traditions are in strange contrast with those of the last chapter,
though gathered in the same district, often from the s£,me
informants. I believe them to be collected for the first time so far
as the islands in question are concerned. Even the researches of
Campbell of Islay did not penetrate to the smaller islands of the
Outer Hebrides, and assuredly they are as remote from less
adventurous inquirers as the snow's of Alaska or the monasteries of
Thibet. Every year boat-loads of tourists visit the shores of remote
St. Kilda, and the inhabitants reap their harvest in a fashion
worthy of Italy or Switzerland, but I could count on the fingers of
one hand the number of strangers who have visited Eriskay in the
last five years, and other islands familiar to us are even less
The language used is,
as far as possible, that, or a translation of that, of the
informants, and variants have always been carefully noted. Such
gatherings are not easily made. The Celt must know and trust well
those whom he admits into his inner life, and though in our
wanderings in the islands we have long since learnt to feel at home
and among friends, I could never myself have accomplished such a
collection, and have to acknowledge most cordially and fully, the
help of the Rev. Allan Macdonald, Priest of Eriskay, to whose
patience, erudition, and perhaps even more his friendship with the
people, these records are mainly due.
Nothing strikes one
as more strange in these islands than the curious mixture of
religion and superstition; and one realizes, as in perhaps few other
places, what life must have been in early days when Christianity was
first superinduced upon Paganism. Here there has been, moreover, the
curious complication of a Christianity rooted in the hearts of a
people, who were then left without teachers, without books, without,
practically, any written language, for nearly three centuries. The
realization of the forces of nature and the powers of evil was
strong in a land wholly without trees, without the convenience of
wood for any purposes of shelter or manufacture; where the soil is
so shallow and ungrateful that few things will even take root;
where, so wind-swept is the land, that even when rooted they have
but a precarious hold upon the soil; where man and beast alike have
to make a struggle for life, of which we happily know little.
Thus it came about
that one of the most obvious uses of their religion was to play it
off, if one may say so, against the Powers of Darkness.
The spinning-wheel is
blessed when it is put away for the night; the cow before she is
milked; the horses when put to any new work; the cattle when they
are shut up in the byre; the fire when the peats are covered up at
bedtime; the door is signed with the cross when closed for the
night; and the joiner s tools when he leaves them in his workshop,
otherwise he is likely to be disturbed by hearing them used by
unseen hands. For the same reason the women take the band off the
spinning-wheel, for when a death is about to occur, tools and wheels
are likely to be put to supernatural use.
The boats are always
blessed at the beginning of the fishing-season, and holy water is
carried in them. When one leaves the shore, “Let us go in the name
of God,” says the skipper; “In the name of God let us go,” replies
the next in command.
The sea is much more
blessed than the land. A man will not be afraid to stay all night in
a boat a few yards from shore, but he would not stay an hour alone
in the dark on land.
A priest told me that
one day he was crossing the dangerous Minch, which lies between Uist
and Eriskay, on a dark night to visit some sick person. He asked the
man who had fetched him where his companion, who was awaiting them,
would shelter on the shore. “He won’t be on the shore at all, by the
Book ! it is in the boat itself he will be. The sea is holier to
live on than the shore.”
When the door is
opened in the morning one should say on first looking out: “May God
bless what my eye may see and what my hand may touch.”
An old inhabitant
told us that there is not a glen in Eriskay in which Mass has not
been said on account of the fuathas or bocain. Father John used to
say Mass at Creag Shiant, a fairy or enchanted rock in Baile,
Eriskay. She herself had never felt anything there.
It is customary to
recite the genealogy of St. Bride, who is a very important saint in
these islands, and among the concluding lines are these:
Each day and night
that I recall the genealogy of Brigid,
I shall not be killed,
I shall not be wounded,
I shall not be struck by the Evil Eye.
There is a little
brown bean2 which they call the "Marybean,” and which women still
wear round their neck as a charm, which used always to be blessed by
The cow is a blessed
animal. It is not right1 that she should be struck by the flesh of a
sinner, and her last words—for before the Fall of man all the beasts
had speech—were: “Do not strike me with your palm.” A stick, even a
few inches long, is to be used in preference.
The sheep’s last
words were: “Don’t break my foot, don’t burn my bone, don’t shear
the back of my head.” It is therefore not right to throw a
mutton-bone on the fire.
There seems to be
some half-forgotten mystic use of the rod. In taking cattle to the
hills they should be driven with a stick of no value, as it must be
thrown after them when they are left. The stem of the docken, which
comes naturally into use in Uist where sticks are scarce, is
“forbidden.” The drovers and crofters are agreed about this, but can
give no reason. It is equally “forbidden” for horses.
An old man in Eriskay
used to say, on leaving his cattle, after leading them to the hills:
“Closed be every hole (i.e. into which they might stumble) clear be
each knowe (i.e. each knoll, from obstacles over which they might
fall) and may the herdship of Columcillc be upon you till you come
One does not hear of
dogs being blessed, though animals of great value to their owners,
perhaps because the demon or evil thing sometimes takes their form,
as it does that of the cat or the hare. I never heard but one story
of a dog being so utilized, and that was of one belonging to a
priest, who was once hearing confessions. Whether the atmosphere was
overcharged with piety, or for what reason, does not appear; but the
dog, who was lying on the hearth, suddenly started up, saying, “If
you liked me before, you never will again,” and disappeared in a
shower of sparks.
The cock is
considered sacred. No one would willingly walk abroad in the night,
as night and darkness are pervaded by evil, but as soon as the cock
crows the most timid will venture alone, no matter how dark it may
If the cock crows at
an unusual hour, it is a sign of some untoward event. The crow of a
cock hatched in March has more effect against evil spirits than one
hatched in autumn, especially if black.
In a certain house a
guinea disappeared from the stocking. A suspicion, well founded, it
is said, fell upon a noted character in the country. Nothing was
said at the time, but when the suspected person next asked for
hospitality, the inmates were about to eject him, when the cock flow
down from the couples, and flew about him with flapping wings, so,
thus countenanced, they permitted him to come in out of the darkness
and allowed him the shelter of the house.
A skipper of a vessel
lying in Loch Skipport, on three successive nights saw from his deck
a curious phenomenon, a ball of fire, which came from the north
towards a dwelling-house on the shore, and which always turned back
at the crowing of the cock, doing no injury. The skipper went
ashore, bought the cock, and asked the people of the house to pass
the night on his vessel. As they watched on deck, they saw the ball
of fire approach the house as before, but this time it entered under
the roof and the house was consumed by flames before their eyes. The
owner was of opinion that it was a punishment from heaven for some
wrangling with his wife during the last few days.
There is a house in
Morven in which no cock ever crows. Some years ago a man and his
wife lived there who differed in religious opinions. She was a
Catholic, and he put every obstacle in the way of her performance of
religious duties. One Christmas Eve she said she wished to attend
Mass next morning, and would be obliged if her husband would wake
her up in time.
“I shall do nothing
of the kind"’ said he.
“It doesn’t matter,”
she returned patiently; “I daresay the cock will arouse me.”
“You will sleep long
if you wait for him,” he answered, and so saying, he lifted up the
cock and twisted his neck. And no cock crowed in that house
Mrs. D. went to visit
a sick old woman who was a Protestant. She was alone with her, the
relatives being at the other end of the house, and the patient was
not supposed to be near death. Suddenly the fowls flew down from the
roost and rushed wildly about the room, as if pursued by an enemy.
Mrs. D. was much alarmed and perplexed; when she looked again at the
sick woman, she was dead.
John M., joiner, was
playing his pipes one winter evening while there was a terrible
snowdrift outside. The cock suddenly came down from his roost and
began to crow and to leap up, flapping his wings at the piper. The
wife, who herself told the story, told him to stop, as the cock’s
behaviour foreboded ill. In the lull that followed the shrill notes
of the pipe, the group around the turf fire began to meditate on
what mishap had occurred, or was likely to occur, that night in the
blinding storm, and thought that perhaps the priest, who had been
seen to pass south, might have succumbed to the storm while
returning home, when Miller, the voice of the priest himself was
heard at the door asking for the good man of the house. The priest
took John a little apart and told him that his brother had been lost
in the storm; being deceived by the drift, ho had walked into a
loch, had fallen through the ice and had soon become too numbed to
extricate himself. John heard all with surprising composure, his
mind having been prepared for the worst.
The crofters very
much dislike the modem innovation of not being allowed to keep their
beasts in the house, and specially resent the exclusion of the cock,
who serves to keep out the Powers of Darkness.
There are, however,
methods, other than religious, for dodging the Powers of Evil.
“It is not right” to
call dogs by name at night, for that will inform the fuath or
wandering spirit, and then he can call the dogs as well as you and
make them follow himself.
The Rev. A. Macdonald
told me that one day one of his parishioners was telling him that a
certain spot on the island was bad for cattle, and remembering that
the priest had a sheep there at the moment, used the phrase, “It’s
telling it to the stones I am, and not to you, Father”; intending to
divert the evil from the sheep.
The fire of a kiln is
spoken of as ctingecd, not by the more obvious name of teine. The
fire in a kiln, it is said, is a dangerous thing and should not be
talked of except by a euphemism. One man said he always blessed the
kiln before leaving it, but should feel even then no security if he
called the fire “teine.” There is a proverb: “It will come if
mentioned.” In the same way drowning is spoken of as “spoiling” or
“destroying” (milleadh not bhthadh). Even in a sermon it would be
thought bad taste to speak of the Devil. He is “the great fellow,”
“the black one,” “the nameless,” “the brindled one,” “the evil one.”
A priest told us he once gave an evening hymn to an old man, in
which the word diabhol (devil) occurred. The man afterwards said he
had changed it, as he could not go to bed with such a word on his
So, too, hell is
called “the bad place,” sometimes, even, “the good place,” just as
elsewhere—not, I think, in Gaelic-speaking districts—goblins and
fairies are the “good folk.”
If a cow or a horse
die, it is not right to say “it died,” but “it was lost”; and in
asking a question it is right to preface it with “It is not asking
that I am,” not only, I think, as a matter of good manners, but also
not to attract the attention of the evil powers to the information
A child should not be
named after one who has died young. A mother was heard to attribute
the early death of a child to its having been named, to please the
father, after a girl who had died young.
The Powers of Evil
should not be allowed to hear praise of any person or beast. A
certain Ian was one day ploughing with a pair of horses when a man
from Uist came by and praised them very much, asking where he was
likely to get such horses; and they chatted in a friendly way
together for some minutes. The Uist man went his way along the
shore, but had not been long gone when both horses fell down as if
dead in the field. It was evidently the work of the Evil Eye, and
Ian followed the man and upbraided him bitterly. The Uist man
declared himself quite innocent in intention, but said that if he
had any hand in it he would undertake that Ian should find them all
right on his return, as in fact he did.
If a person praises
your ox, or your horse, or anything that is yours, be sure to say,
“Wet your eye,” which, if kindly disposed, he will perform
literally. The phrase, albeit in the Highlands, has no ulterior
If a person should
praise any child or beast of yours, you should praise what he
praises, only in more extravagant terms than he. If out of good
manners you should dispraise anything belonging to yourself, his
praise would have an ill effect. If you commend the size or
appearance of a child, you should use some such formula as “God
bless it, how big it is!” If you ask how many children a person has,
it is proper to say, on being told, “Up with their number,” so that
they may not decrease; and in counting chickens you should say, “Let
not my eye rest on them.” If you should go to a house to ask for
anything, it is wise to enter into general conversation before
stating your needs; if not, some one else should at once say:
Ask it of the ravens,
And of the hoodie crows,
And of the ridge-beam of your grandfather’s house.
And, equally with the
idea of distracting attention of listening Powers, if any one tells
news of the loss of a horse or a cow, those around should answer :
Pluck the hair out,
Put it into the fire,
And may all be well where this is told.
Father R. had a good
cow, which died of some internal inflammation; but of course the
Evil Eye was at the bottom of it, according to current opinion. He
had a capital pony; and a few days after the cow’s death one of his
parishioners, looking at the pony, began to dispraise it in no
measured terms, of course with the notion of warding off the
attentions of the Powers of Evil. Another advised him to put his new
cow in a park (anglics paddock) at some distance from the chapel, on
Sundays, so that it might not run the risk of being “overlooked” by
any of the worshippers.
Much may, moreover,
be done by right selection of days for any purpose.
Monday is a good day
for changing one’s residence, provided it be from north to south.
Tuesday is a good day
to get married, or for shearing, which means cutting the com, not
The Devil cannot
touch what is done on a Tuesday.
There was a man who
had no son to help him with the harvest; and when one day a fine
looking young man offered himself as a servant, he was glad to
accept him. The terms were that he was to have one load for his
wages. The farmer saw with whom he had to deal, and felt sure the
load would be of large proportions; and he consulted a wise man, who
told him to address his assistant thus:
Tuesday I sowed,
And Tuesday I mowed,
And Tuesday I carried
my first load,
And let it not be
among thy deeds, O Demon,
To take with thee
what is done in the Lord.
The new “hand” went
off in a flame of fire.
When All Saints is on
a Wednesday the men of the earth are under affliction.
Thursday is St.
Columcille’s Day. There is a rhythmical saying:
Thursday, the day of
kind Cille Colum.
A day for setting
sheep apart for luck,
For arranging the
thread in the loom,
And for getting a
wild cow to take to its calf.
There is a saying
that “Luckless is the mother of a silly child, if Beltane come on a
superstition against Friday does not greatly obtain in Scotland.
Friday is a good day for planting or for sowing seed, for engaging
one’s self either in matrimony or any other bargain. It is not right
to buy on a Friday, nor to be buried, nor to cut one’s nails or
hair, nor to kill sheep. On Good Friday no metal must be put into
the ground, such as the spade or plough; but sea-weed may be spread
on the surface, or the wooden rake used. It is not right to sharpen
a knife on Friday. A knife so treated is cursed, and will probably
be used before long to skin one’s own cattle, which will have fallen
to the Powers of Evil, or fallen dead before the Evil Eye. A person
born on a Friday is said to be delicate and dilatory.
Saturday is good for
changing one’s residence if going from south to north, but it is not
right to spin on Saturday night. A woman who did so had her spinning
fingers, i.e. the forefinger and middle finger, joined together; nor
is it right to spin with a corpse in the township.
There is much luck in
spots and sites. “’Tis I that sat on a bad hillock,’" is a very
common saying of any one who has had deaths either in house or byre,
and means that the site of the house is not well chosen.
numismaticce are resorted to in choosing the site of a house. If
heads turn up twice in three times, the spot is lucky. They talk
about “heads” and “harps,” as if used to the Irish coinage.
A silver coin is
buried under the corner-stone for luck.
matter is that of direction. Everything should be done dessil, i.e.
sunwards. When a child is choking they say, “Dessil,” possibly part
of some old invocation.
It is not right to
come to a house “tuaitheal,” i.e. northward. Probably the word is
here used as the reverse of “dessil” or sunward. Witches come that
It is a rule to keep
on the west side of the road at night, and at all times to keep
sunwards of unlucky people.
There are of course
many ways in which evil may be unconsciously invited, and the
avoidance of them involves a whole code of right and wrong.
If a knock comes to a
door after midnight, it is not right to say “Come in.” Wait till the
knock is repeated and then say “Who is there?” Our informant added:
“My father being ferryman, many a person used to come to the door
and ask to come in, but my mother always insisted on hearing the
name before it was opened. He used to tell her not to be so
particular, but she said: ‘The wandering ones would be often
knocking, and when a person would go to open, there would be nobody
there. They would be playing tricks this way on people.’ A goblin
came thus to a door one night, but failed to get admittance. He then
said: “If it were the red cock of autumn that were in the house, he
would open the door for me. It isn’t that that is in it,’ says he, 4
but the black cock of the spring March.’” The special good luck of
this kind of cock has already been mentioned.
It is not right that
any person should sleep in a house without water in it, especially a
young child. In a house thus left without water “the slender one of
the green coat” was seen washing the infant in a basin of milk.
Sleeping on the bench
is always rebuked, and a certain Angus testifies that once, when he
disobeyed this rule, he awoke to find himself being dragged by the
feet by invisible beings. Moreover, one Donald, alleges that over
and over again he has been rebuked for not going to bed properly,
but he persisted in having his own way, until one night he also was
dragged across the floor by invisible hands.
One old woman said
she did not think sleeping on the bench mattered if you had your
feet to the door, so as to be able to rise at once if interfered
with, but that it was a serious matter to be dragged out by the
If you find yourself
accidentally in a byre when milking is going on, or in a dairy where
the chum is at work, it is on the safe side to say, “May God bless
everything that my eye sees and that my hand touches.”
It is not right to
hurry a dairymaid to milk the cows. To avert harm she says: “Hurry
the women of the town beyond” (a euphemism for fairies). A variant
of this is, “Hurry your mother-in-law”—a repartee of immense effect.
If a person suspected
of the Evil Eye should speak to one while milking, it is not right
to make any answer, perhaps because so doing establishes a rapport.
The first day of the
season that a man goes to fish it is not right that anybody should
go to meet him, as is done on other days, to help to bring in his
catch. He must manage it for himself somehow. Any person officiously
doing this is said to drive away the fish from the coast.
Stones placed in a
certain fashion bring ill-luck. One woman said that ill-luck had
followed her, and all her cattle had died; on changing the house and
taking off the thatch, four stones appeared concealed under the
divots. Some “evil words” must have been used in placing them there.
If a cow is lost
through illness of any kind, it is not right to distribute any of
the beef raw. It must be boiled, otherwise the dosgaidh (loss) might
be spread. If a cat cries for it, it is reproved with “ Whist with
you, for asking for blighted food; may your own skin be the first on
the rafters,” so as not to attract the attention of the Evil
When going to a well
or stream for water, the rinsings of the pail should not be thrown
on one’s own land or crop—probably a reminiscence of some custom of
If there be a little
milk in the bottom of a pail, it i.e. the sods with which the
house is thatched. should be thrown out on to grass, never on to
earth or rocks, because the milk comes from the grass.
In preparing water
for boiling clothes, after it has once boiled it is not right to
allow it to boil a second time, not for the sake of the clothes, but
because it would bring evil to the house. The Rev. A. Macdonald says
his informant, an old woman, would not specify the evil, though he
thought she knew.
Some people are lucky
to meet, in spite of having red hair or other personal peculiarity.
A fisherman told us that he had twice met such a woman when on his
way to fish saithe, and on both occasions had as much as he could
Others are just as
unlucky to meet, and you would be sure to have disappointment in
your errand. If it were only to fetch a spade you had left lying in
the field, you would be sure to have to come back without it. A man
from North Uist says that he often makes a detour of about a mile
when he is going to hunt (“hunting” means shooting in the Islands)
because he says: “If I should meet the people from that house,
though I would use two pounds of shot I would kill nothing.”
Women do not seem to
be a sign of good. If you are making a frith and you see a woman,
cross yourself. If a woman tells you the new moon is visible, do not
look at it.
At one time no male
could survive in the island of Eriskay. Women were less intolerable
to the spirits of the place, and on one occasion when by some
accident a man got into the island and could not get away, it was
suggested that he should dress up as a woman and sit and spin among
the rest. Though he showed some skill with the distaff he was soon
found out, and the adventure proved fatal.
Good as well as evil
must have a start. The people will say to any who complain, that
they are “like the sister of St. Columba.” He used to visit her
daily in illness, and she always complained, and he always agreed
that she was, as she said, worse. At last some one advised her to
answer him differently, which she did, and when he replied “Good and
evil must have a start,” she began to get better.
This is the theory
underlying the idea that the evil influence, once put on the track,
takes complete hold. There is an aphorism in Gaelic: “When a man is
tried, he is tried completely.” Acquaintance with death invites
further visits. Thus, it is not lucky to own a boat that has carried
a coffin. We heard in one island that a woman having lately died,
her relatives, who had two boats, carried the corpse across to the
adjacent island for burial in a small one, quite unfit for such work
in such weather, rather than use the boat that did service for
If a dog kill a
*sheep, the luck of the flock is lost to the owner, and the rest
will follow by some means.
Also, if a person die
who has been lucky in accumulating flocks and herds, the beasts will
follow him shortly.
There is a mysterious
entity called “the Aoine.” All we knew of her is a proverb to the
effect that “When the Aoine has got it in her mouth, the raven may
as well start off to the hills ”; which we took to mean that she was
loquacious. However, I incline to think that there is another
possible meaning, and one more gruesome. We heard of a man, now
deceased, who knew the Raun or rhyme of the Aoine, and that he was
liable to recite it if he saw a person bathing, who would then be
instantly drowned; and that in order to resist the impulse he would
turn his back to the bather and fall down upon his face.
entity who appears only in a proverb is “Om,” of whom it is said:
“Om is most active in his morning.” The phrase is used to any one
who wishes at night to put off doing something till next day.
The Fuath or Evil
Spirit is sometimes seen, and we were interested in seeking a
description of him. As of old, he has the power of transforming
himself into an angel of light, but he is generally found out in the
It is well known that
any being which frequently changes its shape is of evil origin. When
I asked my informant if such changes were frequent, he referred me
to his sister, who tells that when she was a servant, the doctor’s
horse and trap rushed into the yard one night, the gate being
happily open, which was not usual. The driver followed soon, also in
a state of alarm. He had come to meet the ferry, and the doctor was
staying the night at the inn; but there was not room for the trap
and he drove on towards a neighbouring farm. Suddenly the horse
stopped, and on getting out to see what was wrong he saw “a beast
climbing up from the shore to the edge of the road, like a pig. It
went up the face of the brow of Cnoc Sligeannach and went back from
there like a coil of heather rope, and after that it went into the
shape of a dog.”
rejoice to hear that it is believed among the people that a curse
follows the killing of fish in spawning time, and that those who
follow the occupation are apt to encounter a fuath or evil spirit;
many men would not dare to go to catch fish at that time.
One informant relates
that about sixty years ago he was catching fish by night when he
perceived a man coming down the stream. He told him to step aside so
as not to frighten the fish, and he obeyed. W. had caught a good
quantity of fish by this time, and following up the stream he was
surprised to see something like a mill-wheel rolling down towards
him, in a way he did not think canny, and he deemed it prudent to
decamp with all speed. He picked up his fish hurriedly and put them
on a withe, with the exception of one which he had decapitated
accidentally by trampling on it with his boot. As he was going away,
he stowed the fish in a nook where he could afterwards easily find
them, and hurried off to the nearest dwelling. On his way over the
moor, he was frequently thrown on the ground by some unseen power.
On asking if it had any part with God, he got no answer. In the
morning he returned for his fish and got none but the headless one.
A certain farm
servant had set a net in the spawning time across the little stream
to the west of the house. At midnight he went to pull in the net,
when he saw a man of gigantic stature at the other end of the net,
and retired in terror to the house. He was pursued till ho entered,
and ever after believed that he had encountered the fuath.
Another man went by
night to kill fish in spawning time, and was joined by some unknown
person who bargained with him that they should work together, and
share and share alike. After landing a large quantity, the stranger
urged that they divide the spoil, but he would not interrupt his
work, and replied: “No, no, there’s lots of fish in the stream yet.”
And so they went on till the moorcock crew and the unknown vanished
in a flame of fire; he found that the fish were all phantoms.
Three men went to
fish by night as usual on the stream at Hornary; they had cabers
(long staves) for splashing and terrifying the fish into the nets.
They also used these cabers as vaulting-poles when crossing the
stream; and in one spot, where there was a stone standing in the
middle of the stream, it was their custom to vault to this stone,
and afterwards, by another leap, to get across. As they were going
to cross the stream, they perceived a man standing on the stone, who
stretched out his hand and helped the first two comers over. As the
third was expecting the same courtesy, the stranger said: “Thy hour
is not yet come,” and gave him no assistance. The other two men soon
fell into a decline and used to exchange visits during their
illness, remarking: “It were easy knowing that something was coming
upon us since the night at Homary Stream.” They died shortly after.
The eyes of Christ
were blue, of Our Lady brown, of the Devil black; but the Evil Eye
does not depend upon its colour, nor necessarily upon any desire of
doing harm; and a person so unfortunate as to possess it may injure
even his own children. The people who have skill in making snaithean
(charms for turning away the effects) say they know, without being
told, whether the eye was that of a man or a woman. Two women were
pointed out as being the cause of many a swearing, for they, quite
unwittingly, bring misfortune on any person they may meet who is
going out to fish or hunt. One has dark hair and the other red.
To preserve against
the Evil Eye, one article of clothing should be put on wrong-side
The Saint John's wort
is called Lais Columcille, the armpit-plant of Columcille. It is a
lucky plant, and brings increase, and protection from evil to one’s
store, be it cattle, or sheep, or grain. It is plucked with the
Unsearched for and
unsought, for luck of sheep I pluck thee.
The marsh-ragwort (caoibhreachan)
is valuable against the toradh and Evil Eye generally.
Of all forms of evil
influence none is more dreaded than this toradh, or the charming
away of milk from cattle. The methods by which this is effected are
various. There was a woman who had good cheese, but only one cow. A
neighbour bought some of the cheese, but directly grace was said at
table it disappeared. The cow always stood on the same place to be
milked, and some one examined the place in hope of instruction.
Nothing was to be seen on the surface; but on digging, a vessel was
found containing hair from various other cows.
The furnishing of a
house in the Hebrides is, as may be supposed, of the simplest. The
bods are enclosed. There is a dresser, a table, wooden boxes for
receptacles, and a plank supported by large stones for seats. The
fire is usually in the middle of the floor, the cooking-pot hangs
over it suspended by a chain from the roof. This chain is
mysteriously connected with the Powers of Evil, it is said to be
cursed; the Devil is called “Him of the Chain.”
Once when there was a
talk of a change of factors in the island, some one remarked of the
one who was leaving that his successor might be worse. “No, no,” was
the reply, “not unless the chain came across entirely,” i.e. the
Evil One himself.
It is not right to
handle the chain; evil may come of it. There was a man whose cows
ceased to give milk; and suspecting that a woman near by was the
author of the mischief, he went into her house in her absence and
found only a little child. “Where does your mother get the milk she
gives you to drink?” he asked. “Out of the chain,” said the child.
“Come, little one, show me how she will be doing it.” “Like this,”
said the child, and drawing the chain the milk flowed from it. The
man tore down the chain and carried it off, and the milk returned to
There is no saying in
what unexpected places milk may be found, when subtracted under evil
conditions. There was a woman who had always an abundance of milk,
butter, and cheese, but no cow. A suspicious neighbour entered her
house during her absence and found a quantity of black tangle
hanging up. He took his knife and cut one of them, and milk flowed
Happily the methods
of cure are also numerous. A woman had lost many cows from no
apparent cause, and was sure they had been “overlooked.” She
consulted a drover, supposing that he might have suffered in the
same manner. He told her to have the hide of the next victim laid
upon the thatch of the house, and to watch what bird was the first
to be attracted by it; for, as there are no trees, the thatch of the
house is a substitute for many purposes, to the birds among others.
The next calf that was born was to be called after the bird. A
hooded grey crow came, and the first calf was therefore called
feannag = hoodie crow, and the name being retained by all its
descendants the murrain ceased.
It is not right to
lose the buarach, i.e. the horsehair tie which goes about the cows’
feet at milking-time, because any one getting it could get toradh of
your cattle. One notices the care with which, after milking, these
ties are carried home and hung up in a certain spot.
Once or twice a year
a drover from the mainland comes to the islands to buy cattle. He
used always to stay with a certain farmer, from whose daughter the
story comes. He was accustomed to abundant fare, but one year no
cheese was forthcoming. “It is not,” said his hostess, “that we have
not plenty of cows, but for some reason we can make no cheese.”
Early next morning the drover rose and looked out. On coming in, he
asked for three or four bunches of “bent” grass (i.e. the long grass
that grows on the shore), and made as many buarachs, and asked the
women to put them on the cows, three times round each, and then to
let the herd go where they would. This was done, and the cows rushed
off wildly and never stopped till they reached a certain crofter’s
house, when they climbed on the roof and began to tear at the
thatch, to the great astonishment of its owner. “They are wanting
what belongs to them,” said the drover in explanation; and when the
woman of the house came out with an armful of cheeses, the cows
surrounded her and drove her back to the byre from which they had
come. This happened a second and a third time, till all the toradh
that had been filched was restored, when the cows settled down
quietly and their mistress had once more abundance of cheese.
If the person whose
Evil Eye has taken away the produce be publicly rebuked, the milk or
other produce affected will return.
If a person is very
much afflicted in regard to the toradh, he is wise ; to adopt the
following remedy: "Whenever” (anglic = as soon as) one of his cows
has a calf, take it away before any milk is drawn. Then, taking a
bottle, he is to draw milk from the four teats, kneeling. The bottle
is then tightly corked; this is important, for carelessness in this
respect might give access to the toradh and upset everything.
Another method is for a man—a woman won’t do—to go to the house of
the person suspected, and pull off from the roof as much thatch and
divots as his two hands will hold, and over this to boil what little
milk is left, until it dries up. Another informant advises burning
the thatch under the churn, instead of under the milk.
Another means of
removing the blight from one’s cattle is to bury the carcase of one
of the victims by a boundary stream. Similarly you may transfer it
to your neighbour by burying it on his land.
A man told my
informant that one day when he was ploughing, one of his horses
fell. He took the tail of the horse in his hand and put it to his
mouth, while he repeated a charm, and the horse recovered.
says that one day she was taking home a load of sea-ware in a cart,
when a person who had the Evil Eye came by and the horse fell down
and could not rise for a long time, and even then was quite weak and
could not take food. When she got home, her neighbour filled a bowl
with water taken from a boundary stream and put silver into it, and
threw it over the horse’s back, and it immediately got better. She
had herself been once “overlooked,” and was ill for many days in
consequence, but I forget whether by this person or another.
If, in such a case as
this, the silver remains at the bottom of the bowl, it is an
indication that the snaithean must be resorted to. This is in most
cases the ultimate appeal, and I never heard of a case in which it
The snaithean is made
of wool, often black, so as not to be easily seen. If you buy a cow
or horse in the market, you are almost sure to find a piece of black
wool round its tail, well out of sight under the hair. Certain
persons in most districts know how to make it and can repeat the
charm, which is part of the process, The person who fetches it
should carry it in silence, and in the palm of the hand—not between
the finger and thumb, because with them Eve plucked the apple and
they are “not blessed.” It must be burnt when removed, and must not
be paid for, though those receiving it consider themselves under an
obligation which is to be discharged somehow.
When it is the Evil
Eye that has fallen on the victim the person making the snaithean is
seized with a fit of yawning, or becomes ill in proportion to the
disease of the sufferer and the duration of his attack. Whether the
author is male or female is determined by casting the Frith,1 or
horoscope, which is another story and belongs to the subject of
When the thread is
put about the cattle, first is said the Pater, and then the
An Eye will see you.
A Tongue will speak of you.
A Heart will think of you.
He of the Arm is blessing you (i.e. St. Columcille).
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Four persons there are who may have done you harm,
A man, a wife, a lad, a girl.
Who is to turn it back?
The Three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity,
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
I call Mary to witness, and Brigid,
If it be a human thing that has done you harm
With wicked wish,
Or with wicked eye,
Or with wicked heart,
That you (name of person or animal) be well
From the time I place this about you.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
A very respectable
widow related with great detail how she was once under the Evil Eye.
She was going along the machair (the sandy plain near the seashore)
with two ponies, and she met a man with some grain on his back,
going to the mill, and immediately she began to feel very weak. When
she came to the nearest house she found that she could not go any
further, and felt a sort of retching, with cold shivers all over
her. They brought butter and put it into warm milk to restore herf
and a man who was present felt sure that she had fallen under the
Evil Eye, and they duly sent for a certain Ranald who knew how to
make spells. He twisted some threads and passed them round the fire
three times. (It must be remembered that the fire would be in the
middle of the room.) Then he died it on her hand, and she began to
get better immediately. Ranald told her it was the Evil Eye of a man
that had affected her, but she did not know how he made that out. It
must certainly have been the man with the grain.
This woman’s husband
had knowledge of the snaithean, as we discovered another time.
Perhaps he was dead or away on the occasion when Ranald was sent
for. A girl came to him one day and begged him for the love of
goodness to make it for her sister, who was very ill. There were
several men in the house at the time, and he said he would not do
it, as the priest had told him not to be doing it. But the girl got
him outside and asked him, for the pity of God, to help her, and he
then asked his wife (who told the story) for some wool, and she
twisted some for him on her wheel. The girl got better, and is alive
to this day to prove the efficacy of the cure.
She said the eolas
(spell) would not be right if it were not paid for, but she did not
know the rate of payment, I can personally testify that when silver
is put into a bowl of water to work a spell, the wise woman keeps
the silver. The theory is that when the water is thrown over the
patient it does no good unless the silver sticks to the bowl. She
told us also that not long since a woman, from a small neighbouring
island, came to ask for rennet, which the servant gave her without
asking her mistress. Thereafter, the cattle went all wrong with
their milk, and the servant confessed what she had done, as this was
probably the cause of the trouble; but we did not hear what steps
were taken for its removal. One poor beast that we came across had
been smitten by two Evil Eyes at the same time. The maker of charms,
at first much perplexed, at length discovered the cause, and said
the creature would be ill for a year, which came to pass.
Many stories in the
Hebrides are on lines which the Society for Psychical Research would
call “telepathic suggestion.” A good many examples of wisdom are
told of tailors, just as in England they are told of cobblers (who
have little employment in islands where women and children go
barefoot). A tailor’s wife was busy churning, when a woman came in
to ask for fire, “Keep busily at it,” called the tailor to his wife,
and gave the woman the embers she required, but dropped one into a
tub of cold water. This happened a second and a third time, and
though the tailor’s wife was ready to drop with fatigue, she churned
away as she was told. When the third ember was dropped into the tub,
the woman sat down moaning: “Oh, in the name of God, let my hand
away!” The tailor said he would not, unless she promised never to
trouble him or his house again, which she did, and then showed her
hand all bruised and blue from the blows the tailor’s wife had given
it in the churn. The lid was taken off, and there was nothing within
but watery stuff, but in the tub were three large lumps of beautiful
I will conclude with
a warning against lightly meddling with matters so serious as these.
A man was going to Mass early on Sunday morning. As he crossed the
strand he found a woman and her daughter actively engaged in framing
witchcrafts by means of pieces of thread of various colours. He tore
up the whole apparatus and rebuked them for malice and for breach of
the Sunday. They entreated him not to reveal what he had seen, and
promised their protection in return for his silence. Nevertheless,
after Mass he told the story. Shortly after, when he was about to
sail for the mainland, a black crow settled on the mast of his boat,
and a storm arose in which he perished.