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Folk Lore in Lowland Scotland
Chapter VIII - Fairs, Festivals, and Funerals


"Funerals and weddings and all such things as make life a delightful pageant when people go through it in large groups, dancing or mourning, but always holding hard by each others' hands.'"—Miss LILLY DOUGALL.

IN this restless age when people travel to and fro over the earth, when excursion tickets bridge distance even for the poor among us, we forget that in olden times a funeral, a marriage, or a christening was an occasion for a people long parted assembling together. The rarity of these meetings helped in a great measure to the hereditary ceremonies appertaining to these gatherings being stringently adhered to. The reformation which put an end to much merry-making as popish could not altogether eradicate dancing and music from the more jovial of these meetings. Stern, however, were the decrees of its ministers. In some Scottish reminiscences lately published, the author speaks of a man very recently dead, who was master of a violin and describes how attached he was to its dulcet notes. The minister pointed to him from the pulpit and said: " Thou art there behind the door, thou miserable man with the grey hair, playing thine old fiddle with the cold hand without and the devil's fire within." His family implored him to burn this violin made by a pupil of Stradivarius. The instrument with the sweet tone was sold for ten shillings, and the aged, bereft musician told how it grieved him so sorely to part with it—told how in his youth he had given the best cow in the byre for the coveted fiddle—how it spoke to him and how he loved it. He never had heart for aught again after lie thus was forced to sell his friend. A minister in a neighbouring isle related how, on religious grounds, lie had broken the only fiddle in his parish.

The people, despite preachers' admonitions, would not give up melody and dancing—indeed, they held to the ways of their fathers the more rigidly when conviviality was part of it, and not all the stern denunciations of the Reformation made the music mute. Rustic merry-makings could not be suppressed. There was Candlemas in the spring, Baal's fire in midsummer, much music and dancing at the kirnings held when the harvest was under thatch and rope, and on the heels of the rejoicings over garnering summer's green into sheaves, came the eerie, cheery festival of Hallowe'en. These feasts brought the people together, and they exchanged the gossip of their parishes. News travelled surely, if slowly, in the times before newspapers. However remote or isolated a neighbourhood might be, information siltered there by means of those who paid house-to-house visitations in a leisurely age. The beggars portioned themselves out districts sure of a dole from hut or hall. These mendicants were not drawn from the unemployable class, who, able-bodied and idle, are a menace on the by-roads, and to the unprotected cottager to-day. It was a simpler, kindlier age than this, and the vagrants of yore were the maimed or those enfeebled by years. They were wellnigh sure of a "piece" from every door at which they knocked. Like the monks of Buddha in Burmah, with their wallet in place of the yellow-robed priests' bowl, they afforded every one a chance to give or share with the needy and be accordingly blessed for their liberality. There is no household in Burmah but can spare some rice - no Scottish cottage but could contribute a hit of oaten cake, for, says Henry Hall Fielding, who has laid bare The Soul of a People, "think not a great gift is more acceptable than a little one. You must judge by the giver's heart." Beside the beggars who circulated news from cottage and castle, there were also the scalds and bards who brought tidings as well as music with them. These musical strollers earned their food and a seat by the inglenook with the song history they told. They had for generations kept a chronicle of the events that affected our ancestors and our country. They told of deeds of war, of love, of revenge. " Inconsequent, fascinating, high-handed, impossible, picturesque, these old ballads have come to us from the childhood of the world and still speak to the child heart in us all," writes an American authoress, prefacing some of these versified annals of this island's story. The minstrel infirm and old, or the boy harper, doled out anecdotes of romance and reality which stirred the countryside as well as their repertoire of ballad chronicles. Towns could not easily as now be reached for shopping, so also tradesfolk in search of custom travelled. There was a tailor who, however many wardrobes he had to fashion or mend, had at command a new story to narrate every day. This limber-lipped man was always in request from the art he had cultivated of embroidering a plain tale. These stories told by the itinerant workmen beguiled the hours of toil, and the country customers flocked to help and hearken. Not only was it the tailors and weavers who fashioned and made up the homespun woollen garments who sought work, or bootmakers, but craftsmen, whose skilful hands could shape brooches and rings and other decorations, went around seeking occupation. When a wedding was spoken of, or a christening, and gifts were wanted, they appeared. In Perthshire there was a special family whose well-designed brooches, inlaid by some peculiar method, cannot be reproduced by the artificers of to-day with all their-skill and finished tools. The cunning of the art is lost except by one family in the North of Russia, which suggests that the Scotsmen who executed this work had learned it, or inherited the knowledge from some common foreign ancestry. Scotland had from primordial times been famed for its knack of inlaying and shaping of metals into ornaments. The bracelets the Picts left in their brochs are specimens of this to testify to their skill, and the Romans learned from these savage inhabitants of our northland some of their methods of work. In the Middle Ages we can imagine what tales these travelling workmen would carry from one merry-making to another—tales of the gifts given to bride or babe. Then again the tailors and weavers would describe the funeral clothes they fashioned, and perhaps hint that for all the symbols of woe my lady ordered she would be taking, when a bare year had fled, another mate, and the jewellers would be sent for to fashion brooches for her delight. Every vague rumour of coming festivity, every detail of the glad or sad gathering was conned over in these newspaperless days, so beggars and bards were sure of a welcome, and in exchange for food and firelight retailed hearsay.

Funerals and feasts seem to us a curious combination, especially when we have shorn weddings of their "breakfast," and in lieu have but "a cake and wine" banquet, but in the era before railways, when roads were so rough and wheeled carriages were few, when people gathered together there was much brewing and baking for the entertainment of friends, whether the occasion of meeting was for funeral or marriage. "Whaur hae ye been, ye drunken auld deevil," a Scotsman was asked by his better half, and lie replied: I'm no sure if it was a wedding or a burial, but it was a right fine affair." The comings and the goings from this world were alike marked by feasting and drinking. To ward off the machinations of the fairies, when a babe was born the mother was never left alone till able to guard her child herself. It was thought well that the first time the child left the room it should go upstairs. Where no stairs were available the nurse ascended a ladder or a chair. On a baby's initial walk there were cakes carried and given from the infant to the first person encountered. Augury was drawn as to the infant's future by the manner in which the bairn's bread offering was received, and it was well for the child when its "first foot" turned and walked a few steps back with the nursling or blessed the babe. In the folk tales we read how at christenings fairies bad and good came to ban or endow the child. In the Borders, where the coming man had to live by raiding and fighting, his right hand was exempt from baptism, so, unhampered by Christian forbearance, he might, with unhallowed ferocity when he wished, revenge his losses. His cradle lullaby was a song, the accompaniment to which suggested the ring of foraying hoofs, for the mother in the Borderland, while she rocked her child with his unbaptised hand, crooned of his future. "If ye live ye'll steal a naggie," she assured him as she called down blessing on his downy pate. She pictured to him how he would—

"Ride the country through and through,
And bring hame mony a Carlisle coo;
Through the Lowdens o'er the border,
Weel, my baby, may ye further,
Harry the loons of the low countree,
Syne to the border hame to me."

Thus the mosstrooper's boy grew up imbued with the idea that his life's work was to acquire neighbouring cattle and to fight his way home from bloody forays. When in course of time he settled down with a wife, hostages to fortune only made him all the more anxious to add to his store, so when the Michaelmas moon shone mellow, with his eye upon "liftable kine":-

"He buckled the bridle on sorrel or grey,
Set foot to the stirrup, and up and away."

He heartened his comrades with the assurance that "every fat steer on the haughs of the Rule shall be dower for a daughter you've left on the Tweed."

The unbaptised hand spared not any antagonistic man, or left a marketable beast in a bvre on the wrong side of the marches. If by some mischance he died in his bed, great were the preparations made to prepare the funeral-baked meats, whether the rover lived in peel, tower, or farm. Mourning used, indeed, to use a Scotticism, be veritably "the Blacks." The Highlander wore his insignia of sorrow on his sleeve, as he could not alter his uniform of tartan. In the lowlands, when there was "dule and woe on the Border," not only did the rich and well-to-do families when bereft drape themselves in the garb of sorrow, but the very hangings of the furniture were also swathed in jetty darkness. In inventories of a few centuries ago "ane blake bed" was a certain part of the furnishings of a well-to- do house, and its coverlet was also of pitchy hue. In some memoirs recently published, it was mentioned that a young widow—a lass still in her teens—had been so indecorous as to complain of the sombre coverlet and hangings of the four-poster in her room, and she shocked her late husband's relatives when she begged she might at least have a white counterpane.

If a man died not by the will of God but by the hand of man, it was firmly believed that the corpse bled if touched by the person who had done the deed. When murder was suspected, each neighbour as they came to the burial put his finger oil dead man, and so strongly was this test believed in that there are many cases recorded in which people have been summoned to stand their trial because of the dead thus bearing witness, and the fact was used as evidence against them.

We all know the Heart of Midlothian and its heroine, Effie Deans. Her prototype was a west country lass, Isobel Walker. A flood on time river Cluden three days before Hallowe'en left on a sandbank the body of a dead child. Suppositions pointed to the fact that this gruesome piece of jetsom was the baby of the unfortunate Isobel. It was laid on her knee to see if it would reveal the tale of its brief life and bleed at her touch. It is a painfully grim picture this of the young, guilty girl and the unwelcome child she had strangled and thrown into the river, face to face once more.

With the Protestant era the Catholic manner of watching the corpse till burial did not become, as a rule, obsolete. Neighbours were always ready to sit by the dead when relatives were weary, and this usage resulted in the fostering of many superstitions and ghostly stories. All domestic animals were put out of the house on a death occurring, for it was believed if a dog or cat leapt over the corpse it might absorb his spirit and become an uncanny companion to the living, a drawback to the ascension of the soul of the dead. The mirror in the room was covered, the clock stopped and a plate of salt laid on the breast, ostensibly to prevent the body swelling, but oftener as a preventive against the devil disturbing the unburied. In some districts sin- eaters came and ate the plate of salt and of bread placed on the corpse, and so relieved the dead of sins which were hovering round, retarding the spirit from reaching the higher plane. Omens were drawn as to coming deaths from the manner the funeral party left the house, whether they straggled or walked all too quickly. It was long believed the spirit of the last person buried in a churchyard had to wait there to guard against unchristened babes or suicides being laid in the "God's acre." Friends, to save their dead being the one thus ordained to watch the consecrated precincts, when there were to be two funerals on one day, made an unseemly rush to be first, leaving no time for the party to add stones to the cairns where the coffin rested on its last journey. A bride's first duty when she settled in her new home was to spin her own and her gudeman's grave-clothes--a fashion which brought vividly before her the fact that amid diversions and rejoicings it was well to be prepared for the inevitable end.

Of course there were a heap of traditionary usages lingering and surrounding a wedding. The bride studied the weather, anxious for fair skies and sunshine, for they were held to be tokens of happiness. She feared when cooking her last meal in her old home lest a clot of soot should fall, for that foretold ill, and cautiously she dried the dishes on her marriage morning, for if she broke one it also was a bad augury. In the brave days of old, ladies married when their parents bade them. It not unfrequently happened that many a lover knew the lass preferred him to the one chosen by father or mother, so they copied Jock o' Hazeldean, or Ronald Macdonald who persuaded Leezie Lindsay to kilt her coats of green satin and fly with him to the Highlands. A rejected but adventuring swain who had trusty men and horses at his back could waylay the party and carry off the bride, like Lochinvar, ere the church was reached. The bride's mother, waiting at home to receive the newly-married pair on their return, in these times of bold riders was never sure who her son- in-law was till the knot was tied. Thus it became a habit for the fleet of foot among the groomsmen to race from the church and tell the news. This was called "running the brooze or braise." The rewarding brose became whisky wherewith the swift runner or rider returned, proud of his prowess, to toast as "first foot" the arriving procession. According to a custom which the Romans taught us, the bride was lifted over the threshold of her new home, and over her head was broken a cake. On fragments of this cake the bridesmaids dreamed of their coming helpmate. The tongs and poker used to be handed to the bride as a symbol she was to keep the hearth aglow. In Berwickshire, especially by the coast where the fishermen keep in a conservative manner to inherited use and wont, they "creel" the bridegroom. As he enters his house with his new-made wife a creel heavily weighted is bound on to his shoulders in such a manner he cannot rid himself of it. His friends add to his burden by heaping it with more stones till he is staggering with the weight. Then a knife is given to his wife and she, amid cheers, relieves him of his cumbersome load. This is emblematic of the assistance that a true help-mate renders and a readiness to share one another's burdens in their way through life.

Scotland was famed for and fled to by eloping pairs because of the easygoingness of its laws in regard to marriage. A simple declaration before a witness bound a couple in the bonds of matrimony as securely as red tape did in England. A blacksmith was as efficient as a minister. The disregard of the church as the place to make their vows in may have arisen in Scotland from a unique usage called handfasting, or hand in the fist marriages. This vogue arose in early Catholic times when travelling was dangerous and difficult, and visits from priests in outlying districts rare. A fair was held annually in the dale where the Black and White Esk met, and there flocked the unmarried of both sexes who sought a companion. When they found one to their mind they were handfasted till the following year. Then if they mutually approved of one another, a priest in course of time when he came by gave them the Church's blessing. These peripatetic monks were called book-in-the-bosom " priests, as they carried a breviary and a rough register in their robes of approved and church-sanctioned handfasters. This "on trial" marriage system seems to have been the fashion with ladies of high degree as well as with the Eskdale lasses and lads. Lindsay says " That James, sixth Earl of Murray, had a son by Isabel Innes, daughter of the Laird of Innes, Alexander Dunbar, a man of singular wit and courage. This Isabel was but handfasted to him and deceased before the marriage." Mr. Guthrie, in Old Scottish Customs, says, If either of the parties insisted on a separation and a child was born during the year of trial, it was to be taken care of by the father only, and to be ranked among his lawful children next after his heirs. The offspring was not treated as illegitimate, because the custom was justified being such and instituted with a view of making way for a happy, peaceful marriage. Such was also the power of custom, that the apprenticeship for matrimony brought no reproach on the separated lady, and if her character was good she was entitled to an equal match as though nothing had happened." It is said that a desperate feud ensued between the clans Macdonald of Sleat and Macleod of Dunvegan, owing to the former chief having availed himself of this licence to send back the sister or daughter of the latter. Macleod resenting the indignity observed, " That since there was no wedding bonfire there should be one to solemnise the divorce," and he accordingly laid waste to the territories of the Macdonalds, and they kindled "sic a lowe" cottages and strong castles were "smoored in the dark reek." Gretna Green on the south border, Lamberton Toll three miles north of Tweed, just without the boundary of the changeable town of Berwick, and Coldstream, were raced to by eloping couples, and hard by the toll bar in each case dwelt a blacksmith. His legitimate work of shoeing horses kept him on the spot, so the mighty man of the hammer and forge became the recipient of the dopers' declaration. The registers of the Lamberton Toll runaway marriages were sent to the county town of Greenlaw, but as "Duns dings a'" and it has now succeeded Greenlaw, there the registers abide, records of hasty marriages of long ago suggesting flight and followers, and often doubtless there was repentance at leisure, in many cases life-long repentance as the days of handfasting were over.

Fairs of all kinds were the centre of meetings and merry-makings. In the Borders also there were the Riding of the Marches to declare the free rights of the town, such as the Common Riding at Hawick, Selkirk, the boundaries of Berwick, etc. These ridings, on a specified day, are still extant, shorn of their former glory but even now maintained to uphold the peculiar tenures and charters of liberty attached to the ceremony; and we see paragraphs from time to time in the evening papers telling of them, with bands and flags and holiday sightseers. The border Scots were fond of sports, with the results that many an unpremeditated feud followed on the heels of some peaceful gathering for games. Boasts as to their prowess led to wagers or jealousies, and the gauntlet was thrown down. The "stout Erle of Northumberland" vowed he'd "ding the dun deer down " on Scottish soil, and went forth with his train to what proved to be the "woeful hunting" of Chevy Chase, where a Percy and a Douglas died, and of twenty hundred Scottish spears scarce "fifty-five did fly," and of fifteen hundred English men went home but fifty-three—

"The rest in Chevey Chase were slaine,
Under the greenwood tree."

Many another hunt with bows and arrows handy led to fierce frays. Even a football match, with the victors triumphant, the losers sore at heart, was a pretext for mischief being brewed and feuds fought to the death, as in the case of the warden of the Middle Marches in 1600, one Sir John Carmichael, who was murdered on returning from a football match. Under the guise of a ba' playing the men mustered in strength, and when the play was played they indulged in a raid over the border. In the ballad of the Bonnie Earl of Moray he not only tilted at the glove, but "he played at the ba'" and whether that ba' belonged to golf, rackets, or football, we know not. Likely enough he who it was fit to be a king" was good at all three. Scotland is the cradle of the most popular of ball games—golf—which, like the thistle that it also reared, has taken root and spread over the world. Golf was played on Scottish links before Columbus discovered America, and statutes were made when the centuries were barely in their teens in regard to the " royal game," to stem its popularity, for men were more keen in contesting a match with club and ball than learning to aim swift and sure with weapons of war. The links lured the men from practising at the bow butts, and the law insisted that whether the Scots were soldiers of the king or not, they were to be ready, aye ready, to withstand against their auld enemies the English. There were wapenshaws regularly held. This show of weapons was to prove that the implements of death were in order and the men competent to wield them. Edinburgh as the capital took the lead. It had a blue blanket for a banner, which was the first to flutter over volunteers. When it was waved shopkeepers, artificers, and craftsmen had to lay down the yard measure, the hammer and tools of trade, and swarm forth equipped at a moment's notice to man the walls and bend the bow. Such good service did these counter-jumpers and workmen do that James III. gave them a new blue banner; but the old one is still extant to show how Edinburgh merchantmen were a well-trained volunteer band, trained in times of peace and ready to rally around their provost or convener. Tradition says this standard was originally unfurled in the cause of the Holy Wars by a crusading body of citizens of Edinburgh, and that their blue banner was the first to be planted on the walls of Jerusalem when that city was stormed by the Christian army under the famous Godfrey de Bouillon. James III., having been held captive by his rebellious nobles for nine months in the Castle of Edinburgh, was freed by the citizens of High Dunedin," who raised the Blue Blanket, assaulted, surprised, and captured the castle. Out of gratitude for their seasonable loyalty the king, besides granting them certain privileges, presented them with a new ensign of blue silk, with authority to display the same in defence of their king, country, and their own rights when these were assailed. To keep these volunteers who mustered under the Blue Blanket in shooting trim, golf and other games of "ba'" were only permitted after a stipulated amount of archery had been practised.

The love of football is still strong in rural districts. In the village of Coldingham in Berwickshire there used to be all match played on the moor, bachelors versus the married men. A hole in the earth was the benedicts' boundary, and latterly a barn door of a farm erected on the site was aimed at by them instead. At a neighbouring village of Foulden a football match was played on Fasten' E'en between the men of the village and their neighbouring county men. The goals were a mill happer and the pulpit of the kirk.

Another Scottish game which has gone overseas to the Great Lone land is curling. It is a social game. The laird and the mason frozen out of work meet on the rink on a level. The skip is the best man, be he earl or convicted poacher. Curling has so much of a language of its own and that broad Scotch, it is not likely to be so cosmopolitan a game as "gowff."

Old ways rooted on some fact or olden usage linger on indelible. The children of St. Andrews had a game peculiar to their grey city by the sea, which they played, singing to it a rhyme which told its origin—

"Marry, maidens, marry, maidens, marry, maidens, now,
For stickit is your cardnal and sauted like a sow."

Thus in this jingle is recalled the murder of Cardinal Beaton - his body was preserved in salt by the conspirators during the time they held the castle against the government forces. Children are conservative in their games and in their unshakable preference for rhymes and plays whose origin is traceable to some historic event, or lost in the mist of fable. Generations of boys and girls through the centuries have danced and sung to the old rune, King and Queen of Cantelon.

"How many miles to Babylon?" children in pairs ask, and two others as gate-keepers whose arms bar the way reply, "Three score and ten."

"Will we get there by candlelight?" ask the would-be travellers.

"Yes and back again," assert those who act as toll-keepers.

"Open your gates and let us through," command the intending voyagers; but this peremptory order is not obeyed. The young rovers must be polite, for they are forbidden to proceed until they "beck or bow," and so the expectant pilgrims curtsey and bow.

"There's a beck—and there's a boo," they cry, "open your gates and let us through," and they gaily are off to visit the king and queen, and reach Babylon, for the small explorers all of an afternoon are many of the thousand things that children are "to reach the East and be back by candlelight is quite an easy feat for the quick- witted small people.

One who did not forget his childhood or the old refrain, speaking of such expeditions says—

"Our phantom voices haunt the air
As we were still at play,
And I say hear them call and say,
How far is it to Babylon?
On we rode, the others and I,
Over the mountains blue and high!
A thousand miles we galloped fast,
And down the witches' lane we passed,
And from our steeds alighted down
Before the gates of Babylon."

The well-known lilt and its words come back after we have wandered many a weary foot in life's journey. With a rush of recollection of the golden days of childhood we hear the youngsters inquiring the way to the ancient city. Who the King and Queen of Cantelon were no one stops to ask. Children from age to age go off to visit them singing the same words and the same melody—they like them for old sake's sake. That has been one of the rhyming tales that has come down from the dim pagan past for ever, like Merry-ma-tanzie, to tinkle in our memories. We know from whence sprang—

"Willie, Willie Wastle,
Stand on my castle;
And a' the dogs o' your town
Will no drive Willie Wastle down."

On sandhill, or hearthrug doing duty for a mound, a boy awaits the attack of the others on his castle, and fine sport invaders and defiant custodian have till Willie Willie Wastle is hurled from his castle. This "game" began in the big game of war—no child-play-----when in 1651 one John Cockburn was governor of the Castle of Hume on its high knoll, and refused to yield to Cromwell. The defiant words children sing when in possession, the original Willie Willie Wastle wrote in reply to the order of the king-killer so austerely championing freedom, to surrender, but alack! a breach by the Ironsides' artillery was made in the wall, and Cockburn was dinged down. Little do the lads and lasses think with what a sore heart John Cockburn, the author of Willie Wastle, stepped from his high-seated castle, which overlooked such a fertile track of country.

Curious remnants of plays have come down to us in the children's perennial runes. Strange fragments of folk song the little people have thus preserved like Janet Jo, which is still sung by children in city alley or village street. Janet Jo, whose lover comes to "court" her, saw him not. Her parents turn him away as she was washing. When he returns she is always bleaching, drying, etc., and then he is told "Janet Jo is dead and gone." A funeral follows and a wail for Janet Jo. It is a remnant of some mayhap "owre true tale," which laid hold of the popular imagination, and which the children treasured as you ofttimes see them treasure little bits of broken china which their seniors have cast forth, and which they have set up as the chief ornament of their play-house. No new gewgaw bought at a fashionable toyshop can oust the effete fragment from favour, and in course of time the small people's conservative taste wins the day, for their elders come to admire even the scrap of what had once been an treasured.


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