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Old Scottish Customs
Chapter I

Introductory—The Beltane Customs—Origin of many Scottish Customs to a great extent unknown —Holy Wells—Water Spirits—The Father of Northern Magic—Fancy's land—The Study of Old Customs.

WITH the lapse of time many of our national and local customs which for so long a period, retained a firm and apparently lasting hold on the affections of the Scottish peasantry, have fallen into unmerited neglect. A similar fate has also overtaken those superstitious rites and observances so closely interwoven with our early national life—so tenaciously adhered to by our rude forefathers, even when the pure light of Christianity had dawned upon our northern shores, and still clung to when the gentle St. Ninian was proclaiming his glorious message amidst the wilds of Galloway, and when Columba and his disciples had planted the cross, where for centuries had stood the proud monoliths of Paganism on the sea-girt isle of Iona.

Fortunately for those who are desirous of enlightenment, on the subject of our ancient Scottish manners and customs; even in this so styled “restlessly progressive age,” Scotland has her students of antiquities, who by their unwearied labours in the rich fields of antiquarian research, have obtained for us most valuable information in regard to these and other curious and interesting facts connected with our past history as a people. Our learned and devoted antiquaries have, as it were, taken up the glass of time and turned it backward with reverend hands to the dim twilight of history, restoring to us much that had seemed for ever lost, or that had been rendered unreal and shadowy by the mists of successive generations.

Thus, across the centuries that lie between, we seem to see the lurid Baal fires blazing from the summits of our mountain peaks, the commemorative Beltane customs, with their attendant mysteries. The countless pilgrimages made to our reputed holy and life-giving wells; and the dwellers on lone Orcadian shores, invoking the spirit of the storm, and offering up sacrifices to their heathen deities.

It is much to be regretted that while our older local customs and superstitions, connected with these very early and later times, have carefully been taken note of, in the generality of cases little account of their supposed origin has been given us. In all probability such was unknown to the actors themselves, and the bakers of the “dumb cakes” at Rutherglen, in common with the herdsmen and shepherds who kindled their fire and drank their caudle on Beltane day, were ignorant of the real nature of the mysterious practices in which they were engaged. In the words of Miss Gordon Cumming, “Though the old customs are still retained, their original meaning is entirely forgotten; and the man who throws a live peat after a woman about to increase the population, and he who on Hallowe’en throws a lighted brand over one shoulder without looking at whom he aims, little dreams whence sprang these time-honoured incidents.”

The Beltane or Bel tein [Bel, in Gaelic, signifies sun; and teirt, fire) customs are believed to have had their origin in those heathen times, when our ancestors worshipped Baal the Sun god, and Ashtoreth,

“Astarte, queen of heaven,”

with certain mystic observances chiefly connected with fire. In druidical times four great fire-festivals were held at different periods of the year; namely, on the eve of May day, or Spring; on Midsummer’s eve; on Hallowe’en, hence our Hallowe’en bonfires ; and at Yule, the mid-winter feast.

The eve of May day still retains its name of Beltane or Beltein, and formerly, as we have already observed, it was a day set apart by the herdsmen and others of the Scottish peasantry, for the celebration of such time-honoured observances as were deemed suitable to the occasion, such as digging a hole on a hill top and lighting a fire therein; then lots are cast, and he on whom the lot falls, must leap seven times over the fire, while the young folks dance round in a circle. Then they cook their eggs and cakes, and all sit down to eat and drink and rise up to play.

Water as well as fire was anciently held in great reverence by our druidical ancestors, and the homage paid to wells and springs in great measure owed its origin to the worship of Neith or Nait, the goddess of waters. Pennant, when in Skye found traces of four temples erected in memory of this popular deity.

There were numerous Holy wells in the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland, which were much resorted to in cases of sickness by the more superstitious of the peasantry, and even yet in certain remote districts the old superstition still lingers. The benefits supposed to be derived from draughts of the sparkling waters varied in character. Certain fountains proved efficacious when the eye-sight was affected; others such as St. Fillans and Strathill, Perthshire, were resorted to in cases of insanity; a spring near Ayr cured King Robert Bruce of his leprosy; that of Tobar-na-donhernid was believed to denote whether a sick person would overcome his complaint; one loch in Ross-shire is said to cure deafness, and so on. Water drawn from under a bridge “o’er which the living walked and the dead were carried,” as well as south-running water, were reputed to possess wonderful properties. Those pilgrims who frequented wells for healing purposes, made votive-offerings to the guardian spirit of the water, or to the saints to whom they were dedicated. These generally consisted of pieces of cloth, thread, and other such simple materials —occasionally a small coin was deposited in the fountain. If trees and bushes grew in the immediate neighbourhood of these Siloams, to the branches of these the gifts were attached.

Well worship in common with witchcraft and sorcery was sternly prohibited in some instances by the early fathers of the Church. In A.D. 1182, St. Anselm in England forbade the superstitious practice, and so late as 1638 the General Assembly of Scotland waged a determined warfare against it and other idolatrous observances, as instanced by the following:—persons “found superstitiously to have passed in pilgrimage to Christ’s Well (near Doune, Perthshire) on the Sundays of May to seek their health, that they shall repent in sacco (sackcloth) and linen three several Sabbaths, and pay twenty lib. (Pounds Scots) to ties quoties for ilk fault.” In 1632, the Kirk-Session of Auchterhouse dealt with a woman for carrying her child to a well in May.

The old superstitions once so common in the Orkney and Shetland Islands have in a great measure disappeared, but formerly the belief in witchcraft was almost universal, instances have occurred even at the end of last century. Hill spirits, kirk spirits, and water spirits, were held responsible for sickness and divers other misfortunes. “Trows’' inhabited Trolhouland—the hill of demons or Trows and within its recesses had their abodes, whose walls were dazzling with gold and silver. Brownies were the inmates of houses, and at night had tables placed for them in the barn where they slept, covered with bread, butter, cheese, and ale, while charms for killing sparrows that destroyed the early com, expelling rats and mice from houses, for success in brewing and churning, procuring good luck, curing diseases of cattle and human beings, were in constant use. These and other superstitious beliefs, says a local writer, have been imported into Shetland in very early times. The same writer also tells us that these can be traced to the earliest period of our history, and that nowhere else in Scotland, excepting the remoter Hebrides, have they maintained their ground so long as in the popular creed of Shetland. This author styles Odin the preceptor if not the father of northern magic, and thinks that it was the early connexion of Orkney and Shetland with Scandinavia, and the belief in Odin which made the ancient inhabitants acquainted with the arts and mysteries embodied in the wild mythology of the northern peoples.

This once dread Odin—the Scandinavian sun-god—seems to have been a great magician. He instructed his subjects in the charms which rendered their weapons invincible in battle. He had two familiar spirits in the shape of ravens who sat on his shoulder and informed him of everything that went on ,n the outer world. These ravens, in the superstitious belief of the people, appear to have survived the days of paganism, and have figured in our trials for witchcraft during last century. Odin had also his messengers or handmaidens, the valkyries, who travelled through the air and over seas mounted on swift winged horses, with drawn swords, in order to select the particular mortals destined to die in battle, and to conduct them to Valhalla, the paradise of warriors. Odin is supposed to have stated that he knew a song of such marvellous power, that were he caught in a storm he could hush the winds and make the air perfectly calm.

An oath by Odin was formerly deemed legal as well as sacred. In some parts of Orkney it was the custom for all young couples meditating matrimony to go by moonlight to the Standing Stones of Stenness, known as the Temple of Odin, whom the woman, kneeling on the ground, must invoke. The lovers afterwards plighted their troth by clasping hands through the perforated stone of Odin. In the course of last century the elders of the local church punished a faithless lover because he had broken the promise thus made.

Notwithstanding all that has been written and said against our once popular beliefs, and in spite of “the ban of kirk and school,”

“There’s something in that ancient superstition,
Which, erring as it is, our fancy loves,”

and the superstitions connected with our Highlands and Islands have found favour with the poet as well as furnished fertile fields for antiquarian discussion.

Who knows not Collins’ beautiful lines :—

“’Tis Fancy’s land to which thou sett’st thy feet,
Where still, ’tis said, the fairy people meet
Beneath each birken shade on mead or hill.
There each trim lass that skims the milky store
To the swart tribes their creamy bowl allots;
By night they sip it round the cottage door,
While airy minstrels warble jocund notes.
There every herd by 8ad experience knows
How wing’d with fate their elf-shot arrows fly
When the sick ewe her summer food foregoes,
Or, stretched on earth, the heart-smote heifers lie.
Such airy beings awe the untutored swain.

’Tis thine to sing how, framing hideous spells,
In Skye’s lone isle the gifted wizard seer
Lodged in the wintry cave which Fate’s fell spear,
Or in the depth of Unst’s dark forest dwells.
How they whose sight such dreamy dreams engross,
With their own visions oft astonished droop
When o’er the watery strath or quaggy moss
They see the gliding ghosts unbodied troop;
Or, if in sport, or on the festive green,
Their destined glance some gifted youth descry
Who now perhaps in In sty vigour seen
And rosy health, shall soon lamented die.
For them the viewless forms of air obey,
Their bidding heed, and at their beck repair;
They know what spirit brews the stormful day,
And heartless oft like moody madness stare
To see the phantom trains their secret work prepare.
These filled in olden time the historic page,
When Shakespeare’s self, with ivy-garland crowned,
Flew to these fairy climes, his fancy sheen
In musing hour; his wayward sisters found,
And with their terrors dressed the magic scene.
From them he sung when ’mid his bold design
Before the soul afflicted and aghast
The shadowy Kings of Banquo’s fated line
Through the dark cave in gleamy pageant passed.
Yet frequent now at midnight’s solemn hour
The rifted mounds their yawning cells unfold
And forth the monarchs stalk with sovereign power,
In pageant robes and wreathed with sheeny gold,
And on their twilight tombs aerial council hold.”

Dean Ramsay has left a charming and truthful record of old Scottish life and manners, chiefly in the upper classes of society and derived from accessible sources; but the student of history or of antiquities who wishes to obtain an insight into our traditions and superstitions, as well as the local customs and usages of humble life, has an exceedingly wide and varied field for investigation, and abundance of encouragement to prosecute the search. A search regarding which, it may be said, little more than a beginning has been made, much that as yet is but imperfectly understood will be fully explained at some future time.

From personal acquaintance with Scottish social life, and by consulting numerous literary' authorities, the editor of the present unpretending volume has sought to deal with the subject in a brief and interesting manner If successful in, to some extent, drawing greater attention to our fast dying out customs and usages, the faults of a book, necessarily brief and fragmentary may be overlooked in the interest of the subject. The record of these customs is more than a matter of antiquarian curiosity, for it may help to throw light upon the life and the literature of Scotland in bygone days, and surely everything that enables us to understand our forefathers better is to be commended, and ought to be regarded as highly instructive.

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