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Old Scottish Customs
Chapter XI

Strange Custom at Kirkmaiden—Singular obituary announcement at Bo’ness—Holy-well observances in Kincardineshire—Ancient races at Kilmarnock— Creeling the Bridegroom again—Old Border customs—Alarm signals—The right hand unbaptised —The fiery peat—Good faith of the Borderers— Sunday dissipation—Punishment of matrimonial infidelity in former times—Riding the stang— Marriage processions—Odd football custom at Foulden—Strange holy well superstitions—Curious customs with regard to fishing—The siller gun of Kirkcudbright.


THERE is a small cave at Kirkmaiden Wigton-shire, on the south-east between the buoys of Port-ankill and East Tarbit, -called St. Medan’s Cave; together with a pool in the adjoining rock, styled the well of the Co or the Chapel well—for this place often goes by the name of the Chapel. To bathe in this well as the sun rose, on the first Sunday in May, was considered an infallible cure for all manner of sickness. And till no very remote period, it was customary for -almost the whole population of the parish, to collect at this spot on the first Sunday in May which was called Co Sunday, to bathe in the well, to leave their offerings in the. cave, and to spend the day in gossiping or amusement.


At the funerals of poor people in the parish of Borrowstouness or Bo’ness, the following strange custom has been frequently observed. The beadle promenades the streets with a bell, and intimates the death of the recent defunct, in this language : “All brethren and sisters, I let you to wit there is a brother (or sister) departed at the pleasure of the Almighty (here he lifted his hat). All those that come to the burial, come at — o’clock. The corpse is at —.” He also walked before the corpse ringing his bell.


At Bahnanno in the parish of Marykirk, Kincardineshire, there is a well called St. John’s well, which was formerly regarded with great veneration. Mothers brought their children to be bathed in its waters. To show their gratitude to the Saint and in the hope that he would continue hi« patronage of the well, they put presents into the water, such as needles, pins, and shreds of their garments.


The observances of Fastern’s E’en were continued at K'lraarnock until of late years. These principally consisted of races, wjiich were considered to be of great antiquity, having been practised annually for the last five centuries.


The ancient custom of creeling has already been pretty fully described but the following account of the ceremony as observed at Dalry will be interesting as the custom in some respects varied at different places. In former days when penny weddings were in vogue, it was customary for the parties who were at i the wedding to assemble the following day ill order to creel the bridegroom. Having procured a creel or wicker basket they tied it on the back of the young gudeman, and placed a long pole with a broom affixed to the top over his left shoulder. Thus equipped he was forced to run a race followed by the gudewife with a knife to cut the cords, and who according to the alacrity with which she strove to unloose the creel showed her satisfaction at the marriage; after which the parties returned to the house to consume the fragments of the preceding day’s feast. About a century ago, weddings having become less numerously attended than formerly the custom underwent considerable alterations, and was deferred to New Year’s day. Accordingly on this morning, the young men of the village assembled provided with a. wicker hamper or crockery crate, filled with stones with which they visited the houses of all those who had entered the bonds of matrimony during the preceding year, and compelled each young gudeman to bear the creel to his nearest neighbour who might have qualified himself for this honour. Resistance was gen-ally useless, as a number of stout fellows soon compelled the refractory party to submit with the addition probably of one of their number in the creel, as the reward of his obstinacy. The creeling however was generally conducted throughout with the greatest good humour, yet harmless as the custom was, individuals have been known, who in order to avoid the ceremony, absented themselves regularly for fifteen years from home, for a fortnight at that season.


Alarm signals were in use along the Borders and throughout Galloway. That no shire might want advertisement, it was thought proper that beacons should be set up on all heights of eminence within sight of each other, in order that the appearance of the enemy on the Borders or on the sea might be made known. A beacon was formed of a tall and strong tree set up with a long iron plate across its head, carrying on it an iron plate for holding a fire, and an iron brander fixed on a stalk in the middle for holding a tar barrel. The first fire was put on the ground beside the beacon, at sight whereof all were to fly to arms. The next advertisement was by two fires, the one on the ground and the other in the large grate. On seeing this, all were to hasten to the rendezvous. If the danger was imminent, to the two fires were added that of the burning barrel. Signals from Berwick up the vale of the Tweed to Lamberton, and from the Tweed to the Forth, made the whole country aware of the coming danger.


A fiery peat was sent round by the Borderers to alarm in times of danger, as the fiery cross was by the Highlanders.


In the Border counties it was formerly the custom, to some extent, to leave the right hand of the male children unbaptised that it might deal more deadly, or according to the popular phrase, un-hallowed blows on their enemies.


As some atonement for their laxity of morals, on most occasions the Borderers were severe observers of the faith which they had pledged, even to an enemy. If any person broke his word so plighted, the individual to whom faith had not been observed, used to bring to the next Border meet mg a glove hung on the point of a spear, and proclaim to Scots and English the name of the offender. This was accounted so great a disgrace to all connected with him, that his own clansmen sometimes destroyed him to escape the infamy he had brought upon them.


Of the many customs at one time prevalent in Scotland, not a few have been altogether discontinued, others again are slowly but surely dying out. Among the former may be mentioned Sunday Sprees. These were long in high favour and were carried out to great lengths. Sabbath after Sabbaih bands of disorderly men would meet in some appointed place, when drinking to great excess was indulged in. The proceedings commenced early in the morning, indeed they were generally the continuation of Saturday night’s spree, and were not brought to a close until late on Sunday evening. It is said also that while the men held their orgies in the open air, the wives had their sprees within doors so that Sabbath desecration was the rule with both sexes. The Forbes Mackenzie Act however put a stop ill a great measure to this Sunday debauchery, and though it was severely anathematised by the men at the time, the women hailed it as an unmixed blessing.


In old lawless times, one would be inclined to suppose that every sort of immorality would be condoned or at least overlooked. But it was not so. A man might indeed steal a sheep from among a flock passing through the village and be praised for his dexterity. He might slay his fellow in fail combat and be hulled as a hero. He might bear off the lass of his choice without the consent of her parents and be admired for his courage; but, if he fell in love with his neighbour’s wife he had to run the gauntlet, and this assuredly was no child’s play. At a stated time the villagers assembled in the aggressor's house, and stripping him to his shirt they tied him to the back of a pony cart which stood in readiness, his cast-off clothes being previously bundled up and thrown into it. In this manner he was made to march or run through the town followed by a hooting crowd who belaboured him as he went along. This continued till the procession reached tlfi head of the village, when the fellow’s hands were unloosed, his clothes flung at him, and he allowed to return or depart as he chose.

If on the other hand the culprit was a female her case was brought before a jury of matrons, and if found guilty she was subjected to the humiliating ordeal of riding the stang. Placed accordingly astride upon a pole or stang, the woman was hoisted on the shoulders of a number of men, and was carried high in the procession through the town amid the huzzas of the populace till arriving at some water, she was straightway tumbled in -without further ceremony.


Of customs which are dying out among us we may notice marriage processions. Not so very long ago, it used to be a regular practice in the parish for wedding parties to walk in procession, preceded by the fiddler, to the manse, there to take the vows of matrimony upon them, and returning not only themselves rejoicing but making the whole village to rejoice with them. These processions were much relished by the people.


The inhabitants of Foulden celebrated Fasten’s E’en with a game of football. The villagers were arrayed against the inhabitants of the country; a large ball was thrown up into the air midway between the parish church and the mill. The former strove to lodge the ball in the church pulpit, and the latter in the mill happer.


There is a loch in Strathnaver in Sutherland, to which people constantly resorted for all manner of cures. They must walk backwards into the water, take their dip, and leave a small coin as due offering. Then without looking round, they must walk straight back to the land, and so, right away from the loch.

St. Andrew’s well in the Island of Lewis was frequently consulted as an oracle when any one was dangerously ill. A wooden tub full of this water was brought to the sick man’s room, and a small dish was set floating on the surface of the water; if it turned sunwise it was supposed the patient would recover, otherwise he must die.


Superstitions which used to prevail among the villagers of Cockenzie, as in other fishing localities is now, owing to the better education of the people, happily dying out, but it is a well known fact that only a few years ago, no fisherman would have ventured out to sea had either a pig or a lame man crossed his path when on his way to the beach. Not only so, but had a stranger met him and been the first to greet him of a morning, with a gude mornin, he would have regarded the interruption as an evil omen, and remained at home for that day at least.

Another very curious and superstitious custom used to prevail among fisher people. If, when at sea, especially going out or coming into port, any one was heard to take the name of God in vain, the first to hear the expression immediatey called out “cauld aim,” when each of the boat’s crew would instantly grasp fast the first piece of iron which came within his reach, and hold it for a. time between his hands. This was by way of counteracting his ill luck, which otherwise would have continued to follow the boat for the remainder of the day.


The burgh of Kirkcudbright, like its neighbour Dumfries, is in possession of a silver gun which according to tradition was presented by King James VI. to the incorporated trades, to be shot for occasionally, in order that they might improve themselves in the use of firearms, then rapidly supplanting the bow and arrows as implements of war. The year 1587 is graven on the barrel of this miniature gun, and also the letters T. M. C., supposed to be the initials of Thomas M'Callurn, of Bombie, ancestor of the Lords of Kirkcudbright, who was at that time Alderman of the burgh. This trinket, which greatly resembles a penny whistle, has only been shot for three times in the memory of that oft quoted individual, the oldest inhabitants father. In the summer of 1761, the incorporated trades applied by petition to the magistrates to have the gun placed in the bands of their convener, that they might shoot for it at a target as formerly, which petition was granted. The next time it was shot for was on the 22nd of April, 1830, the day on which Lord Selkirk attained his majority. On this occasion the great wassail bowl of the burgh, which had been presented by Hamilton of Bargerry, M.P., was used for the first time since the Union. It was placed at the market cross, and after the gun had been contended for, the bowl was filled and refilled with potent liquor. The last time this gun was shot for was on the occasion of the Queen’s coronation, on the 28th of June, 1838. After the match the bowl was filled at the expense of the town, and her Majesty’s health drunk with the utmost enthusiasm. This capacious bowl is made of walnut hooped with brass, and is large enough to hold ten gallons.

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