"From the barred visor of
Reflected shines the eternal light of Truth
As from a mirror......
Even thus transformed.
Rude popular traditions and old tales
Shine as immortal poems."
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 £ô000
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
"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
"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
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
Lithgow for wells, Carrick for a man,
Kyle for a cow,
Cunningham for corn and bere,
And Galloway for woo',"
are well-known rhymes
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
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
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.