FOOTPRINTS OF THE PAST
Lonely Chapels—Blended Faiths—Sunwise Turns—East and West Divination by
Smoke--Touch of a Seventh Son—The Royal Touch, a Cure for Scrofula—Burial of
a Living Cock for Epilepsy—Legends of isle Rassay - Of Wild Deer—Of buying a
Gale—Witchcraft--Drawing the Tether—A Milk Charm from the isle of Uist—Ancient
and Modern Witches—The Evil Eye—Making Images to injure a Neighbour—Cats—Belief
in Tranamigration—The Luck of leaving a House unswept—Ill-Luck of succeeding
an Ejected Tenant.
AMONG the numerous interesting small isles lying off
the large Isle of Skye, the group called the Shiant Isles is worthy of note.
They rise to a height of about 500 feet, presenting to the waves a
precipitous face of columnar basalt, much less regular than that of Staffa.
In some places, where the pillars have fallen, the rock to which they were
attached has a smooth surface, as if the columnar form were merely
superficial. The puffin and the guillemot, and myriads of sea-fowl of every
description, here make their homes, and hold undisputed possession of the
site of a ruined Chapel, around which some ascetics of olden days made their
lowly cells. One of the islands has good pasturage, and I believe a shepherd
generally lives on the spot.
Very similar is the Isle of Flodigarry, also called
Eilean Alteveg, whose pillars are unusually large, but the lower part is
generally divided into sections, like a heap of gigantic millstones. Here
formerly stood a chapel sacred to St. Turos, but of its ruins we saw no
trace. All these islands and headlands have the same very striking
form—namely, a long sloping face of smooth grass to the west, and a
precipitous face eastward. Their position with regard to the points of the
compass varies, however, at different parts of the coast.
In very 3arly days, these islanders were thought worthy
of more spiritual care than falls to their lot now-a-days. There is hardly
one island on which some devoted Christian did not make his cell and build
his chapel. The more remote the island, the better it was cared for.
St. Kilda owns several such sites, to which indeed it
seems to owe its name. St. Ronan's oratory still remains on Isle Rena; but
in most cases the ruins have disappeared, and only the name of some saint,
perhaps with the prefix of Ku, to mark his cell, tells that here. once was
holy ground, the place where prayer was wont to be made.
Here and there we find some little islet bearing only
the name of Pabba, which is a corruption of Papa, or Father, the title
whereby these anchorite fathers were addressed in the Norse tongue. One such
isle lies off Skye, another off Harris, a third off Barra. We find Pappadil
in Rum, and divers isles off Orkney and Shetland are known as Papa, the
Father's Isle, telling their own history of those eaIIy servants of the
Cross. Some, indeed, say that these Culdees were merely hermits (Cuil-dich,
men of seclusion), who sought these desolate "clippings of the earth" as the
loneliest spots in which they could hide from their species. Be that as it
may, there can be no doubt that they did devote themselves to teaching the
people, and in some measure succeeded in instilling a very grey, clouded
sort of light.
For the result of their labours was much like what has
been recorded of that of the priest of Samaria, who was brought to Bethel to
teach time nations how they should fear the Lord. Their pupils took so
kindly to both faiths, that we are told "they feared the Lord and served
their own gods, their graven images, their children, and their children's
There was as strange a blending of faith as of race
when these wild Norsemen and Cults first began to amalgamate. The new
Christian faith retained 80 many of the practices of old Paganism, that at
times it was hard to tell which claimed the upper hand; and the people are
described as having generally been "Christians, in time of peace, but always
certain to invoke the aid of Thor, when sailing on any dangerous
At a later date they used to induce the priests to
sprinkle the sea with holy water, as an infallible means of procuring plenty
of herring! and, at least until the year 1660, the custom prevailed on
Hallow-e'en of wading into the sea, with a cup of ale, which was poured out
as a libation to Shony, a sea-god, who was implored to send abundant
sea-ware for the good of the land. After this the people adjourned to the
church, and from the church to the fields —to spend the night in feasting
Of course the Sea-going folk were sure to retain their
old superstitions to the last, and it reads curiously in an account of the
launch of Clan Ronald's galley, as sung by an old Celtic bard, to find,
first a fervent prayer to the Holy Trinity for the safety of the ship; and
that" He Who knows every harbour under the sun may render the breath of the
sky propitious, and urge the vessel over the waters, uninjured, to a safe
haven;" and then to find that, to make assurance doubly sure, a lie-goat had
been suspended from the mast, to secure a favourable wind! This double
precaution seems to have failed in its object, for soon after leaving South
Uist, a terrible storm arose, and the bard tells how "the awful world of
waters drew on its rough mantle of thick darkness, swelling into mountains,
and sinking into glens," and how the tall masts of good red pine were
shivered by the tempest. Not till they reached the Strait of Isla did Ocean
make peace with these mariners, "and dismissed this host of winds to the
upper regions of the air, leaving the waters smooth as a polished mirror."
The unhappy goat which thus adorned Clan Ronald's mast,
reminds us how, when the first crusade set 'forth from France and Britain,
the Christian hosts carried with them a goose and a goat to which they
rendered homage, believing the Holy Spirit to be present within them.
Thus, too, it was that in the early glimmering of that
grey dawn there existed such strange anomalies as that Christian Rewald,
King of the East Saxons, who erected in his churches two altars, at one of
which he offered sacrifices to Christ, and at the other to devils; a species
of hedging not peculiar to the dark ages, for a recent writer on India tells
us of a Hindu convert who, while firmly believing the Christian creed, and
worshipping the Saviour, would nevertheless never pass an image of any of
the Hindu gods, or even a sacred stone daubed with red paint, without
kneeling down to worship it; for she used to say, "Maybe there's something
The extent to which these Pagan rites were tolerated,
even in later days, seems strange indeed. But the conciliatory policy of the
mediawal Christians made room for every species of heathen observance,
provided the people would submit to baptism. It was the same policy which in
Rome itself suggested christening the idol-image of Jupiter, and so
converting it into that adorable statue of St.-Peter, which the people might
thenceforward worship to their hearts' content, and whose sacred toes have
ever since continued to receive such enthusiastic kisses from the Christians
of all successive generations.
It was by adopting the symbols revered by the people,
and giving them new meanings,—by sprinkling sacred stones with Holy Water,
and by dedicating Holy Wells to Christian saints,—that the early teachers
enlisted the local affections of the people on behalf of the new faith, and
the old rites being retained, in course of ages true Christian churches were
built on the identical spots where the heathen idolatries had so long
prevailed. Such was the origin of our glorious cathedrals of Canterbury and
Westminster; of St. Paul's, St. Martin's, St. Pancras's, and many another
time-honoured place of worship. The tradition concernijg Westminster is that
it was built on the site of the Temple of Apollo.
Sometimes when Christian sanctuaries were built on
Pagan sites, the very stones dear to the heathen were retained within the
new church. A curious instance of this may be seen to this day in Spain,
where at the hermitage of St. Michael at Arrichinaga, in the province of
Biscay, a church has been built, actually enclosing the huge stones of a
great dolmen, between which is placed the shrine of the saint. Thus the
original veneration for the sacred stones was sanctified by the saintly
combination. This Christian church is so modern as to prove that the
reverence for the great stones must have continued till a very recent
I cannot but think that a similar policy accounts for a
peculiarity of several ancient Christian stone altars (one of which you may
see in a side chapel of Norwich Cathedral), where a square grey stone,
measuring perhaps eighteen inches across, is inserted into a large stone
slab of quite different formation and colour. It serves to cover the hidden
relic which gave sanctity to the altar, and was itself Christianized by
being marked with five small crosses (symbolizing the five wounds of
Christ). Nevertheless, it seems probable that these blue-grey stones which
were exalted to such honour, were themselves originally objects of heathen
I am told that nowhere are the traces of this
amalgamation more marked than in the highlands of Auvergne, once the
stronghold of Druidism, and the province of all others where Paganism
longest reigned in France. Here we are told that idolatrous worship lingered
till very recent times; and though the Council of Clermont fulminated
anathemas against those who worshipped stones—who carried the Eucharist to
the graves, who ate meats offered to devils—still the old rites went on. So
that a May-day or a Midsummer's-eve in Auvergne still afford us some
remarkable instances of Christianized heathendom.
In glancing eastward and westward, nothing is more
striking than the strong grip which this tendency to ancestor and devil-
worship seems ever to have had over the human mind. Whatever waves of faith
may have passed over a land—whether Christian, Mohammedan, Buddhist, or
Brahmin—and however each may have striven, by gentle means or by the sword,
to put it down, the crushed faith has still been treasured in secret, and
though its own votaries are generally ashamed to confess it, still nothing
will induce them to give it up. Thus it still exists all over the earth,
independent of the reigning faith, whatever that may be, and actually in
opposition to its teaching.
But of all old superstitions, that which we find most
constantly cropping up is the practice of the dejaul, that is, a turn
southward, following the course of the sun, such as the custom of rowing a
boat sunwise at first starting, or of walking thrice sunwise round any
person to whom one wishes good-luck. At the new year, when the sun begins
its yearly revolution, a cow's hide used in like manner to be carried thrice
round the house, following the course of the sun.
The word deisul is derived from deas, the right hand,
and Rul, the sun; the right hand being always kept next to that object round
which the turn was made. I believe deas literally means the south, which
lies on the right hand when the face looks eastward; but the word is used to
denote everything which is right and well doing. A person turning against
the course of the sun faces the west, and everything becomes unlucky. His
right hand will then be to the north, tuath, and the very word tuatliaisd,
denotes a stupid person; hence the words dei8Ul and tuathail are in Gaelic
equivalent to right and wrong.
This contrary turn from right to left was called
widder8hin8, or carlua-8u1. It was only made when invoking a curse on some
particular object. Thus evil-doers and malignant witches began the devil's
work by so many turns against the course of the sun. Among the confessions
of a wretched schoolmaster accused of witch- craft, and tortured in presence
of James VI. and his Privy Council, he is shown to have gone round the
church of North Berwick in a contrary direction to the sun, after which he
merely blew upon the lock, and the door opened. For this and similar
offences the wretched man was burnt alive. (Times had changed, since a
precisely similar action ascribed to St. Columba had been extolled as a
Whatever may have been the virtue derived from these
singular solar turns, we find them again and again alluded to in the history
of various ancient nation.
Even in the sacred page we may trace their symbolical
use; most notably in that strange account of the miraculous siege of
Jericho, when by Divine command the host of Israel was made to compass the
city thirteen times in awful silence, unbroken save by the dread sound of
the seven sacred trumpets borne by the seven priests who preceded the Holy
On seven successive days were Joshua and his men of war
bidden to form a vast procession, escorting the priests who bore the ark,
and, having marched once round the doomed city in the sight of its
wondering, and doubtless mocking, people, they were then to return silently
to their camp. But on the seventh day they were commanded to compass the
city seven times, and when the trumpets sounded, then the whole multitude
joined in a shout so mighty that it seemed to rend the very heaven, and even
as they did so the strong foundations were shaken, and the battlemented
walls crumbled and fell to the ground, and the Israelites marched up
straight before them and possessed the city that had been thus marvellously
given into their hands.
Some idea of the mysterious virtue attached to these
sunwise turns may perhaps be the reason that the Jews, in several different
countries, thus march seven times round their newly-coffined dead. In Pagan
records we find the same customs common to both Greeks and Romans. There is
also historical evidence of their having been practised by the (hula three
thousand years ago. Virgil mentions them among the funeral rites of Pallas,
when the mourners first marched thrice in sad procession round the funeral
pile, then, mounting their steeds, again made the same sad circuit three
times, amid wails of sorrow.
Among the Santhals (sun-worshipping aborigines of
India) the corpse is carried thrice round the funeral pyre, and laid
thereon; the next of kin then makes a torch of grass, and after walking
three times round the pile in silence, touches the mouth of the deceased
with the flaming brand, averting his own face. After this the friends and
kindred gather round, all facing the south, and set fire to the pyre.
The same ceremony is observed by every devout Hindoo.
In the days of suttee, now happily gone by, the wretched young widow walked
thus thrice sunwise round the funeral pyre whereon lay the body of her
deceased lord, before she ventured to lie down beside him, to await her
horrible death. I have myself often watched either the Brahmins or the
nearest relations of the dead walk thrice sunwise round the funeral pyre
before they applied the torch. In their pilgrimage round the holy city of
Benares and other places of pilgrimage they follow the same course.
With them, however, this homage to the sun is a natural
part of their daily worship, wherein he is adored as the true light of
Brahma, filling earth and heaven, the foe of darkness, the destroyer of
every sin. Therefore the worshipper bows to the great cause of day, and
making a turn toward the south, exclaims, "I follow the course of the sun.
As he in his course moves through the world by the way of the south, so do
I, in following him, obtain the merit of a journey round the world by way of
So in the Himalayas. The prayer-wheels are always
turned sunwise, and it is held to be iniquitous to turn them in the opposite
direction; hence the great unwillingness of the people to allow us to touch
them. In Thibet also, where they build long terraces engraven with forms of
adoration, there is always a path on each side of them, so that the people
in passing by, may go on one side and return by the other, sunwise. When
they dance round their idols, or go in procession round their temples, the
same course is always followed, just as it has been in all ages by the
followers of Buddha, whether in Thibet, Nepaul, Burmah, or Ceylon, where it
has ever been accounted an act of merit to walk sunwise round every dagoba,
or relic shrine, in the land.
Thus, too, the devout Mahommedan completes his
meritorious pilgrimage to Mecca by making the circuit of the Caaba seven
In the Christian churches of Abyssinia the officiating
priests, bearing the cross and incense, thus march three times round the
altar, with slow and solemn step, at the end of each part of the service. I
suppose the custom is common to all the Greek Church, As in the marriage
ceremony (every part of which is thrice repeated) the young couple, having
thrice drunk from the chalice and thrice kissed the cross, conclude by
following the priest thrice sunwise round the altar.
All Russian sects likewise order their processions so
as to follow the sun's course, and I have little doubt that some insensible
trace of homage to the dei8ul has ordered the course of our own
ecclesiastical processions round churches on the day of consecration, when,
beginning at the east, they go round the south aisle to the west, a course
which I believe is invariable, and not otherwise accounted for.
That this was the daily custom of our ancestors is well
known; and at Stonehenge we can still distinguish the earthen path
encompassing the temple, whereby the priests and people passed on their
We need not go far for instances of the deisul. At our
own tables, the bottles are always sent round following the course of the
sun, and to reverse their journey has always been held unlucky.' Should a
bottle be thoughtlesly diverted from its course, a true Highlander will turn
it round before sending it on. Not that this feeling is peculiar to the
north. The remark of a Lincolnshire servant concerning a helper whose
waiting at table had been commended, shows that the old instinct is still
alive: "Oh! I did not think much of his waiting! He went round the table
against the sun."
Many quaint instances of the practice of the deisul are
recorded in Martin's 'Tour in the Hebrides,' a curious old book published in
1690. For instance, when the men of Lewis made expeditions to the rocky
island of St. Flanuan, in pursuit of sea-fowl, as soon as they had effected
the difficult landing, they uncovered their heads, and made a turn eunwise,
thanking God for their safety. They then repaired to the little chapel of
St. Flannan, on approaching which they stripped off their upper garments and
laid them on a great stone set there on purpose, after which they advanced
on their knees towards the chapel, and 80 went round the little building in
procession—just as the undoes in the Himalayas do now. 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 islanders used to say that even the birds of the
air were taught by nature to follow the deisul; more especially noting how,
the puffin, on its arrival in March, makes a tour round the island sunwise,
before it will settle on the ground, and observes the same ceremony before
its departure in August—therefore, they said it was assuredly right that
they should make a similar turn with their boat before starting for the
In Lewis Mr. Martin met the parish minister, who had
just returned from his first visit to the distant Isle of St. Ronan, where
the people had greeted him with the assurance that he was expected, as they
had beheld him by second sight. In spite of his protests they made their
sunwise turn round him. They then slew five sheep, one for each family—and
making sacks of their skins, at once filled thorn with barley meal, which
they presented to him as being a stranger.
The idea of luck was, as we have seen, connected with
the south, the right hand being described as the south hand. Therefore a
bride must, at the marriage service, be led east by south, westward, to the
side of her future husband; and if the young couple hope for any luck in the
future, they must begin their wedded life by making a turn sunwise. Likewise
at the churching of women, and at burials, this custom was commonly observed
till quite recently. Every village had its lucky spot round which the dead
were so carried.
It appears also as if the unaccountable prejudice
against burying the dead on the north side of a church was due to the same
insensible reverence for the sun (the source of all purity and light),
towards whose rising the sleepers were to look as they lay with their feet
turned eastward. The abode of the evil spirit lay to the north, away from
the sun's gracious influences. Hence the crowd of graves invariably found on
the south side of almost every country churchyard, whether in Scotland,
Wales, or England, while on the north side there are probably none, save
perhaps the tiny green mounds that mark the burial-place of some unbaptized
infant, or the unhallowed tomb of a suicide.
The same curious fact has been remarked by antiquaries
in their researches among the graves of the Ancient Britons. They tell us
that in examining their burial hills, all the interments, however numerous,
are invariably on the south side. Out of several hundred burrows examined in
different parts of the country, only two instances are recorded in which
human remains were found to the north of the tumulus.
The perpetual recurrence of the terms east and west in
the mouth of a genuine Highlander of course originate in the same feeling.
If you ask a man into your house, you bid him "come west," quits
irrespective of the points of the compass. To bid him come east, however
true geographically, would be gross insult, involving ill- luck. Once within
the house, the host gives his guest a dram, and bids him "Put it west his
throat," implying good-will in the swallowing of it. A lad courting a lass
is said to be "putting it west upon her."
If you bid a man take some work in hand heartily, you
bid him "put it west," or "put west your foot." Hence the answer of a poor
old man to whom a bolus had been recommended for his often infirmities.
Being asked if he had taken it, he replied, "Na, mom! It wadna gang east!"
meaning that it was so utterly against the grain. I suppose, however, we
must refer merely to the points of the compass the question lately asked us
by an old woman at the post-office, whether she must stamp her letter in the
east or west corner!
The only exception to this rule of good and evil luck
which has ever come to my knowledge is in the case of divination by smoke,
when it seems to be accounted the luckiest omen that the smoke should drift
eastward towards the rising sun.
A quaint instance of this old superstition came under
the notice of the minister of Nether-Lochaber in the autumn of 1872. An old
man had gone to a distant market to sell a colt. He was absent so long that
the wife grew anxious, more especially desiring to know whether he had been
successful in getting the price they had agreed to ask for the colt. So she
heaped up a big fire, and sent out her young daughter to gather a bundle of
green alder boughs. These she placed on the fire ; then going outside the
cottage, watched to see in what direction the smoke would drift as it issued
from the chimney. It so chanced that it floated eastward, and the wife
turned to her daughter well-pleased, saying she knew all was well, for she
had never known that omen fail.
Nor did it do so in this case, for a few hours later
the gudeman returned, having sold his colt for a price considerably higher
than be had expected. It seems that the only condition necessary to working
this spell is, that the alder boughs must be gathered with definite
reference to the case in point, and by the hand of a maiden.
If these two points are not rigidly observed, the
augury will fail, and the smoke will drift aimlessly to and fro; the
direction of the wind is apparently a matter of no consequence! The
ever-observant narrator of the above, adds that this particular form of
witchcraft was common both among the Greeks and Romans, and was known to the
students of magic as capnomancy, that is, divination of smoke. It seems,
however, that when the priests drew auguries from the smoke of the
sacrifices, the most hopeful omen was that the column of smoke should ascend
Perhaps the most remarkable use of the terms east and
west occurs in the old version of the creed in Gaelic; which tells how our
Lord "went East" into the place of the dead, and "went West" into Heaven.
One remarkable survival of an old superstition, which
is still commonly believed in throughout the North-West Highlands and Isles,
is that scrofula can certainly be cured by the touch of "the seventh son of
a woman, never a girl or wench being born between." A gentleman from the
Long Island states that in the Isle of Lewis it is customary for the seventh
son to give a silver sixpence with a hole in it to each patient. The coin is
strung, and the sufferer must constantly wear it round his neck. Should he
lose it, the malady returns. Age is of no account in the exercise of this
magic gift. The smallest child may heal the aged man; all that is requisite
is that some one should take the little hand and apply it to the sore.
In some cases the touch is applied "In the Name of the
Most Holy Trinity, one God, Who only works cures."
Is it not somewhat startling to reflect that until the
year A.D. 1719 a very solemn service was retained in our own Book of Common
Prayer, to be used "At the Healing,"—that is to say, when the same work of
miraculous cure was effected by the touch of the British sovereign! The
office appointed by the Church to be said on these occasions was quietly
omitted from the Prayer Book by command of George I., who altogether
discouraged the superstition. Yet the practice was only finally relinquished
by George III.
As to the Jacobite party, they retained their faith in
the Stuart touch to the very last. Thus, when Charles Edward was at Avignon,
certain sufferers were taken to him there; others were brought to him at
Holyrood. Of course there was every reason why he should cling to a
prerogative which belonged only to him who was king by Divine right.
For while the ban of the Church was pronounced against
all seventh eons who dared to exercise this healing art, there was, as we
have seen, a special liturgy appointed for use when the sufferers were
brought to the King,—a practice sanctioned by both the Kirk anl the Law,
inasmuch as "daily experience doth witness that Kings and Queens do possess
this speciall gift of God, to heall with only touching."
This custom was first introduced by Edward the
Confessor in 1058, and was continued by his successors. So we hear that
Charles I. did on St. John's Day 1633 visit Holyrood Chapel, and there "heallit
100 persons, young and old, of the Cruelles, or King's Evil."
In the days of his captivity, when a rude soldiery
would not suffer the poor cripples to come near the royal person, the King
prayed aloud that God would grant their petition, and that prayer, says the
historian, was granted, although the touch was thus prevented. Charles II.
actually touched ninety-two thou8and one hundred and seven such patients,
being an average of twelve per diein for twenty years. Verily he had "a
doctor's trouble, but without the fees!"
In fact, he paid the fees, as he restored the custom of
giving to each sick person a broad gold piece, instead of the "beggarly
silver coin" which his predecessors had substituted for the original "fair
rose-noble." According to Wiseman, the King's physician, scarcely one
instance occurred in which the Royal touch failed to accomplish a cure.
Indeed, not he alone, but a host of learned divines and surgeons wrote
treatises on the subject, declaring their perfect faith in this miraculous
power. Even in the days of good Queen Bess, an eminent surgeon, in a
professional work on the treatment of this disease, declares his confident
belief that when all the other methods of cure have failed, people may
expect sure relief from the touch of Her Majesty.
Nevertheless, when vain men and women dared to practise
soothing mesmeric passes and "stroking," the cures which they sometimes
performed were invariably attributed to witchcraft, just as magic was
suspected, when the Egyptian priests of old proved that "by touching with
the hands," or "stroking with gentle bands," they could immediately restore
to health those to whom medicines had proved of no avail.
In early days these royal physicians signed their
patients with the Cross; but this was discontinued when the wrath of Rome
was fulminated against Protestant kings, to whom, nevertheless, Catholics,
as well as patients of other creeds, continued to come for relief. In fact,
as if to prove how powerless was the anathema of the Pope to check this gift
of Heaven, we find Henry VIII. not content with miraculously curing all
scrofula-stricken patients who came to him, but also such as were afflicted
with cruel cramps. The former he cured by the usual royal process of
stroking; while on the latter he bestowed magical rings, known as cramp
So strictly orthodox, however, were these miracles,
that Church and State alike clung jealously to them, as to a most precious
item of regal prerogative, and so late as 1684 (while presumptuous subjects
who dared to work similar cures were condemned as wizards and witches), we
are told bow one Thomas Russell was tried for high treason, because he had
spoken with contempt of the King's touch.
The practice of bestowing on every patient a gold coin,
suspended from the neck by a white ribbon, was first introduced by Henry
VII. in the gladness of finding that he indeed possessed the regal gift of
healing, just as truly as that poor Richard whose Divine right to the throne
he failed to acknowledge.
Charles II., as we have seen, dealt out his ninety-two
thousand cures and golden coins with liberal hand, but in later days a
trifling silver coin was substituted. Such an one was bestowed by Queen Anne
on the infant Dr. Samuel Johnson, and is still preserved as a relic by the
Duke of Devonshire. It is strange, indeed, to think of the great embodiment
of heavy learning having been subjected to this quaint remedy for his
infantile pains. He speaks of his earliest recollections of Queen Anne, as a
lady dressed in a black hood, and glittering with diamonds, into whose awful
presence he had been ushered in his infancy, that by her royal touch she
might cure him of his sore disease!
The same strange power has always been claimed by the
Kings of France, as part of their Divine right. So early as A.D. 481 it was
practised by Clovis. And we are told that on Easter Day 1686 Lewis XIV.
touched sixteen hundred people, saying to each, "Le roy te touche, Dieu te
When royalty refused any longer to practise this
healing art, a substitute was found, noways flattering to the royal touch.
It was discovered that rubbing the body of a patient with the dead hand of a
criminal who had been executed, was a certain and instant cure for the
King's Evil. Such a hand had other good qualities as well, and even in the
beginning of the present century, it would sell for a considerable sum, the
executioner at Newgate deriving large monies from this little perquisite.
But the corpses of criminals have ever possessed a
mystic value, and they hold a distinct place in the pharmacy of our
ancestors. "The moss which grows on the skull of a man that hath been
hanged" possessed marvellous curative properties, and was a rare ingredient
in precious salves. In Caithness and elsewhere the skull of a suicide, used
as a drinking cup, was considered to be a sure cure for epilepsy, and the
corpses of such were liable to be dug up in order to obtain this precious
treasure. (Probably the special value attributed to ivory in the
pharmacopceia of our ancestors lent additional merit to the skull.)
Perhaps in a malady so mysterious as epilepsy - one
whose horrible characteristics so strangely resemble those attributed to
demoniacal possession—we need scarcely wonder to find that in dealing with
it the people have ever been more inclined to trust to the efficacy of
propitiatory sacrifices, than to the leech's skill.
Consequently, in our own Western Highlands, and in some
of the border counties, it was till very recently, quite a common ceremony
to kill a cock beside the sick man, and either bury it beneath the floor of
the cottage, or at least let its blood trickle into a hole in the floor. To
this was probably added some of the patient's hair, and some parings of his
nails! (A curious survival of the old belief that when "one possessed" had
been exorcised, the malignant spirits, driven from the heart and head, took
refuge in the hair, or concealed themselves beneath the nails.)
It is not very many years since a fisherman in the
flourishing town of Nairn died suddenly in an epileptic fit. The doctor
being a man well loved, and who possessed the full confidence of the people,
was told by the sorrowing relations that they had at least the comfort of
knowing that they had done everything that was possible on his behalf. On
further inquiry, he found that they, had buried a cock alive beneath his
bed, and they pointed out the spot, with evident satisfaction.
In the same town he was shown two spots on the public
road where epileptics had fallen, and where cocks had been buried alive to
appease the demon. This ceremony is in the records of earlier days described
as "the yirding (earthing) of a quik cok in the grund," and is classed as a
sacrifice to devils; consequently the actors will rarely confess to having
taken part therein, but give an evasive answer, as if fearing to offend the
Evil Power by any positive denial.
Sir James Simpson mentions several instances within his
own knowledge, in which this strange remedy has been resorted to, for the
cure of fits, epilepsy, and insanity. In one case a cock was killed and
deposited in a hole in the kitchen floor, on the spot where a child had
fallen down in a fit of convulsions; and a Ross- shire lassie told him that
the neighbours were urging her mother to try the like cure for the same
He also speaks of the sacrifice of cats, moles, and
other animals. Thus, at Nigg, in Ross-shire, a lad being attacked with
epilepsy, his friends laid on his head a plate, and above it, held a living
mole, by the tail. They then cut off its head, and allowed the blood to drip
on to the plate. Three moles were thus killed in succession, but without
This offering a life for a life is the common Hindoo
practice in cases of sickness. Various domestic animals are brought into the
room, from a belief that they will absorb the noxious principles of disease,
and act as disinfectants. When they are supposed to have done their work,
they are thrown from the window. Even in the case of so enlightened a prince
as the young Rajah of Kalopore, whose death at Florence was a cause of so
much regret, the presence of four European physicians would have been
considered by no means sufficient had these traditional Hindoo prescriptions
been neglected; and as the Florentine authorities might justly have objected
had these wretched animals been cast from the windows into the street, they
were thrown down into an open courtyard!
Among the Santhals, and various other tribes both of
Northern and Southern India, it is customary in every case of dangerous
illness to sacrifice a cock beside the patient, to whatever demon is
supposed to have caused his malady. A live cock is also nailed to the
In Algeria, the Moors and negroes drown living cocks in
a sacred well, as the surest cure for epilepsy and madness.
Akin to these memories of the old pagan creeds and
rites of our ancestors, are various quaint customs and superstitions which
still linger in many an out-of-the-way corner of the Isles and Highlands;
also a multitude of dreamy old legends and traditions, which, to some minds,
may seem to be mere idle folly, but of which the most trivial details do
possess a. special value,—an interest deeper than their own, linking them to
tales of the far East, and affording clues to guide us backward through the
mazes of lost antiquarian lore. Already they are but scattered fragments,
which must be carefully gathered together, by those who know their worth,
for the ban of kirk and school he heavily on all that savours of
superstition. Even the old stories are losing favour; and though the young
folk still listen, there are no longer such gatherings as there were a few
years back, when fifty or sixty people would crowd round some Father of the
Clachan to hear one wild legend after another.
One such man used to live at Broadford in the Isle of
Skye, who told wondrous tales of the Elan na Fernior, Island of the Big Men,
that is, the opposite Isle of Raasay, where huge bones of some extinct race
of giants are still shown in the kirk.
He told also of the Picts, or little men, whose curious
"bee-hive houses," built under ground, chamber within chamber, still puzzle
the antiquaries in Lewis and Uist; unless, indeed, they have been contest to
accept Campbell of Islay's suggestion of the strange likeness between these
old houses and those in common use among the little Lapps of the present
day. Both are alike sunk in the ground, so that to the passer-by they appear
but as grassy conical hillocks, with a hole at the top to act as chimney for
the fire which burns in the centre of the hut—a chimney through which a man
standing upright might suddenly thrust his head, greatly to the amazement of
Round these huts, say the old Gaelic fairy-tales, the
little men drove their herds of wild deer, and the little women came forth
to milk the hinds; just as, at the present day, the little Lapps still drive
the wild deer down from the mountains and the little Lapp women milk the
hinds, and give the traveller reindeer cream in bowls of birch-wood.
And in case any foolish unbeliever should doubt, as
some have doubted, the existence of rein-deer on our Scottish hills, and
should venture to suggest that our wild red deer never would submit tamely
to be thus herded and driven about, we refer him to the old Orkney Saga,
which tells how, in the eleventh century, when Harold and Ronald, Earls of
Orkney, made peace after their deadly feuds, they came over to Caithness to
hunt the rein-deer; and they and their merry men feasted abundantly on their
venison, and left a great store of bones, both of red deer and rein-deer, as
a special legacy to Professor Owen, and for the discomfiture of the
incredulous, for there the bones remain to this day.
So, after all, it is probable that the fairy tales
which tell of the little people who lived in the grassy hillocks and milked
the wild deer are true stories, only spiritualized by the mists of time and
The old man of Broadford was "weel acquaint" with the
old wife in Lewis to whom windbound sailors told their griefs, whereupon she
would give them a rope with three knots, bidding them never unfasten the
third. And sure enough, when they undid the first knot a gentle breeze would
rise, and at the second there sprung up a good stiff gale; but once a rash
mariner was so mad as to undo the third, and straightway a wild hurricane
swept over land and sea, and the boats were wrecked, and the men only
escaped with their lives to rue their comrade's presumption. Is this not a
curious nineteenth-century edition of the old accounts of the Druid
priestesses of L'Isle de Sam, off Brest, who, in the days of Strabo, used to
govern the winds by their wild songs, and sell a gale to all devout
This old man would also tell how it came to pass that
so many soldiers had returned safe to the Isles after the French and Spanish
campaigns. All because "there was a blind man in Broadford who was able to
put the charm upon them. On each in turn he laid his hands, and they went
away looking straight before them. One man half turned his head and saw his
own shoulder—an evil omen—and sure enough he lost that arm; but though the
bails fell round the others as thick as peas, they were nowise hurt, but
returned as living proofs of the blind man's power."
As to the stories of witchcraft in the present day,
they are still numberless. The old poacher told how he himself had been
following a fine hart and stag in the cornea, when suddenly, to his
amazement, they were transformed into a man and woman. He watched them
tremblingly, thanking his stars that he had not fired on them; when, in the
twinkling of an eye, he once more beheld only a couple of deer feeding in
the twilight. Had he only been possessed of a silver sixpence, he would
surely have had a shot at them; but a common bullet was useless against such
game, so he just stalked them for awhile, and again saw them resume their
natural form, when he cautiously crept away down the glen, and was right
glad to find himself once more in safe quarters!
I think, however, he must have appropriated to himself
some Gaelic legend of olden times, as the same story occurs in one of the
very oldest Hindoo poems, in which the Rajah Pandu goes out hunting, and
shoots his arrows at a very fine stag and bind, which straightway resume
human form, and appear as a Brahmin and his wife, who, turning on the
luckless archer, curse him with a terrible curse.
As regards the silver bullet or coin, as a
witch-antidote, its efficacy is beyond all question.
The boat-builder who knows his trade must place a
crooked sixpence in the keel of every boat. (and should she prove an
unusually bonnie craft, her owner will probably do his best to start her on
her first sail without spectators, lest any, beholding, should covet her,
and so work mischief). The fishers of the good old school have full faith in
the power of the silver coin to avert mischief from themselves as well as
from their boats, and a sixpence placed in the heel of the stocking, is even
a more important wedding ceremony, than the cross drawn on the door-post to
keep off the witches.
The stories that tell how certain "ill-women" from the
Isle of Raasay were turned into seals, are matters of undoubted credence.
So are a hundred instances in which (now in the present
day) women spite one another, by destroying the milk of their neighbour's
cow—a fact which I have again and again heard most gravely asserted in
various parts of Scotland by men and women who in most respects were
sensible and clear-headed enough. They believe that if only a woman can
privately gather a handful of grass from the roof of her neighbour's
cow-shed, all the milk will pass from her neighbour's cow to her own pail;
and in proof of their superstition, they point out how so and so has
invariably twice as much milk as her own cows could possibly yield, and how
she always brings a double weight of butter to the market.
I must not betray the names of old friends, but I know
of divers hill-side bothies where a bowl of rich cream or curds is always
ready, and freely offered, greatly to the scandal of jealous neighbours, who
believe it to be all the produce of the black art. One of the principal
inhabitants of a northern town assured me she had, with her own eyes, seen a
woman preparing to make cheese, and that all her pans were filled to the
brim, though it was well known that two of her cows were dry, and a third
scarcely yielding sufficient milk for the family.
Of such an one it is common to say, "Oh! she must have
been drawing the tether;" meaning that early on Beltane morn, ere her
neighbours were astir, she had gone forth secretly, dragging her cow's
tether through the dewy grass all round her field, and muttering
incantations to secure good milk!
On one occasion two women were caught in the very act
of brushing the May dew from the pastures with a long hair tether. They
fled, leaving their tether behind them. The man who found it, hung it above
the door of the cow-byre. The consequence was that the dairy-maids could not
find pails enough to hold the supply of milk. But the farmer thought this
was uncanny, so he burnt the rope, on which were a number of knots, every
one of which exploded like a pistol-shot, in the fire. In preparing such a
tether, the hair of a different cow must be used for each knot.
When under-hand dealings of this sort are suspected, a
counter- charm must at once be applied. Such an one came under the notice of
Mr. Carmichael, in Uist, in the summer of 1874. It is known as the Eulan an
Torranain, or Wise-woman Wisdom, which not only insures a cow against the
evil eye, but causes her to give quantities of rich milk.
The Torranain was described to him as a large
snow-white blossom, growing in rocky places on the hills, which fills with
the dew of bliss while the tide is flowing, and slowly dries up again during
the ebbing. Therefore, to obtain the virtue of the flower, it must be
gathered during the flow of the tide, and then placed under one of the
milk-pails; not, however, till it has been waved over it thrice in a sunwise
circle, while slowly and solemnly chanting the Eolas, an incantation in
which St. Columba, St. Bride, St. Oran, and St. Michael, of the high-crested
steeds, are all called upon to lend their aid to win the nine blessings.
The combination of the old planet worship, traceable in
the reverence for tides and the s'unwise circle, with the appeal to
Christian saints, is noteworthy. Mr. Carmichael's informant did not know the
flower, but said she would gladly give one pound for the information, and
that she had travelled far to see an old man (a descendant of the celebrated
herbalists, the Bethunes of Skye, Mull, and Islay), who knows much about
flowers, but his wife would on no account allow him to tell her, and rated
her soundly for daring to come to her house on such unholy missions,
supposing she wanted to take away her neighbour's milk!
I believe that at the present day there is scarcely a
district in the Highlands in which some unlucky old wife is not shunned by
her neighbours from the conviction that she is not "canny." But so far from
maltreating her, they invariably make way for her at kirk and market, never
refusing anything she asks for, however inconvenient her request may be. One
such old woman we knew well, whose neighbours firmly believed that she
frequently assumed the form of a cat, and sat on the rafters to bewitch her
husband. She had the reputation of bewitching other people besides him, and
certain it is that dire evils befell those who incurred her hatred.
As to dissuading the people from consulting these
weird-wives they have ready answers in store. One woman will tell you how,
when she had no family, she consulted the old callhiach, and soon afterwards
became the joyful mother of children.
Another will tell how her milk went from her, and the
witch brought it back. She can bring luck too to the herring boats, so it
would be rash economy to save her puckle of meal.
Happy it is for these poor ignorant old wives that the
days are gone by when the kirk sessions used to vote supplies of fuel for
the burning of the witches, and when the clergy, as a matter of course,
stood by the funeral pyre, not, however, to comfort the poor victims, to
whose shrieks they could listen unmoved, as to those of expiring devils.
Little mercy awaited them from Romish priest or Protestant minister. They
were held by both alike to have renounced their baptism and so placed
themselves beyond the reach of God's mercy; and while no priest would shrive
one accused of the black art, however penitent she might be, no more could
the Reformers find one glimmer of hope for such an one. Luther decreed that
all such must be burnt; and John Knox stood by the fire to "mak sicker."
So admirable a thing as the destruction of a witch was
held to be work meet for the day of rest, "a sanctifying" of the Sabbath!
And there were even cases of church services being omitted in order that
minister and people might be present at the burning.
The brutalities to which these poor ignorant women were
subjected are almost incredible, though our ancestors seem to have
considered them quite right and proper.
There were actually men appointed in every district,
known as prickera or witch-finders, who received from the kirk sessions and
Court of Justiciary sums averaging six pounds Scota for every witch whom
they discovered. In some instances the clergy themselves became witch-prickers.
It was supposed that every witch and wizard bore the
devil's mark, which was simply a small discoloured spot, which would neither
feel pain nor bleed, though a large pin were thrust through it. So soon,
therefore, as any person was suspected of witchcraft (no matter how young
and delicate a maiden, or how venerable a grand-dame), she was seized and
stripped naked, bound with ropes, and pricked all over with sharp needles.
Screams of agony were of no avail. The witch-pricker continued his devilish
work till the exhausted victim could scream no more. Whereupon at the next
thrust of the needle it was declared that the mark had been found!
Then sometimes for a whole week the tormentors took it
by turns to watch, and keep the poor sufferer awake, lest in her dreams she
should commune with Satan, as also in hopes of extorting semi- delirious
confessions; the watchers themselves relieved guard every four-and-twenty
After these preliminaries, the accused were delivered
to the tormentors to extort further confessions; and every form of torture
which the Arch-Fiend himself could have devised, was in turn practised upon
the poor quivering flesh. They were sprinkled with boiling pitch and
brimstone, which produced appalling sores—they were suspended in mid-air
while burning torches were held beneath their uplifted arms. Finger-nails
were wrenched off—red-hot tongs playfully gripped the bones, after burning
away the flesh; the limbs were crushed with screws and hammers, while a
witch-bridle (the four iron points of which pierced the tongue, the palate,
and both checks) was fastened on by a padlock at the back of the neck, and
thus, to an iron ring in the wall.
Sometimes the swimming test was applied. The victim was
dragged to a pond and thrown in with her thumbs and toes tied together. If
the merciful waters would receive and drown her, her innocence was proven.
But should they reject her and suffer her to float, she was guilty beyond
all doubt, and the hottest bonfire must be made ready for her. Then she was
dragged backwards by her hair to the court, lest by her looks she should
bewitch the judges, who then solemnly pronounced sentence in the name of the
most Holy Trinity. Thus, whether innocent or guilty, society was rid of the
Remember that all this devilish work was actually going
on in Scotland less than two hundred years ago, at which time one of the
witch-prickers, who for some of his misdeeds was most righteously hanged,
confessed on the gibbet "that he had illegally caused the death of one
hundred and twenty females whom he had been appointed to test for
It certainly sounds rather as if the judges themselves
had been bewitched, when we read the accounts of the successive witch-
manias that have overspread this land. For instance, at the close of the
searching reign of the Long Parliament, a list was drawn up of three
thousand victims who had actually suffered death by its command on the most
Even in the year 1716 it is recorded that a woman and
her daughter, aged nine, were hanged at Huntingdon for selling their souls
to the devil, and raising a storm, by pulling off their stockings and making
a lather of soap. Six years later another luckless witch was executed at
Dornoch! But I regret to say that my own county—the fair Laich of Moray—was
the last to learn lessons of mercy, for an old atone near the town of Forres
marks the spot where the very last witch-burning occurred.
It is a remarkable fact that the commencement of this
diabolical persecution should have been coeval with the invention of that
great civilizer, the printing-press, one of whose first missions was to
disseminate a stringent bull fulminated against witchcraft by Pope Innocent
VIII., wherein, under the title of "Hammers for Witches," he minutely
described how all such might be recognized, and how punished. The flame thus
kindled spread like wild-fire; nor did the Reformation in any way lessen the
It was not till the year 1735 that the penal statutes
against 'witchcraft were formally repealed, a measure decried by many of the
clergy and other respected members of the community as direct disobedience
to the Levitical command, that no witch should be suffered to live. When the
reign of fire and faggot was thus finally abolished, it was calculated that
within three hundred years, upwards of thirty thousand people had been put
to death in England alone on the charge of sorcery, while in Germany the
number of victims could not have been less than one hundred thousand! Even
such as were acquitted would in many cases have preferred death, as the mere
suspicion seems to have placed them beyond the pale of human sympathy. They
were outcasts for ever, hunted and cursed by all, save those who needed
their arts, every conceivable form of evil being attributed to the agency of
"The Devil and his Haggs."
Now, as if penitent for past cruelty, the law does what
it can to protect those accused of such unholy deeds; for instance, in the
autumn of 1871 a case (by no means exceptional) was tried before the
sheriff, at Stornoway, for defamation, a man having formally accused a whole
family of having by witchcraft stolen the milk from his cows. He stuck to
his belief, and was fined five shillings and costs.
Still more frequent is the accusation of having
wilfully cast the evil eye on a neighbour's goods; and our northern sheriffs
have to decide many a case for slander and defamation, all turning on some
such vague accusation of witchcraft. For the dread of the evil eye is just
as great here as in the far East; and any one reputed to possess it, is
shunned as a living plague. Quits recently, I knew an instance of the people
on the beautiful west coast of Ross-shire refusing to let a woman settle
among them; and they even came to the proprietor to request that he would
not give her a stance (i. e. an allotment), because they declared she had
wicked eyes. To us, the young woman and her eyes seemed rather comely and
This certainly must be an unpleasant faculty for its
possessor. I was told by a very clever schoolmaster in the same district,
that he had often gone fishing with one of his friends, a very good fellow,
but one who was reputed to possess it involuntarily. All the other men in
the boat would watch him, and when they had a fish on their lines, would try
to draw it in secretly, for so surely as he observed them, their fish would
We know on how many of our north-country farms the
gude.wife who is busy at her churn or other household work, will bustle away
her goods at the approach of any dubious stranger, because she knows that
there are certain people whose presence will prevent the butter from coming,
or the cakes from baking.
We know, too, how vexed a hen-wife would be should she
catch us counting her chickens; and as to the experiment of counting a
string of fish-wives, it would be rash indeed to try it, for dire would be
the storm of tongues! Should you be cruel enough to count the fishers as
they get into their boat, they will probably refuse to go to sea that night,
after so evil an omen. This, however, arises rather from the old dread of
numbering the people, than from fear of the evil eye.
In the autumn of 1880 Mr. Fraser of Kilmuir, in Skye,
received a letter signed by the most influential members of the Free Church
at Uig, complaining of a family—a mother and five daughters—who "by evil
arts take the milk from the neighbours' cows." One woman went and spoke very
solemnly to the offenders concerning their great sin, and their consciences
must have smitten them, for when the reprover went home, the cows were
giving their milk all right. But very soon the charm must have been laid on
again, for the cows ceased giving milk.
On receiving the document, the proprietor, who was on
board his yacht, asked the skipper what he thought about it. The latter
replied that "he couldn't say. His own cow had recently been thus charmed,
but he knew another skeely woman, and sent for her. She came, and made a
sunwise turn round the cow, and twined red worsted in its tail, and the milk
came back / For this he paid her five shillings, but she told him that her
charm would only work for, three months, and after that, if the cow ought
still to be giving milk, she must be sent for again."
Again, in 1881, an office-bearer in the Free Church at
Uig went to a Justice of the Peace to make affirmation on oath, that
everything he had on his lands was bewitched by a woman who was his
neighbour, and should be sharply dealt with at once. The J.P., however,
refused to interfere.
That the will to work mischief is not always lacking,
is shown by the extraordinary number of cases, scattered all over Britain,
in which it has been proved that malevolent persons have made some sort of
image to represent home neighbour, and have then stuck it full of pins, with
a fall conviction that they would thereby compass his death.
It sounds like a story of the middle ages to hear of
women sitting by their own fireside modelling images of wax in order that as
these slowly melt, so he to whom they wish evil may likewise fade away. Yet
such a case actually came under our notice in the good town of Inverness,
where an old woman having conceived a violent hatred to her spiritual pastor
on account of his refusing her admission to the Holy Communion, took this
method of destroying him. It so happened that at that time he full into very
bad health, and as the old lady watched him growing gradually weaker and
weaker, she was fully satisfied that her charm was working effectually. She
was, however, doomed to disappointment, as her image was discovered and
betrayed; and her spell being broken, the victim rapidly recovered!
Two similar instances came under our notice in the same
neighbourhood. Thus at Kirkhill near Beauly, in the year 1870, a farmer had
occasion to dismiss a man summarily, from his employment. The man owed him a
grudge, and by way of avenging himself, he made an image of clay which he
buried near the farmer's house, hoping that as the rains washed away the
clay, his enemy would pina and die. Sure enough he did pine, and became very
sickly indeed; when lo I one day, as he was digging in his field he found
this image, and at once suspected its object, and the miscreant who had
placed it there; so wroth was he, that it needed all the persuasive
eloquence of his neighbours to prevent his at once carrying the case before
his landlord. Curiously enough, he is said to have recovered from that hour!
Again, also in Beauly, we heard of a man slowly dying
without any apparent cause. His home was ruled by a woman of violent temper.
"O! she was a wild woman!" said my informant. The neighbours at last became
convinced that she was compassing his death by evil arts, and sought in
every direction for some wax or clay image. They found she had been sticking
very suspicious lumps of clay on divers trees. However, they sought in vain
for any more definite proof of guilt, and in due time the sick man died.
In Strathspey we were also told in whispered tones of
this terrible form of witchcraft, as of a thing not to be doubted, and here
the witches gave piquancy to their crime by sticking pins into the clay
doll, before laying it in some running stream, where it may slowly but
surely melt away. A calf's heart stuck full of pins is also accounted a sure
means of disposing of a foe. A sick person having reason to attribute his
illness to any such supernatural cause, of course appeals to some local wise
woman. Amongst the sapient cures suggested will probably be a poultice of
warm cow-dung—a nice recipe, quite a la Hindoo.
It seems that these malpractices are neither a thing of
the past, nor peculiar to the old wives of Scotland. Mackay, writing in
1841, mentions many cases of witchcraft having come under his notice in
Hastings, Lincoln, and Huntingdon; most especially one of a cunning man
whose ordinary business it was to mould wax images stuck full of pins, in
order to destroy such persons as annoyed his customers! He also tells of a
wizard near Tunbridge Wells who was constantly consulted by persons of the
There is no need, however, to look back for such cases.
So lately as May '1872, two onions, stuck full of pins, and ticketed with
the name of the intended victim, were found suspended in the chimney of a
public-house at the village of Rockwellgreen, Somersetshire; showing that
the old tricks are not forgotten there.
Our police can tell us that such instances are by no
means unique, and that this superstition, in many varying forms, is
practised in Devonshire, and in the northern counties of England. About
fifty years ago, a Yorkshire farmer consulted a wizard doctor in South
Durham, concerning heavy losses of cattle. Of course the murrain was
attributed to witchcraft, so the remedy to be applied was a counter-spell.
The farmer was directed to bolt and bar every window, to keep off the
warlocks. He was to take the heart of one of his dead oxen, and stick into
it nine new nails, nine new pins, and nine new needles, and then slowly burn
it in a fire of rowan-tree wood, just before midnight, when a certain verse
from the Bible was to be pronounced over the flames, as an incantation. All
this was duly observed. The enraged spirits rapped and hammered furiously at
all the bolted windows, but the spell was broken, and from that hour the
plague was stayed.
Among the little devices of modem Scotch witches, we
know of a certain cat having been killed and coffined, as a symbol likely to
compass the death of a lady in Perthshire who had incurred the ill-will of
some miscreant. The man who found this unlucky cat was very much disturbed
in his mind, evidently considering it very dangerous. He was fully aware of
its meaning, so it was probably by no means a unique instance.
Poor cats! they seem to be always associated with
witchery and divination, and very hard lines they get. One revolting form of
augury long in use in the Isles, was that of half roasting a live cat, in
the belief that its screams would attract the king of cats, who could reveal
all hidden knowledge, as the price of poor pussy's release.
They also occupy a very grave place in the records of
James VI., where, in the trial of the witches of Tranent, two luckless old
women confessed to having christened cats by the name of Anne of Denmark and
having thrown them into the sea, in order to raise such storms as might
impede her voyage. Thus it came to pass that by their evil arts, a boat
laden with gifts and jewels for the Queen, was wrecked in the Firth of
Forth. A few years later, another witch confessed to having christened a cat
by the Queen's name, and passed it nine times through the iron gate of
Seaton, and then cast it to the devil. For this, and similar acts, she and
four other persons were burnt alive !!
Even to this day we are sometimes startled to find
persons believing, not only that certain animals are witches in disguise,
but that the dead have returned to earth in these strange forms! I have
heard such stories whispered with bated breath, on our own Highland hills,
and the same traditions are common in the wilds of Cornwall, where we heard
of a gamekeeper positively refusing to fire at a fox that haunted a certain
house, and came constantly baying under the windows. He was not deterred by
any fox-hunting scruples, but by the conviction that the animal was really
"poor Mr. Frank," whose spirit returned to an earthly form, sometimes in the
form of a hare, sometimes as a black-cock, but most often as a fox. No
Brahmin could have been more decided in his views.
A quaint trace of the old Druidical teaching of
transmigration, is the notion, not yet wholly extinct, that when a man is
slowly lingering away in consumption, the fairies are on the watch to steal
his soul, that they may therewith give life to some other body. To prevent
this, old wives are often anxious to cut the nails of the sufferer, that
they may tie up the parings in a bit of rag, and wave this precious charm
thrice round his head, deisul.
That firm faith in the immortality of the soul
undoubtedly found a place in the Celtic creed, is, I suppose, beyond
question: in fact Ca8ar mentions it as one of the tenets of the Druids. In
the tumuli of Britain, as well as those of India, skeletons of animals have
been found, as if placed ready for food; swords also that would have been
precious to the living, were buried with the dead,. that they might not be
left defenceless on awakening.
The old Gauls buried written statements of accounts and
claims of debts, that they might be carried on in the next life; and so well
was this creed acted upon, that men would lend one another money, trusting
to repayment when they met in some new phase of existence!
I doubt whether modern Hindoos would be equally
trusting, or the Pharisees of olden days either, of whom it is said that
They too held the doctrine of transmigration. (Certainly we may infer that
they did so, from the readiness with which they suggested that Christ was
merely a new incarnation of Elijah, Jeremiah, or onef the prophets, and also
from that strange question respecting the man who was -born blind, "Did thi8
man sin, or his parents, that he was born blind.
Time and space alike fail to touch on divers local
I may, however, mention one more quaint old fret, which
may have sprung from Scriptural tradition, or perhaps may own a more remote
origin, namely, that curious objection to enter a house" empty, swept, and
garnished," which exists in several of our northern counties. The out-going
tenant, whose officious care should extend to cleaning the floor, would be
held guilty of a most unneighbourly act to the new-corner. The more dirt and
litter he leaves about, the better pleased is his successor. My attention
was first called to this fact, on one occasion when a tidy housekeeper at
"the big house" had caused a cottage close by to be scrubbed before the
arrival of the new tenant, whose look of dismay on glancing round, rather
astonished her. "Oh!" said the woman, "I would rather have found the
dirtiest house in the country than this clean floor!" The idea is, that all
the new-corner's luck has been swept out.
Shortly afterwards, a house in the same district (Speyside)
was changing hands; the old housekeeper was most anxious to have everything
in perfect order for its new master, but nothing would induce her to have
the floors cleaned till he should have taken possession. On further inquiry
we found the same superstition to be a matter of general acceptance
throughout Banffshire, Nairn, and the neighbouring districts, as also in
There is also a lingering belief in the ill-luck of
taking a farm from which the previous tenant has been ejected against his
will, lest a curse should go with the land—a curse which is expressed by a
peculiar Gaelic word, eirthear. And it was till very recently quite a
natural question to inquire whether any such grudge was attached to a farm,
and if so, the bargain constantly fell to the ground.
This feeling accounts for such entries in the transfer
of land as that whereby, in 1698, Alexander Kinnaird, in a legal document,
making over the lands of Culbyn to Duff of Drummuir, specifies twice over
that he gives the bargain his goodwill and ble8ing. Not that it proved worth
much, as the estate was resold forty years later, and very soon after, was
overwhelmed with that mysterious sandstorm, which changed the fertile lands
into the worthless desert we know so well.