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Nether Lochaber
Chapter L


Superstition amongst the People—Difficulty of dealing with it—Examples of Superstitions still prevalent in the Highlands—Cock-crowing at untimely hours—Itching of the Nose-Ringing in the Ears—The "Dead-Bell"—Sir Walter Scott—Hogg—Mickle.

We live in an age of intense literary and intellectual activity; the tendency of the highest culture of our time [March 1876], however, it is complained, being towards materialism and scepticism, the latter either in the form of indifforentism or absolute negation. The great mass of our people, however—the uneducated or only partially educated—stand at the other extreme; for whilst it is complained that those of the highest culture believe too little, or don't believe at all, the common people, it is averred, believe too much. And it is perfectly true that the latter are indeed superstitious to an extent of which the mere outsider can have no adequate conception; and yet, philosophically pondered, there can be no difficulty, we think, in arriving at the conclusion that of the two evils over-belief is better than its opposite; that it is better, upon the whole, to believe too much than too little. A man with any form of creed, even if it bo false, may be led in time to believe aright, whereas the case of the utterly creedless man is well-nigh hopeless. Eor our own part, therefore, we do not look upon the superstitions of our people with such horror and alarm as many well-meaning persons, clerical or lay, feel or feign when brought in contact with an evil which, let the philosophers say what they will, has its good as well as its bad side. We greatly doubt if, under present circumstances, and in their present stage of civilisation, the inhabitants of Scotland generally, and of the Highlands, with which we are "best acquainted, in particular, would be at all so religious and devout a people as they are confessedly allowed to be, were it not for the substratum of superstition that underlies their better founded beliefs and religious aspirations. Constantly en rapport with the supernatural and the unseen, they are more disposed than they might otherwise be to believe in and shape the conduct of their daily lives in accordance with the doctrine of a future world, with its rewards and punishments, feeling and acknowledging in a very remarkable manner, even through the medium of their superstitions—if erroneous, yet not always degrading—the full force and meaning of what the apostle speaks of in a general way as "the powers of the world to come." An interesting paper might be written in support of the theory here indicated, a theory that to some may seem a paradox, but meanwhile it must lie over for some more fitting occasion. Such a task requires time; for of all the delicate tasks that the philosophic mind can concern itself with, the most delicate is the endeavour to discover and recognise the spirit of good things in things evil, and of reason in things unreasonable. Meanwhile, it is the truth, account for it as we may, that notwithstanding the multiplication of ministers and churches, schoolmasters and school boards, "Increase of Episcopate" Bill, and all the rest of it, there is still a lively undercurrent of superstition amongst our people, do what you can to stamp it out or otherwise; and that those who believe in it most implicitly are by no means the worst people either. An example of a very common superstition is the following :—A few evenings ago, at an accidental gathering of some half-dozen families in a house in our neighbourhood, the subjoined conversation took place with regard to a recent death in the parish. Mrs. B.—"I suppose you have all heard of the death of X. L., poor fellow. It was reported he was better yesterday, but I knew last night that I should hear of a death some time to-day, and knowing of no one else at present unwell, I decided that it must he X. L.'s death that was foretold me."Mrs. C.—" Foretold you? how?" Mrs. B.—"Why, thus: long after dark last night, as I was busy getting the children's supper, the cock, that had gone to roost as usual, suddenly stood up on his perch, and crowed a long and loud crow that startled us all; and I made Katie say the Lord's Prayer, for I knew that a cock crowing at an hour so untimeous meant a death in our neighbourhood, and nothing else. On inquiry, I find that X. L. died just ahout that time." Mrs. D.—"I knew it too, that there was to he a death in our neighbourhood. My nose itched so much all last evening, and the itching was on the left nostril side, and I was certain that it was to be the death of a male that I should hear of. I had not, however, heard that X. L. was so very poorly." Mrs. F.—"While at breakfast this morning, I could hardly eat anything, so loud and persistent was the ringing in my ears. It was just like the tolling of the church bell." Now, the reader must remember that these were highly respectable women, of some education, and in every way of good repute; and yet they had no idea at all that there was anything silly or wrong about their superstition, of which they made no secret, and which was reported to us immediately afterwards by one who was present. Now, we ask, if one was present and heard it all, how could he best deal with the believer in this superstition, a superstition so wide-spread that it may be said to be universal. Any attempt at getting angry and driving it out of them by the mere force and weight of your superior enlightenment would be a false move, sure to be attended by no good results. Laughing at the whole affair might perhaps be a more successful way of dealing with the nonsense, but in neither way would you be likely to make them look at the matter fr(5m your particular light and point of view. Admitting that it was rank superstition and sheer nonsense, there was this one good thing attending it; it led to much moralising on the shortness and uncertainty of human life, and the unahidingness generally of all sublunary things; and the superstition was perhaps more effectual in this direction than would he the most carefully composed sermon. But the philosophic aspect of the case apart, let us inquire why the facts mentioned should he held as premonitory of death. The crowing of the cock has probably some connection with the denial of St. Peter, and in it, too, may perhaps he traced a faint remnant of the bird divination of the ancients. As to the itching of the nose, we confess our inability to say anything satisfactory, beyond the fact that in old times anything unusual and difficult to be reasonably accounted for in man's physical economy, as well as in his mental, was at once attributed to a supernatural cause. Of this the ringing in the ears, as well as the itching in the nose, must be held to be an example. The well-known ringing in the ears does come with extraordinary suddenness, as we have all experienced, and when it comes makes the most staid philosopher look foolish and out of sorts for the moment. Its connection with death is perhaps to be traced to the passing bell of early and mediaeval times, and to the tolling of bells at funerals even in our own day. Sir Walter Scott, who knew the peasantry of Scotland so well, and sympathised so much even with their superstitions, has a happy reference to the death-bell in a passage in Marmion :—

"For soon Lord Marmion raided his head,
And, smiling, to Fitz-Eustace said-
'Is it not strange, that, as ye sung,
Seem'd in mine ear a death-peal rung,
Such as in nunneries they toll
For some departing sister's soul?

Say, what may this portend?
'Then first the Palmer silence broke
(The livelong day he had not spoke),
'The death of a dear friend."

On this passage there is an interesting note very apropos to our subject:—"Among other omens to which faithful credit is given among the Scottish peasantry is what is called the 'dead-hell,' explained hy my friend Jame3 Hogg to he that tinkling in the ears which the country people regard as the secret intelligence of some friend's decease." He tells a story to the purpose in the ' Mountain Bard," p. 26—

"O lady, 'tis dark, an' I heard the dead-bell,
An' I darena gae younder for gowd nor fee."

"By the dead-hell," says Hogg, "is meant a tinkling in the ears, which our peasantry in the country regard as a secret intelligence of some friend's decease. Thus this natural occurrence strikes many with superstitious awe. This reminds me of a trifling anecdote -which I will relate as an instance. Our two servant girls agreed to go an errand of their own one night after supper, to a considerable distance, from which I strove to persuade them, hut could not prevail. So, after going to the apartment in which I slept, I took a drinking-glass, and coming close to the back of the door, made two or three sweeps round the lips of the glass with my fingers, which caused a loud, shrill sound. I then overheard the following dialogue:—B.—"Ah, mercy! the dead-bell went through my head just now with such a knell as I never heard." C.—"I heard it too." B.—"Did you indeed? That is remarkable. I never knew of two hearing it at the same time before." C.—"We will not go to Midgehope to-night." B.—"No! I wouldn't go for all the world! I warrant it is my poor brother, Wat; who knows what these wild Irishes may have done to him?" Tinkling, however, which both Scott and Hogg use, is not the word. It is more of a ringing, so clear and loud at times, that we once heard a little girl say "there was a bell in her head." Our authorities above confess that it is called the "dead-&c" amongst the peasantry, and by bell they mean not a tinkling but a loud and very pronounced sound, as if of solid metal striking hollow metal, and causing the bell-sound with which we are all so familiar. Mickle, in his fine ballad Cumnor Hall, has a reference to the same superstition:—

"The death-bell thrice was heard to ring,
An aerial voice was heard to call,
And thrice the raven flapp'd its wing
Around the towers of Cumnor Hall."

To sneer at such beliefs, and pooh-pooh them superciliously and from a philosophical stand-point, is easy; it has been tried with but little satisfactory result. The true philosopher will be more and more disposed, the more he deals with such matters, and the closer he examines them, to fall back on Hamlet's dictum, "That there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy." So ineradicable is superstition of this sort, that you may battle with it long enough—we have battled with it for years—and find it at last by no means the weaker of your assaults, no matter how cautiously and circuitously you select to deal with it.

After an unusually mild and open season, we have just had a taste of downright winter in the bitterly cold gales and drifting snow-storms of the last few days. Our weatherwise old folks are of course delighted that winter in proper dress and form has come at long last; better late than never, is the cry, and a bright and warm spring in due course is confidently predicted.


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