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Social History of the Highlands

A singular practice called Deis-iuil existed in the Western Islands, so called from a man going round carrying fire in his right hand, which in the Gaelic is called Deas. In the island of Lewis this fiery circuit was made about the houses, corn, cattle etc., of each particular family, to protect them from the power of evil spirits. The fire was also carried round about women before they were churched after child-bearing, and about children till they were baptized. This ceremony was performed in the morning and at night, and was practised by some of the old midwives in martin's time. Some of them told him that 'the fire-round was an effectual means of preserving both the mother and the infant from the power of the evil spirits, who are ready at such times to do mischief, and sometimes carry away the infant; and when they get them once in their possession, return them poor meagre skeletons; and these infants are said to have voracious appetites, constantly craving for meat. In this case it was usual with those who believed that their children were thus taken away, to dig a grave in the fields upon quarter-day, and there to lay the fairy skeleton till next morning; at which time the parents went to the place, where they doubted not to find their own child instead of this skeleton. Some of the poorer sort of people in these islands retained a custom of performing rounds sun-wise, about the persons of their benefactors three times, when they blessed them, and wished wood success to all their enterprises. Some were very careful, when they set out to sea, that the boat should be first rowed about sun-wise; and if this was neglected, they were afraid their voyage would prove unfortunate.

A prevailing superstition also existed in the Western Islands, and among the inhabitants of the neighbouring coast, that women, by a certain charm or by some secret influence, could withdraw and appropriate to their own use the increase of their neighbour's cow's milk. It was believed, however, that the milk so charmed did not produce the ordinary quantity of butter usually churned from other milk, and that the curds made of such milk were so tough that they could not be made so firm as other cheese, and that it was also much lighter in weight. It was also believed that the butter produced from the charmed milk could be discovered from that yielded from the charmer's own milk, by a difference in the colour, the former being of a paler hue than the latter. The woman in whose possession butter so distinguished was found, was considered to be guilty. To bring back the increase of milk, it was usual to take a little of the rennet from all the suspected persons, and put it into an egg shell full of milk, and when the rennet taken from the charmer was mingled with it, it was said presently to curdle, but not before. Some women put the root of groundsel among their cream as an amulet against such charms.

In retaliation for washing dishes, wherein milk was kept, in streams or rivulets in which trouts were, it was believed that they prevented or took away an increase of milk, and the damage thus occasioned could only be repaired by taking a live trout and pouring milk into its mouth. If the milk curdled immediately, this was a sure sign of its being taken away by trouts; if not, the inhabitants ascribed the evil to some other cause. Some women, it was affirmed, had the art to take away the milk of nurses.

A similar superstition existed as to malt, the virtues of which were said to be sometimes imperceptibly filched, by some charm, before being used, so that the drink made of this malt had neither strength nor good taste, while, on the contrary, the supposed charmer had very good ale all the time. the following curious story is told by Martin in relation to this subject. "A gentleman of my acquaintance, for the space of a year, could not have a drop of good ale in his house; and having complained of it to all that conversed with him, he was at last advised to get some yeast from every alehouse in the parish; and having got a little from one particular man, he put it among his wort, which became as good ale as could be drunk, and so defeated the charm. After which, the gentleman on whose land this man lived, banished him thirty-six miles from thence."

A singular mode of divination was sometimes practised by the Highlanders with bones. Having picked the flesh clean off a shoulder-blade of mutton, which was supposed to lose its virtue if touched by iron, they turned towards the east, and with looks steadily fixed on the transparent bone they pretended to foretell deaths, burials etc.

The phases or changes of the moon were closely observed, and it was only at particular periods of her revolution that they would cut turf or fuel, fell wood, or cut thatch for houses, or go upon any important expedition. They expected better crops of grain by sowing their seed in the moon's increase. "The moon," as Dr. Johnson observes, "has great influence in vulgar philosophy," and in his memory it was a precept annually given in one of the English almanacs, "To kill hogs when the moon was increasing, and the bacon would prove the better in boiling."

The aid of superstition was sometimes resorted to for curing diseases. For hectic and consumptive complaints, the Highlanders used to pare the nails of the fingers and toes of the patient - put these parings into a bag made from a piece of his clothes - and after waving their hand with the bag thrice round his head, and crying, Deis-iuil, they buried it in some unknown place. Pliny, in his natural history, says that this practice existed among the Magi of his time.

To remove any contagious disease from cattle, they used to extinguish the fires in the surrounding villages, after which they forced fire with a wheel, or by rubbing one piece of dry wood upon another, with which they burned juniper in the stalls of the cattle that the smoke might purify the air about them. When this was performed, the fires in the houses were rekindled from the forced fire. Shaw relates in his history of Moray, that he personally witnessed both the last-mentioned practices.

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