fire talking to the incriminating black grimalkin. Some impudent teasing lads and lasses who had followed her she would turn on some day, exasperated by their stones and jibes. If one of these fell ill, the poor old body was seized and sentenced. According to popular credence cats and hares and witches consorted together. There was never a lack of people to swear they saw the woman change into a hare which scudded across a field. Witnesses against them were often children, seemingly devil possessed.

In Victoria's reign, to show how belief in witches still dwelt in Scotland (and this is but one authentic illustration among many), a woman was out early one morning. So was a farmer. He fired at what he thought was a hare which was making its way over a field and lamed it. Pursuing it, it disappeared, and he found the woman busy on the other side of the hedge bandaging her leg. Being entreated he promised not to tell, and she went ever after on a crutch, and he firmly believed he had shot her. This same woman cursed a boy who called her names. He died within the year, and she should have rejoiced she did not live in a century earlier, for her sentence would have assuredly been convicta a combusla. To catch a witch, to keep her from escaping from her own room or prevent her flying down some one else's chimney, divots of grass full of nails were placed on the chimney-tops, and this was done very recently. In past times the persecution, the torture, and the cruel death of those suspected of witchcraft forms a sorry and ghastly record. In the centre of Edinburgh, where now the trains speed through the gardened valley, the witches were tried and drowned in a pool in the then Nor' Loch. An old tree on the water edge was lately cut down, and in its wooden heart were found nails and an iron ring to which hags awaiting trial had been fastened. If they floated (and their hooped petticoats buoyed them up) they were decreed to be guilty, taken out, tortured to confess, then burned. If they sank they were thought to be innocent. Political vengeance, private spite, made many be arrested for dabbling with the forbidden craft. The Earl of Mar, brother of James III., was suspected of consulting " witches and sorcerers " so as to learn how to compass the king's end. He bled to death for this supposed conspiracy, and a dozen witches and some four warlocks were burnt at the same time to give a colour to the earl's guilt. In 1537 a Lady Glamis became a victim under a similar charge, and ladies of high degree as well as their poorer sisters were brought to trial for practising witchcraft. A Lady Foulis (née Katherine Ross of Balnagowan) had a stepmother's, quarrel with one of her husband's, Baron Foulis, children, Robert. She was reported to have brewed poison for him, and Sir Walter Scott says Lady Foulis in 1580 was suspected of making use of "the artillery of Elf- land in order to destroy her stepson and sister-in-law." She is said to have fired fairy arrows at the pictures of her intended victims.

We need not smugly pride ourselves that we live in a less barbaric age. In John Bull's other island, not long ago, some Irish were sure a woman near them was a witch, and she was done to death. Space does not allow of us to enter into details of the lengthy death-roll of the witches. Throughout the country and in the towns the dread sentence, convicia et combusa, was delivered, and the populace who stood in fear of a blink from an evil eye stood by and gloated as they burned.

There were various ways of evading the curses of witches and warlocks—principally, to score the utterer "aboon the breath." My father, who was a leading light in his profession, a man in advance of his time in prophesying scientific discoveries which are yet to be, and aiding advance by tongue and pen, used to tell how his grandfather, eighteen miles from Edinburgh, angrily ordered a beggar away from his door. The beggar cursed before he departed. Alexander Simpson bethought it was bad for his homestead and crops to be under a malediction, and pursued the tramp and branded him on the forehead to annul the ban. Another method by which those who were sorcerers harmed their enemies was by making images like unto the persons they disliked. They tortured these waxen figures by piercing them with pins till their human representatives dwined and died. This superstition is referred to by Allan Ramsay in his Gentle Shepherd. Of Mausie, he says:-

"Pictures oft she makes,
Of folks she hates, and gaur expire
Wi' slow and racking pain before the fire.
Stuck fu' o' preens, the devilish picture melt,
The pain by folk they represent is felt."

Some pigmy, waxen, coffined effigies were found in a niche in the stony crown of the Salisbury Crags facing Edinburgh's spires and gables. Some sorcerer had modelled these images long ago and wished the people they represented to be immured. The hair of the dog that bit you has curative powers, and it was believed if you could obtain a piece of dress from the person who ill-wished you, it would annul the evil spell. Mr. Napier, in his book of folk lore, speaks of a bride, last century, on whom the evil eye was cast. The woman suspected of malignant intent was asked to the house, and while her attention was directed elsewhere, a piece of her dress was cut off and burned, and the bride recovered. The antidote to bewitchment grows at our feet in the shape of the four-leaved clover. That is the reason we see people searching on the green carpet of grass. But in a less witch-ridden age the many-leaved clover is just thought lucky, no longer a protection from sorcery. For the benefit of those who, for good fortune's sake, hunt for this herb of grace, it might be well to quote an American's view:-

"While one will search the season over
To find the magic four-leaved clover,
Another, with not half the trouble,
Will plant a crop to bear him double."

Other modes to avoid the craft of witches lingers with us. We bang a hole in the empty egg shell, so it will not make into a boat for an evil spirit to sail in. We also put a poker up against the bars of a grate when a fire refuses to burn. The poker, so placed, with the bar of the grate, forms the all-protective cross. Witches eschewed church. As servants of the arch fiend the emblem of Christianity was gall to them, as it rendered their incantations useless. Fashionable soothsayers of to-day, along with gipsy fortune-tellers, are at times prosecuted, for, under the old statutes, presaging the future by crystal- gazing, palmistry, or tea leaves in a cup is forbidden. Fines are paid by the fashionable charlatan or imprisonment endured by the poorer gipsy clairvoyant, and the richer resume work under new mystic-sounding names. The Highlanders are still credited with a double vision of things that are yet to be and what is yet to befall. People to-day, as of yore, are as inquisitively eager to know what these gifted with this second sight may behold. Looking back from our enlightened heights we, knowing of telepathy, surmise that men like Sir Michael Scott and Thomas the Rhymer were shrewd observers, readers of human documents as well as students of Nature and her laws. Like Duke Prospero in The Tempest they had by knowledge acquired a potent art which reached forward to the things which were to come and which in the eyes of their contemporaries endowed them with magic power. What in their day would have been thought of a Marconi who could communicate with the ships on the ocean and send messages from land to land! Milton speaks of—

"The airy tongues that syllable men's names
On shores, in desert sands, and wildernesses."

And so it has come to pass. Horseless carriages seemed to be a ridiculous idea, and now through the Highlands, along the "ribbons" the poor Brahan Seer saw, they speed and boom. It is well for those who have made the forces of Nature to work for man's good, or who by study and the skill thereby obtained can use their knowledge to help scientific research, that they did not live and show their learning in the days of the first king who ruled all Britain from sea to sea. For all his boasted wisdom, his reign is marked by the bloodstains left on its annals by the war he waged against warlocks and witches.


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