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Old Scottish Customs
Chapter XIII

Superstitious customs with regard to good or bad omens—Yule boys—The rumbling well in Galloway—-Marrying days in Galloway—Michaelmas custom in Argyleshire—Saint Cowie and Saint Couslan—The lucky well of Beothaig—The bridge of one hair in Kincardineshire—The old custom of Rig and Rennel—Some old customs of the Sinclairs.


THERE used to be numerous superstitious observances with respect to good or bad omens, such as the shoes being twisted off the hoofs of asses before they hail foals. A horseshoe passed thrice beneath the stomach and over the back of a cow supposed to have the elfshot (a disease with cows), then elfsgirse (a kind of grass given to cows believed to be injured by the elves) given to this cow, and a burning peat laid down on the threshold of the byre door, she is set free from her stake and driven out. If she walks quietly over the peat she remains uncured ; but if she first smells, then springs over it, she is cured. If, at a funeral, one of the handspoke-bearers turned his foot and fell beneath the bier, he would soon be in a coffin himself. If on the way to execute an errand but had forgot something, we should have no luck that day. Should a hare have crossed our path that was a bad omen. If a knife was found lying open on the ground few would dare to lift it. Even a pin, should the point be turned towards oneself, would not be touched. A broom was thrown after curlers when they left a house, for good luck. There was also an omen of the blue dead lights which were supposed to be seen before death, these lights were seen in the air about the height at which a corpse was carried. If seen to leave the house where the person was to die, and go to the spot in the churchyard where he should be buried, to stop these lights was thought very improper.

The first three days of April are called “borrowing days,” and the freets regarding them run so—

“March, borrows frae April,
Three days and they are ill.
The first of them is wind and weet,
The second it is snow and sleet,
The third of them is peel-a-bane
And freezes the wee birds nebs tae the stane.”

Magpies caused other curious freets, according to the number of them seen at one time together.

Ane’s sorrow, two’s mirth,
Three’s a burial, four’s a birth.
Five’s a wedding, six brings scaith,
Seven’s money, eight’s death,”

A mist about the last day of the moon’s decline always brought with It a freet

"An auld moon’s mist
Never dies o’ thirst.”

It is said of February—

“February fills the dyke
Either wi’ black or white.”

And of Candlemas day—

If Candlemas day be fair and clear
We’ll have two winters in that year.

And gin the laverock (lark) sings before Candlemas she’ll mourn as long after it.


Boys who rambled through the country during the Christmas holidays were called Yule Boys. They were all dressed in white save one, the Beelzebub of the party. They had a singular rhyme which they repeated before the people, and so received money and cake. This rhyme is now so sadly shorn of its original proportions that its real meaning can scarcely be arrived at. It evidently, however, is of ancient origin. In old Scottish books some notice is taken of the quhite boys of Yule. The plot of the doggerel seems to be that two knights dispute about a lady and fight. One of them falls and sings out—

“A doctor! a doctor! or I die.”

Beelzebub sings—

"A doctor, doctor, here am I.”

The wounded knight sayeth,

“What can you cure?”

Beelzebub answereth—

“All disorders to be sure,
From the cramp to the gout.
Cut off legs and arms,
Join them to again,’’ etc. etc.


In the parish of Bootle, Galloway, is a well called the Rumbling well, which was formerly frequented by crowds of sick people on the first Sunday in May. They lay by its side all Saturday night and drank of it early in the morning. There is also another well about a quarter of a mile distant towards the east. This well was made use of by the people when their cattle were attacked by a disease called Connach. This water they came from distant parts to obtain. They carried it away :n vessels, washed their cows in it, and then gave it them to drink. At both wells they left thank-offerings, money at the former, and at the latter the bands and shackles wherewith beasts are usually bound.


Marriages in Galloway in olden times were commonly celebrated on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Rev. Dr. Simpson, of Sanquhar, asserted that out of 450 marriages which he himself celebrated, all, except seven, took place on these days.


The following singular custom at one time existed at Canway, Argyllshire. On Michaelmas day every man mounted his horse, unfurnished with saddle, and took behind him either some young girl or his neighbour’s wife, and they rode backwards anil forwards from the village to a certain cross, without any of them being able to account for the origin of this custom. After the procession was over, they alighted at some public-house, where, strange to say, the females entertained the companions of their ride. After their return to their houses an entertainment of primeval simplicity was prepared. The chief part consisted of a great oat-cake called Struan Michael, or St. Michael’s Cake, composed of two pecks of meal, and formed like the quadrant of a circle. It wras daubed over with milk and eggs, and then placed to harden before the fire.


The parish of Campbeltown formerly consisted of four distinct parishes, two of which were respectively dedicated to St. Cowie and St. Couslan. These two saints, who were pious, holy men, and who wrought equally for the improvement of their respective parishes, held, it would seem, very different ideas in respect to marriage. Couslan, for instance, inculcated in the strongest manner the indissolubility of the marriage tie; and if lovers did not find it convenient to go through the marriage ceremony, their joining hands through a hole in a small pillar near his church was held an interim tie of mutual fidelity so strong and sacred that it was firmly believed in the country that no man ever broke it who did not soon after break his neck or meet with some other fatal accident.

Cowie, in his district, took quite a different course. He proposed that all who did not find themselves happy and contented in the married state should be indulged with an opportunity of parting and making a second choice. For that purpose he instituted an annual solemnity, at which all the unhappy couples in his parish were to assemble at his church; and at midnight all present were blindfolded and ordered to run round the church at full speed, with a view of mixing the Jots in the urn. The moment the ceremony was over, without allowing an instant for the people present to recover from their confusion, the word cabbay (seize quickly) was pronounced, upon which every man laid hold of the first female he met with. Whether old or young, handsome or ugly, good or bad, she was his wife till the next anniversary of this strange custom, when an opportunity was afforded him of getting a worse or a better bargain. In this way the Saint soon brought his parishioners to understand that they had reason to be satisfied with a condition there was little prospect of mending by a change. This tradition has been handed down for centuries.


There is a well m the parish of Gigha, in Argyllshire, called Tabarreth Blueathaig, i.e.,. the Lucky Well of Beothaig, a well famous for having the command of the wind. It is situated at the foot of a hill fronting the north-east, near an isthmus called Tarbet. Six feet above where the water gushes out there is a heap of stones which forms a cover to the sacred fount. When a person wished for a fair wind, either to leave the land or to bring home his absent friends, this part was opened with great solemnity, the stones carefully removed, and the well cleaned out with a wooden dish or clam shell. This being done, the water was thrown several times in the direction from which the wished-for wind was to blow. This action was accompanied by a certain form of words which the person repeated every time he threw the water. When the ceremony was finished, the well was again carefully covered up to prevent fatal consequences, it being iirinlv believed that were the place left open a storm would inevitably destroy the entire locality.


In the month of May numbers of the working classes came from the adjacent districts t) drink out of a well in the Bay of Nigg, Kincardineshire, called Douny well, and proceeding a little further, they went across a narrow pass called the Brig o’ ae Hair—the bridge of one hair—to Douny Hill, a green island in the sea, where young people carved their favourite names in tbe sward. This custom seemed to be the remains of some superstitious respect to the fountain and re---treat of a favourite saint. The bay, probably from the corruption of his name, was formerly called St. Fittick’s Bay. On the sudden deaths of their relations, or when in fear of such catastrophe from the sea becoming' stormy, the fisher people, especially the females, expressed their sorrow by exclamations-of voice and gestures of body like the eastern nations.


The somewhat peculiar custom of Rig and Rennel, or run rig, i.e., that each tenant on a particular farm or district had a ridge alternately with his neighbour, formerly prevailed over the north, and lingered in Caithness till 1740. This arrangement naturally caused confusion and disputes. It is believed to have been instituted in barbarous times as a preservative against one neighbour setting fire to the field of another if on bad terms with him, and to make them all equally anxious to resist the foe in case of invasion.


All gentlemen of the name of Sinclair belonging to Conisbury, used carefully to avoid putting on green attire or crossing the Ord upon a Monday. They were dressed in green and they crossed the Ord upon a Monday when they marched to Flodden, where they fought and fell. On this account both the day and the dress were deemed "unlucky". If the Ord had to be got over on a Monday the journey was performed by sea.

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