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Folk-Lore of Luck
By Mr A. Polson

At this meeting, Mr Duncan Cameron, general merchant, Muir of Ord, Was elected an ordinary member of the Society. The paper for the evening was contributed by Mr A. Poison, teacher, Inverasdale, Poolewe, on the “Highland Folk-lore of Luck.” Mr Poison’s paper was as follows: —


One has only to read any of the works on the folk-lore of any foreign country, or reside anywhere out of the Highlands for a year or two, to understand that Highlanders are certainly not a bit more superstitious than people elsewhere, and that what superstitious beliefs they have, are on inquiry found to have arisen from some reasonable cause generally unknown to the sneering outsider. In adopting means to secure luck, it is believed that their customs are less stupid than those of so-called educated people who indulge in games of chance, and who, if they have perfected no ‘ system' by which to regulate their luck, then by means of charms, which may easily be bought for filthy lucre, they expect to propitiate the unknown and dreaded powers so that they may be favoured—at the expense of somebody else, of course. It is well known that in games of pure chance the proportion of the amount won altogether by one side of say two numerically equal sides of players is almost certain to fee very nearly an equality in the long run, but before that long run comes it ought not to be forgotten that the last of the means of the apparently losing side may have gone, and then no way remains by which the losers may recoup themselves and the equality be restored; and ruin then comes, as it inevitably does to all gamblers, and hence the ardent desire to get in some way or other the balance of probability on their side at the beginning—in short, to load the dice. But Highlanders, in common with the vast majority of believers in luck, never think of it as coming within any mathematical or other law.

There is no doubt that very many Highlanders are fatalists, and when untoward events happen, their feeling, and indeed their language, is, ‘It had to be/ and with this they console themselves, though, in justice to them, it must be said that in all their works the usual reasonable precautions are generally taken to prevent any undesirable untoward event; but when, in spite of all such precautions, the event nevertheless does prove adverse, or, on the other hand, has turned out more successfully than might reasonably be expected, then something has to be looked for to explain the matter, and any particular or peculiar circumstances in connection with the matter are looked for, and these circumstances are afterwards deemed lucky or unlucky, according to the outcome of the event with which they were first associated.

Many classes of persons and circumstances are, and always have been, deemed unlucky, not to one, but to everyone, while others are limited to a certain class. Thus it is always deemed unlucky to meet a flat-footed, red-haired woman as one sets out on a journey, while others as ‘first-foot' or ‘first-met’ mean ill-luck only to certain of their enemies. Bulwer Lytton believed that he never did succeed at cards when a certain person of his acquaintance was on the same side, or even in the same room or house as he was when playing, while with others who were perfect strangers he felt that luck was with him. Perhaps such a belief might have been founded on something: in such a man which irritated him, and so precluded his giving his undivided attention to the game. To such a person the character of being unlucky would easily come to be attributed. Again, there may be some historical reason for a belief. Thus it is considered unlucky for a Sinclair to leave Caithness on a Monday or in a green coat. The reason given for this is that it was on a Monday and in green coats that the Sinclairs crossed the Ord on their way to Flodden, whence only one returned.

For very obvious reasons luck is most sought for at the beginning of some period, as at the New Year, on entering on some new undertaking, at a marriage, or on setting out on an important journey, etc., and the precursors of success, as well as the means taken to secure luck, may be classified according to the occasion to which they refer.

Birth is a start in life, but the little one, in its utter helplessness, has happily not to run the gauntlet of so many unlucky omens as might be expected; indeed, the judgment of what success it may meet with in after life is, in the Highlands, in great measure suspended for a time. Yet to bring the young one success in life, a spoon, made from the horn of a live animal, is considered one of the best possible charms. A very useful belief is that it is extremely lucky for friends or relatives to place silver on a child the first time they see it. This should also be held lucky for the parents at a time when naturally there must be some considerable drain on the family's resources. There may be some church reason—such as the bringing of recalcitrant parents under the power of the minister—for the notion that it is lucky to have a child baptized before the expiry of the year in which it was born, and it is considered extremely unlucky to have it deferred until the following year. This helps in another way, as the parents are the sooner at liberty to divulge the child's name, which it would be unlucky to do before the performance of that rite.

There are not, at least in the parts of the Highlands with which the writer is acquainted, any rhymes relating to lucky or unlucky birth-days. Thus, such a rhyme as the following is scarcely known: —

“Sunday’s child is full of grace,
Monday's child is fair of face,
Tuesday's child is solemn and sad,
Wednesday's child is merry and glad,
Thursday’s child is inclined to thieving,
Friday’s child is free in giving,
Saturday's child works hard for its living.”

The belief that being born with a caul is lucky, and a sure preventive of death from drowning, is prevalent all over the Highlands, as indeed it seems to be all over the world, and has been for long ages, and we find St Chrysostom inveighs against this notion in several of his homilies. The belief now widely prevalent that it is lucky to carry the newly-born child ‘up' rather than ‘down,' and that it ought not to be weighed, must have been imported in quite modem times, as the houses in which the vast majority of Highlanders were born in the olden times had no stair by which they could carry it up, and they had few weighing machines.

Marriage is, as Shakespeare says, "That wild dedication of ourselves to unpathed waters, undreamed shores,” and there are a large number of ways by which the happy pair may be made sure that thereafter on the voyage of life they will be fortunate. The almost universal notion that May is an unlucky month, and

June a lucky one, obtains in the north of Scotland, as it has done over a wide area, since Roman times; but in spite of the well-known rhyme which says—

“Monday for wealth,
Tuesday for health,
Wednesday the best day of all,
Thursday for crosses,
Friday for losses,
Saturday no day at all".

and in spite of the widely-spread notion that Friday is an unlucky day on which to enter on any undertaking, it has for a long time been by far the most popular day for this purpose throughout the whole of Scotland. That the advent of Sunday may prevent the linked sweetness of the festivities being too long drawn out, and that a limit may be put to drawing too much on the resources of the donor of the feast; that a quiet time may be secured for the newly-married pair, as well as the allowing of a working man to get back to his work on the following Monday morning, may perhaps have, among a practical, canny people, something to do with this otherwise unpopular day. The City Chamberlain of Glasgow tells—“It is a well-established fact that nine-tenths of the marriages in Glasgow are celebrated on a Friday; only a few on Tuesday and Wednesday; Saturday and Monday are stui more rarely adopted, and I have never heard of such a thing in Glasgow as a marriage on Sunday.” Exactly the same may be said of the Highlands, and the proportion of happy marriages is as large there as elsewhere. In the Island of Lewis, however, Tuesdays and Thursdays seem to be the favourite days for the ceremony.

Before the marriage the bride must take care not to hear the publication of her own banns, else ill-luck will come to the offspring; and it is better, if luck would favour the festivities of the following day, that on the night before the wedding the ' bride and bridegroom be separated by running water. On the wedding day they should meet for the first time at the altar, and nothing could be more unlucky than to meet a funeral either in going or returning. On leaving the church, the procession should be preceded by a luck-insuring married couple, and this is even of more importance than the usual piper or fiddler. On their return home, bits of bread and cheese were dropped on the newly-married pair, and for this there was a scramble, as securing a piece was to secure a good-luck charm. If the marriage be celebrated in the house, it will the more certainly ensure the young pair good fortune if, for the first time they leave the house, they make their exit by different doors.

New-Year's Day is to most people “an imaginary milestone on the turnpike track of human life,” and it ha# been said that the man who does not at least propose to himself to be better this year than he was last, must be either very good or vey bad indeed; and it might be added that the man or woman who does not desire even better luck than in any previous year must have reached a more enviable stage of contentment than any of those who practice any of the many rites for the procuring or foretelling of good luck which have grown up around the year's initial day. It is in the Highlands, as it evidently was in Ayr in the days of Bums, a happy belief that the cattle will have plenty to eat during the year if an extra sheaf of corn be given them on New Year’s morning. It was the giving of this hansel of com that inspired the poet’s well-known address of praise to his mare Maggie. The Scandinavian peasants tie a sheaf to their house tops, that the birds also may have a feast at this season.

When the Highland home was cleaned out at Hogmanay— and the cleaning at that season can only be compared to a good modem Spring cleaning—the ill-luck of the past year was supposed to be driven out, and everything was ready for a fresh start; and to prevent the powers of evil again entering, first the Bible was placed above the door during the last hours of the year, and the cat kept inside, so that if by any mishap an unlucky first-foot should dare to enter in spite of this, the evil could be got rid of by throwing out the cat, for poor pussy was supposed to be able to carry out with it all the mischief which such a person was supposed to bring in. It is not so strange that a red-haired woman should be a most unlucky first-foot, as tradition has it that Judas, the traitor, had hair of this colour, but why a flat-footed woman should be considered to bring ill-luck has not been explained, and it is probably nothing more tlifLn a coincidence which makes it unlucky for anyone to meet such a person as he first sets out on any journey. It was also best that all the members of the family, old as well as young, should have something new to wear on that day. During the rest of the year it is best, if luck is to attend while, it is being worn, that it be put on for the first time on a Sunday. In England, on the other hand, they deem it best to wear their new clothes for the first time on Easter Day, and they have a rhyme which says—

“At Easter let your clothes be new,
Or else be sure you it will rue.”

When one went out of doors on New-Year’s morning, he took particular notice as to whether the face of the first young animal he saw was towards him, for if so he might surely expect to do well, but not otherwise.

The various ways by which Highland fishermen try to get fickle fortune to step their way formed the subject of a short paper of mine, read before the Society in 1892 (Transactions, Vol. xviii., p. 42), but the following beliefs, which are quietly entertained in some places, were not referred to then. It seems that if a fisherman, on setting out for his boat, met a man whose praenomen begins with the letter D, he may expect good fortune to attend him, but if it begins with a J, then the ill-luck which is about to come can be averted only by compelling the unlucky person to spit on the big sea-boots of the forthgoing fisherman. In this way, because of their name, or some circumstance connected with them, some get the name of lucky or unlucky persons unknown to themselves. Some such are deemed so unlucky that if a fisherman meets them even on his way to bark his nets, these very nets will catch little; and it is regarded as certain that his chances of success on that trip are small, if, on first setting out, anything dead be seen, for that is, as might be expected, a weight on smiling fortune; and, to fishermen generally, a cat as a first-foot means that danger, but no serious loss, will have to be reckoned with. It is a little surprising that among a people who esteem their ministers, as fishermen and Highlanders do, that for a fisherman to have a minister aboard is to invite the tempest.' The explanation given in my previous paper seems still to be the generally received one. Tlie Mosaic law, and perhaps general experience on the other hand, has had something to do with the belief that a bridegroom is not a lucky —perhaps not a helpful—companion at sea. The bad luck pertaining to any boat having a pig as a part of a cargo is explainable by the same Jewish law.

No matter what the purpose of a journey be, the almost universal idea that it is unlucky to turn back, or to see a hare not far from the start, is honestly held by people who might have been thought to be beyond that stage. A considerable number of the many charms or omens by which the luck that is to be had on any particular journey is foreseen* is succinctly told in a paper read before the Society by Mr Mackenzie, secretary of the Crofter Commission (Transactions,Vol. xviii.).

A strange belief, which is now happily held by few, is that it is unlucky to receive back any goods which have once been stolen, and that a thief will be unlucky, and will probably go mad, if any one divulges the proof of his theft. One can only wonder whether such notions redound to the credit of Highlanders, as they have in all likelihood arisen from a notion of clannishness, and a desire to screen the guilty when plundering enemies, or practising for that purpose, and it was not desirable to cut short their career too early.

In comparing the folk-lore of luck, as that obtains in the Highlands, with the notions on the same subject held by the inhabitants of other countries, one cannot fail to be struck by the number which are common to many widely separated places, and even to peoples living in different ages. Such widely spread beliefs show that, as Sir Walter Scott says in his book on Demonology, that the influence of credulity is contagious, so that individuals will trust to the evidence of others in despite of their own senses; and Burton, in his “Anatomy of Melancholy,” says that the idea of charms being of any avail was an exploded error, but further on, when he heard of the good effects produced by a charm, which consisted of a spider shut up in a hazel nut, he says—“I began to have a better opinion of it, and to give more credit to amulets, when I saw it in some parties answer to experience.” In this way the incredulous are converted.

But lucky and unlucky omens may, and probably do, have an effect in another way. Is it not very likely that when a person has what he considers a lucky omen, he becomes possessed of that sprightliness, or verve, begotten of high hope, and works as a person expecting success does, and is therefore much more likely to obtain it, than another for whom a similar chance opens, but because something has happened which he reckons to have taken away his so-called luck, goes about the business with the half-heartedness which almost deserves, if it actually does not bring about, the evil fortune, which is then wrongly laid to the charge of the evil omens? Of such evil portends Highlanders have had plenty in the past, and therefore, if luck charms are to be believed in at all, would it not be best to multiply those which have an inspiring effect, and, if possible, diminish those which do the reverse?

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