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Old Scottish Customs
Chapter VIII

Interesting Hand-ball custom in Perthshire—Old custom in connection with Scottish Coronations—The Game of Shinty at Roseneath—Playing Football on Sunday—Christmas Sports in Aberdeenshire —Festive Games at Cullen—Marriage and Funeral Customs at Knockando—Superstitious customs in connection with the Dhu Loch—The Well of Lorretta at Musselburgh—Chapman’s Festival at Preston— Cock-fighting at Westruther—The Wapin-sliaw at Perth—Horse-racing at Perth in Olden Times — The Mount of Peace — Holy-wells at Muthill.


AN annual custom used to prevail at Scone, for the bachelors and married men, to draw themselves up at the Cross of Scone, on opposite sides. A ball was then thrown up, and they played from the hour of two until sunset. The game was played after this fashion. The person who succeeded in catching the ball ran with it till overtaken by one or more of the opposite party. If able to shake himself free from his captors he ran on. If not he threw the ball from him, unless it was wrested out of his hands. No person was allowed to kick it. The object of the married men was to hang the ball, i.e., to put it three times in a hole in the moor—the dool or limit on the one hand. That of the bachelors was to drown it, i.e., to dip it three times in a deep pool in the river—the boundary on the other. The party who could achieve this feat won the game. If neither party proved victorious the ball was cut equally asunder at sunset. This custom is supposed to have originated in the days of chivalry. An Italian is said to have com& into this part of the country challenging all the parishes, which were to undergo a certain penalty should they decline his challenge. Scone was the only one that accepted it. Proving victorious, in commemoration of their victory, the game was substituted. Whilst the custom continued every mai. in the parish, the gentlemen not excepted, was obliged to be out and support the side to which he belonged : and the person who neglected to-perform his duty on that occasion had to submit to a fine. This custom being attended with some inconveniences, it was abandoned many years ago.


Between sixty and seventy yards north from the eminence where the ancient Scottish kings were crowned at Scone, is a place vulgarly called Boot Hill. It is likewise called, Omnis Terra, or, every man’s land. The tradition of the people of the parish, concerning Boot Hill, is, that at the coronation of a king, every man who assisted brought so much earth in his boots, that cach might see the king crowned on his own land ; and that afterwards, they cast the earth out of their boots upon this hill, whereby it obtained the name of Boot Hill, and Omnis Terra.


In the prettily situated parish of Roseneath, Dumbartonshire, New Year’s day was anciently observed with great festivities. For weeks previously, the youths of the district, prepared for the grand annual game of shinty. And in one of the fields adjoining the church, hundreds of people assembled with music and banners, either to witness, or to join in the contest.


In the good old times, the parishioners of Menzie, were in the habit of assembling upon the green on Sunday morning, to play at football. On these occasions, their clergyman, Mr. Chalmers, who experienced great difficulty in getting his people to attend church, occasionally took part with them in the game. He thus gained their affections, and in a short time, prevailed upon them to attend him to church, and to listen to his instructions.


At Yule-tide, the Strathdonians, observed the festive season, with prize-shootings, and subscription danc3s. These were generally got up for charitable purposes. They were •set on foot for the relief of some case of poverty, or distress in the neighbourhood ; and thus, at the cost of a few pence to each individual, a large sum was raised for the benefit of the needy family. Another charitable custom prevailed. When any singular and melancholy case of distress occurred, the young men in this pariah, assembled together, and, frequently accompanied by music, went to each house, where they received a donation, either of food or money.

Formerly football was a favourite amusement with persons of every age in the parish of Monymusk; and parties came from other districts to take part in it. “The Monymusk Christmas ba-ing,” with its various mischances has been celebrated in a humorous poem, by the Rev. John Skinner, Grandfather of the present Bishop of Aberdeen.

“The hurry-burry now began
Was right weel worth the seeing,
Wi' routs and raps frae man to man
Some getting and some gieing.
And a' the tricks o’ fut and hand
That ever was in being;
Sometimes the ba’ a yirdlins ran,
Sometimes in air was fleeing
Fu’ heigh that day.

How ne’er in Monymusk been seen
Sae mony weel-beft skins;
Of a’ the ba’men there was nane
But had twa bloody shins;
Wi’ strenzied shutters many ane
Dree’d penance for their sins,
And what was warst, scouped hame at e’en
May be to hungry inns
And cauld that day.


At the winter festivals of Hallowe’en, Christmas, and other holidays at Cullen, the younger portion of the community used to resort to the sands and links of the Bay of Cullen, for the purpose of playing football, running races, throwing the hammer, playing bowls, etc. They left the town in procession preceded by the pipes and other music, and were attended by numbers from the adjacent districts. These games were keenly contested, and the victor was crowned with a bonnet adorned with feathers and ribbons, previously prepared by the ladies. At the conclusion of the games the whole party danced on the green with great merriment. After which the procession was again formed, and returned to the town, the victor, preceded by the music, leading the way. A ball took place in the evening, at which he presided, with the privilege of wearing his bonnet and feather. The bowls were played by rolling or throwing a cannon ball, and he who could with the fewest strokes send it beyond a mark at the further end of the link, was declared the victor. A man being on one occasion killed while playing at this game, the magistrates caused it to be discontinued.

The ancient festivities of Harvest Home, Hallowe’en, and Brose-day, were formerly observed in the above-mentioned parish. Here the farmers carefully preserved their cattle against witchcraft by placing boughs of the mountain ash, and honeysuckle, within cowhouses on the second of May. They hoped to preserve the milk of their cows, and their wives from miscarriage, by tying red threads* round them. They bled the supposed witch to preserve themselves from her charms. They visited the wells of Spey and Drucholdy when afflicted with disease, offering small pieces of money, etc.


One of the customs at Knockando was for the married women generally to retain their maiden names in preference to assuming those of their husbands. Another strange custom was that the father, who should attend as chief mourner, was seldom present at the funeral of his eldest child. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, were the common days for weddings to take place; the common people having- some superstitious notions regarding Mondays and Fridays.


There used to be a small Loch called the Dow, Dhu, or Black Loch, which was reputed to possess extraordinary virtue in the healing of diseases. It seems to have been looked upon as a perpetual Bethesda, for its waters were reputed to be efficacious in the cure of every disease, but especially of cattle subjected to the spells of witchcraft. It was not necessary that the person ailing should himself visit the loch. A deputy was employed, who had to obey certain rules. He had to carry a part of the dress of the invalid, or of the furniture of the person bewitched as an offering to the spirit of the loch. When the messenger reached Dow Loch, he had to draw water in a vessel which had never touched the ground, to turn himself round with the sun, and to throw his offering to the spirit over his left shoulder—formalities all indicative of Druidical origin. In carrying the water away to the sick person or animal, the messenger may not look back, and, like the prophet’s servant, the man was to salute no person by the way.

In the days of superstition great virtue was attached to water drawn from under a bridge along which the living walked and the dead were carried.


In a churchyard on Loch Torridon there is a well where, it used to be said, from time immemorial three stones have been perpetually whirling round and round. All kinds of sickness and disease have been cured by carrying one of these stones in a bucket of water to the invalid, who was only required to touch the stone to be restored to health. Its mission accomplished, the Talisman was restored to its place, when it commenced whirling as before. But, alas ! one of these henling stones now lies quietly at the bottom of the well, refusing any longer to whirl like the others, simply because a woman, great in her faith, once took it home with her to perform a cure on her sick goat.


The long celebrated chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Loretto, stood beyond the eastern gate of Musselburgh, in Midlothian, on the margin of the links. But we have no authentic accounts as to the time of its erection. Pilgrimages from all parts of Scotland were performed to this shrine, which was connected, it is supposed, with the Nunnery of Sciennes, in the northern district -of Edinburgh. Expectant mothers sent handsome presents of money accompanying their child-bed linen, which latter was consecrated, for a good fee, to promote their safe delivery and recovery. The celebrity of this place was increased by a hermit, who inhabited a cell adjoining the chapel. So successful was he believed to be in the performance of miracles, that, at the commencement of the sixteenth century, it was esteemed the most noted shrine in Scotland. King James V. performed a pilgrimage from Stirling to it, ere he sailed for France, to woo and win his future queen. The materials of the discredited and ruined chapel, are said to have been the first belonging to any sacred edifice after the Reformation, devoted to any secular purpose. They were employed in the erection of the present town gaol. For this piece of sacrilege, it is said, the inhabitants of Musselburgh were annually excommunicated at Rome, till the end of the last century.


At Preston, in a garden on the opposite side of the road from the castls gardens, stands the ancient village cross. Annually at the beginning of July, it was formerly the scene of much innocent mirth and merrymaking. As if in obedience to some enchanter’s wand, a large crowd suddenly encircled the solitary pillar, and exchanged friendly greetings and good wishes. This was doubtless a continuation of some ancient custom; and as this cross is, or was, the property of the chapmen (pedlars) of the Lothians, having been acquired by them in olden times, it is supposed by some antiquarians that the company referred to, were representatives of that ancient and respectable fraternity. The so styled chapman was in former times a most useful member of society. In the country districts, when roads were bad, towns distant, and means of communication with them rare, his appearance was generally greeted with delight. The better class of these itinerant merchants pursued their journeys on horseback, conveying their merchandise on pack saddles. The chapman or pedlar, is not now so frequently met with in Scotland.


In the days of cock-fighting, and other equally barbarous sports, the school-boys of Westruther were accustomed to amuse themselves with cock-fighting on Fastern’s eve—each bringing a cock trained for the purpose, and the victor hi the conquest had, besides the honour of the conquest, the burden imposed upon him of paying for a football, which ended the sport of the day. This barbarous amusement with which Fastem’s eve was ushered in, was discontinued about 1S40. The more innocent football game, so closely connected with it, was also gradually relinquished. The matches often consisted of more than an hundred on each side. Sometimes the whole parish turned out, but generally the battle was fought between the married and unmarried men. There used to be also much sport and merriment in Westruther, at the celebrations of Penny Weddings, but these on the interference of the Church Courts, were prohibited. At the beginning of last century, cock-fighting was a favourite pastime both with old and young. Even children took part in it. The Duke of York, it is said, introduced it into Scotland in 1683. Towards the close of the 17th century, this barbarous practice had become bo popular and engrossing, that in 1704, the Town Council of Edinburgh interfered to prevent it, as it was fast becoming an impediment to business.


From the City Records of Perth it appears that the Wapinshaw was from an early period observed in Perth according to statute. The magistrates by beat of drum and proclamation called out the weaponshawers to exercise on the North Inch, at the fixed periods or sometimes oftener. They appointed a captain and other officers, and gave them an ensign which was called the hangenzier, the bearer of which was styled the hangenzier-bearer. At particular times the distinguished banner having upon it the Holy Lamb en passant was produced. Absentees were fined 40s. each. After the year 1620. there is no account of weaponshawing in Perth.


Horse-racing appears to have existed in the Fair City from an early period. The place appropriated to it was the South Inch ; the coarse was marked by six stakes. The first account given of a prize being run for is in 1613, this was a silver arrow given by Ninian Graham of Garvock, in the name of John Graham of Logside. In 1631, there were three prize silver bells, but they were declared to be unsuitable, and a cup was substituted in their place, which weighed more than eight ounces. .Till 1688, the race was called “ the bell race,” by authority of the magistrates, it was afterwards referred to as a “race for a cup and other prizes.”


“In the month of February, 1586-7, the Perth Session ordains Nicol Balmain to ring the Curfew and workman bell in the morning and evening the space of ane quarter of an hour at the times appointed, viz. four hours in the morning, and eight at even,” and in the town’s record, 1657, is “an act requiring obedience to the ringing of bells for putting out fires.”


In the parish of Fowlis Wester there is a Sign, which signifies in Gaelic a mount of peace. On the Si’uns the Druids held assizes when it was customary to kindle a large bonfire called Saurhin or the fire of peace. On Hallow even, a Druidical festival, these fires are still lighted up in this district, and are said to retain the same name.

St. Methvenmas market is held at Fowlis annually on the 6th November. This was in former times the festival of the parish, and the anniversary of the saint to whom the church was dedicated at its consecration, when the people constructed booths to indulge in hospitality and mirth ; it also became a commercial mart, and assumed the name of ferial or holy day. Many of our ancient fairs have a similar origin.


The parish of Muthill at one time contained several springs or wells much esteemed for their virtues, real or imaginary. The one at Straid, in the district of Blair-in-nan, was much frequented, as it was esteemed effectual in curing the hooping-cough. In the course of this century a family came from Edinburgh, a distance of nearly sixty miles, to have the benefit of the well. The water must be drunk before sunrise or immediately after it sets, and that out of a “ quick cow’s horn,” or a horn taken from a live cow. In the same district is St. Patrick’s well, so named from a chapel once there, and probably dedicated to this saint. It is not known what connection St. Patrick had with this sequestered spot, but it is certain that formerly the inhabitants held his memory in such veneration, that on his day neither the clap of the mill was heard nor the plough seen to move in the furrow. A third well upon the side of the Machony was of still greater importance. It was called the well of Strathill, and was most sought after by the credulous, as its waters were deemed effectual in curing madness. In 1668 several persons testified before the presbytery of Stirling, that having carried a woman thither, they had stayed two nights at a house near to the well; that the first night they did bind her twice to a stone at the well but she came into the house to them being loosed without any help. The second night they bound her again to the same stone, and she returned loose. And they declare also, she was very mad before they took her to the •well, but since that time she is working and sober in her wits.” This well long retained its former celebrity, and votive offerings were cast into it in the year 1723.

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