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Old Scottish Customs
Chapter XVI

Form of prayer used for blessing a ship in the Western Islands—Dedicating horses to the sun at Iona— Curious harvest custom in Island of Skye—Drinking Custom in the Clan Macleod—Old customs in connection with a holy loch in Skye—The Evil Eye in the Western Islands—Signalling customs in olden times—Evening amusements in the Western Islands ill former times—Curious belief regarding quarreling and Herrings—Belief in Brownies in the Western Islands.


IT was an ancient custom in the Western Islands to hang a he-goat to the boat’s mast, the inhabitants hoping thereby to secure a favourable wind. Also in setting out on an expedition by sea the following form of Divine invocation was used :—

The Steerman says—

“Let us bless our ship,”

The answer by all the crew—-

“God the Father bless her.”


“Let us bless our ship.”


“Jesus Christ bless her.”


“Let us bless our ship,”


“The Holy Ghost bless her.”


“What do you fear since God the Father is with you.’*


“We do not fear anything.”


“What do you fear since God the Sun is with you?”


“We do not fear anything.”


“What do you fear since God the Holy Ghost is with you?”


“We do not fear anything.”


“God the Father Almighty, for the love of Jesus Christ his Son, by the comfort of the Holy Ghost, the one God, who marvellously brought the children of Israel through the red sea, and brought Jonah to land out of the whale’s belly, and the Apostle St. Paul, and his ship safely through the treacherous raging sea, and from the violence of a tempestuous storm, bless and conduct us peaceably, calmly, and comfortably through the sea to our harbour, according to His Divine will, which we beg, saying, Our Father, etc.”


Even in the last century Pennant was told by Bishop Pocook that on the eve of St. Michael the islanders of Iona brought all their horses to a small green whereon stood a circle of stones surrounding a cairn. Round this hill they all made the turn sunwise, thus unwittingly dedicating their horses to the sun.


The following custom prevailed in the Island of Skye during the course of last century. The farmer who had first finished his reaping, sent a man or a maiden, with a bundle of corn to his next neighbour, who had not yet reaped down his harvest. He, in his turn, when finished, sent a similar bundle to his neighbour, who was behind with his work, and so on until all the corn was cut down. This sheaf was called an gaolbir hhaeagh, and was intended to convey a rebuke to the farmer for being so slow in comparison with his neighbours. The person who took upon himself the task of leaving the angaolbir bhaeagh at the house of the dilatory farmer, was obliged to make good his retreat in case of his being caught, otherwise he would have experienced a sound thrashing for his pains.


At Dunvegan Castle, Island of Skye is still preserved the large horn known as Rory More’s horn. It holds rather more than a bottle and a half. Every Laird of Macleod was, it is said, obliged on his coming of age, in proof of his manhood, to drain it full of claret, without once laying it down.


At a certain place in the parish of Kilmuir, Isle of Skye, an accidental conflux of pure fresh water springs from a small elliptical pond of considerable depth. The bottom consists of whitish sand which, by being visible through the transparent waters, gives a beautiful greenish tint to the whole. This small lake is surrounded by a little brushwood, and the rivulet which flows from it into the sea, is pleasantly hemmed in and edged with a few shrubs and bushes. This pond was anciently called Loch Sianta, which means the sacred lake, and it retains its name to this day. The hallowed appearance of the solitude did not escape the fancy of the ancient highlander. Owing to its crystalline purity and copiousness, and the sequestered situation of the little Hebridean Siloam, they conceived it to be favoured with its divinity, to whom they were extremely punctual in making offerings of various kinds. Invalids always resorted thither, and imagined themselves benefited by drinking of its water, and thoroughly washing themselves in a bath erected for the purpose. Pilgrimages are still made to Loch Sianta, and the usual turn sunwise must be made thrice before drinking.


Among the superstitions of the people of the Western Islands, it may be noticed that there was nothing so much dreaded by many as what they termed the evil eye. As an antidote against this, the following verse was to be repeated in Gaelic by the person who dreaded it, when washing in the morning,—

"Let God bless my eye
And my eye will bless all I see;
I will bless my neighbours,
And my neighbours will bless me.”


On the west side of the parish of Strath are the rains of seven Danish duns or forts. They are situated on high rocks or lofty headlands, and were built without mortar. One of these was always erected in view of one or more of the rest, so that the first alarm of an approaching foe was almost instantaneously communicated to the whole country by the croistaraidds, or fiery cross, being a rude process of telegraphing by fire the intelligence of an enemy’s approach. This watch-fire was lighted on the tower from which the danger was first perceived. The process was repeated by the neighbouring tower, and so on until the intelligence was transmitted with inconceivable celerity throughout the whole chain of towers with which the country was surrounded.


It was formerly the custom in the Western Islands for neighbours to visit each other’s houses almost nightly, and to while away part of the long winter evenings in reciting tales and traditions, singing songs, or playing some musical instrument. Now much of this is given up. The people have also abandoned their old customs when solemnizing funerals and marriages. Not very many years ago the memory of a person would have been thought dishonoured unless from fifty to sixty individuals accompanied his remains to the grave; and during the Jarair, or wake, and especially on the day of interment, such a quantity of meat and drink was distributed as kept the nearest surviving relatives for several years in the greatest poverty in order to pay for them. Then, again, such a quantity of whisky was drunk in the church or churchyard after the interment, that the people often forgot the solemnity of the occasion which had brought them together, and renewed former feuds and discussions, and fought fiercely amid the graves of their ancestors. A violent reaction, however, has taken place in the feelings and customs of the inhabitants in regard to the obsequies of their friends; and the change in regard to marriages is equally great. Formerly from eighty to a hundred persons used to assemble and pass at least two days in feasting and dancing. Now the guests are few in number, and the refreshments are generally restricted to herrings-and potatoes. Balls and dancing parties have also been given up, and all public-gatherings, whether for shinty, putting the stone, music, or dancing.


It was formerly asserted that if a quarrel happened on the coast where herrings were caught, and blood was shed, the herrings went away and never returned throughout that season.

Some time ago the natives of some of the Western Islands firmly believed in the existence of the gruagach, a female spectre of the class of brownies to whom the dairymaids made frequent libations of milk. The gruagach was said to be an innocent being who frolicked or gambolled among the pens and folds. She was armed solely with a pliable rod, with which she switched any who would annoy her either by using bad language, or by depriving her of her share of the dairy produce. Even so late as 1770. the dairymaids who attended a herd of cattle in the Island of Trodda, were in the habit of placing daily a quantity of milk on a hollow .stone for the gruagach. Should they ever neglect this duty, they were sure to feel the weight of the brownie’s rod on the day following.

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