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Old Scottish Customs
Chapter X

Old Customs at Kirkmichael—The Pedlar’s Tournament at Leslie—Superstitious custom at St. Monance—The Touch Hills—The Maiden Feast in Perthshire—The Society of Chapmen at Dunkeld— Announcement of Death at Hawick-—The customs in connection with Nicknames—Religious custom on the approach of Death—Riding the Marches at Hawick — Scottish Masonic customs — Candlemas customs.


ALTHOUGH quite unable to furnish any reason for their superstitious observances, the inhabitants of the parish of Kirkmichael, Banffshire, were formerly the slaves of times and seasons. The moon in her in crease, full-growth, and decline, was with them the emblem of a rising, flourishing, and declining fortune. While in the wane they refused to engage in any important business, such as marriage, etc., but when in the two former stages of her revolutions, whatever was the nature of the undertakings in which they were employed, they predicted for themselves a successful issue. They had customs for Hallowe’en and the first night of the New Year. On the latter evening they were attentive observers of the weather. According as it was calm or boisterous, and as the wind blew, they prognosticated the nature of the weather they would have till the end of the year,


The green of Leslie was in former years the theatre of annual sports of a rather ludicrous nature. The chief if not sole performers in these rural pastimes were the honourable fraternity of pedlars or packmen, who, by tilting at a ring, with wooden spears, on horseback, endeavoured hard, to imitate the chivalrous knights of old. Much merriment was excited, whenever these doughty pedlars —their horses at full stretch—missed striking the ring, which, unfortunately for their composure, was but too often the case ; as it ’nevitably followed that the circumstance caused them to drop both reins and spears, and cling convulsively to their saddles. At these times the appearance presented by these modern Quixotes was in the highest degree ludicrous.


The ancient bell which formerly rung the good people of St. Monance to church, and which hung suspended from a tree in the churchyard, was, strange to say, removed every year from that position during the herring’ season, the fishermen entertaining the superstitious belief that the fish were scared away from the coast by its noise. No compliment this to the sounds produced by the bell in question.


At the summit of the Touch Hills, Stirlingshire, a little to the west of Stirling, there may be seen by the curious a crystal well which in ancient times was believed to possess the peculiar quality of insuring for a twelvemonth, the lives of all who drank of its waters, before sunrise on the first Sunday in May. In 1840 there were old men and women then alive who in their younger days had been of the number of those who made annual pilgrimages to St. Corbet’s Well on the morning in question. They described the gatherings on the anniversaries as having been splendid. Husbands and wives, lovers with their sweethearts, young and old, grave and gay, crowded the hill tops in the vicinity of the well long before dawn, and each party on their arrival took copious draughts of the singularly blessed water. It is reported that St. Corbet, after a lapse of years, deprived the well of its life-preserving qualities in consequence of the introduction of “mountain dew” of a less innocent nature into these annual festivals.


In some parts of Perthshire it was till very' lately the custom to give what was called a Maiden Feast, upon the finishing of the harvest; as a preparation for which the last handful of com reaped in the field was called the Maiden. It was generally so contrived that this fell into the hands of one of the prettiest girls in the field; it was then decked up with ribbons, and brought home in triumph to the sound of bagpipes and fiddles. A good dance was given to the reapers, and the evening was devoted to merriment. Afterwards the “Maiden” was dressed out, generally in the form of .a cross, and hung up, with the date attached to it in some conspicuous part of the house.


The Society of Chapmen or itinerant merchants was a very ancient institution. The original charter was from James V. The general annual meeting of the Society was held alternately at Dunkeld and Coupar Angus. The. meeting was styled a Court. All members coming to the market were obliged to attend it. They were summoned by one of the office-bearers, who, to enforce their attendance, went round to the different booths in open market, and took from each a piece of goods, or 2s. 6d, as a pledge for the owner’s appearance. Each member was obliged to produce his weights and measures, which were compared with standards, kept for the purpose. After the court, the members dined together, and spent the evening in some public competition of dexterity or skill. Of these, Riding at the Ring, an amusement of ancient and warlike origin, and already referred to on a previous page, was the chief. Two perpendicular posts were erected on this occasion, with a cross beam, from which was suspended a small ring. The competitors were on horseback, each bearing a pointed rod in h;s hand, and he, who at full gallop, passed between the posts, carrying away the ring on his rod, gained the prize.

“He was a braw gallant
And be rode at the ring;
And the bonnie Earl Murray
He was fit to be a king.”

Old Ballad.


On the event of a death occurring in the parish of Hawick, it was formerly the custom for one of the burgh officers to proceed through the different districts of the town, ringing his bell, and intimating the death ; which intimation was accompanied by a general invitation to the funeral. The bell •vas then taken to the house of mourning, and placed on the bed where the dead body lay, and in a position from which it was deemed sacrilegious to remove it, until the time appointed for the interment.


At one time the strange custom prevailed all over Scotland, of distinguishing individuals by other than their proper names. This custom was at one time exceedingly common and was probably adopted in ancient times for the purpose of drawing a broader line of distinction between persons, who, belonging to the same class and bearing the same names, could not, but for this method, be easily distinguished the one from the other. It is not a little singular that these designations have been handed down from father to son in regular succession through the course of many generations. Indeed there are some old people who have been so long accustomed to this singular fashion that their proper names are but seldom used, and remain quite unknown to many of their neighbours. Even in the Register of Deaths, where, one would imagine, the evidences of such a strange-custom were least likely to be traced, there is actually a faithful record of the soubriquets by which the ancestors of the present generation were commonly distinguished.


It was customary in some parts of Scotland to employ only one coffin in the interment of paupers. This by all accounts, was used merely for the purpose of conveying the corpses to their final resting place, and was so constructed as to be capable of opening by a hinge underneath, by which means the body was permitted to escape when lowered into the grave.


The following custom long prevailed in many places. When any member of a family was considered to be dying, the apartment was not only frequented by relations and neighbours, but in many instances, the entire company united in religious worship, selecting one of the psalms most suited to the occasion, such as the twenty-third, the forty-third, or the hundred and eighteenth. This they sang with a low and solemn melody, while the soul of the dying person was passing into the world of spirits. And then, when the mortal struggle appeared to be over, it was succeeded by a song of triumph and of praise, consisting not frequently of a portion of the hundred and seventh psalm.


The ceremonies observed in the parish of Hawick at the riding of the marches, were pretty similar to those engaged in, at other places. The honour of carrying the standard of the town, the original of which is said to have been taken from the English after the battle of Flodden, devolved upon the Cornet, a young man previously selected for the purpose.

The following are a few verses from an ancient song, which was sung by the Cornet and his attendants, from the roof of an old tenement belonging to the town.

“We’ll a’ hie to the moor a-riding,
Drnmlanrig gave it for providing
Our ancestors of martial order
To drive the English off our Border.

At Flodden field our fathers fought it,
And honour gain’d though dear they bought it,
By Teviot side they took this colour—
A dear memorial of their valour.

Though twice of old our tower was burned,
Yet twice the foe men back we turned,
And ever should our rights be trod on,
We’ll face the foe on Tirioden.

Up wi’ Hawick its rights and common,
Up wi’ a’ the Border bowman!
Tiribus and Tirioden,
We are up to guard the common.”


The eve (if St. John is a great day amongst the masonic lodges of Scotland. What takes place at Melrose may be considered a fair example of the whole. Immediately after the election of office-bearers for the ensuing year the brethren walk in procession three times round the cross, and afterwards-dine together under the presidency of the newly elected Grand Master. About six in the evening the members again turn out and form into line two abreast, each bearing a lighted flambeau, and decorated with their peculiar emblems and insignia. Headed by the heraldic banners of the Lodge, the procession performs the same route three times round the cross and thus proceed to the Abbey. On these occasions the crowded streets present a scene of the most animated description. The joyous strains of a well conducted band, the waving torches, and incessant showers of fireworks make the scene a carnival. But at this time the venerable Abbey is the chief point of attraction and resort; and as the mystic torch-bearers thread their way through its mouldering aisles and round its massive pillars, the-outlines of its gorgeous ruins become singularly illuminated and brought into bold and striking relief. The whole extent of the Abbey is, with measured step and slow, gone three times round. But when near the finale, the whole masonic body gather to the chancel, and forming one grand semi-circle round it where the heart of King Robert Bruce lies deposited, near the high altar, and the band strikes up the patriotic air, “Scots wha ha’e wi’ Wallace bled,” the effect produced is overpowering. Midst showers of rockets and glare of blue lights the scene closes, the whole reminding one of some popular Saturnalia held in a monkish town during the middle ages.


There was a curious custom of old standing in Scotland in connexion with Candlemas Day. On that day it was lately a universal custom in some parts of the country for the children attending school to make small presents of money to their teachers. The master sits at his desk or table exchanging for the moment his usual authoritative look for one of bland civility, and each child goes up in turn and lays the offering down before him the sum being generally apportioned to the abilities of the parents. Sixpence or a shilling were the most common sums in many schools, but some gave half and whole crowns and even more. The boy and girl who gave most were respectively styled King and Queen. The children being then dismissed for a holiday proceed along the streets in a confused procession carrying the King and Queen in state exalted upon a seat formed of crossed hands which probably from this circumstance is called the King's chair. In some schools it used to be customary for the teacher on the conclusion of the offerings to make a bowl of punch, and each urchin was regaled with a glass to drink the King and Queen’s health, and a biscuit. The latter part of the day was generally devoted to what was called a Candlemas bleeze or blaze, namely, the conflagration of any piece of furze which might exist in their neighbourhood, or, were that wanting, of an artificial bonfire.

An old popular custom in Scotland on Candlemas day was to hold a football match the east end of the town against the west, the married men against the unmarried, or one parish against another. The Candlemas

Ba' as it was called brought the whole community out in a state of great excitement. On one occasion not long ago when the sport took place in Jedburgh, the contending parties after a struggle of two hours in the Jed, fought it out amidst a scene of fearful splash and dabblement to the infinite amusement of a multitude looking on from a bridge.

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