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Home Life of the Highlanders 1400 - 1746
Superstition
By Rev. Donald Lamont, M. A.


THERE is no ground for supposing that the dwellers in a Highland clachan two or three centuries ago were more superstitious than the rest of the Scottish people. The ideas which they entertained in regard to the supernatural, and the interference of supernatural beings with the affairs of men, were part of the common stock of beliefs which prevailed everywhere in Scotland at that time. When a professor of law 1 in the University of Glasgow could write in the year 1730 that "nothing seems plainer to me than that there may be and have been witches, and that perhaps such are now actually existing; which I intend, God willing, to clear in a larger work concerning the criminal law," the folk of the clachan might well be allowed to take precautions, by every art known to them, against the machinations of these wicked beings whose existence was vouched for by such high authority. In 1768 it caused John Wesley much sorrow to observe "that most of the men of learning in Europe had given up belief in witches and apparitions, in direct opposition to the Bible and to the suffrage of the wisest and best men in all ages and nations." During the seventeenth century much of the time of the courts of the church and the courts of law in Scotland was taken up with the trial of witches, and that grim superstition dominated the minds of the doctors of theology and of law as well as the minds of the peasantry. Although a Highland clachan 2 supplied the last witch that was burnt in Scotland, it does not appear that there was ever such an epidemic oi witchcraft in the Highlands as broke out in England and in the lowlands of Scotland in the seventeenth century, and over the continent of Europe at an earlier period; nor did the Highland clergy and people inflict such cruel tortures, in the name of religion, on these unfortunate creatures as were inflicted on them elsewhere.

Instead of making general observations and reflections on the subject of Highland superstition, or attempting to deal with too many phases of it, I shall deal with only one aspect of it in this chapter, namely, the point of view of a householder in a clachan two hundred years ago. In view of the fact that there is but little of contemporary written evidence1 to guide us, and that our knowledge of the superstitious beliefs and practices of three centuries ago is mainly derived from traditions, and rhymes, and survivals that have floated down with the years, and which have been added to and subtracted from in the process, one is fully aware of the difficulty of putting oneself into the position of such a man, and of understanding his thoughts and his outlook on the world around him. But although the writer may not have adequate knowledge and discrimination to apply this method satisfactorily, and may be attributing to the clachan householder thoughts which he never had and a pagan ritual which he never practised, the method itself is quite sound. Such a man would have received from his fathers a deposit of way-wisdom which would enable him, if he used it for his guidance, to escape most of the ills of life which resulted from the interference of wicked beings, human and superhuman, with man’s affairs; and he would feel that it was the duty of a prudent householder to take every precaution to ward off danger and disease and misfortune from his wife and family and cattle. The superstition that does not make people do something is not worth considering, and cannot be regarded seriously as superstition. But the clachan dwellers of two hundred years ago did something to avert dangers which were real to their minds; and it is with these practices and ceremonies which were performed in good faith, and for a useful purpose, that this chapter will be mainly taken up. Ghosts, and goblins, and glaistigs, and gruagachs, and water-kelpies, and the other numerous beings that haunted woods, and rivers, and mountain lochs, may be put aside; for, although their existence served to provide a subject on which the Celtic mind could exercise its powers of imagination and reflection, they neither inspired such fear nor entered so closely into the daily life of the people as some other creatures of evil influence. The sources from which our prudent householder had reason to suspect most danger were witches, and fairies, and persons of an evil eye; and it was to guard himself from the spells of these and to counteract their designs that the considerable deposit of way-wisdom which still survives in Gaelic rhymes and incantations came into existence.

Witchcraft.

The relation of witches to the prince of the power of the air was not clearly defined, but it was understood that there were traffickings between them. The possession of supernatural gifts like the evil eye or second sight might be the privilege of honest persons who had no desire for such embarrassing endowments, but the power of witchcraft was regarded as an acquired rather than a natural wickedness. The persons who gained favour from the devil, to the extent of securing his co-operation in malevolent schemes, were generally old and lonely women of some oddity of aspect or manner. They had the power of transforming themselves into the shape of various beasts, especially into the shape of cats and hares. They could raise storms and sink ships; they could take the produce from a man’s croft and cows, and strike his children and cattle with wasting diseases; and, in short, visit him with every evil feared of man. There was scarcely any limit to their power, and, according to a Gaelic proverb, gheibh baobli a guidhe ged nach faigh a h-anam trocair (a wicked woman will get her desire although her soul will not get mercy). Their designs were effected by means of spells, and incantations, and secret arts known only to those who had been initiated into the service of Satan; but these designs could be frustrated if proper and timely precautions were taken against them. There was no part of their business in which witches displayed greater cunning and activity than in stealing their neighbours’ milk, or abstracting the substance from it. The percentage of butter-fat in milk sometimes gives rise to long and ingenious arguments in our modern law courts, but the clachan folk settled these matters in a simpler way, and if a cow’s milk was not up to standard in quantity or quality, they concluded that a witch had been at work. The prevalence of this phase of superstition• and the numerous ceremonies to which it gave rise, show what an important place the cow occupied in the economy of a Highland household. It was one of the chief means of subsistence, and its welfare was a matter that could not be lightly regarded. Particular care had to be exercised over the stock on certain nights of the year when witches were known to be busily engaged in their unlawful practices. On Beltane eve especially, precautionary measures were taken to counteract their designs, for carelessness on that night might result in the loss of milk and butter for the whole season. Tar, iron, dung, urine, juniper, and mountain ash were some of the outward and sensible signs used in the ritual that was performed in the name of the Trinity and apostles and saints to ward off witches from the byre.

Fairies.

These silent-moving people were more real to the mind of the clachan dwellers than any other class of supernatural beings which interfered with their affairs. It is difficult to reconstruct the fairy creed of two or three centuries ago, as the traditions which survive are a disorderly jumble which attribute to them the most contradictory qualities, in aspect, and habits, and powers. But they are generally represented as little people of social and convivial habits dwelling underground. They were ordinarily invisible, but sometimes showed themselves; and on these occasions it was observed that their favourite colour in dress was green. They did not inspire such terror in the clachan as witches did; but although they occasionally rendered some good service to those to whom they were well disposed, it was considered that intimacy and traffickings with them were not productive of good in the long run. They had children and cattle of their own which they sometimes left in place of mortal children and cattle that had been snatched away by them. They were excellent hosts, and gave such lively entertainment by music and dance to those persons who were lured by them into their dwellings that the passage of time was not observed by these, although they had been dancing for a year and a day. Sounds were sometimes heard underground, as if a smith were hammering on an anvil; and it was understood that the fairies were then busy making the elf-arrows which they shot at cows and men. These arrows left no mark of injury on the spot which they struck, but if a spent arrow was found near the place where a man or beast was pining away with a wasting sickness of which there was no apparent cause, it was concluded that a fairy had done the mischief. They could take away its toradh (substance) from land, and corn, and milk; and thus an easy explanation was provided of what must have been common enough in those days, milk that could not be converted into butter, and corn that consisted mostly of lights. But while fairies were not above stealing the produce of byre and barn, they had a special predilection for children; and the fairy changeling figures as the commonest character in popular stories. Adult fairies are generally represented as of pleasing and attractive appearance, so much so that susceptible mortals of both sexes sometimes fell in love with a leannan-sith, a fairy sweetheart; but there does not seem to have been anything attractive about the fairy youngsters who were occasionally substituted for the rightful occupants of clachan cradles. But it was probably only the shotts among fairy infants that were exchanged in this fashion. There is no doubt that this superstition was the cause of much cruelty being inflicted on pining and ill-conditioned children in those days. If a child was troublesome beyond the ordinary, or if he was not thriving, or if there was an unusual expression on his face, or if he had a voracious appetite, or if he was different in any way from other children, the suspicion grew in his parents’ minds that he was not their own but a fairy changeling, and various devices were resorted to in order to test the matter. His true pedigree could be discovered by dropping him into a river, or by exposing him on the hillside for the night, or by suspending him over a hot fire, or by running at him with a red hot piece of iron. The fairies paid particular attention to women in childbed, and on these occasions mother and child were watched day and night with the utmost care. Various preservatives were used, such as putting a piece of cold iron in the mother’s bed, sprinkling the bedposts and doors with maistir or urine, and carrying fire, sunwise, round the bed or house in which the mother lay. All these arts, if performed to the accompaniment of mystic words generally known to the class of women who acted as midwives, served to drive away the fairies. If they were persistent and sought entrance to the sick-room by door or window, they could generally be kept out by throwing in their faces water into which fire or some strongly-smelling stuff had been thrown. One of the most remarkable things about the fairies was their aversion from iron, and a clachan householder who had a bit of iron on his person and a few powerful rhymes in his memory to invoke the aid of the Trinity could generally protect himself from fairy influence. Within recent years there lived in the Highlands persons who had as much paganism in their minds as Christianity, and whose chief use for the family Bible was to place it against the doorstep at night to keep away fairies and witches. But although in later times the Bible was used as a protective agent in the same way as iron and fire, its use for such purposes was unknown in the period of which we are speaking, for the good reason that the book itself was unknown. It is on record that in the grace before meat used by a Skyeman who lived in the second half of the nineteenth century one of the petitions ran thus: "O Blessed One, preserve the aged and the young, our wives and our children, our sheep and our cattle from the power and dominion of the fairies, and from the malicious effects of every evil eye. Let a straight path lie before us, and a happy end to our journey."

Evil Eye.

The belief that an evil influence can be exerted from the eye is one of the most ancient and universal of human beliefs, and has probably arisen from the fact that this physical organ in some persons is naturally of a forbidding and fearsome cast. The glance of such an eye gives an uncomfortable sensation to those on whom it falls, and it would be easy to exaggerate its power and to extend the range of its operation till at last the superstition reached the height at which we know it, The clachan dwellers did not trouble themselves with the philosophy of the evil eye, but they believed that it could do mischief to their cattle, and sheep, and boats, and other gear; and their chief interest in the matter was to protect themselves from its sinister influence. It sometimes happened that persons possessed an evil eye who had no desire to do mischief with it, but in most cases envy and love of gain were at the back of it. The love of gain also played some part in the cure of diseases caused by the evil eye, and it was part of the ritual to give a gratuity to the person who had the colas or knowledge which was recited on these occasions. These rhymes were not common property, but were handed down from generation to generation; and those skilled persons in the community who possessed them found that considerable personal authority and pecuniary advantage accrued to them from their lore. Water, and especially spring water in which silver or pebbles or the feet of a black cat had been dipped, was invariably used in the ritual of prevention and cure; while nails, iron, hair balls, cinders, urine, threads, juniper, rowan, St. Columba’s plant, and various other plants had some magic virtue when properly prepared and used with the right form of words. As an example of these charms, the rhyme known as Eolas a’ Chronachaidh may be given:

"Let me perform for you a charm for the evil eye,
From the breast of holy St. Patrick;
Against swelling of neck and stoppage of bowels,
Against an old bachelor’s eye and an old wife’s eye.
If a man’s eye may it flame like resin,
If a woman’s eye may she want her breast,
A cold plunge and coldness to her blood,
And to her gear, to her men,
To her cattle and sheep."

The boundary line between religion and superstition is s~ indefinite as to be exceedingly difficult to define, and although these incantations have only an antiquarian and literary interest to us now and appear to us to be merely pagan survivals, their use by clachan dwellers two centuries ago had a religious significance; and these forms of words when used on their lips have as much right to be called Christian prayers as some forms of words used by their successors in the twentieth century. Many of these incantations, no doubt, go back to pagan times, but they were adapted to changing circumstances and to the gradual access of light and knowledge, and the names of heathen gods gave place to those of Christ, and the Virgin, and Apostles, and Christian saints. A very beautiful eolas which was got by Mr. Alexander Carmichael in Uist may be given. It was recited to protect cows from the evil eye. The plant referred to as Torranan had to be procured during the flow of the tide, and, while placing it under the milk pail, the person using it had to repeat the colas three times and to make a circle, sunwise, three times over the pail.

"Let me pluck thee, Torranan!
With all thy blessedness and all thy virtue,
The nine blessings came with the nine parts,
By the virtue of the Torranan.
The hand of St. Bride with me,
I am now to pluck thee.
Let me pluck thee Torranan!
With thine increase as to sea and land;
With the flowing tide that shall know no ebbing.
By the assistance of the chaste St. Bride,
The holy St. Columba directing me,
And St. Michael, of high crested steeds,
Imparting virtue to the matter the while,
Darling plant of all virtue,
I am now plucking thee !"‘

Preventive and Cure Charms.

Although superstition was more prevalent two centuries ago than now, it must not be supposed that the Highland people did nothing else but chant charms to protect themselves from malevolent spirits which awaited them at every corner. Probably the majority of clachan dwellers paid little attention to these things, and, although they inherited the whole circle of superstitious beliefs which have been attributed to them since Martin wrote on the subject in his Description of the Western isles, their lives were not more shadowed by these than ours are by the spectres of the modern world. In every age superstition is a matter of degree, and of two men who have exactly the same intellectual notions in regard to the unseen world and the power of the beings that inhabit it, one will walk warily and with a fearful eye, muttering his charms, and the other will walk with a light heart, whistling a tune, past churchyards and haunted lochs and fairy knolls. Even when superstition belongs to the spirit of the age the majority of people are not really or profoundly superstitious, no more than the majority of people are really or profoundly Christian when Christianity is the spirit of the age. Only a few choice spirits carry their beliefs to their logical conclusion and have faith enough in their ritual and way-wisdom to practise them on ordinary occasions. Extraordinary occasions are quite a different matter, and neither great faith nor great superstition are required to make human beings do things at such times. But if our prudent householder in the clachan was one of these choice spirits, there was no end to the ceremonies which he would perform and the incantations which he would use to protect himself and his family and his cattle from diseases and disasters. When a child was born, or a cow calved, or man or beast suffered from colic, or toothache, or sprain, or bleeding, there were appropriate words and actions to be said and done. The rhyme for healing sore eyes may be given as an example of a cure charm. The performer spat into a vessel containing clear water and repeated the incantation:

"A charm for sore smarting eyes,
The best charm under the sun,
The charm of God, the All-great,
Charm of Mary, charm of God,
Charm of each priest and cleric,
Charm of Michael the strenuous,
Who bestowed on the sun its strength."’

As an example of the sian or protective charm the following may be given. This could protect a man from harm from the time he left the presence of the charmer till he came back, and it was usually said over those who were going into battle:

"The charm that Mary placed on her Son be on you,
Charm from slaying, charm from wounding,
Charm between breast anti knee,
Charm between knee and breast,
Charm of the Three in One on you,
From top of head to sole of foot,
Charm of seven paters once on you,
Charm of seven paters twice on you,
Charm of seven paters thrice on you,
Charm of seven paters four times on you,
Charm of seven paters five times on you,
Charm of seven paters six times on you,
Charm of the seven paters, of the seven paters, going sunwise in lucky hour on you, to keep you from harm and accident."

Customs and Rites.

The Reformation in Scotland took place in the year 1560, but although, theoretically, there should be a clear line of demarcation between the old order and the new, it does not appear that there was any violent breaking away from the past on the part of the people; and it would be difficult to say precisely what the change amounted to in actual practice. Customs which prevailed in early Christian days, and perhaps in pagan times, lingered on long after the Reformation, and during the seventeenth century a good deal of the time of the clergy was devoted to the discovery and suppression of rites which were performed by their parishioners without their leave or blessing. In 1643 it came to the knowledge of the Presbytery of Inverness that the people of Daviot were in the habit of worshipping an image called St. Finane; and in 1656 the Presbytery of Dingwall discovered that the inhabitants of western Ross-shire sacrificed a bull yearly to St. Maolrubha, and made visits to chapels and holy wells associated with his name to learn the future. The customs of pouring oblations of milk upon fairy mounds, of adoring saints who had taken the place of pagan divinities or demons as the patrons of holy

wells, of burning torches through the corn on St. John’s day, of raising the devil by the turning of the sieve and the shear, and of burying a lamb under the threshold to ensure the safety of the cattle, were observed so generally that in 1649 the clergy of the Highlands were ordained by the Commission of the General Assembly to "preach powerfully" against them.’ Divination was also resorted to, and many of the rites associated with Hallowe’en, now regarded merely as children’s games, originated from the devices employed by our forefathers to read the future. One horrible ceremony which was sometimes performed for divination purposes, and sometimes for other reasons, was known as the Taghairm. It was also known as "giving his supper to the devil," and in one form of Taghairm a live cat was roasted on a spit; but the reader can find descriptions of this weird superstition in Martin’s Western Isles and in Superstitions of the Scottish Highlands, by J. G. Campbell, Tiree; or, if he prefers to read an account of it in Gaelic, he can find it in the second series of Caraid nan Gaidheal.

Omens, Luck, Second Sight.

Highlanders of the olden times attached much significance to omens, and when setting out on a journey, or beginning any work, they were particularly anxious to avoid persons, and beasts, and birds, and objects that were known to be unlucky. Certain things could only be undertaken on certain days. Red-haired men, dark-haired women, rats, hares, herons, owls, crows, cocks, foxes, magpies—each of these had its own particular message to convey to the superstitious, according to the place and posture in which it was seen. A long catalogue might be drawn up of what the clachan folk considered to be good or bad omens, lucky or unlucky signs; but such a list could serve no other purpose than to show how exceedingly difficult it was for a prudent man in those days to walk circumspectly.

No phase of Highland superstition is better known than second sight, which included all the phenomena known under the name of taibhsearachd, mainly relating to ghosts, and wraiths, and phantom funerals, and spectre coffins, and death sounds, and lights, and other such visions; but the subject cannot be pursued here. In every Highland clachan even yet there are persons who see things, but for every taibhsear who exists now there must have been a score in olden times.

Superstition dies hard, and the writer knows a man who performed the ceremony of casting into the sea an offering of porridge to appease the god of the waves and to induce him to grant a liberal supply of sea-ware. The day of la a’ bhrochain mhoir was well known in the Highlands in olden times. He also knows two women who have made a corp creadha in their day and who even now practise secret arts, and obtain thereby an influence equal at least to that of a parish councillor. Some years ago a crofter in the western isles was at considerable pains to extract from a dying neighbour a charm which he was known to possess and which was reputed to be exceedingly powerful in an emergency, especially when a horse had a bad colic, and in conversation with the writer afterwards he summed up his philosophy of the matter in these words, Faodaidh e bhith nash ‘eu anns an rud ach Ppanachd ach cha bhiodh feum aige-san air far an robh e a’ dol agus cha mhisd mise e bhi ‘n cl mo chinn, which may be translated, The words may be nothing more than Papistry, but he would have no use for them in the place he has gone to and I shall be nothing the worse of having them up my sleeve.


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