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Old Scottish Customs
Chapter XVII

Some interesting customs and superstitions in Shetland—Observance of Yule-tide—Strange funeral custom—The water of health—The healing thread — Curing ringworm — Curing burns — Elf-shot — Wearing charms—Singular calving custom—Belief in fairies—The doings of fairies—The high land of the trows—’Superstition regarding neighbour’s profits.


THE ancient customs of guising or masquerading—a pastime peculiar to the observance of Yuletide in Shetland—is still kept up with some of its accustomed spirit. The streets of Lerwick during the morning, to some extent, present the appearance of a Continental town during a carnival.

In some parts of Shetland, on a funeral procession passing, the by-standers used to throw three clods, one for one, after the corpse.

There is a spring in Unst called Yelaburn, or Hielaburn, the water of health. It was customary in former times, on first approaching the well, to throw three stones towards it as a tribute to the source of these salubrious waters. But its reputation has declined with the flight of time, and the superstitious offering is no longer religiously paid.


In these parts, in former times, when a person received a sprain, it was customary for him to apply to an individual practised in casting the wresting thread. This is a thread spun from black wool on which are cast nine knots. Tying it round the affected limb, the wise man said, but in a low tone of voice, so -as not to be heard by the by-standers nor by the person operated upon—

"The Lord rade
And the foal slade;
He lighted
And He righted.
Let joint to joint,
Bone to bone,
And sinew to sinew,
Heal in the Holy Ghost’s name.”


It was a custom with some to barn the straw on which a dead body had lain, and to examine the ashes narrowly, from the belief that the print of the individual’s foot who was next to be carried to the grave would be discovered. The straw was set on fire when the body was lifted and the funeral company leaving the house.


The person afflicted with ringworm takes a few ashes, held between the forefinger and thumb, three successive mornings before tasting food, and, applying the ashes to the part afflicted, says—

“Ringworm! ringworm red!
Never mayest thou either speed or spread;
But aye grow less and less,
And die away among the ase (ashes),”

At the same time he throws the ashes, held between the finger and thumb, into the fire.


To cure a burn, the following words were used—

“Here comeI to cure a burnt sore;
If the dead knew what the living endure
The burnt sore would burn no more.”

The operator, after having repeated the -above, blows his breath three times upon the burnt place. The above recipe was believed to have been communicated to a daughter who had been burned by the spirit of her deceased mother.


It was fully believed in Shetland that when a cow was suddenly taken ill she was elf-shot—that is, that a particular kind of spirits called Trows, who are different in their nature from fairies, have discharged a stone arrow at her and wounded her with it. Though no wound could be discovered externally, there were different persons, both male and female, who pretended to feel it in the flesh, and to cure it by repeating certain words over the cow. They also folded a .-cinder in a leaf taken from a particular part of the psalm-book, and secured it in the hair of the cow. This was not only considered an infallible cure, but was believed to serve as a -charm against future attacks.


This practice was nearly allied to one which was very prevalent, and of which some traces still exist in what would be esteemed a more enlightened part of the world, i.e., wearing a small piece of the branch of the rowan tree wrapped around with red thread and sewed into some, parts of the garments, to guard against the effects of the evil eye or witchcraft—

"Rowan tree and red thread
Will drive the witches a’ wud.”


When a cow calved it was the custom with some, as soon after as possible, to set a cat on the calf’s neck and draw it along her back and then to seat it on the middle of the cow’s back, draw it down the one side and pull it up the other, tail foremost. This ceremony was. supposed to prevent the cow being carried away while in a weak state by the trows. This practice was styled, enclosing the cow in a magic circle.


As the trows were said to have a remarkable relish for what was good in the way of eating or drinking, whenever a cow or sheep happened to turn sick or die it was firmly believed they had taken the real animal away and something of a trow breed substituted in its place. Those persons-indulged with a glimpse of the interior of a t-row’s dwelling, asserted they had beheld their own cow led in to be slaughtered while at the same time their friends on the surface of the earth saw her fall by an invisible hand and tumble over a precipice.

Sometimes, also, the trows required a nurse for their children, they also having a time to be bom and a time to die, and therefore females while engaged in nursing their own children required to be watched very narrowly lest they should be carried off to perform the office of wet nurse to some little trow, of gentle birth who had either lost its mother, or whose station amongst her own race exempted her from the tlrudgerj of nursing her own offspring.

There is a place in Shetland called Trow-land, a name which indicates the superstitious notions regarding it, as it signifies “ the high land of the trows.” The internal recesses of knolls were considered the favourite residences of the trows, and they were seldom passed without fear and awe by the primitive Shetlanders. And if after night-fall there was a necessity for passing that way, a live coal was carried to ward off their attacks.


In order that a person might take away and secure for herself the summer profits of her neighbour’s cows, it was the practice to go clandestinely and pluck a handful of grass from the roof of the byre, and give it to her own cows, in the belief that the milk and butter which should have been her neighbour’s would by this means become hers. In order to regain the profits thus transferred it was usual to milk privately a cow belonging to the person suspected of having taken them.


There was a trow called the neagle, somewhat akin to the water-kelpie of other lands, who made his appearance about mills, especially during grinding hours, in the shape of a beautiful pony. That he might attract the notice of the miller, he seized and held the wheel of the mill. Naturally, the miller went out to ascertain the cause of the stoppage, and, to his astonishment, a beautiful pony, saddled and bridled, stood ready to be mounted. If the miller should neglect warnings, and put his foot into the stirrup, his fate was sealed. Neither bit nor bridle availed him anything. Off went the pony, undeterred by bog or bank, and stinted not his course till in the deep sea he had thrown his venturesome rider, when he himself vanished in a flash of fire. Fortunately, however, most millers were proof against the temptation, and, instead of mounting the pony, saluted him on the nose with a fiery brand, which at once rid them of his presence.


It was formerly believed that when an individual was attenuated by sickness, his heart was worn away or taken from him by some evil genii. A person skilled in casting the heart was at once sent for, who, with many mysterious ceremonies, melted lead and poured it through the bowl of a key or pair of scissors held over a sieve, which was also placed on a basin of cold water. The lead was melted and poured again and again till it assumed something like the form of a heart —at least the operator strove to persuade his patients and his friends that such was the case. This was hung suspended from the neck till the cure was completed.

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