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Folk Lore in Lowland Scotland
Chapter IX - Adages and Omens


"From the barred visor of Antiquity,
Reflected shines the eternal light of Truth
As from a mirror......
Even thus transformed.
Rude popular traditions and old tales
Shine as immortal poems."
LONGFELLOW.

THOUGH the origin of many of our everyday uses and wonts are hidden in the well of years, some still float on the surface, for it is odd how certain scraps of folk lore take deep root in the popular fancy and never die out. "God bless you," we say when a friend sneezes. According to Sir Frederick Treves, sneezing repels the invading microbes of cold. Long ago in Greece, when the plague was prevalent, the threatened victims at the crisis of the disease averted the fatal catastrophe by allowing nature's artillery of sneezing to oust the enemy, so the benediction was spoken by friends, and that prayerful aspiration despite the flight of centuries is offered by us to-day. Wise saws in regard to weather and the gales of life are still evergreen—rhymes of people and places are indelibly printed in our minds. The Lightsome Lindsays as well as the Gordons are named in the ballad on the Battle of Otterbourne. The former flew—

".....like fire about
Till a' the fray was done."

The latter are described as the Gordons guid, but gay "is the word usually applied to them. In a well-known song, of all the twenty-four nobles who sat in the king's hail, Glenlogie (prosaically George Gordon) is the flower of them a'," and he is one of the Gay Gordons. These—the Lightsome Lindsays and Gay Gordons —flash through history in times past and present with "gallant Grahams," the "gentle Johnstons," and Setons tall and proud. A Border rhyme includes many men of the Merse:

"The haughty Humes,
The saucy Scotts,
The cappet Kers,
The bauld Rutherfords."

There are a host of Scottish families with an alliterative or descriptive title before their names, gleaned from friends, enemies, and more often from some "sabre cut of Saxon speech," some truesome word in the ballads which has stuck to them and given them the distinctive character they are known by the world over. Some of these territorial families also own heirlooms which have come to them legend guarded. We have spoken of the Coalstoun pear, of the fairy banner of Dunvegan, and other fetiches are scattered over Scotland. For instance, there is "Barbreck's bone" in the Antiquarian Museum —an important healing relic. It is a slice of ivory, and belonged to the Barbrecks in Argyleshire. It was believed to be useful in curing insanity, and a bond of ioo was required when it was loaned. These relics were dipped in water which the patient drank. The Lee penny of the Lock- harts, famed for its medicinal powers, was hired to Newcastle when in Charles the First's reign the plague was rife there, and 000 was the money pledged for its safe return. The Robert- sons of Struan had a famous stone, potent in healing, and also from time immemorial time Stewarts of Ardvoirlich had one, the "Clach Dearg." There is also the charm stone of the Bairds of Auchmeddan, in appearance more like a bone than a stone, a round putty-coloured ball. It was said to have come from the Holy Land. It may have been some sacred bone gotten there by a crusader. Alongside this relic there is kept in a safe by a descendant of the Bairds a bear's paw. The bear, in the days of William the Lion, attacked the king, and the progenitor of the Bairds stepped forward, Slew the beast, and there to this day, in Edinburgh, is treasured the dried paw of the four-footed, might-have-been regicide who disputed the right of entry to the woods with Scotland's king. Within hearing of the time gun of Edinburgh are two estates whose tenure, according to history fostered by folk lore, is simple and romantic, going back to the heroic age of Scotland's Jameses. The Clerks of Penicuik were granted their estate "free for a blast." They hold themselves bound to sit on a rock called the Buckstone and blow three times upon a horn when royalty comes to hunt upon the Borough Muir, where the troops assembled before fatal Flodden. The family who bear the motto, "Free for a Blast," are saved by builders and the encroachments of the city from ever seeing a king hunt again on what once was a moor, now a suburb crowded with flats and villas lying between the city and the Pentlands.

At Crarnond Brig, five miles from Edinburgh, there is the farm of Braehead where, in James the Fifth's days, dwelt Jock Howieson, who saved the king from some gipsies and afterwards dressed his wounds. James had been masquerading as the Gudeman of Ballengeich when he fell foul of the nomads. As the kindly farmer washed his unknown guest's wounds he told him of his desire to own his farm, and the "gudeman" trysted him to meet him at Holyrood and lay his plaint before James. Here honest Jock found the stranger he had entertained (who beside his simple self, at the Court, alone wore his hat) was the king, and he was gifted with his farin on condition he, or the holders thereof, came laden with basin and towel to the sovereign of Scotland when they crossed Cramond Brig. George IV. was thus greeted by the holder of Braehead.

The Lockharts of Carnforth held their land by instituting a race at the annual fair for a pair of red hose, and when the prize was von the laird had a mounted messenger in readiness to speed with the news to the Lord Advocate.

Round places there remained a halo of ancient prophecies. Thomas the Rhymer marked many spots, and local folk lore in popular jangles marked many more. Robert Chambers tells of an old man of seventy-two, who, in 1825, told how he had heard the following prophetic couplet when a boy, and in his childhood. Remember Edinburgh then was enclosed within its ancient walls, and there was then no talk of the Lang Gait turning into Princes Street:-

"York was, London is, and Edinburgh will be
The biggest of the three."

There are other prognostications which were made centuries ago, and by the wear and tear of winds and waves, or the encroachments of the ocean, seem to be coming true, and on their fulfilment the prophet foretells the world is nearing its end:—

"When the Yowes o' Gowrie come to land,
The day of judgment's near at hand."

These stony " yowes" are close to Invergowrie —two blocks of rock which were once out in the sea. The estuary has silted up and the country people say the land gains an inch a year. On Sunday afternoon it was a custom to go to see what progress the yowes were making.

"When Finhaven Castle runs to sand,
The world's end is near at hand,"

says a Forfar rhyme. Once solid Finhaven is a ruin, and it is highly probable time will crumble its remaining walls into sand.

The people of districts from song and story have been named mostly like those relating to families with an alliterative word. Berwickshire boasts of the Men of the Merse, and there are gay lads o' Gala water. The shoemakers—the Souters of Selkirk—made themselves a name, and Scotland itself, with oaten cakes and its women bakers of toothsome bread, is known the world over as the Land o' Cakes.

"Glasgow is famed for bells,
Lithgow for wells, Carrick for a man,
Kyle for a cow,
Cunningham for corn and bere,
And Galloway for woo',"

are well-known rhymes specifying places.

The borrowing days of March from April are well known:-

"March borrows frae April
Three days and they are ill.
The first of them is wind and weet,
The second it is snow and sleet,
The third of them is peel-a-bane
And freezes the wee birds' nebs tae the stane."

There is a time-proven proverb bearing in mind March's extremes, changing as it ofttimes does from a lion to a lamb. Whether the weather be fair or foul on St. Swithin's is to-day studied as in bygone times. If fine, it insures six weeks' spell of clear skies; if wet, rain daily. The freakish uncertainty of our climate, the deceptiveness of spring, when the sun shines gaily one day and the next may be as cold again as winter, has made wise ones warn the coming generation to-

"Ne'er cast a clout
Till May be out."

When snow falls, the Scotch child is told it is Norroway witches shaking their feathers; and when rain splashes down it seems to be well to advise it to go to Spain, whether in resentment, or that it is needed there, we know not.

There are many prophecies in regard to weather from local signs—hills which wear a cowl and bring rain to the plains.

"When Falkland Hill puts on his cap,
The Howe o'Fife will get a drap,"

say the folk of Fife, and in Annandale they have noted—

"When Criffel wears a hap,
Skiddaw vats full well o' that."

"Many haws, many snaws," the old folks say, when they see the thorn white with blossom, believing that a foreseeing Providence will supply more food if a hard winter is to set in. Simple signs and portents were read often aright in what we would call unlettered days, and old- world quaint saws are still taught. The early poems of romance are full of haggard suggestions, for the songs of a younger world were oft- whiles sad songs. They held the popular imagination longer in thrall. The rattle and shallow catchiness of modern music hail verses a primitive people, burdened with the difficulty of fighting for existence, would have naught of. It is a proven fact that the saddest story ever maketh the sweetest song, and in the old ballads, where lies enshrined much folk lore, the owerwords in them has a plaintive note, but also a note so full of force it retains its hold on all those who hearken to it—

"For every stroke goes o'er thy harp
It stounds my heart within."

Many superstitions which were credited by the people appear in the ballads. A ring bursting on the finger was held to presage evil, as in "Lammlain"-

"The Lord sat in England,
A-drinking the wine.
I wish a' may be wed
Wi' my lady at hame;
For the rings of my fingers
They're now burst in twain."

Hynde Horn alludes to change of colour in diamonds as betokening ill. When he returned, after being seven years at sea, he begged of his should-have-been bride in the guise of a beggar, and in the empty cup let fall the ring saying—

"Now that the diamonds are changed in their hue,
I know that my love has to me proved untrue."

Precious stones in the East are said to have properties which suit only with certain temperaments, and these stones belong to people born in certain months and are their lucky mascots. Opals, despite their beauty, are as a rule avoided for an engagement ring, being believed, perhaps because of their changeableness, to be unstable. Amber from ancient times is held to have special properties—lammer is the Scottish word for it. It was potent in blindness, and a charm against evil spirits. Amber necklaces were worn as a charm against evil. Betty Davidson, to whose tales Burns listened when he was a glowing-eyed boy, had a string of "lammer beads" which enabled her to speak of bogles and witches and Old Hornie himself without fear. From the protection the amber gave her, her nimble tongue had full licence to describe the ghouls she knew of, and to her we maybe owe Burns's description of the pranks of the witches in "Tam o' Shanter." In the ruins of a Pict's stronghold on a Border stream recently was found an amber bead, treasured by its owner unnumbered centuries ago, and sorely missed when it rolled away and hid itself from human sight, to be upheaved by the plough along with the elf arrows the Pict fashioned.

A picture falling or a mirror being broken are omens of ill we still attach importance to The crown tottered when placed on James II's head at Westminster, and a courtier had to steady it; his family, he said, had often before supported the crown. It was a portent which was noted at the time, and its prophecy was not long of fulfilment.

The Stone of Destiny is the largest "precious stone" in this country. Whether it be the one, as tradition sayeth, on Jacob rested his head when he dreamed, and through many a weary pilgrimage was carried by his descendants as a talisman, here it was coveted, for the Lia Fail was ordained to be the throne seat of the monarch who would rule the earth. Edward I. of England bore it away, but destiny sent kings from Scotland to be crowned upon it. When Sir Walter Scott was escorting Mungo Park across the hills to Yarrow before the explorer set out on his last travels, Park's horse stumbled and nearly fell. "A bad omen," said the Shirra. "Freits (omens) follow those who look for freits," replied Park, thinking of the words of the old ballad, "Edom o' Gordon"-

"Them look to freits, my master dear,
Then freits will follow them."

Prophecies truly bring about their own fulfilment. Take, for instance, the case of the Haigs of Bemersyde, and looking back over ages of folk lore we may shudder, or smile, at the superstitious dread our ancestors had of what we call the forces of nature—thunder, shrieking winds, darkness, etc. They were a people dwelling in close communion with the earth and sky. Living in so austere and simple a manner they saw and heard with senses unblunted by the requirements of civilisation, sharpened indeed by their rude hand-to-hand encounter with the beasts of the forest for a livelihood. We see in all the oral traditions they left us how they believed in elves and hobgoblins, ourisks, etc. "O sweet and far from cliff and scar," says Tennyson, the horns of Elfiand faintly blowing." Instead of their musical trumpets sounding through the hills and adown the dales, we of this advanced age only hear the horns of motors coming to smother the sauntering wayfarer in dust, and frightening even the idea of fairies out of mind. This peace- loving era has tried to put Satan behind it, to banish the prince of darkness from our creed. The very names by which he was mentioned, Auld Clootie, Hornie, etc., are sinking into oblivion—names invented, while he reigned, by terror, to evade mentioning him, so that none should he heard by his emissaries "speaking ill of the deil." However, the pendulum swings. Spiritualism is now the fashion. The denizens of Elfinland, the good neighbours of old, are supposed no longer to cast their glamour over us, but as astral spirits enliven seances. Ghosts still walk and talk to some of us, but even this material age cannot deprive us of the romance that superstition and fairies have left in our minds and in the best of our literature. The old, old stories of folk lore still dwell evergreen in our memories. All the time-tried, imperishable favourites—Puss in Boots, Red Riding-hood, Cinderella (Rushie coat, in Scotland), Blue- beard, Jack and the Bean Stalk, etc.—folk lore has saved to us, showing the oneness in speech of the Teutonic races. "Amid curious rubbish you will find sound sense if you look for it. You will find the creed of the people as shown in their stories. You will find perseverance, frugality, and filial piety rewarded, pride, greed, and laziness punished. Men in this century have raised up a pastime for children, fit to be a study for the energies of grown men, to all the dignity of a science. It is held by those who have studied the subject that the stories we all know, the very games children play and the refrains they sing to them, came from the East. The problem in each case was to trace the nursery tale to the legend, and the legend to the myth, and the myth to the earliest germ, and as far as possible to indicate the foreign interpolations when they occurred, and account for the local corrections. In this way the history of a story, like the history of a word, was frequently more interesting, more instructive than the history of a campaign." So says one student of folk lore, and another that: "The record of these customs is more than a matter of antiquarian curiosity, for it may help to throw light upon the life and the literature of Scotland in bygone days, and surely everything that enables us to understand our forefathers better is to be commended and ought to be regarded as highly instructive."

Every step we take on Scottish soil we tread on history, as Cicero said men at Athens did, and also in our ears when we walk in the lowlands ring the superstitions which by traditions have come to us from the rawest beginnings of our islands' races. We treasure now all antique things, including the "ancient haunts of men." From a few bones those skilled in their study can reconstruct the type to which they belonged. So from the circle of monoliths, from antiquarian odds and ends, flint arrowheads, bronze and gold ornaments, the plough, or the pick-axe digging tunnels for railroads, brings to the light of our day, place names which speak of an obsolete people, we, who for the present are in the forefront of time, from these fragments left, surmise how our forefathers lived and worshipped. Their "distant footsteps echo through the corridors of time." We have tried, we trust not in vain, to read the cypher of their myths and remains aright. The ancient customs and beliefs of antiquity cling to us and colour our fancies. The ancientness, the romance of the unfathomed, attracts us. Some superstitions are enshrouded in a pre-historic mist, but the very doubtfulness of their outline looming in the background haunts us in the same way that an unascended mountain overshadowing an alpine climber entices and beckons him to ascend, invade, and learn the secrets of its heights and solitudes.

The unread carvings on the cromlechs, the traditions of ages past, are elements in the life of our nation which it is well to foster, if they only show us from what level we have ascended to the dignity of reasoning beings.


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