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Old Scottish Customs
Chapter VI

Carters’ Plays at Liberton—Superstitions in connection with St. Catherine’s Well—Old customs at Musselburgh-—Riding the Marches again—Lanark and Linlithgow—The Polwarth Thorn—Gretna Green Marriages—Curious Land Tenure Customs— Traditions regarding Macduff’s Cross—Singular customs regarding Licensed Beggars in Scotland.


THE only customs peculiar to Liberton were what were called “Carters’ Plays.” The carters had friendly societies for the purpose of supporting each other in old age, and in times of sickness. With the view partly of securing a day’s recreation, and partly of recruiting their members and friends they used to have annual ffites, when every man decorated his cart horse with flowers and ribbons, and a regular procession was formed, accompanied by a band of music, through this and some of the neighbouring parishes. To crown all, there was an uncouth race with cart-horses on the public road. The day’s festivities ended in a dinner, for which iv fixed sum was paid.

At St. Catherine’s in the parish there is a famous well known as the Balm, Well. Black oily substances continually float on the surface of its water. However many you may remove they still appear as numerous as before. In ancient times a sovereign virtue was supposed to reside in this well, and it was customary for persons afflicted with cutaneous complaints to partake of its waters. The nuns of the Sciennes made an annual pilgrimage to it in honour of St. Catherine. King James VI. visited it in 1617, and ordered it to be properly enclosed, and provided with a door and staircase, but it was destroyed and filled up by Cromwell’s soldiers in 1650. It has again been opened and repaired, and is still in a state of preservation.


When shooting at the “Butts” was a popular pastime in Scotland, the company of Archers at Edinburgh had a silver arrow presented to them by the Corporation of Musselburgh, to be shot for annually. Ths victor received £1 10s. and a dozen of claret from the town, and was bound to attach a medal of gold or silver to the arrow before the next year’s annual meeting. This arrow had a series of such medals affixed to it from 1G05 onwards, with the single exception of the memorable ’45.


As in many other places, the ancient feudal system of “Riding the Marches,” was observed here once in fifty years. The riders, seven incorporated trades, each headed by its captain, followed in the train of the magistrates and town council. This formidable cavalcade was preceded by the town officers with their ancient Brabant spurs, and a champion armed cap-a-pie. A gratuity was allowed to a minstrel who attended at the succeeding feast, and recited in verses the glories of the pageant. In “Scotland, Social and Domestic,” which was published in 1869, Dr. Charles Rodgers wi’ites that the burghs of Lanark and Linlithgow preserved this ancient practice with all the ceremony of former times. Though described elsewhere in connection with another locality, we may give the following as further illustrating this interesting ceremony. At the former place, after those who have joined in the diversions for the first time have been tumbled over and drenched in the “ducking-hole,” the procession next marches to the plantations of Jerviswoode and Cleghorn, when the youths exit boughs from the birch trees, with which they proceed through the streets in boisterous mirth. They finally assemble at the Cross, where, under a statue reared to the memory of Wallace, they sing “Scots wha hae.” The juvenile celebration terminates at noon. The magistrates and town council now appear at the Cross, attended by the town’s drummer on horseback. A procession is formed, which, after inspecting the marches, enters the race-ground, then amidst demonstrations of merriment from the assembled multitude, a race is run for a pair of spurs. The proceedings terminate in a banquet in the County Hall.

The celebration at Linlithgow :s similar in character to the above. The sovereign’s health is drunk at the Cross, when the glasses are drained off they are tossed among the crowd. A procession is formed, the members of the Corporation seated in carriages take the lead. Then follow the trades bearing banners,—the farm-servants of the neighbourhood mounted and displaying from their bonnets a profusion of ribands, bring up the rear. After a inarch of several miles the procession returns to the Cross, whence the different bodies proceed to their favourite taverns to dedicate the evening to socia' mirth.

“That ev’ry man might keep his owne possessions,
Our fathers us’d in reverent processions
(With zealous prayers, and with praisefull cheere),
To walke their parish-Iimits once a yeare;
And well-knowne marks (which sacrilegious hands
Now cut or breake) so bord’red out their lands,
That ev’ry one distinctly knew his owne ;
And many brawles, now rife, were then unknowne.”


The estate of Polwarth formerly belong, d to Sinclair of Herinandston, whose family, so far back as the fifteenth century, terminated in co-heiresses. Out of their numerous suitors Marieta and Margaret Sinclair preferred the sons of their powerful neighbour, Horae of Wedderburn. On the death of the young ladies’ father they were taken care of by an uncle, who, anxious to pravent their marrying that he himself might heir their estates, immured them in his castle somewhere in Lothian. However, his fair captives contrived to get a letter transmitted to their lovers by means of an old beggar woman, and they were soon gratified by the sight of the gallant youths accompanied by a goodly band of Mersemen before the gate of their prison. Their uncle remonstrated and resisted in vain. His nieces were taken from him and carried off in triumph to Polwarth. They were speedily united in marriage to their lovers, and part of the nuptial rejoicings consisted in a merry dance round the thorn tree which then grew in the centre of the village.

The lands of Polwarth were thus divided between the two houses, and while George, the eldest son carried on the line of the Wedderburn family, Patrick was the founder of the branch afterwards enobled by the title of Marchmont.

In commemoration of so remarkable an aifair, marriage parties danced round, the “Polwarth thorn.”

"At Polwart on the Green
If you’ll meet me the morn
When lasses do convene
To dance around the thorn.

“At Polwart on the Green
Among the new mown hay
With songs and dancing there
We’ll pass the heartsome day.”

This custom, which continued in force for several centuries, is now in disuse partly through the fall of the original tree. About fifty years ago, however, the party that attended a paying, or “Penny Wedding,” danced round the little enclosure where formerly stood the familiar tree, to the tune of “Polwarth on the Green,” having previously pressed into their service an old woman, about the last who had seen weddings thus celebrated, to show them the manner of the dance.


The parish of Gretna has long been famous in the annals of matrimonial adventures for the marriages of fugitive lovers from England, which have been celebrated here. The persons who followed this irregular practice were impostors who had no right whatever to exercise any part of the clerical functions. The greatest part of the trade was monopolised by a man who was originally a tobacconist, named Paisley, and not a blacksmith, as was for some time supposed. In former times so great was the number of marriages solemnized here, that this traffic brought in an income of nearly a thousand per annum to the officiating parties—the form of ceremony when any such was made use of, was that of the church of Scotland. On these occasions, when the person happened to be intoxicated, which was not unfrequentlv the case, a certificate only was given. The following is a copy of one of those certificates in the original spelling :—

“This is to sartfay all persons that may be concerned, that A. B. from the parish of C. and in county of D., and E. F. from the parish of G. and in the county of H. both comes before me and declayred themselves to be single persons, and was mayried by the form of the Kirk of Scotland, and agreeble to the Church of England, and givine ondre my hand this 18th day of March, 1793.”

Paisley’s terms for tying the mystical knot varied according to the rank and circumstances of the parties who claimed his services. A noggin (two gills of brandy) sufficed as a fee from poor people. Curious to relate, this arch-imposter prosecuted his illegal trade for nearly half a century.


There are very many exceeding curious and interesting customs in Scotland in connection with land tenures. We give a few instances as illustrative of the subject in general. An ancient foot-race, in connection with Camwath fair, forms one of the tenures by which the property of Camwath is held by the Lockhart family. The prize was a pair of red hose: these were regularly contested for. In former years the laird used to have a messenger in readiness, whenever the race was finished, to communicate the intelligence to the Lord Advocate of Scotland.

The Barony of Pennicuik, the property of Sir George Clerk, Bart., is held by the following singular tenure: The proprietor is bound to sit upon a large rock, called the Buckstone, and wind three blasts of a horn when the king comes to hunt on the Borough Moor near Edinburgh. On account of this singular custom the family have adopted as their crest a demi-forester proper, winding a horn with the motto, Free for a blast.

The family of Morrison of Braehead in Midlothian, held their lands under the service of presenting a silver ewer, basin, and towel, for the king to wash his hands when he shall happen to pass the bridge of Cramond. The heir of Braehead discharged his duty at the banquet given to George the 4th, in the Parliament House in Edinburgh, in 1822.

The tenure by which the Sprotts of Urr hold their lands, is their presenting butter brose in King Robert's Bowl to any of the Kings of Scotland who happen to pass the Urr.

On a small island not far from Kilchurn Castle there are the remains of a ruined fortress. In 1267, this little demesne with its castle, and some adjoining lands were granted by King Alexander III., to Gilbert M'Naughten, the chief of the clan, on condition that he entertained the king whenever he passed that way.

The tenure by which the Marquis of Tweeddale holds his feus in Gifford, parish of Yes-ter, is as follows—“Each feuar should attend the Marquis of Tweeddale the space of two days yearly sufficiently mounted with horse and arms, upon his own proper charges and expenses, when he sail be desired to do the samen;” also that he should attend other two days at the Marquis’s expenses, “should ride at two fairs yearly at Giiford,” and perform a day or days work yearly for winnowing of hay in the parks of Yester.

Tradition represents Macduff’s Cross as erected in consequence of a privilege granted by Malcolm III., to his faithful friend Macduff, thane of Fife, to the effect that any one within the ninth degree of kindred to him who might commit a deadly crime should attain a sanctuary at this cross. When an individual claimed the privilege he was obliged to bring nine cows and bind them to as many rings in the pedestal of the cross, and also to wash himself free of the blood at a set of springs in the neighbourhood, known by the name of the nine wells.


The Poor Law has removed many ancient usages, but at no very remote period the magistrates and church session of Montrose met at a particular time of the year, and gave out badges to such as they knew to be under the necessity of begging. These licensed beggars went through the towns on the first of every month, but were not allowed to beg at any other time, nor could they go beyond the bounds of the parish. Fortunately, however, the good people of Montrose were so liberal in their donations to the applicants for aid that these did not require assistance from any public funds except when incapacitated from begging by sickness.

There formerly existed other mendicants, known as the “Gaberlunzia" or travelling beggar, and the King’s Bedesmen or Blue Gowns. The number of this latter and higher class of privileged beggars corresponded with the years of the king’s life. They received annually a cloak of coarse blue cloth, a pewter badge, and a leathern purse containing some “Pennies Sterling,” the amount of which varied with the age of the sovereign. Sir Walter Scott, in his beautiful novel of the Antiquary, introduces the reader to one of this venerable confraternity in the person of Edie Ochiltree.

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