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Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs
Chapter XIII - Weather and Wells


Importance of Weather—Its Place in Folklore—Raising the Wind—Witches and wind-charms--Blue-stone in Fladda—Well in Gigha — Tobernacoragh — Routing-well—Water Cross— Stone in British Columbia—Other Rain-charms—Survivals in Folk-customs — Sympathetic Magic -- Dulyn — Barenton -- Tobar Faolan—St. Fumac's Image at Botriphnie—Molly Grime.

IN all ages much attention has been given to the weather, with special reference to its bearings on human well-being. As Mr. R. Inwards truly observes, in his "Weather-lore," "From the earliest times hunters, shepherds, sailors, and tillers of the earth have from sheer necessity been led to study the teachings of the winds, the waves, the clouds, and a hundred other objects from which the signs of coming changes in the state of the air might be foretold. The weather-wise amongst these primitive people would be naturally the most prosperous, and others would soon acquire the coveted foresight by a closer observance of the same objects from which their successful rivals guessed the proper time to provide against a storm, or reckoned on the prospects of the coming crops." Hence, naturally enough, the weather has an important place in folklore. Various prognostications concerning it have been drawn from sun and moon, from animals and flowers; while certain meteorological phenomena have, in their turn, been regarded as prophetic of mundane events. Thus, in the astrological treatise entitled "The Knowledge of Things Unknown," we read that "Thunder in January signifieth the same year great winds, plentiful of corn and cattel peradventure; in February, many rich men shall die in great sickness; in March, great winds, plenty of corn, and debate amongst people; in April, be fruitful and merry with the death of wicked men;" and so on through the other months of the year. One can easily understand why thunder should be counted peculiarly ominous. The effects produced on the mind by its mysterious noise, and on the nerves by the electricity in the air, are apt to lead superstitious people to expect strange events. Particular notice was taken of the weather on certain ecclesiastical festivals, and omens were drawn from its condition. Thus, from "The Hvsbandraan's Practice," we learn that "The wise and cunning masters in astrology have found that man may see and mark the weather of the holy Christmas night, how the whole year after shall be in his making and doing, and they shall speak on this wise. When on the Christmas night and evening it is very fair and clear weather, and is without wind and without rain, then it is a token that this year will be plenty of wine and fruit. But if the contrariwise, foul weather and windy, so shall it be very scant of wine and fruit. But if the wind arise at the rising of the sun, then it betokeneth great dearth among beasts and cattle this year. But if the wind arise at the going down of the same, then it signifieth death to come among kings and other great lords." We do not suppose that anyone nowadays attends to such Yule-tide auguries, but there are not wanting those who have a lingering belief in the power of Candlemas and St. Swithin's Day to foretell the sort of weather to be expected in the immediate future.

Witches were believed to be able to raise the wind at their pleasure. In a confession made at Auldearn in Nairnshire, in the year 1662, certain women, accused of sorcery, said, "When we raise the wind we take a rag of cloth and wet it in water, and we take a beetle and knock the rag on a stone, and we say thrice over:-

'I knock this rag upon this stane,
To raise the wind in the devil's name.
It shall not lie until I please again!'"

When the wind was to be allayed the rag was dried. About 1670 an attempt was made to drain some two thousand acres of land belonging to the estate of Dun in Forfarshire. The Dronner's, i.e., Drainer's Dyke—remains of which are still to be seen behind the Montrose Infirmary—was built in connection with the scheme. But the work was destroyed by a terrible storm, caused, it was believed, by a certain Meggie Cowie—the last to be burned for witchcraft in the district. About eighty years before, a notable witch-trial in the time of James VI. had to do with the raising of a storm. A certain woman, Agnes Sampson, residing in Haddingtonshire, confessed that she belonged to a company of two hundred witches, and that they were all in the habit of sailing along the coast in sieves to meet the devil at the kirk of North Berwick. After one of these interviews the woman took a cat and christened it, and, after fixing to it parts of a dead man's body, threw the creature into the sea in presence of the other witches. The king, who was then returning from Denmark with his bride, was delayed by contrary winds, and such a tempest arose in the Firth of Forth that a vessel, containing valuable gifts for the queen on her arrival, sank between Burntisland and Leith. The Rev. T. F. Thiselton Dyer makes the suggestion in his "Folklore of Shakespeare," that it was probably to these contrary winds that the author of "Macbeth" alludes when he makes the witch say:-

"Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-test."

Even down to the end of last century, and probably later, some well-educated people believed that the devil had the power of raising the wind. The phrase, the prince of the power of the air, applied to him in Scripture, was interpreted in a literal way. " The Diary of the Rev. John Mill," minister in Shetland from 1740 till 1803, bears witness to such a belief. In his introduction to the work, the editor, Mr. Gilbert Goudie, tells us: "He (Mill) was often heard talking aloud with his (to others) unseen foe; but those who heard him declared that he spoke in an unknown tongue, presumably Hebrew. After one of these encounters the worthy man was heard muttering, `Well, let him do his worst; the wind aye in my face will not hurt me.' This was in response to a threat of the devil, that wherever he (Mill) went, he (Satan) should be a-blowing `wind in his teeth,' in consequence of which Mill was unable ever after to get passage out of Shetland." On the 5th of November, 1605, a terrible storm swept over the north of Scotland and destroyed part of the cathedral at Dornoch. As is well known, the day in question was selected by Guy Fawkes for blowing up the Houses of Parliament. In his "Cathedral of Caithness, at Dornoch," Mr. Hugh F. Campbell tells us: "When the news of the gunpowder plot reached the north, the co-incidence of time at once impressed the imagination of a superstitious age. The storm was invested with an element of the marvellous." Mr. Campbell then quotes the following curious passage from Sir Robert Gordon, specially referring to Satan's connection with the tempest:—"The same verie night that this execrable plott should have been put in execution all the inner stone pillars of the north syd of the body of the cathedral church at Dornogh—lacking the rooff before—were blowen from the verie roots and foundation quyt and clein over the outer walls of the church: such as hath sein the same. These great winds did even then prognosticate and forshew some great treason to be at hand; and as the divell was busie then to trouble the ayre, so wes he bussie by these hiss fyrebrands to trouble the estate of Great Britane."

The notion that storms, especially when accompanied by thunder and lightning, were the work of evil spirits, came out prominently during the middle ages in connection with bells. The ringing of bells was believed to drive away the demons, and so allay the tempest. A singular superstition concerning the causation of storms was brought to light in Hungary during the autumn of 1892 in connection with the fear of cholera. At Kidzaes a patient died of what was thought to be that disease, and a post mortem examination was ordered by the local authorities. Strenuous opposition, however, was offered by the villagers on the ground that the act would cause such a hail-storm as would destroy their crops. Feeling ran so high that a riot was imminent, and the project had to be abandoned. Eric, the Swedish king, could control the winds through his enchantments. By turning his cap he was able to bring a breeze from whatever quarter he wished. Mr. G. L. Gomme, in his "Ethnology in Folklore," remarks, " At Kempoch Point, in the Firth of Clyde, is a columnar rock called the Kempoch Stane, from whence a saint was wont to dispense favourable winds to those who paid for them, and unfavourable to those who did not put confidence in his powers—a tradition which seems to have been carried on by the Innerkip witches who were tried in 1662, and some portions of which still linger among the sailors of Greenock." The stone in question consists of a block of grey mica schist six feet in height and two in diameter. It is locally known as Granny Kempoch. In former times sailors and fishermen sought to ensure good fortune on the sea by walking seven times round the stone. While making their rounds they carried in their hand a basket of sand, and at the same time uttered an eerie chant. Newly-married couples used also to walk round the stone by way of luck.

At the beginning of the present century a certain woman, Bessie Miller by name, lived in Stromness, in Orkney, and eked out her livelihood by selling winds to mariners. Her usual charge was sixpence. For this sum, as Sir W. Scott tells us, "she boiled her kettle, and gave the barque advantage of her prayers, for she disclaimed all unlawful arts. The wind, thus petitioned for, was sure to arrive, though sometimes the mariners had to wait some time for it." Her house was on the brow of the steep hill above the town, "and for exposure might have been the abode of Eolus himself." At the time of Sir Walter's visit to Stromness, Bessie Miller was nearly a hundred years old, and appeared "withered and dried up like a mummy." We make her acquaintance in the "Pirate," under the name of Norna of the Fitful Head. In his "Rambles in the Far North," Mr. R. M. Fergusson tells of another wind-compelling personage, named Mammie Scott, who also belonged to Stromness, and practised her arts there, till within a comparatively recent date. "Many wonderful tales are told of her power and influence over the weather. Her fame was widely spread as that of Bessie. A captain called upon Mammie one day to solicit a fair wind. He was bound for Stornoway, and received from the reputed witch a scarlet thread upon which were three knots. His instructions were, that if sufficient wind did not arrive, one of the knots was to be untied; if that proved insufficient, another knot was to be untied; but he was on no account to unloose the third knot, else disaster would overtake his vessel. The mariner set out upon his voyage, and, the wind being light, untied the first knot. This brought a stronger breeze, but still not sufficient to satisfy him. The second knot was let down, and away the vessel sped across the waters, round Cape Wrath. In a short time the entrance to Stornoway harbour was reached, when it came into the captain's head to untie the third knot in order to see what might occur. He was too near the end of his voyage to suffer any damage now; and so he felt emboldened to make the experiment. No sooner was the last knot set free than a perfect hurricane set in from a contrary direction, which drove the vessel right back to by Sound, from which she had set out, where he had ample time to repent of his folly."

Within the last half-century there lived in Stone-haven an old woman, who was regarded with considerable awe by the sea-faring population. Before a voyage it was usual to propitiate her by the gift of a bag of coals. On one occasion, two brothers, owners of a coasting smack, after setting sail, had to return to port through stress of weather, the storm being due, it was believed, to the fact that one of the brothers had omitted to secure the woman's good offices in the usual way. The brother who was captain of the smack seems to have been a firm believer in wind-charms, for it is related of him that during a more than usually high wind he was in the habit of throwing up his cap into the air with the exclamation, "She maun hae something." She, in this case, was the wind, and not the witch: and the cap was meant as a gift to propitiate the storm. Dr. Charles Rogers, in his "Social Life in Scotland," tells us that "the seamen of Shetland, in tempestuous weather, throw a piece of money into the window of a ruinous chapel dedicated to St. Ronald in the belief that the saint will allay the vehemence of the storm," According to the same writer, "Shetland boatmen still purchase favourable winds from elderly women, who pretend to rule or to modify the storms." "There are now in Lerwick," Dr. Rogers continues, "several old women who in this fashion earn a subsistence. Many of the survivors of the great storm of the 20th of July, 1881—so fatal on northern coasts—assert that their preservation was due to warnings which they received through a supernatural agency."

Human skulls have their folklore. The lifting of them from their usual resting-places has, in popular belief, been connected with certain mysterious occurrences. According to a story told by Mr. Wirt Sikes, in his "British Goblins," a man who removed a skull from a church to prove to his companions that he was free from superstition was overtaken by a terrible whirlwind, the result, it was thought, of his rash act. In some Highland districts it used to be reckoned unlucky to allow a corpse to remain unburied. If from any cause, human bones came to the surface, care was taken to lay them below ground again, as otherwise disastrous storms would ensue.

We have a good example of the association of wind-charms with water in the case of a certain magical stone referred to by Martin as existing in his day in the island of Fladda, near Skye. There was a chapel to St. Columba on the island, and on the altar lay the stone in question. The stone was round, of a blue colour, and was always moist. "It is an ordinary custom," Martin relates, "when any of the fishermen are detained in the isle by contrary winds, to wash the blue stone with water all round, expecting thereby to procure a favourable wind, which, the credulous tenant, living in the isle, says never fails, especially if a stranger wash the stone." The power of the Fladda stone was equalled by a certain well in Gigha, though in the latter instance a dweller in the island, rather than a stranger, had power over it. When a foreign boat was wind-bound on the island, the master of the craft was in the habit of giving some money to one of the natives, to procure a favourable breeze. This was done in the following way. A few feet above the well was a heap of stones, forming a cover to the spring. These were carefully removed, and the well was cleared out with a wooden dish or clam-shell. The water was then thrown several times towards the point, from which the needed ' wind should blow. Certain words of incantation were used, each time the water was thrown. After the ceremony, the stones were replaced, as the district would otherwise have been swept by a hurricane. Pennant mentions, in connection with his visit to Gigha, that the superstition had then died out. In this he was in error, for the well continued to be occasionally consulted to a later date. Even within recent years, the memory of the practice lingered in the island; but there seemed some doubt, as to the exact nature of the required ritual. Captain T. P. White was told by a shepherd, belonging to the island, that, if a stone was taken out of the well, a storm would arise and prevent any person crossing over, nor would it abate till the stone was taken back to the well.

From the evidence of an Irish example, we find that springs could allay a storm, as well as produce a favourable breeze. The island of Innismurray, off the coast of Sligo, has a sacred well called Tobernacoragh. When a tempest was raging, the natives believed that by draining the water of this well into the sea, the wrath of the elements could be calmed. Mr. Gomme, in his "Ethnology in Folklore," when commenting on the instance, remarks, "In this case the connection between well-worship and the worship of a rain-god is certain, for it may be surmised that if the emptying of the well allayed a storm, some complementary action was practised at one time or other in order to produce rain, and in districts more subject to a want of rain than this Atlantic island, that ceremony would be accentuated at the expense of the storm-allaying ceremony at Innismurray." The Routing Well, at Monktown, in Inveresk parish, Mid-Lothian, was believed to give notice of an approaching storm by uttering sounds resembling the moaning of the wind. As a matter of fact, the noises came from certain disused coal-workings in the immediate neighbourhood, and were due to the high wind blowing through them. The sounds thus accompanied and did not precede the storm.

To procure rain, recourse was had to various superstitious practices. Martin tells of a stone, five feet high, in the form of a cross, opposite St. Mary's Church, in North Uist. "The natives," he says, "call it the 'Water Cross,' for the ancient inhabitants had a custom of erecting this sort of cross to procure rain, and when they had got enough, they laid it flat on the ground, but this custom is now disused." Among the mountains of British Columbia, is a certain stone held in much honour by the Indians, for they believe that it will produce rain when struck. Rain-making is an important occupation among uncivilised races, and strange rites are sometimes practised to bring about the desired result. By some savages, human hair is burned for this end. Mr. J. G. Frazer, in "The Golden Bough," has some interesting remarks on rain-production. After enumerating certain rain-charms among heathen nations, he remarks, "Another way of constraining the rain-god is to disturb him in his haunts. This seems the reason why rain is supposed to be the consequence of troubling a sacred spring. The Dards believed that if a cowskin or anything impure is placed in certain springs storms will follow. Gervasius mentions a spring, into which, if a stone or a stick were thrown, rain would at once issue from it and drench the thrower. There was a fountain in Munster such that if it were touched or even looked at by a human being it would at once flood the whole province with rain." Curious survivals of ancient rain-charms are to be found in modern folk-customs. Thus, in connection with the rejoicings of the harvest-home in England, when the last load of grain was being carried on the gaily decorated hock-cart to the farm-yard, it was customary to throw water on those taking part in the ceremony. This apparently meaningless frolic was in reality a rain-charm. A Cornish custom, at one time popular at Padstow on the first of May, can be explained on the same principle. A hobby-horse was taken to the Traitor's Pool, a quarter of a mile from the town. The head was dipped in the pool, and water was sprinkled on the bystanders.

Such charms depend for their efficacy on what is called "sympathetic magic." Mimic rain is produced on the earth, in the hope that the same liquid will be constrained to descend from the heavens, to bring fresh fertility to the fields. Professor Rhys, in his "Celtic Heathendom," traces the connection between modern rain-charms and the rites of ancient paganism. He there quotes the following particulars regarding Dulyn, in North Wales, from a description of the place published in 1805:—"There lies in Snowdon Mountain a lake called Dulyn, in a dismal dingle surrounded by high and dangerous rocks; the lake is exceedingly black, and its fish are loathsome, having large heads and small bodies. No wild swan or duck or any kind of bird has ever been seen to light on it, as is their wont on every other Snowdonian lake. In this same lake there is a row of stepping stones extending into it; and if any one steps on the stones and throws water so as to wet the furthest stone of the series, which is called the Red Altar, it is but a chance that you do not get rain before night, even when it is hot weather." The spot was, probably in pre-Christian times, the scene of sacrifices to some local deity. Judging from the dismal character of the neighbourhood, we may safely infer that fear entered largely into the worship paid there to the genivs loci. The Fountain of Barenton, in Brittany, was specially celebrated in connection with rain-making. During the early middle ages, the peasantry of the neighbourhood resorted to it in days of drought. According to a time-honoured custom, they took some water from the fountain and threw it on a slab hard by; rain was the result. Professor Rhys reminds us that this fountain "still retains its pluvial importance; for, in seasons of drought, the inhabitants of the surrounding parishes, we are told go to it in procession, headed by their five great banners and their priests ringing bells and chanting psalms. On arriving, the rector of the canton dips the foot of the cross in the water, and it is sure to rain within a week's time." The Barenton instance is specially interesting, for part of the ceremony recalls what happened in connection with a certain Scottish spring, viz., Tobar Faolan at Struan, in Athole. This spring, as the name implies, was dedicated to Fillan. In his "Holiday Notes in Athole," in the "Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland," volume xii. (new series), Mr. J. Mackintosh Gow says, "It is nearly one hundred yards west from the church, at the foot of the bank, and close to the river Garry. It is overgrown with grass and weeds, but the water is as clear and cool as it may have been in the days of the saint. There is no tradition of its having been a curing or healing well, except that in pre-Reformation days, when a drought prevailed and rain was much wanted, an image of the saint, which was kept in the church, used to be taken in procession to the well, and, in order that rain might come, the feet of the image were placed in the water; and this, of course, was generally supposed to have the desired effect." At Botriphnie, in Banffshire, six miles from Keith, the wooden image of St. Fumac used to be solemnly washed in his well on the third of May. We may conclude that the ceremony was intended as a rain-charm. It must have been successful, on at least one occasion, for the river Isla became flooded through the abundance of rain. Indeed, the flooding was so great that the saint's image was swept away by the rushing water. The image was finally stranded at Banff, where it was burned as a relic of superstition by order of the parish minister about the beginning of the present century. In Glentham Church, Lincolnshire, is a tomb, with a figure locally called "Molly Grime." From "Old English Customs and Charities," we learn that, till 1832, the figure was washed every Good Friday with water from Newell Well by seven old maids of Glentham, who each received a shilling, "in consequence of an old bequest connected with some property in that district." Perhaps its testator was not free from a belief in the efficacy of rain-charms. Otherwise, the ceremony seems meaningless. If the keeping clean of the figure was the only object, the seven old maids should not have limited their duties to an annual pilgrimage from the well to the church.


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