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Old Scottish Customs
Chapter IV

The Herds’ Festival at Midlothian—Old customs in connection with Archery—The Hangman’s Right at Dumfries—The Cure for Scolds at Langholm— Customs regarding Holy wells—Curious customs at Rutherglen—The feast of Sour Cakes—Riding the Marches—Foot-Race at Biggar—Riding the Stang.

ABOUT a century ago, the 1st of August was celebrated as follows by the herds of Midlothian :—Early in summer the herds associated themselves in bands—each band proceeded to erect a tower in a central locality to serve, as a place of meeting on Lammas. The tower was built of sods; and was generally four feet in diameter at the base, and tapered towards the summit, which rose about eight feet from the ground. There was a hole in the centre for the insertion of a flag staff. The budding of the tower commenced a month before Lammas. For the space of this month one of the builders kept watch in order to prevent its being attacked by any of the rival communities. This warder was provided with a horn which he sounded in case of an assault. On the approach of Lammas each party appointed a captain. He was entrusted with the duty of bearing the standard, (a towel borrowed from some farmer’s wife) decorated with ribbons and attached to a pole. On the morning of the festival he displayed this flag on the summit of the tower. The assembled herdsmen waited under his leadership, to resist an assault of the enemy. Scouts were dispatched at intervals to ascertain whether any foe was near. When menaced by danger horns were blown, and the little army marched forth to meet the advancing enemy. At some engagements a hundred combatants would appear on each side. After a short struggle the stronger party yielded to the weaker; but there were instances in which such mimic warfare terminated in bloodshed. If no enemy appeared before the hour of noon, the garrison removed their standards and marched to the nearest village, where they concluded the day’s amusements with foot-races and other diversions.


The ancient and once royal sport of archery was much encouraged in Scotland by James I. In his reign men were required to ‘‘busk themselves archers” from the early age of twelve years. James V. presented silver arrows to the royal burghs, to which the winners in the annual competitions might affix silver medals as memorials of their skill. The Edinburgh Company of Archers is privileged to rank as the Queen’s Scottish Bodyguard. There were two kinds of archery, point blank archery, i.e., shooting at “butts,” and popinjay archery, such as that occasionally practised by the members of the Kilwinning Archery Club, and described as follows :—The ancient custom of shooting at the popinjay existed at Kilwinning as far hack as the year 1488. The popinjay is a bird known in heraldry. It was cut out of wood, fixed at the end of a pole, and placed at a distance of a hundred and twenty feet on the steeple of the Abbey. The archer who brought down the mark was honoured with the title of Captain of the Popinjay, and received a parti-coloured sash. He was master of the ceremonies for the ensuing year. He sent cards of invitation to the ladies, gave them a splendid ball, and transmitted his honours by a medal with suitable devices affixed to a silver arrow.


The following singular custom formerly existed in Dumfries:—The county hangman went through the market every market day furnished with a brass ladle or large spoon, pushed it into the mouth of every sack of meal, com, etc., and carried it off full. The small quantity of meal so abstracted was termed a “lock,” and, when spoken of, the hangman was frequently alluded to as the “lockman.” When the farmers refused any' longer to comply with this custom, the matter was brought before the law courts, and the hangman was found to have a right to the perquisite of office. In consequence of this decision, many of the farmers refused for a long time to send their meal and com to this market.


Langholm was long ago famous for an iron instrument culled the “Branks,'’ which fitted upon the head of a shrewish female, and projecting a sharp spike into her mouth, effectually silenced the organ of speech. It was formerly customary for husbands who were afflicted with scolding wives, to subject their heads to this instrument, and lead them through the town, exposed to the laughter and reproaches of the people. Tradition affirms that the discipline never failed to effect a complete reformation. “The Branks,” so Dr. Platt observes, “was much to be preferred to the ducking stool, which not only endangered the health of the patient, but gave the tongue liberty between each dip.”


The remedial qualities of certain wells were, it would appear, well known to the ancients. The Roman and Greek physicians were familiar with their efficacy. The Orientals again attributed the cures effected by their means to supernatural agency. Our own heathen forefathers believed that wells were originally constructed by demons or devils for the destruction of mankind, but that the Saints had interfered to prevent their malignant design, and by their prayers had succeeded in transforming what was formerly intended to prove a curse into an inestimable blessing. In many instances, however, the ancient worship of Neith, the Goddess of Waters, was accountable for the reverence in which certain reputed wells were formerly held by the populace; and after the Reformation a clerical raid was instituted against the so-styled “ heathenish well worship.”

There were formerly three wells in the parish of Culsalmond, St. Mary’s Well on the farm of Calpie, St. Michael’s at Gateside, and another at the foot of the Culsalmond bank, a little to the west of the Lady’s Causeway. On the first Sunday of May, multitudes resorted to them from distant parts, in the full belief that by washing in the stream and leaving presents to the saints, as their heathen ancestors did to the spirits presiding over the well, they would be cured of their diseases. Pieces of money were always left in the water corresponding to the circumstances of the afflicted persons. Some time ago while digging a drain at the foot of the bank, the workman stuck his pick into the back of the well which had been there; a large quantity of water sprung up into the air, in which he observed a shining substance. This proved on inspection to be a gold piece of James I. of Scotland as perfect as when it came from the mint.


The ancient town of Rutherglen was long famous throughout the country, for the singular custom of baking what was called sour cakes” about eight or ten days before St. Luke’s fair—for they were baked at no other time in the year. A certain quantity of meal was made into dough with warm water, and laid up in a vessel to ferment. Being brought to a proper degree of fermentation and consistency, it was rolled up into balls proportionable to the intended size of the cakes. With the dough there was commonly mixed a small quantity of sugar and a little anise seed or cinnamon. The baking was executed by women only, and they seldom began their work till after sunset, and a night or two before the fair. A large space of the house chosen for the purpose, was marked out by a line drawn upon it. The area within it was considered consecrated ground, and was not to be touched by any of the bystanders with impunity. Every trespasser paid a small fine, which was always laid out in liquor for the use of the company.

This hallowed spot was occupied by six or eight women, all of whom, except the toaster, seated themselves on the ground in a circular form having their feet turned towards the fire. Each of them was provided with a bake-board, about two feet square, which they held on their knees. The woman who toasted the-cakes, which she did on an iron plate suspended over the fire, was called the queen or bride, and the others were styled her maidens. These were distinguished from one another by names given them for the occasion. She who sat next the fire towards the east was called todler. Her companion on the left hand was called the hodler And the rest had arbitrary names given them by the bride, as Mrs. Baker, best and worst maids, etc.

The operation was begun by the todler, who took a ball, formed it into a small cake, and then cast it on the bakeboard of the hodler, who beat it out a little thinner. This being done, she in her turn threw it on the board of her neighbour, and thus it went round from east to west, in the direction of the suns course, until it came to the toaster, by which time it was as thin as a piece of paper. Sometimes the cake was so thin as to be carried by the air up the chimney.

As the baking was wholly performed by the hand a great deal of noise was the consequence. The beats, however, were not irregular nor destitute of an agreeable harmony, especially when they were accompanied with vocal music, which was frequently the case. Great dexterity was necessary not only to beat out the cakes with no other implements than the hand so that no part of the cake should be thicker than another, but especially to east them on each other’s boards without ruffling or breaking them.

The toaster required considerable skill, for which reason the most experienced person in the company was chosen for that part of the work. One cake was sent round in quick succession to another, so that none of the company were suffered to remain idle. The scene was one of activity, mirth, and diversion.

As there is no account even handed down by tradition respecting the origin of this custom it must be very ancient. The bread thus baked was doubtless never meant for human use. It is difficult to conceive how mankind, especially in a rude age, would strictly observe so many ceremonies, and take such great pains in making a cake which, when folded together, made but a small mouthful. Besides it was always given away in presents to strangers who frequented the fair.

The custom seems originally to have been derived from paganism, and to contain not a few of the sacred rites peculiar to that impure belief: such as the leavened dough, and the mixing it with sugar and spices ; the consecrated ground, etc. But the particular deity for whose use these cakes were first made, is-not easy to determine. Probably it was no other than the one known in scripture (Jer. v. ii. 18.) by the name of the Queen of Heaven, and to whom cakes were likewise kneaded by women. This custom is now obsolete.

Besides baking sour cakes it was formerly the practice to prepare salt roasts for St. Luke’s fair. Till of late years almost every house in Rutherglen was furnished with dozens of them. They were the chief articles of provisions asked for by strangers who frequented the fair.


The Biding of the Marches is an ancient “burghal celebration,” and was very requisite when written documents were in constant danger of being destroyed. In former times lands had been bestowed by the sovereign on most of the towns where the ceremony was and is still observed. The boundaries of such possessions came to be determined by processions, etc.; and although in the course of time these lands passed into other hands, the old custom of “marking the boundaries” in accordance with the ancient fashion was still retained. At Rutherglen the ceremony was performed in the following manner :—The Magistrates with a considerable number of the Council and inhabitants assembled at the Cross, from which they proceeded in martial order with drums beating; and in that manner went round the boundaries of the Royalty to see if any encroachments had been made upon them. These boundaries were distinguished by march-stones set up at some little distance from each other. In some places there were two rows about seven feet apart. The stones were shaped at the top like a man’s head, but the lower part was square. This peculiar figure was originally intended to represent the god Terminus, of whom there were formerly so many rude representations.

It was a custom from time immemorial for the riders of the marches to dress their hats and drums with broom, and to combat with one another at the newly erected stone, out of respect perhaps to the deity whose image they had set up, or that they might the better remember the precise boundaries at that place. This part of the ceremony was afterwards postponed till the survey was over and the company had returned to the Cross, when, having previously provided themselves with broom, they had a mock engagement, and fought seemingly with great fury till their weapons failed them, when they parted in good fellowship.


In the parish of Biggar there were formerly held three fairs,—Candlemas fair, Midsummer fair, luad the old Biggar fair, held on the last Thursday of October O.S. On the evening previous to the Midsummer fair, it was formerly the custom for the Baron Bailie to advertise that a foot race would be run along the streets, and that a pair of gloves would be the prize. It was also an ancient custom, and one which frequently caused much rioting and confusion, to throw out a football.

The young men immediately divided themselves into two parties. The ball, which was made of leather stuffed with wool, was thrown up at the Cross in the centre of the town. The party who could kick the ball, in spite of their antagonists, to the other end of the village, were the victors. No prize was awarded in this contest.

In connection with Biggar, Forsyth in his “Beauties of Scotland,” relates that “here as well as in other places in Scotland a very singular practice is at times, though very rarely, revived. This is called “Biding the Stang.” When any husband was known to beat his wife, and when this offence was long continued, while the wife’s character was known to be spotless, the indignation of the neighbourhood becoming gradually greater, at length bruke out in the following manner. All the women entered into a conspiracy to execute vengeance on the culprit. Having fixed on a particular day for the prosecution of their design, they suddenly assembled in a great crowd and seized the offending party, they taking care at the same time to provide a stout beam of wood upon which they set him astride, and bore him aloft, his legs tied beneath. He was then carried in derision through the village attended by the hootings, scoffings, and hisses of his numerous attendants, who pulled down his legs so as to render his position a very uneasy one. The grown up men in the meantime remained at a distance and avoided interfering in the matter. It was lucky for the culprit at the conclusion of the ceremony if a ducking was not added to the rest of the punishment. The origin of this custom is unknown.

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