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Old Scottish Customs
Chapter XIV

Some old customs at Wick—Funeral processions at North Uist—Marriage customs among the poorer classes in the North—Going a rocking—Old customs in the Orkney Islands—Fisherman’s customs in setting out for the fishing ground—The sow’s day—St. Peter’s day—Dingwall Court of Justice—Old custom at Eriska—Singular fisherman’s custom at Fladda — Interesting Highland custom — Old customs at the Island of Eigg.


IT was recently a custom for people to visit the Chapel of St. Tears, Wick, dedicated to the Iloly Innocents, on St. Innocent’s day, and leave in it bread and cheese as an offering to the souls of the children slain by Herod. Till within a few years ago, the inhabitants of Mirelandorn used to visit the Kirk of Moss every Christmas before sunrise, placing on a stone bread and cheese, and a silver coin, which, as they alleged, disappeared in some mysterious maimer. There are still several holy lochs, especially one at Dunnet, to -which people go from Wick, and indeed from all parts of Caithness, to be cured of their diseases. They cast a penny into the water, walk or are carried round the loch and return home. If they recover, their cure is ascribed to the mystic virtues of the Halie Loch ; and if they do not, their want of faith gets all the blame.


The former inhabitants of North Uist used to conduct their funerals with remarkable solemnity. The coffin was followed by pipers playing slow plaintive dirges, composed for, and only played on these occasions. On arriving near the churchyard the music ceased, and the procession formed a line on either side, between which the corpse was carried to the grave.


Marriages amongst the poorer classes of the North were somewhat similar to penny weddings. The relatives who assembled in the morning were regaled with a glass of whiskey gratis, but after the ceremony every man paid for what he drank. The neighbours then assembled in great numbers, and danced to the lively strains of a couple of fiddles, at intervals, for two or three days. The merrymaking ended with Saturday night. On Sunday, after returning from church, the newly-married couple gave a dinner to their relations on both sides.


It was formerly customary in the West of Scotland for women, when invited to a social meeting at a neighbour’s house, to take with them rocks, or distaff's, which, being very portable, proved no incumbrance to them on these occasions. Hence the phrase of going u rocking. Burns commences one of his .songs with an allusion to this custom—

“ On Faaten’s e’en (Shrove Tuesday) we had a rocking.” .


Owing to the long residence of the Bishops amongst the inhabitants of the Orkney Islands both before and after the Reformation, as well a3 the splendid external show in the Episcopal form of worship, such a deep impression was produced by Episcopacy on the minds of the people that it has not yet yielded to the lapse of time. To many of the old places of worship, especially those dedicated to favourite saints, they attached great veneration, visiting them frequently when in a serious, melancholy, or devout Ira roe of mind. Within their ruined walls they used to repeat prayers and use forms of words, of whose meaning they were entirely ignorant; and when they considered themselves threatened by any danger they invoked the aid of their saints, and vowed to perform services or present oblations to them on condition that they interfered successfully in their behalf. If they imagined the saint invoked, had interfered to prevent the threatened calamity they were for the greater part very punctual in performing their vows. Some days on which to commence important business were esteemed by them lucky, others were deemed equally unlucky. Some months, in their estimation, were preferable to others. Thursdays and Fridays were the days on which they liked to marry. They scrupulously avoided marriage when the moon was on the wane. If they killed cattle they did so when it was on the increase, from an idea that should they delay doing so until the moon was waning the meat would be of an inferior description. In preparing for a voyage, when leaving the shore they always turned their boats in the direction of the sun’s course ; in some places they never omitted offering up a prayer on these occasions.

The festivals in the Romish Calendar were scrupulously observed in these islands, not, however, as days of religious worship, but as holidays to be devoted to feasting and merrymaking. On some of these days they chose to remain entirely idle. On others they engaged in particular kinds of work. Now they ate flesli and meat; again, eggs and milk. They possessed innumerable charms for killing sparrows, which eat the early corn, and for securing a successful brewing of ale, and the churning of milk, as well as those which brought good luck, cured the toothache, rheumatism, &c.

Before striking their tents at Lammas and bidding farewell for a while to the active perilous occupations of the summer, the Orkney fishermen who had been accustomed to associate during the season met and partook •of a parting cup, when the usual toast was, “Lord, open Thou the mouth of the grey fish and hold Thy hand above the corn.” This meeting was known by the name of the Fishers’ Foy.

In one part of the parish of Sandwick, in Orkney, every family that owned a herd of swine killed a sow on the 17th of December. This day, in consequence, was called Sow’s Day. No tradition is handed down to account for the origin of this custom. The people of Sandwick also did no work on the 3rd of March, in commemoration of the day on which the church was consecrated. The church being dedicated to St. Peter, they all abstained from working for themselves on St. Peter’s Day, but they would do any kind of' labour for any other person who chose to employ them.


The inhabitants of Dingwall formerly had a tradition among them to the effect that after a man had received sentence of death in the Court of Justice, formerly held in a house in this parish, he obtained remission of his sentence provided he made his escape through the crowd of people on the lake-side-, and touched the steeple of the church before any one could lay hold on him.


There is a stone set up about a mile to the south of St. Columba’s Church, Eriska, about eight feet high, and two broad. It is called by the natives the Bowing Stone, for when the inhabitants first came in sight of the church, they set up this stone and there bowed and said the Lord’s Prayer.

There is a church in Fladda dedicated to St. Columba. It has an altar in the east end, and there is a blue stone of a round form on it which is always moist. It was an ordinary custom when any of the fishermen were detained in the island by contrary winds to wash this blue stone with water, thereby expecting to procure a favourable breeze. This practice was said never to fail, especially if a stranger washed the stone.


It was formerly the custom in the Western Islands when any number of men retired to a bouse either to discuss matters of business, or to indulge in drinking, to allow the doors of the house to stand open, and to put a rod across the door. This was intended for a sign to people not to intrude upon their privacy.


In the village on the south coast of the island of Eigg, there is a well called St. Katherine’s well. The natives have it in great esteem and believe it to be a Catholicon for diseases. According to Martin (1696) this well was consecrated by one Father Hugh, a Catholic priest, in the following manner. He obliged all the inhabitants to come to it and then employed them to bring together a great heap of stones at the head of the spring by way of penance. This being done, Father Hugh said mass at the well and then consecrated it. He also gave each of the inhabitants a piece of wax candle which they lighted, and all of them made the dessil of going round the well sunwise, the priest leading them, and from that time it has been accounted unlawlul to boil any meat with the water of this well. The natives observe St. Katherine’s anniversary after this fashion. They come to the well, and having drank a draught of it, they make the dessil round it sunwise, and then return home.

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