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Scottish Charms and Amulets


The subject of Scottish charms and amulets, although one of great interest, has scarcely as yet been touched upon by antiquaries. With the exception of two or three brief notices of individual charms, the only special article of any importance is the paper of the late Sir James Young Simpson, published in the fourth volume of our Proceedings. In the present paper it is purposed to describe in detail all the known specimens of Scottish amulets and charms, accompanied by such extracts from various sources as are calculated to shed light on their uses and on the motives which induced the people to believe that such objects possessed the power to protect them from innumerable dangers, avert evil from themselves, or cause evil in others.

Although the words amulet and charm, as now used, are synonymous, yet each has its own clearly defined and distinct meaning.

The earliest known writer who uses the word amulet is Pliny, and it is employed by him with the same meaning that we attach to it, namely, as a preservative against poison, witchcraft, and sorcery ("venoficiorum amulets," Historia Naturalis, lib. nix, cap. xix). The derivation of the word is not known, but by some a Latin origin is assigned to it as being that "quod malum amolitur." By others the word is derived from amula, "vas lustrale." The etymology from the Arabic himälah (= "that which is carried ") usually assigned to the word in modern dictionaries is wrong, the resemblance between the two words being purely fortuitous.

The word charm, from the Latin carmen, a song, was in later times understood to mean a form of words possessing some occult power for good or evil, more often the former. Charms were of two kinds, written and recited. Of the former, the toothache charms described below are typical examples, and of the latter the Shetlandic incantation for the cure of a sprained joint or sinew is an instance:-

"The Lord rade, and the foal slade;
He lighted, and he righted,
Set joint to joint, bone to bone,
And sinew to sinew, heal in the Holy Ghost’s name."

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