Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed.
Glenora Single Malt Whisky

Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.
Scottish Review

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

Scotland and the Scots
Scottish Superstitions

A BELIEF in supernatural agencies seems implanted naturally in the hearts of mankind. In every corner of the world, no matter how degraded or depraved the people may be, there invariably exists an impression, of some sort or other, of the existence of powers not of the world, but yet on or about the world, or exerting some influence upon it. Among the uneducated or the savage, superstition and a belief in the supernatural have the firmest hold upon the mind, and are regarded with greater seriousness than in more polished and refined nations. The reason is, that there are so many things which the uneducated man or the savage cannot understand or comprehend, and, being beyond his comprehension, he attributes them to some superior intellect which is above the world or beyond its pale. The savage, for instance, can understand and appreciate brute force, but he would think of electricity as the work of the gods. At first he is frightened at firearms and hesitates to use them, because he thinks they are bewitched but he soon comes to know their nature and gladly uses them, although a Gatling gun would frighten him out of his wits. The savage sees something supernatural in everything which astonishes or perplexes him; in bad harvests, dearth of game, famine, pestilence, and even for simple ill-luck he lays the blame to The malignant perversity of his idol or idols, and seeks to propitiate them by offering bribes of rice, lights, incense, or tobacco, or by smashing them into atoms. Even in the most highly educated and cultivated nations superstition holds its own, and in some sort or other it is constantly cropping up in unlikely places. The educated man does not care to admit that he entertains any such notions or even anything approaching to them, but in his heart of hearts he nearly always carries some pet superstition, and it sways and governs his actions more than he would permit even himself to believe. I have generally found that the more loudly a man proclaims his contempt for superstitions and things supernatural, the more is he under their dominion. It is natural in man to believe in such things, and so it will continue to be until man can gaze into the infinite and understand and determine the hidden sources of all things. In a word, until he throws off this mortality and assumes immortality, and is invested with higher wisdom and power than he now possesses, man will continue to be openly or secretly a believer in an active unseen world and in supernatural agencies.

As with individuals, so with nations. By the French Revolution of 1798, superstition was to be banished forever from the sacred soil of France, and, through her influence and example, from the known world. What was the result? The revolutionists threw down the superstition of Rome, and in its place accepted the superstition of the populace; they denounced the teachings and authority of the Church, and enthroned a harlot instead of a priest beside the altar of Notre Dame. They rejected the superstitions which had come down to them softened and brightened by the influences of Christianity, and fell back upon themselves. As an almost natural consequence licence prevailed, and superstition controlled them more than it ever had done before. During that awful era in European history, when France was wallowing in blood and Paris furnished daily a succession of horrors, the Continent was never, at any period in modern times, more completely under the dominion of superstition, nor was ever superstition of a more sensual and degraded character. The sentiment of the supernatural is too deeply implanted in man to be rooted out or deadened by human agencies. If one form is dissipated another rises in its place. No matter what a man's religion may be, no matter even if he pretend to no religion at all, there is still something outside of nature, outside of what is generally termed reality, which awakes at least his curiosity if it does not charm and enthrall his intellect. From that he cannot escape. The French Revolutionists denounced the very idea of God, but they worshipped first the strumpet "Goddess of Reason" and then the undefined "Supreme"— poor enough exchanges in truth, although in the present day we have men who prefer to pay their respects to a "great first cause" rather than render homage to a just, all-wise, all-perfect and all-powerful Creator and God.

Some good men have regretted this wide-spread belief in supernatural things and the prevalence of superstitious ideas, as, in their judgment, they betray the ignorance, credulity, and unintellectual qualities of mankind. To many thoughtful minds, however, their existence is one of the grandest of all earthly arguments for the existence of the Deity and the certainty of a hereafter. If no notion existed in the human breast of another world than this, there certainly would not be any superstition; but it is the innate certainty of this which gives rise to all the brownies, fairies, luck-tokens, forms, ceremonies and usages which have interested, delighted and sometimes awed the people of the earth from the earliest times right down into this wonderful age of progress in thought, education and science. Superstition is always reverent, always acknowledges a higher power than man, always presupposes a sphere beyond the ken of the human vision. Superstition in its purest sense is a part of natural religion, and as such should always be regarded as the humble homage of the merely human intellect to something greater than itself. That something, religion teaches us, is the mystery which will he fully explained when we stand at last before the great white throne.

In Scotland a belief in, and reverence for, the supernatural has always prevailed among people of all classes. The physical features of the country are alone sufficient to account for this. The ever-present wail or roar of the sea along the coasts arouses a sense of something eerie, something beyond the world, as the murmur of the shell always instills a sad, undefinable sentiment into the hearts of children. Then a similar feeling is experienced among the hills, where the elements lower and gloom, and the thunder reverberates with an awful sound, and the lightning gleams with a lurid intensity as it leaps madly from crag to crag; where the mists often throw a grey veil over the most majestic scenes, and the scream of the eagle seems the voice of a demon as it pierces through the clouds, muffled and deadened by the thick, heavy air; where the sun glints on the rock or spreads over the valley, casting strange shadows and daily giving a new phase, a new look to a well-known landscape; where the moon, sweeping in majestic beauty across a track of deep, dark blue, is seen in all her brightness, a veritable lamp of the night, and in a moment or two sailing into the recesses of a cloud and reducing everything to darkness, or by her shadow twisting all things visible to the eye into fantastic shapes. The murmuring breeze on the Highland carse or the Lowland meadow seems to carry with it a message of another world; and even the rivers suggest something above humanity, as the Tweed, with its joyous ripple, tells tales of love and peace and purity, and the wan, wan water of Yarrow flows like a dirge of melancholy, decay and death. These scenes naturally inspire awe and thought. They in turn force a belief in the supernatural, and the supernatural begets religion; for both refer to the same future, and the one is but a refinement of the other. The one is a groping in the dark along a bleak and dismal way; the other is a journey on a bright and beaten track with the goal full in view and the Bible as an all-sufficient staff.

All the superstitions which have held sway in Scotland have been more or less identified with the religious sentiment of the peopIe. Among the Druids the sun was the central object of worship, and traces of this worship can still be found in customs which have come down to us, or which may be read about as having existed until comparatively recent times. One of the most scrupulously observed days in the Druids' calendar was May-day, which came down almost to our own time with several peculiar observances as Beltane, a combination of two words meaning the fire of the sun-god, Baal. On Beltane all the fires in a district were extinguished, and one grand fire was lighted as an offering to the god, and sacrifices were made, even to the extent of human life. So late as the beginning of the present century such fires were lighted at Beltane in several parts of the Highlands. According to custom a Beltane fire was ignited in a circular space around which these modern Druids were seated. A cake was baked, and when ready was cut into as many pieces as there were people present. One piece was blackened with charcoal, and, with all the rest, thrown into a hat or bag. Each person, blindfolded, took a piece, and the individual who drew the blackened bit became the victim. His penalty was to leap through or over the fire three times, the last form of the old rite which demanded a life. In Ayrshire, at the end of each harvest, children often built a fire by the wayside and call it the launel. This is the fire of Baal and is simply an offering to the sun. The sun-worship, too, may be seen lingering in the Hallowe'en fires which are still lighted in several parts of the country. This sun-worship was not, as has often been said, a mere ignorant superstition, but it was as truly a religious belief and system as any which man ever embraced until the light of the Scriptures came to throw even the sun- light into the shade. To the Druids, to the Celts all over Europe, the sun was the mightiest object in the universe. It spread light, it diffused warmth, it had motion, its appearance in its risings and settings was always beautiful, sometimes marvelously so, and its course was seen day after day. What wonder is it that these simple, unbiased peoples, groping after the truth, knowing their weakness in the midst of their strength, and with yearnings and longings for the other life, fell down and worshipped the most wonderful and mysterious object which their eyes beheld? In this idolatry, as it has been called, there was nothing akin to that impulse which makes men worship idols fashioned by human hands out of wood or stone or metal. It was something deeper, more reverent, more beautiful, more enduring. It was an answer to an inward desire or impulse to worship something which was more than human, more than mortal, and they sought to gratify that desire by selecting as their god the most glorious orb in the heavens. Their worship led them at least to look up and to attempt to penetrate the awful mystery of the sky. Ordinary idolatry is the opposite. it is of the earth and in the earth it is always groveling. These Druids, too, it should be remembered, were by no means ignorant or unenlightened men. They had schools, of a sort, where their mysteries were inculcated and morality taught, and where they discoursed on the stars, the sun, the moon, the gods and similar topics. It often took twenty years of study ere a man was admitted into the priesthood, so that their system was apt to be pretty thoroughly understood by its teachers. Remains of some of their altars still exist in Scotland, and prove that the arts of architecture were not unknown to them, and also that the people must have co-operated as heartily in the upbuilding of these temples as they did in the more pretentious abbeys and cathedrals of a later age.

Among the Celts water has always been associated, in some way or other, with the supernatural and mysterious. A running stream was superior, for some reason, to the witches or warlocks or brownies, or spirits of any kind, who used to play cantrips on the decent country folks. This is well illustrated in the immortal poem of "Tam o' Shanter," where the redoubtable hero spurs on his guid grey mare to reach the keystone of the auld brig o' Doon.

"There at them thou thy tail may toss:
A runnin' stream they daurna cross."

In the olden times many wells throughout the country were regarded as possessing wonderful powers for healing, etc and to these offerings were regularly made. A well at Monthiarie, in Banffshire, was particularly honored in this way.

The bushes in its vicinity were decorated with rags of garments, and in the well itself were any number of farthings and bodies, the frugal offerings of the pilgrims who came from far and near to pay homage to it. Tribute of this kind, however, was held sacred, and woe be to the sacrilegious wretch who would dare to appropriate any of it to his own personal use! An old tradition tells us that a piper once stole some money from one of those wells at Larg, in Kirkcudbrightshire. Like pipers in general, this one was drouthy and at once invested some of his ill-gotten gains in a mug of ale. While drinking it he was seized with illness, and was unable to recover until, after having restored to the well the money he had abstracted, he had drunk a large quantity of its waters. Possibly the last part of the punishment was the most severely felt, as pipers and water never agree very well together, according to general experience. Kingcase well, near Ayr, was long supposed to be peculiarly efficacious as a means of curing leprosy, and tradition avers that the well was miraculously discovered by King Robert the Bruce, who had become afflicted with that terrible disease through the hardships and vicissitudes he had undergone in battling for his crown. A well near Portpatrick used to be held in great respect for its virtues in freeing people from the effects of witchcraft. Victims were brought from all parts of the country to benefit by it at Beltane, for its efficacy was only potent at that time and at each change of the moon. People who were bathed in it at these particular times were at once freed from whatever spell had been cast upon them. Thus we find the influence of the sun, the moon and the water all brought into use to accomplish a cure, proving the estimate which the people had of the power of witchcraft, and their belief that they had in their midst the opportunity of appealing successfully from its effects to a still more potent power, or combination of powers. The rites performed at these wells were generally of the most simple character. A coin would be thrown in, and from the way in which it descended good or evil might be implied. Sometimes a wooden platter would be placed cautiously and carefully on the surface of the water, and the direction in which it turned, after leaving the hands of the enquirer, enabled that individual to read his or her weird. Often a pebble would he thrown into the water and the future foretold by the width of the ripple dr ring which it caused. At times, too, the reflection of the moon on the well or river enabled the curious to discover scenes which at other seasons were beyond the ken of human eves.

Thus we have the sun or fire, and water as two leading superstitions of the Celtic time, remnants of which have come down to our day. But there was this difference, that while the sun, or fire, was the favorite divinity of the priests and the upper classes—if I may use such a term in speaking of those early Scots—water was the power which the common people oftenest appealed to, and they made it their own. Fire was costly in those days, while water flowed everywhere and was at every one's command. One evidence of this distinction, as well as of the homage which was paid to these elements, may be found in the ordeals of fire and water so common in the middle ages. An accused person, if of rank or noble birth, could protest his innocence, and prove it to the satisfaction of his equals, or of those concerned, by the ordeal of fire. Among peasants or people of ordinary degree, the ordeal of water answered the same purpose and was deemed equally efficacious and certain. So great a hold had these ordeals upon the people, and so implicit was the trust reposed in them, that they were even acknowledged by law, and thus, in the reign of David I., an enactment was made providing that they take place only in presence of duly authorized representatives of the royal authority.

The sacredness of water was indeed a marked feature in the religion of all the Celtic race. Ireland has many sacred wells; so have France and Italy and other parts of Europe. They cured all things—leprosy, deafness, lunacy, sore eyes, rickets, and sores of every description, besides ailments " too numerous to mention," as the auctioneers used to say in their catalogues. Some, like modern patent medicines, were regular cure-alls, as St. Bernard's at Edinburgh, and Trinity at Gask, in Perthshire, How the aid of these wells was invoked may be learned from the following account of the method pursued in curing lunacy at St. Fillans Well, Tyndrum, Perthshire, which I quote from an article by the late Rev. Alexander Magregor, of Inverness : "The lunatics were first plunged into the water, wherein they were tumbled and tossed about rather roughly. They were then carried into the adjacent chapel of St. Fillan's and there secured with ropes tied in a special way. A celebrated bell, with a history of its own, was then placed with great solemnity on the patient's head. Then the poor creature was left all night alone in the dreary chapel, and, if in the morning he was found unloosed, hopes were entertained that he would recover his reason, but. the case was hopeless if found still in his bonds. Very frequently the patients were released from the bonds and tormentors by death, caused by cold and all the cruelties inflicted upon them." All this, of course, may sound very ridiculous to us, who are fortunate enough to live in an age of enlightenment, but it was very real, very impressive and very important to our ancestors. And, after all, it had at least a foundation of truth and practical common-sense. It is well known that many of these wells even to the present day possess remedial virtues, the result of the mineral matter deposited in them as they pass through the earth. These virtues undoubtedly were known to the early Scots, and they could account for them in no other way than by investing them with supernatural powers. Modern chemistry has dissipated more witchcraft and !aid bare more old-time mysteries than all the other arts combined.

The superstitions which came into vogue with a later religion, that of Rome, and which were the most ridiculous when that church became so gross, immoral and ignorant as to invite the Reformation, would require a whole volume were they to be detailed or even discussed. Most of them passed away with the clean sweep which Knox and the other Reformers made when they harried the abbeys and cloisters; such of them as survived assumed other forms and were very likely the remains of superstitions which prevailed even before the Church of Rome fastened itself upon the land, and which had been fostered and adapted by it to its own ends. Such superstitions were engrained too deeply upon the minds, affections, sympathies and traditions of the people to be much affected even by changes of religion, and most of them in some form or another still lurk in the minds of the less educated people in the community even to the present time. The Romish Church had a happy faculty of adapting local traditions, wherever it found them, to its own purposes and to serve its own ends. This faculty was one of the secrets of the success of its missionaries, and by its aid they accomplished wonders. But though it adapted it did not own, and when its yoke was thrown off these adaptations and returned to the people, from whom they seemed originally to have sprung.

A belief in witchcraft, for instance, appears to have prevailed in Scotland from the earliest times, and to have been fostered during the dark ages of the Church, and it still has a hold, although a comparatively insignificant one upon the bulk of the people, especially those who reside outside of the larger cities or towns. Of the prevailing belief in witchcraft, I give as an example the following well-authenticated instances which occurred in Ross-shire in 1883 and appeared in nearly all the Scottish newspapers at the time:

"A party of gipsies, who had recently been encamped in a district of the west coast of Ross-shire, took the liberty of grazing their horses oil belonging to a township of small tenants there. The tenants resented, and drove away intruders. On taking their departure some of the gipsies were heard to remark that the tenants should not be quite so conservative of their pasture, for ere long they would have no cattle to graze upon it. At the time no notice was taken of this implied threat. Soon after, however, three valuable cows belonging to one of the tenants died in quick succession, while two of the other tenants lost a cow each. The illness of which these animals died was of very short duration, and such of the carcasses as were examined presented no morbid appearance. A respectable farmer, who is considered an authority in veterinary matters, had been called to see one of the animals shortly before it died, and he at once pronounced it to have been "witched," as the symptoms were those of no known disease. On the strength of this statement, coupled with the ominous language of the gipsies, a considerable section of the community unhesitatingly attributed the death of the cattle to the agency of witchcraft.

As a charm against the evil influences at work, one of the tenants, acting oil advice of the initiated, had the door of his byre changed from one side of the house to the other. Pending the result of this charm, a young man has gone to one of the western isles to consult a witch-doctor said to be in practice there. It maybe stated that in the district in which there are two witch-doctors residing within a distance of 20 miles of each other. One of these who has been discredited for some time on account of professional bungling, is generally regarded as an impostor, and has suffered in his practice accordingly. The other, who evidently has played his cards better, still retains the unbounded confidence of the credulous in these matters, and his services are much sought after in cases of suspected witchcraft." A few days later the following additional particulars were given: ''Since then three other cows are said to have been witched in the same township; but, although, much reduced in condition and debilitated, they have as yet, thanks to the incantations of the witch-doctor, survived the satanic influence at work. While the credulous, who number not a few, are quite satisfied that the cattle have been "witched," there appears to be some uncertainty as to who the witch really is, and subsequent events have served to exculpate the gipsies who at first were blamed in the matter. Indeed, the fact of one of the affected animals when at liberty being in the habit of going up to the dwelling-house of one of the neighboring tenants and lowing pitifully at the door has been quite sufficient to transfer suspicion from the gipsies to this tenant's wife, who, in consequence, is subjected to a species of petty persecution, not to say boycotting, at the hands of the sufferers from witchcraft and their sympathizers. The young man who had gone to the western isles for the purpose of consulting a famous witch-doctor there, has returned to the village but as absolute silence on the subject of his intercourse with the professors of demonology is considered essential to the success of his mission, he is of course very reticent regarding his transactions with them. That the last three animals 'witched ' have so far survived is, however, understood to be owing to his visit to the island of Lewis, which has long been proverbial for witchcraft."

Here is an instance which was brought to light a few years ago by a writer whose name I do not know. The story is given as he told it in a communication to the Edinburgh Scotsman: "During the summer we were at a sea-shore village that for years has possessed its railway and telegraph, its ministers and churches. There, we were informed, was a bewitched woman, lying for the last sixteen years in pain and helplessness upon her bed. Sixteen years ago her mother, a notorious witch, 'laid witchcraft' for a certain man. The first person, however, who crossed the spot was her own daughter, and on her the spell at once took effect, striking her down into a state of helpless and hopeless suffering. So powerful had been the charms that the mother was unable to relieve her child; but at her own death, which happened in a few years, the witch-power was transferred to her youngest daughter. This transference of power was accompanied with the transference of the suffering of her elder sister, who, at once relieved, rose up in perfect health. The new witch, however, did not approve of this, and soon found means of returning the suffering to her sister; so that while the one enjoys the power and the privileges of witcherie, the other poor creature must experience its wrath, and this so long as she lives."

The sincere belief in witchcraft which prevailed in Scotland, and which, as I have shown, continues to exist, is due in a great measure to the graphic manner in which it is handled in the Bible. The story of the Witch of Endor is still a gruesome one to the Scottish boy, and once read seems to linger and dwell in his memory throughout his life. But although it has its humorous side, the history of witchcraft in Scotland is marked by cruelties, crimes, persecutions and privations. These things are the more sad when we remember that the victims were in the great majority of cases old and infirm, and maimed or disabled by rheumatism or other disease, and sometimes they were young people whose very innocence and beauty, and perhaps mental attainments, caused them to fall under popular suspicion. In the case of witchcraft, suspicion was all that was necessary to ensure a belief in guilt. So far as can be reckoned, no fewer than 4,000 persons were executed in Scotland from the time the persecutions for that evil commenced until 1722, when the last victim, an old woman, was condemned to death by the sheriff of Caithness and "suffered" at Dornoch. This is an awful blot to rest upon the history of a Christian country, and the only palliation that can be urged on behalf of Scotland is that she was no worse in this respect than her southern and continental neighbors. In many of the latter, however, the persecution of the witches was simply an outburst of natural brutality and wantonness such as led to the baiting of the Jews in the middle ages. In Scotland it arose from a supposed religious injunction wrongly construed and applied. They believed the words in Exodus, "'l'hou shalt not suffer a witch to live," to be a divine command that was still in force and had to be carried out literally. Neglect of this supposed command brought woe and havoc on themselves. A single witch by her spells and cantrips could, they thought, ruin a whole household or lay desolate an entire country-side, and the only way to escape from her malignant influence was by inflicting on her the penalty of death.

According to popular ideas, the spells, incantations, concoctions and doings of these witches were many and grotesque. They made effigies in clay of those they intended to smite; and by sticking into these figures pins, bodkins and the like, made their victims suffer the most horrible pains and tortures from which death was a glad release. Their eyes were endowed with a terrible power, and when they fastened their gaze on anything possessed of life that life began to fade out and finally disappear. They made powerful concoctions from such ingredients as the flesh of newly born babes, toad's blood, owls' eyes, and so forth, which enabled them to work their will with extraordinary power. Their spells and incantations gave them the privilege of calling to their aid the demons of the lower regions, and on important occasions the august help of the prince of darkness himself. They were themselves endowed with wondrous powers. Some of them could change their form into that of a toad, a mouse or other animal ; some could vanish from human gaze altogether for a time. Nearly all could ride through the air in the darkness of night, some on broomsticks instead of horses, while others simply flew, and time and space were as nothing to them. They lived long, if allowed to live, but at last they joined the evil spirits below and came back to earth in the eerie midnight hour to play their hellish tricks upon the good, the innocent and the unwary. The only thing that could arrest the evil propensities of a person so endowed and thus leagued was the presence of the cross. Could a cross he suspended somehow on a witch's clothing or stitched in the sewing of her dress, she was harmless. Even in comparatively recent years the sign of the cross was deemed sufficient to disarm her. A farmer in Galloway, half a century ago, was greatly concerned by the unhealthiness of his cattle and the number of deaths among them. At last he became satisfied that they were bewitched by a certain woman, and so he set himself most vigilantly to watch, that he might catch her about his premises. This however, he failed in doing ; and as his stock was rapidly dying out, and himself being reduced to poverty, meeting this woman one day on the roadside, he drew out his sharp knife and "crossed her," that is, cut a cross in the skin of her forehead, so deeply that the blood flowed down her face. As might be expected, the man was soon indicted for an assault, and, though punished, he counted all that a light matter, congratulating himself and his neighbors on having so successfully unwitched one so notoriously unlawful. The odd circumstance that the man's cattle did recover their health after that "scoring" or "crossing" and that subsequently his farm work was prosperous, helped much to confirm in their belief in witcherie many who had shrank from openly avowing it.

King James VI. was a profound believer in witchcraft and in the Scriptural injunction to put them to death. Indeed, James made a hobby of his researches in the black art, and prided himself upon his acumen and discernment in discovering its possessors. He even wrote upon the theme with the assurance of a master, and until the day of his death took special credit for all he had written and done to outroot "dernonologie" from his dominions and from Christendom. Here is an extract from Tytler's "History of Scotland," however, which illustrates the emptiness of King James' pretensions, as well as the ignorance and credulity on which the whole theory of witchcraft was based: "An unhappy creature named Aitken was seized [in 1598] on suspicion, put to torture, and in her agony confessed herself guilty [of witchcraft], named some associates, and offered to purge the country of the whole crew if she were promised her life. It was granted her, and she declared that she knew witches at once by a secret mark in their eyes which could not possibly be mistaken. The tale was swallowed. She was carried tor months from town to town throughout the country, and in this diabolical circuit accused many innocent women, who, on little more than the evidence of a look, were tried and burnt. At last suspicion was roused. A woman whom she had convicted of having the devil's eye-mark was disguised, and, after an interval, again brought before her she acquitted her. The experiment was repeated with like success, and the miserable creature, falling on her knees, confessed that torture had made her a liar both against herself and others." This woman's imposture was a common one wherever witchcraft was a crime, and witch-finding became one of the most terrorizing professions in the community. In England one of these professors, named Hopkins, caused hundreds of innocent people to be l)tit to death before the very absurdity of permitting a legalized murderer to travel through the land, smiting whomsoever he pleased, became apparent.

From witchcraft to fairies, brownies, kelpies, hobgoblins, and the elf-world in general, seems an easy transition, and yet they were invested with different powers than the witches. The latter were the evil spirits of an evil world; the fairies and other elves were of a finer and more aristocratic stamp. A witch would do no good but a fairy might. A witch was always an enemy; a fairy, a brownie or even a hobgoblin sometimes proved a friend, and many stories have been told of the kindly offices performed by "the wee green men at the back of the hill." Scottish poetry is fond of investigating and pourtraying the mysteries of fairyland. It is the theme of True Thomas, of many of the oldest ballads, and it inspired the Ettrick Shepherd as he penned his matchless outburst of genius and fancy, "Kilmany".

In the elfin world the fairies were the leaders. Their features were beautiful, their forms perfect, and their general propensities were peaceful and humane. When aroused they were hard fighters and bitter enemies, but as earthly people seldom presumed to quarrel with them the effects of their anger were rarely felt. They were generally mentioned affectionately as "the kind people," "the good fairies." If they kidnapped a child, a man or a woman, from this mundane sphere to their own mystical realm, they treated them with courtesy and kindness; and if the mortal was permitted or managed somehow to return, he or she never tired of speaking about the wondrous beauties of the places and the people they had seen, or the favors which had been bestowed on them. When the fairies quarrelled among themselves, as they sometimes did, their anger and violence were terrible, or at least seemed terrible to the eye of the mortal who be- held them. The brownies and hobgoblins were small in stature, and, as a rule, more or less deformed. They could do men a kindly action when so disposed, but this was seldom, and the record they have left is one of mischievous and malicious pranks. The kelpies were of the water, and were generally feared and hated on the coasts as well as in the inland stretches of the seas and the lakes and rivers.

The mystery of second-sight is one of the most interesting which the study of superstition in Scotland brings before us. It has not a trail of blood and cruelty behind it like that of witchcraft, not is it so childish in its details as are the stories of fairy-world. It brings us right face to face with a psychological problem—a problem which has troubled all thinking people throughout the world, and which will continue to trouble until we no more see through a glass darkly, but face to face. The theory on which second-sight is based, and indeed that on which all ghost stories are founded, is, as has been well said by another writer, "the idea that every man has attached to him a spiritual duplicate of himself, which therefore is the man and yet is not the man; a duplicate that has a sort of independent being, yet came not into existence till we were born, that grows and develops with the growth of our mortal selves; that has the power, not of influencing us directly, but of revealing our present or future state to ourselves or others, and which, surviving us, is for a brief period able to reappear upon earth, even though we be dead and buried."

A belief in second-sight formerly prevailed all over Scotland, although its greatest adepts or professors were in the Highlands, where nearly every settlement had its Taibhsear, sometimes held in awe and sometimes jocularly spoken of, according to the power they evinced and the correctness of their prognostications. The gift of second-sight was equally granted to both sexes, and was often as frequent and pronounced among the young as among the aged. The most singular feature of this form of superstition was that its visions, or prophecies, or sights almost always related to the gloomy and sad side of daily life—death, murder, accident, ruin, suicide, treachery, shipwreck, were the most frequent among its themes—and if now and again the privilege was granted the seer of beholding more cheerful phases of life. such as a bridal, or a victory, or the down come of a foe, there was generally a bloody background to the pleasant picture. As to the truth of the second-sight visions there is no need here to enquire very deeply. It is sufficient for the purpose of this essay to know that these visions were believed in, and also that the seers themselves were thoroughly convinced of their truth. There can be no doubt on these points. Many have, of course, denounced the seers as frauds, but the force of history is against our entertaining any such notion.

In the Highlands the firmest reliance used to he placed on the visions seen by the "fay-men," and even in history their dreams or prognostications have been recorded. So far as can be gathered, St. Columba had the faculty of second-sight, and it enabled him to describe a battle on the mainland while it was being fought. in the lives of Wallace and Bruce we find traces of the seers, and tradition states that the execution of Queen Mary was foretold by many of them Iona before it occurred, and their visions were corroborated by the facts even to the minutest details. The execution of Charles I. was foreseen in the same way, and so was the execution of the Marquis of Argyll. Highland story is full of instances of the power and truth of second-sight, and several volumes could be filled with stories of incidents which might be regarded, more or less, as authentic. Here is one instance, told by General Stewart, of Garth, in his "Sketches of the Highlanders," and which may serve as a sample of many others: "Late on an autumnal evening in 1773 the son of a neighboring gentleman came to my father's house. He and my mother were from home, but several friends were in the house. The young gentleman spoke little and seemed absorbed in deep thought. Soon after he arrived he enquired for a boy of the family, then three years of age. When shown into the nursery the nurse was trying on a pair of new shoes and complained that they did not fit the child. 'They will fit him before he will have occasion for them,' said the young gentleman. This called forth the chidings of the nurse for predicting evil to the child, who was stout and healthy. When he returned to the party he had left in the sitting-room, they cautioned him to take care that the nurse did not derange his new talent of the second-sight with some ironical congratulations on his pretended acquirement. This brought on an explanation, when he told them that as he had approached the end of a wooden bridge near the house he was astonished to see a crowd of people passing the bridge. Coining nearer he observed a person carrying a small coffin, followed by twenty gentlemen, all of his acquaintance, his own father and mine being of the number, with a concourse of the country people. He did not attempt to join, but saw them turn off to the right in the direction of the churchyard, which they entered. He then proceeded on his intended visit, much impressed with what he had seen, with a feeling of awe, and believing it to have been a representation of the death and funeral of a child of the family. The whole received perfect confirmation in his mind by the sudden death of the boy the following night and the consequent funeral, which was exactly as he had seen."

Dr. Samuel Johnson, while on his journey in the Hebrides, devoted considerable attention to the study of the faculty of second-sight, with the view, as one of his biographers has asserted, of believing in its truth. Although he possessed a sturdy mind, the great lexicographer had a dread of death and a profound desire to penetrate the veil which hides the unseen world from mortal eyes. In his own words, however, he summed up his researches by saying that he was unable to "advance his curiosity to conviction," and he "came away at last only willing to believe." Of the faculty itself he said if a man on a journey far from home falls from a horse, another, who is perhaps at work about the house, sees him bleeding on the ground, commonly with a landscape of the place where the accident befalls him or another, it may be, driving home his cattle, or wandering in idleness, or musing in the sunshine, is suddenly surprised by the appearance of a bridal ceremony or a funeral procession, and counts the mourners or attendants; if he knows them he tells their names ; but if not he can describe their dresses."

Dr. Beattie, a contemporary of Johnson's and a poet of the Scoto-English school, thought that second-sight arose from the influence of physical causes on ignorant minds, such as the influence of wild, gloomy, romantic scenery. This no doubt contributed to its extensive hold on the Highlanders, but it seems incredible that it alone was sufficient to bring about the phenomena. A perusal of the "Prophecies of the Brahan Seer," by Mr. Alex. Mackenzie, of Inverness, will bring before us evidences that the seers were not always impostors. Some of the prophecies of that bard are shown to have been probably the result of natural shrewdness. But there are others which certainly require a deeper philosophy to explain them, notably that in which the doom of Seaforth was clearly foretold. Such things startle one, even in this matter-of-fact age, when almost everything which once appeared supernatural is being exploded by science and enlightenment. The readers of Sir Walter Scott's "Legend of Montrose" or Campbell's "Lochiel's Warning" may with justice think lightly of the pourtrayal of the supernatural in these productions, but in the "Prophecies of the Brahan Seer" we meet with the visions of a real man, told in all their simple truth, and verified by many of the events themselves happening long after the prophecies were uttered. Others are yet, so far as Mr. Mackenzie can tell us, unfulfilled. A recent writer thus sums up the whole question, and with this quotation we leave it: "Many in these later days, while they have failed to fix the antiquity of the second-sight, instead of defiantly and dogmatically denying its existence, would rather reason themselves into results by saying that it seems degrading to the idea of divine power even to suppose that thereby special miracles would be wrought in order to foretell to poor, rustic and illiterate people the marriage or the death of some Highland peasant, the success or the swamping of some fishing-boat, the arrival of some stranger, or the fortune of some friend. Others, holding that reliable facts are indispensable go further and say that spectral appearances to conviction, may be caused by dreams or diseases, by optical illusions or fervid imaginations, and that as education has advanced, and intercourse with intelligent people has extended, the belief in the second-sight, like the belief in astrology and witchcraft, is now well-nigh a thing of the past. Thus the matter now stands. Some fondly believe in the faculty of second-sight, others waver in regard to it, and others firmly deny it; while some are very unwilling to give up a long-held and fondly fostered opinion, others are no less unwilling to accept of it as a well-authenticated reality, and look upon the whole as a poetic plausibility or a pleasant romance."

Of minor superstitions Scotland has more than can well be enumerated. Some of these are common to the whole country or a great part of it, others seem to hold good only in a pertion of it, while others are the private property of some particular family. Indeed, in the olden times all the leading families in the Highlands had their own particular omen, and even to the present (lay the connection of these families with unearthly visitors is believed by some to be maintained. The days of the week have also their significance, and in connection with the births of children they formed themselves into a rude sort of rhyme which was once very popular and may still be heard in some country places:

Monday's bairn is fair of face;
Tuesdays bairn is fu' o' grace;
Wednesday's bairn's the child of woe;
Thursday's bairn has far to go;
Friday's bairn is loving and growing;
Saturday's bairn works hard for his living;
But the bairn that is born on the Sabbath day
Is lucky and bonny, and wise and gay."

The popular superstitions were often expressed in rhyme, as above. Here is one concerning the weather:

"West wind to the bairn
When ga'an for its name,
And rain to the corpse
Carried to its lang hame.
A bonny blue sky
To welcome the bride,
As she gangs to the kirk
Wi' the sun on her side."

Plants were formerly greatly in vogue for their magical powers, and the healing virtues which many of them are now known to possess were in the olden time credited to the supernatural. In Cameron's valuable work on "Gaelic Names of Plants " we find many illustrations of this. "Watercress," he says, "was used as a charm by the Celts both of Ireland and Scotland. To facilitate milk stealing, cutting the tops of the cresses with a pair of scissors, the thief would mutter the names of certain persons who had cows, and also the words, 'S' horns a-leath do choud sa' (half thine is mine). These words were repeated as often as a sprig was cut, each sprig representing the individual that was to be robbed of his milk and cream. Some women made use of the root of groundsel as an amulet against such charms, by putting it amongst the cream. Another superstition clung to the thorn; it was believed that for every tree cut down in any district one of the inhabitants in that district would die that year. Many ancient forts, and the thorns which surrounded them, were preserved by the veneration, or rather dread, with which the thorns were regarded. It was, and still is, a common belief in the Highlands that each blackberry contains a poisonous worm ; and another popular belief, probably kept up to prevent children eating them when unripe, is that the fairies defiled them at Michaelmas and Hallowe'en. The mountain ash was planted near every dwelling-house as the most propitious of trees; hence it may be found even far tip in the mountain glens, where it usually marks the site of an old shieling. In fishing-boats rigged with sails, a piece of this tree was usually fastened to the halyard, the fishermen holding it to he an indispensable necessity ; and it was also a common practice to bind a small piece to a cow's tail as a charm against witchcraft. When malt did not yield its due proportion of spirits, the mountain ash was a sovereign remedy ; and in addition to its other virtues, its fruit was supposed to cause longevity. The prickles of the gooseberry hush were used as charms for the cure of warts and the stye. A wedding-ring laid over the wart, and pricked through the ring with a gooseberry thorn, was expected to remove the wart; and ten gooseberry thorns were plucked to cure the stye—nine being pointed at the part affected, and the tenth thrown over the left shoulder. Horses were said to lose their shoes where the moonwort grew; and to this day on Lord Dunsany's Irish property there is a field abounding in this plant where it is supposed all his stock lose their nails if they happen to be pastured there. There is a Limerick story referring to a man in Clonmel jail who could open all the locks by means of this plant. The same old superstition still lingers in the Highlands."

Among a number of superstitions collected at random, I may give the following as representative of the whole. Spitting into the shoe of one's right foot ensures protection from magic influences. An otter's bladder, no matter how old, is a sure cure for gravel, unless the cure is commenced on a Friday; any charm used on that unlucky day is rendered thereafter useless and harmless. A hare crossing one's path is an unlucky omen, and so is a cat, especially a black one. Unusual merriment is a sure forerunner of some unusual misfortune, and the loud, careless laughter of children may yet be heard checked by the grave words, "Wheesht, bairn! there's something afore ye." If an odd number sit at table, such as 7, 9, ii, 13, it is deemed unlucky. The howling of a (log at night is a warning that a death is taking place in the neighborhood, if not in the house to which the dog belongs. It is an unlucky omen for a grave to he opened on a Sunday or for a corpse to remain soft after death. The Lord's Prayer repeated at low breath is a sure preventive of ill from ghosts, witches or ferlies. The water used in the christening of children was often bottled up and carefully preserved as a cure-all for the ailments which might befall the little one. One might fill whole pages with naming such minor curiosities of superstition, but these must suffice. Readers of Scott, Burns, Hogg, and others of the popular authors of Scotland will doubtless remember many more, and even the entire poetic and romantic literature is full of allusions to such topics. In these popular superstitions there is nothing vulgar, nothing treacherous, nothing rude. We may sneer at this whole subject as we will, but these simple charms and omens still have their believers, and will continue to have their believers until the crack o' doom. Old Thomas of Ercildoune—"True Thomas,'' as he was once affectionately called—is not regarded as a myth altogether by the country people, and his prophecy that

"Tide, tide, whate'er betide,
There'll aye be Haigs on Bemersyde,"

is as firmly believed ill throughout the South country as is anything in the Gospels. Peden's prophecies, long hawked about the country in a penny chap-book by the "flying stationers," still command respect and a wonderful amount of belief in their correctness and power. The great advance Of education and the cheapness of literature since the introduction of the printing press have subdued but not dissipated the old superstitions of the land. For Scotland is a land of superstition, as it is a land of religion, song, poetry and romance. The superstition is inspired by its glens, its hills, its streams, its scenery, its story, and were it to be forgotten the land would lose part of its charm, and poetry and romance be robbed of one of their most prolific realms. The superstitions of Scotland are those of a simple-minded, earnest, sincere and thoughtful people. They supply the place of something else, something more definite, about the boundary line between this world and the next, and their whole tendency is to make the mind turn upward and above the things of this life, and reason—with obscurity and singular grotesqueness, it is true, but with all solemnity and reverence—regarding the life which is to come.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus