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Old Scottish Customs
Chapter XV

Interesting customs at St. Kilda—The water-cross at Barra—Ocean Meat—Curious wooing custom in the Western Islands—Annual Festival in honour of St. Barr—The fiery circle—Old customs in the Island of Lewis — Singular cute for Scrofula — Strange custom regarding forced fire—Devotion to St. Flaunan — Salmon-fishing Superstition — The Sea-god Shoney—Burying custom at Taransay— Michaelmas custom at Liaguy—Customs regarding fowling expeditions.


THE primitive inhabitants of the lonely island of St. Kilda formerly left oft working at twelve o’clock on Saturday, as an ancient custom handed down from their fathers, and went no more to it again till Monday morning. They used a set form of prayers at the hoisting of their sails. They lay down at night, rose again in the morning, and began their labours always in the mime of God. Upon the anniversary of All Saints, the inhabitants of St. Kilda had an annual cavalcade; the number of their horses never exceeded eighteen. These they mounted by turns, having neither saddle nor bridle of any kind except a rope, which managed the horse only on one side. They rode from the sea shore to their houses, and when each man had performed his turn the show was at an end. On this festival they baked a large cake in form of a triangle, but rounded, and it had to be all eaten that night. Their marriages were celebrated in the following manner. When any two of them had agreed to take one another for man and wife, the officer who presided over the island summoned all the inhabitants of both sexes to Christ’s Chapel, where, being assembled, he enquired publicly if there were any lawful impediment why these parties should not be joined in the bands of holy matrimony. If no objection was made to the proposed union, he then enquired of the parties if they were resolved to live together in weal and woe, etc. After their assent, he declared them married persons, and then desired them to ratify this solemn promise in the presence of God and the people. In order that they might do this, the Crucifix was tendered to them, and both put their right hands upon it, this being the ceremony by which lovers swore fidelity one to another during their life-time.

Their baptisms were formerly conducted in the following manner. The parents called in the officer or any one of their neighbours to baptise the child, and another to be sponsor. He who performed the office of clergyman, being told what the child’s name was to be, said (naming it), “I baptise you to your father and your mother in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Then the sponsor took the child in his arms, as also did his wife as god-mother, and ever after this there was a friendship between the parents and the sponsor esteemed so sacred and inviolable, that nothing was able to set them at variance and it reconciled those who had been at enmity previously.

There is a famous stone in St. Kilda, known as the Mistress Stone. It exactly resembles a door, and is in the front of a perpendicular rock twenty or thirty fathoms in height. Upon the lintel of this door, every bachelor-wooer was by an -ancient custom obliged in honour to give the beloved one the following singular proof of his affection. He had to stand on his left foot, having the one half of it over the rock. He then drew his right foot towards the left, and, in this posture, bowing, put both bis fists further out to the right foot. After he had performed this feat he acquired no small reputation, being even accounted worthy the finest woman in tbe world. It was firmly believed this achievement was always attended with the desired success.

Martin (1696) tells us that the Steward of St. Kilda was accustomed in time of a storm to tie a bundle of puddings made of the fat of sea-fowl to the end of his cable, and let it fall into the sea behind the rudder. This, he said, hindered the waves from breaking, and calmed the sea. The scent of the grease, however, attracted the whales, so says Martin, which put the vessel in danger.


A stone in the form of a cross stood near to St. Mary’s Church, in the Island of Barra. The natives called it the Water Cross, the ancient inhabitants having a custom of erecting it to procure rain, and, when procured, the cross, was laid flat on the ground.


The inhabitants of the Island of Kismull bad formerly a custom that when any ^strangers from the northern islands resorted thither, the natives, immediately after their landing, obliged them to eat, no matter how heartily they may have eaten before starting on their journey. This meal was styled Biey Tai, i.e., Ocean Meat. Whatever number of strangers came there, or of whatever quality or sex, they were hospitably installed one each in a family. According to this custom, husbands and wives were forced to live apart while in this island.


In the good old times, when a tenant’s wife, in the Island of Linnell or the adjoining islands, died, he at once addressed himself to MacNeil of Barra, and begged him to provide him with another wife to manage his affairs. Upon this representation, MacNeil found out a suitable match for him; and, informed of the woman’s name, he immediately went to her with a bottle of whisky, for their entertainment at their marriage, which at once took place. When a tenant died his widow in similar fashion was soon provided with another partner.


All the inhabitants of Barra formerly observed the anniversary of St. Barr, being the 27th of September. The ceremony was performed riding on horseback, and the solemnity was concluded by the cavalcade going three times round St. Barr’s Church. They had likewise a grand procession on St. Michael’s day in Killor village, where they also took a turn round the church. Every family, as soon as the solemnity was ended, were accustomed to bake St. Michael’s cake, and all strangers, together with the members-of the household, were obliged to eat the bread that night.


It was formerly the custom in the Island of Lewis to make a fiery circle about the houses, corn, cattle, etc., belonging to each particular family. A man carried fire in his right hand and went round. This practice was called Desill; the right hand being in ancient language called dess. Another ancient custom observed in this Island by the Catholics on the second of February was this. The mistress and servants of each family took a sheaf of oats and dressed it in woman’s; apparel, put it in a large basket, and laid a wooden club by it; and this they called brides-bed. Then the mistress and servants shouted aloud, “Brud is come—-Brud is welcome.” This they did just before going to bed. In the morning when they rose they looked anxiously amongst the ashes expecting to see the impressions of Brud’s club there. If seen, it was reckoned a true presage of a jjood crop and a prosperous year.


In the Isle of Lewis it was customary for the seventh son to give a silver sixpence with a hole in it to each scrofulous patient. The coin was strung on a thread, and the sufferer wore it constantly round his neck. Should he lose it, the malady returned. Age was -of no account in regard to this magic gift. The smallest child might heal the aged man. All that was requisite was, that some one should take the little hand and apply it to the sore. The belief was pretty general throughout the North-Western Highlands and Isles, that scrofula would certainly be cured by the touch of the seventh son of a woman, who had never a girl born between.

The inhabitants of Lewis formerly made use of a fire called Tin-Egia, a forced, or fire of necessity, which they used as an antidote against the plagut, or murrain in cattle. It was prepared thus. All the fires in the parish were extinguished, and then, eighty-one married men, that being considered the necessary number, took two great planks of wood, and nine of them were employed alternately to rub one of the planks against the other until the heat thereof produced fire. From this forced fire each family was supplied with new fire, which was no sooner kindled than a pot of water was quickly placed on it. The people infected by the plague, and the latter suffering from the murrain, were afterwards sprinkled with water from the pot.

In Martin’s tour (1696) in the Hebrides, it is stated that when the men of Lewis mad& expeditions to the rocky Island of St. Flannan in pursuit of sea fowl, as soon as they had effected the different landings they uncovered their heads and made a turn sunwise, thanking God for their safety. They then repaired to the little chapel of St. Flannan, on approaching which they advanced oil their knees towards the chapel, and so went round the little building in procession. They then set to work, rock-fowling till the hour of vespers, when the same ceremony was repeated. They held it unlawful to kill any sea bird after evening prayer, and in any case might never kill a bird with a stone. The contrary was regarded a bad omen.

The inhabitants of the village of Barva, Lewis, long retained an ancient custom of sending a man very early in the morning to cross Barvas river, every first day of May, in order to prevent any female from crossing it first. For that, they said, would prevent the Salmon from coming into the river all the year round. This assertion they maintained to be true from experience.


The inhabitants in the vicinity of Siant had an ancient custom of sacrificing to a sea-god called Shoney, at Hallow-tide, in which the inhabitants of the neighbouring islands also took part. They assembled at the Church of Mulvav, having each man his provisions along with him. Every family furnished a peck of malt, and this was brewed into ale. One of the number was picked out to wade into the sea up to the middle, carrying a cup of ale in his hand. Standing in this posture he called, oat in a loud voice, saying, “Shoney, I give you this cup of ale hoping that you will he so kind as to send us plenty of sea-ware for enriching our ground this ensuing year." With these words the ale was thrown into the sea. This was done in the night time. On his returning those assembled all repaired to church where there was a candle burning upon the altar. After standing silent for a little while, one of them gave a signal upon which the candle was put out, and all adjourned to the fields, where they drank their ale, and spent the remainder of the night in dancing and singing.


It was formerly the custom in the island of Taransay never to bury a man in St. Tarian’s Chapel, or a woman in St. Keith’s, otherwise the corpse, it was firmly believed, would be found above ground the day after its interment.


The natives of the island of Lingay had an anniversary cavalcade on Michaelmas day, and then all ranks of both sexes appeared on horseback. The place of rendezvous was a large piece of fine sandy ground on the seashore, and there they had horse-racing, for small prizes, which were eagerly contended for. There was an ancient custom here by which it was lawful for any of the inhabitants to steal his neighbour’s horse the night before the race, and ride it all that day provided he returned it safe and sound to the owner after the race. The manner of racing was rather curious. It was engaged in by a few young men who used neither saddles nor bridles, except two small ropes, nor any sort of spurs but their bare heels, and -when they began the race they threw those ropes on the horses necks, and drove them vigorously with a long piece of sea-ware in each hand instead of a whip, which had been dried in the sun several months previously for that purpose. The men had their sweethearts behind them on horseback, and they gave and received mutual presents. The men presented the women with knives and purses, while the women gave the men pairs of garters of divers colours. They presented them also with a quantity of wild carrots.


The island of More bears the ruins of a Chapel dedicated to St. Flannan. When the inhabitants came within about twenty paces of the altar they, stripped themselves of their upper garments and laid them upon a stone which stood there for that purpose. Those who intended setting out upon a fowling expedition prayed three times. The first day they said the first prayers, advancing towards the Chapel on their knees. Their second prayers were said as they went round the Chapel. The third were said close by or in the Chapel.

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