NEFA - The North East Folklore Archive

Customs and Beliefs

Folk Culture in North East Scotland: An overview by David W. Hood

Part 1
The Nature of the Area
The Kirk and Folk Beliefs
The Years' Important Days
Birth, Marriage and Death

Part 2
The Guidman's Grunde
The Clyack and The Meal and Ale
Ghosts, Fairies and Other Supernormal Entities

Part 3
The Horseman's Word
The Birth, Death and Survival of Folk Customs and Belief


Part 1

The Nature of the Area
The Kirk and Folk Beliefs
The Years' Important Days
Birth, Marriage and Death

In the following essay terms such as Celtic, Pictish, Scots, English and etc. are used to indicate languages and their associated cultures. They should not be taken as implying any genetic distinction. DWH.

The Nature of The Area

The most populated part of North East Scotland is an unsheltered wedge shaped coastal plain, once heathland, peatbogs and forest though now largely deforested. Over the course of the last two centuries it has been made into prime arable and grazing land subject to high winds, storms and snow. It is bounded to the north and the east by the North Sea and to the west and south by the Grampian Mountains.

A visitor to the area might fall asleep in the passenger seat of a car and wake up to imagine they had passed through a time warp into the future or the past. Depending on exactly where they opened their eyes, they might see the lights of St. Fergus gas terminal looking like a film set for an alien planet, or they might see a group of figures on the shore, bent over the rocks looking for edible shellfish. They are engaged in the same activity as a group of Mesolithic gatherers might have been in the same place. It is only at close range that they are distinguished by their dress and by the plastic fertiliser sacks that they are using to carry the molluscs.

Although North East Scotland has always had a comparatively sparse population it has accommodated many waves of immigration. In the last 1,500 years these span from the Dalriadic Scots to a recent influx of new residents at the end of the 20th century. Included along the way are Norsemen, speakers of Scots from the South of Scotland, Norman French, Flemish weavers and craftsmen and Highlanders during the clearances. Over the same time span three to four different spoken languages have dominated (Pictish, Gaelic, Scots and English) Latin and French have also been used in more formal legal contexts. There have also been many changes in religious belief and practice and many new economic or technological strategies have been adopted. The area cannot fairly be seen as culturally conservative. It is however distinguished by a layered cultural persistence. To give an example, between the wars the Buchan district was badly affected by outbreaks of the equine disease, grass sickness, as a result widespread use of tractors was adopted earlier here than in much of Scotland. At the same time this area also had perhaps the latest organised manifestation of the Brotherhood of the Horseman's Word, a secret society of working horsemen.

The folk beliefs and practices of the North East have not been greatly dissimilar to other areas of the United Kingdom with a Celtic speaking past or indeed to the rest of Western Europe. What gives the folk culture its distinctiveness is the persistence of its expression and its survival to later dates than elsewhere in the face of change. Linguistically many words and phrases are still in every day use by speakers of the local 'Doric' dialect of Scots that elsewhere can only be found in an ancient literary context. At the same time this language is rich in French, Flemish and Gaelic loan words. The local characteristic, in cultural and material terms, seems to be to adopt the new but not throw the old away in case it should come in handy.

I must raise the issue of the far-reaching implications of recent genetic discovery. It is important because even in recently published work many theories are put forwards that are simply no longer tenable. To give just one example the so-called 'anthropological theory of fairies' that contends that fairy beliefs originate with the contact between early agriculturists and an aboriginal race. Much of the history, anthropology and folklore of the last two centuries is ultimately predicated on fallacious concepts of 'race' that have no validity in genetic fact. Recent evidence has shown that almost all modern Europeans are descendants of a handful of pre-Neolithic women, part of the modern Asian and Native American populations sharing the same ancestry. With one exception (a woman who lived in what is now Syria, whose descendants are presumed to have introduced agriculture to Europe) all these women appear to have been resident within the area of modern Europe or adjacent areas now inundated by the sea. We can conclude that the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic period did not involve large invasions and genocide nor do later cultural and linguistic revolutions indicate the total replacement of one population by another. Europeans are all the direct descendants of the hunter gatherer peoples of the Eurasian Landmass. To give an illustrative example of what this implies. In 1996 mitochondrial DNA was extracted from the remains of a body dating from the eighth millennium BC (at which time what is now Britain was not an island), from what is now the Cheddar Gorge in the West of England. A close match was found to the DNA of a local teacher in Cheddar village, showing that he and 'Cheddar Man' were both direct descendants in the female line of a common female ancestor living in that locality during the immediate post glacial period. This makes a huge modification of the old 'invasion theory' of history that treated all the cultures of that area throughout time as one 'race' displacing another up to the Saxon conquest of that region. I would contend that where the material circumstance of life is unvarying we have hugely underestimated the importance of the chain of parent to child cultural transference over extended periods of time.


The Kirk and Folk Beliefs

The Reformation was commenced in Scotland by John Knox in 1541. Its chief effects seem to have reached Aberdeen around 1559, although papal jurisdiction was not abolished till 1560. With the ascendancy of the Calvanist Covenanters in the mid 17th century there were attempts, in the areas under their control, to prohibit many traditions including all keeping of days, especially Yeel (Christmas) and Halloween, bonfires, pilgrimages to sacred sites, visiting healing wells, carols, other music and many other practices. The attempt to stop the celebration of Yeel provoked considerable opposition: for example. The students of Kings College in Aberdeen took an eight day holiday in defiance of the order to ignore the festival.

The Church in Scotland has never been homogenous. Not only have some areas tended toward denominations of Christianity other than Presbyterianism, Episcopalianism has had a strong presence in the North East, but within the Church of Scotland there are and have been differing attitudes to folk beliefs. It is one of the ironies of the study of Scottish folklore that many of the early folklore scholars were ministers of the Kirk, while their best source material was often the Kirk Session records showing their predecessors attempts to criminalise, prevent and punish the observance of folk beliefs and customs.

The Church has been both a destroyer and preserver of folk belief. There is even an argument that the doctrine of predestination, by characterising the majority as damned, could have actively encouraged the survival of witchcraft and pagan faith. Presbyterian Churchmen up to the 18th century are also rarely cynics, had they been so they would have been less destructive. They believed in the same phenomena as their parishioners but mostly perceive such phenomena in a negative light, while many of the areas traditional customs were regarded as idolatrous or pagan. During periods of iconoclasm the destruction, caused to Pictish sculpture, other artworks, architecture and manuscripts was huge. The non-material relics and expressions of culture are not so easy to destroy, however this did not stop them trying.


The Year's Important Days and Festivals

It is usually assumed on the evidence of their monuments that the solstices were important to the Neolithic megalith builders. The recumbent stone circles, a form unique to the North and East of Scotland, also suggest a major concern with the lunar cycle. In the Christian era the winter solstice is the feast of St Thomas and in Scotland the whole festival period is the Nordic Yule (Doric Yeel). Midsummer (June 24th) becomes St John's eve and day. The main festivals of the Iron Age Celts were the quarter days of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. Strictly speaking these feasts relate to a lunar calendar (and are thus movable feasts) but they became in the Christian context respectively St. Bridget's (Bride) eve and day (February 1st), May eve and Day or Roodmas (Walpurgis, May 1st ), Lammas (August 1st) and Halloween and all Hallows day (November 1st). Gaelic speakers continued to use the Celtic names applying them to the fixed feast days. It should be remembered that the Celtic day was calculated from sunset to sunset.

One can also propose a relationship between the Celtic quarter days and the later Scottish quarter days of Candlemas (Feb 2nd), Whitsun (May 15th), Lammas and Martinmas (Nov11th). These days retained an importance as feeing days for farm servants and rent days well into the 20th century. The date discrepancies of Whitsun and Martinmas can be explained by the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, with an apparent loss of twelve days. It would not be unreasonable for concepts associated with a day to be transferred to the nearest feast day to the perceived 'actual' day. As evidence of this happening I would site the way that ballads dealing with visits from the dead or mysterious nocturnal visitors such as "The Wife of Usher's Well" and "The Barrin o The Door" favour the commonplace line "it fell oot about the Martinmas".

Historical records show how these days continued to be celebrated. The Council Register of the Burgh of Aberdeen has statutes from 1508 and 1510 that declare participation in processions on Candlemas and St Nicholas's Day (6th December, St Nicholas being the patron saint of the burgh), May day, and on other feasts, compulsory on pain of a fine and the loss of rights. The officers who had the authority to supervise the rides were Robert Huyid and Litile Johne (Robin Hood and Little John, these officers were previously called the Abbot and Prior of Bonacord or of misrule.). The citizens were told to wear green and yellow raiment and carry bows and arrows. The Candlemas ride involved representatives of all the crafts and trades, wearing the symbols of their craft on their breast, processing in pairs. Each craft was responsible for parts of the festival the smiths and hammermen 'the Pageants', the shoemakers the catering, and other crafts, St Bride, St Elenne and several more obscure archetypes, named: Symeon, the 3 Kings of Cullane, the Emperor, the Three Knichts and the Two Bishops. Whether these were effigies or people in costume is not clear.

After the Reformation the best evidence of continued celebration of the Celtic feasts is the need felt by the church to suppress them. In folklore and in the belief of modern witches the quarter days and solstices are the witches 'Sabbats'. There are numerous cases dating to the 17th cent of individuals being admonished and fined for attending nocturnal celebrations at Beltane and Lugnasadh, the associated sexual license provoked much of the condemnation. However, while regarded as a misdemeanour, this does not seem to have been taken as evidence of witchcraft per se. The open-air celebration of Beltane was still occurring in highland regions in the 18th and 19th centuries. Among its key rituals was the making of need fire (fire kindled by friction without the use of metal). This was used to light the Beltane fires and coals from these would then be used to restart domestic hearths which had been extinguished the night before. Another element was purification of cattle by driving them between fires or over embers and in places people would also pass between the fires. Caudles (custard type foods with eggs, meal etc.) were made and Beltane-bannocks (oatcakes or cakes of mixed meals coated with a baked on custard of cream, eggs and butter) were decorated with nine bosses. In some accounts these bosses were offered (by breaking them off one by one while facing the fire and flinging over each shoulder alternately into the dark) to entities believed to protect particular livestock and to predators of particular stock e.g. "here's to thee fox spare my lambs, here's to thee marten spare my hens" etc.. Public Beltane celebrations have of recent years been consciously revived in urban southern Scotland but there is as yet little sign of this happening much in the North East.

Similar cakes are associated with the other feasts and with Michaelmas when they are called Struan Michaels (traditionally no metal was allowed to touch them during cooking). In parts of Gaelic speaking Scotland where extreme Calvinism had less early influence Michaelmas (29th September) was an important feast day seeming to acquire the rituals associated in earlier times with Lughnasadh, particularly horse racing and sports, as well as the gathering of carrots by women and their distribution at a Michaelmas dance. The Archangel Michael is a very popular entity in the Catholic Celtic world, perhaps because he shares some of the characteristics of the Celtic deity Lugh.

Candlemas was in some parts regarded as the traditional day for handfasting a system of betrothal and trial marriage. The liaison was breakable without penalty at the end of a year if the woman had not conceived. In some places it also used to be a traditional day for football or other ritualised ball games, in some other places traditional ball games are associated with New Year.

Samhain is, the Celtic New Year associated with the dead and in particular with ancestors visiting their old homes. It celebrated to this day as Halloween. Some of its customs have no doubt been transferred to Hogmanay and Ne'r Day, and it is also only five days before Guy Faukes night, a comparatively recent celebration which has literally taken some of the fire from it. Halloween, Yeel and Hogmanay are all times associated with the custom of Guising. Guisers went from house to house dressed in costume and expected gifts in return for traditional performances. In the past adults did this but Halloween guising is now a childrens' activity and the performance element has waned to almost nothing. Our Halloween customs went to America on the emigrant ships and have come back by way of Hollywood, in the process some spiritual gravitas seems to have been lost. Originally the quarter days would have become extended festivals in order to synchronise the lunar and solar year. As calendrical 'times out of time' the ancient feasts were apt times for divination. In the case of Halloween this survived at least till the 19th century as the time for young people to perform ceremonies intended to reveal the wraith (ghost of someone still alive) of their future spouse. Many of these ceremonies seem to have involved either throwing a kale stock behind you or clews of yarn and corn drying kilns or other similar structures. According to Pratt's Buchan, written in 1858, Halloween fires were still common in the Buchan district at that date. These were sometimes used for a less optimistic form of divination. When the fire had died down the ashes were raked over the embers and a small stone placed on them for each member of the family. If anyone's stone was missing in the morning it portended their death before the next Halloween.

There are two important midwinter fire festivals still held on the coast at the western and southern edges of the region, at Burghhead and at Stonehaven, both these sites are associated with major Pictish sites. Burghhead holds the burning of the clavie (a tar barrel) on January 11th New Year by the Julian calendar, and Stonehaven has a fire-ball spinning ceremony on New Year's eve. There is an echo of the old concept of need-fire at Burghead in the distribution of fragments from the clavie fire to ensure good fortune through the year. At one time such New Year fire festivals were held in many North Sea ports. It is often assumed that Scottish midwinter fire rituals are inspired by Scandinavian influence but I would think it just as reasonable to see in them transference of Samhain fire rituals to the New Year according to the solar calendar.


Birth, Marriage and Death.

Birth, marriage and death are the three great landmarks of life in most cultures. In these rites of passage we can see just how much our society has changed. In North East Scotland as elsewhere in the West they have been institutionalised and much of the remaining rituals have become the stereotyped products of the related industries.

Birth was in the past considered a time of great peril for both mother and child. In particular they were regarded as especially vulnerable to attack by witches, fairies or malevolent spirits. Many local variants existed for 'saining' (blessing), the mother and the new-born. In most of them fire would be used in the form of a fire torch or a peat, passed three times 'deasil' (sun-wise) round the mother and child, or by placing candles on the four corners of the bed. Fire was also used, by throwing a live coal into the water used to wash the new baby. A live peat might be thrown into a borrowed cradle to guard against evil influence. Bread, or a bannock and cheese, were sometimes placed in a basket on the bed to appease the fairies, or bread, cheese and a bible placed under the pillow. Related to this practice was the crying kebbock (cheese) and crying bannock, these were either distributed to guests at the house or, where a church baptism took place, to the first person met on the way.

Iron might be used as a charm and in Aberdeenshire a special type of brooch, called a witch pin, was fastened in a babies clothing as a talisman against witches.

The belief that the spirit of an unnamed or unbaptised child will be earthbound or held in Limbo long pre-dates Christianity. It was common to the area as elsewhere and it is the subject of many folk tales.

The typical modern wedding in the area now is a bride in a white gown and a groom in ersatz Victorian highland dress. However a surprising amount of the old pre-nuptial custom survives. Both bride and groom are still at risk from a 'foot-washing' or 'blackening'. This involves being seized by their friends, in the past their shoes and socks were removed, their feet plunged in water and smeared with soot or blacking. In recent decades it has become more ferocious with tar, paint, feathers, flour or any other noxious and hard to remove substance added to the soot. Bondage to a lamppost or other street furniture may be used to restrain the victim and their whole person may be 'washed'.

In past times it was the tradition in parts of the North East for a bride to make the groom's wedding sark (shirt), and for the groom to buy the bride's dress. My own uncle by marriage (from the Black Isle) insisted on doing this, to the horror of my grandmother who held the contrary superstition that the groom should not even see the bride's dress.

Most receptions in past centuries were what are known as 'penny weddings' or 'siller brydals', each guest contributing to the food and the cost of musicians. They are the subject of much condemnation by the church on account of the associated music, dancing, drunkenness etc.. Another annoyance to the ministers was the custom, originally to drive away evil spirits, of making commotion during the service. In the 18th and early 19th century this involved the discharging of firearms. It continues to be practised occasionally but now it is done after the ceremony and the guns have been replaced by pan lids and the like.

The homecoming of the bride had its associated rituals, 'saining' with fire for example. In one form of the ritual a bride would have to step over a burning peat at the threshold. For Scottish Travellers, in the past, the bride and groom jumping a fire together was the wedding ceremony. The homecoming was the original locus of the cake. Shortbread or oatcake in a napkin would be broken over the bride's head. It would then be gathered up and distributed to the unmarried women, to place under their pillows to 'dream on it'. This last part of the custom has been transferred to the modern wedding cake.

Beddan (bedding) rituals also took place. The bride distributing, whisky, oatcake and cheese to the guests while sat in the bed, before throwing one of her stockings over her left shoulder. This had the same significance as the modern throwing of the bouquet, whoever caught it would be the next married.

When a death occurred among the first acts was the shutting up of cats and hens. It was believed that should they jump over the corpse the next person they met would go blind, or suffer some similar misfortune. Mirrors were covered and if bees were kept they were told. The corpse was not left unattended without a waking watcher between death and interment. Lykewakes were held. Depending on the affiliation of the relatives these might be quiet affairs with prayer and bible readings others were raucous with much drinking, dancing and singing of bawdy songs. Sometimes called 'tobacco nichts' from the practice of providing tobacco. Church records from the 16th and 17th centuries show the clergy much concerned with lykewake practices. A practice of particular interest is guising at lykewakes in the form of cross-dressing. Considered as scandalously immodest by the clergy this may have originated in a desire to confuse the spirit of the deceased.

A coin was often placed in the coffin to pay the ferryman. A saucer of salt was placed on the corpse, the custom of sin eating was known. A person hired as a sineater would place bread on the body and eat it along with the salt while repeating an incantation to take upon themselves the sins of the departed. All guests were expected to 'show respect' by touching the corpse. This may ultimately have derived from the belief that the corpse of a murder victim would bleed again if touched by the murderer.

On leaving the house the chairs on which the coffin had rested were kicked over. Sometimes all the chairs in the room where the body had been were overturned. Various parishes had traditions of circumambulatory routes taking the coffin round certain landmarks three times sun-wise. As with cross-dressing the purpose of both these customs was probably to confuse the ghost of the dead person if it tried to come back.

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Part 2

The Guidman's Grunde (The Goodman's Ground)
The Clyack and The Meal and Ale
Ghosts, Fairies and Other Supernormal Entities


The Guidman's Grunde

The concept of the 'Goodman's Ground' or Guidman's Croft was that an area of a holding should be left uncultivated and ungrazed, in an acknowledgement of the forces of nature. Other names used for such fields were, the Halyman's Rig, the Goodman's Fauld, the Gi'en Rig, the Deevil's Craft, Clootie's Craft, the Black Faulie and Given Ground. It was believed that cultivation of this ground would bring misfortune particularly in the form of cattle diseases. To the Kirk authorities this was a dedication of land to the Devil. That the Kirk in some cases, found it difficult to impose cultivation of 'The Guidman's Grunde' despite heavy fines, shows the strength of this belief. The last fields dedicated to the 'Auld Goodman' were not ploughed till the beginning of the 19th century and then as a result of economic rather than religious pressure. Many individuals seem to have seen the situation as a stark choice between the death of their cattle and payment of the fines. It is referred to in the trial of Jonet Wishert in Aberdeen in 1596 for witchcraft,
"In hervast last bypast, Mr. William Rayes huikes (saw you at) the heid of thi awin gudmannis croft, and saw thee tak all thi claiss about thi heid, and thow beand naikit from the middill down, tuik ane gryte number of steynis, and thy self gangand (going) baklenis, keist ane part behind the our thi heid, and ane wther pairt fordward."

The Guidman's Crofts seem to have been of two sorts. Prehistoric sacred sites marked by cup and ring marked stones, burial cairns or other ancient monuments and newly dedicated land taken out of cultivation specifically for this purpose. Stone throwing appears to have had significance in dedicating the land and also may be a survival of a fertility ritual.


The Clyack Sheaf and The Meal and Ale

The tradition of the last sheaf of the harvest, the Clyack sheaf (from the Gaelic, caileag, a girl), could still be encountered in the late 20th century, on a few small Buchan crofts where oats were grown and were still being cut with a binder. In its heyday the rituals could incorporate the following elements. The sheaf would be cut and gathered by the youngest person present. If cut with a scythe it would be a boy who cut it but a girl who gathered it. It was sometimes bound with three bands at top, bottom and the middle (an ordinary sheaf has only one band). It was not allowed to touch the ground. In some locations it was not allowed to be touched by a woman who was not a virgin. It was carried in triumph to the house, sometimes dressed in women's clothes or decorated with ribbons, and displayed in a prominent place. It would often have a place in the harvest feast and might be danced with by either the mistress of the house or by whoever led off the dancing. It was in places referred to as 'the Maiden' or the Carline (old woman). The Clyack sheaf would be kept till Christmas morning when it would be given to a mare in foal, or the best cow, or the oldest cow. On other farms it would be distributed amongst all the beasts.

Some farms would hold a feast and dance when all the corn was cut, called Clyack or 'a meal an ale' others would delay the feast till the corn had all been brought home, then the feast might be referred to as 'winter'. Meal and Ale is both the name for the party and for the principal dish. It is made by mixing ale and treacle in a large vessel. Oatmeal is then added to the desired consistency and whisky to taste. A ring is placed in the bottom of each bowl. It is left several hours for the meal to absorb the liquid. It was served at the end of the feast each bowl being shared by several people who would compete to get the ring, a portent of marriage within the year. The other food indispensable to the feast was a large cheese , the clyack-kebbock. This would be cut by the master of the house. The first slice would be larger than the rest and would be given to a youth such as the herd boy. It was known as the kanav's fang, the young man's big slice.



In discussing witches we have to consider three related but distinct sets of beliefs. Firstly in folk terms the beliefs of the general populace in pre-industrial Scotland. As in the rest of the world at its simplest this amounts to the following "the cow is sick and has no milk or I have flu; it must be somebody else's fault" and the more rational "the cow is sick etc. perhaps somebody cleverer than me can make it better". Secondly we should consider the beliefs of those who regard themselves as witches and thirdly the beliefs of the religious and secular authorities during the period of the European witch persecutions.

Between the passing of the witchcraft act in 1563 and the last burning of Janet Horne in Dornoch in 1727 (the repeal of the 'Acts anentis witchcraft' was in 1736) it is estimated that over 4,000 men and women were judicially murdered. Many others, including children, died in custody, were tortured, branded and banished or killed extra judicially. Only Germany exceeded Scotland in anti witch zealotry. The Presbyterian Church having a particularly shameful record in bringing accusations and encouraging the holocaust. King James the VI (1st of England) also played a key role; his book (Demonology 1597) setting the pattern for many Scottish witch trials in accord with the beliefs of European demonologists.

A charge of 'Habit and Repute' was sufficient to convict without other evidence. The standard of justice a defendant could expect was less and the tortures used greater than with ordinary charges. Torture was not officially allowed in England but was the norm here, as was the seizure of the property of the accused or, in the case of paupers, the community or their landlord to pay for judicial costs, tortures and punishments. The cost of burning Janet Wishart and Isobel Crocker in Aberdeen in 1596 came to £7.9s Scots. The rate of exchange with the English pound at that time was approximately £6 Scots to £1 Sterling. There were more than a few people with a vested economic interest in maximising the supply of victims including the church to which it was a considerable source of income. In these circumstances it is ridiculous to think that many of the accused thought of themselves as witches at all. However there is a little evidence, in a few cases, that does suggest a degree of survival of pre-Christian religious beliefs in an organised form. Although this evidence is not to the extent that might be presumed from some of the populist writing on the subject or from the assertions of modern witches.

The devil is part of Christian mythology, not of any pantheistic or animistic paganism (the resemblance of his alleged appearance to the Greek Pan or the Celtic Cernnunos is suggestive of early church propaganda). It was necessary to the satisfaction of the witch persecution's ends to typify witchcraft as, not only not with the established religion but also as directly oppositional to it. Hence the need to identify the object of the witches veneration as the devil. The person, that the prosecution in the Aberdeen witch trials referred to as 'the devil', was referred to by the accused by the decidedly undiabolic appellation of Christsonday. Quoting from the accusation against Andro Man:
"the Devill, thy maister, quhom thow termes Christsonday, and supponis to be ane engell, and Goddis godsone, albeit he hes a thraw by God, and swyis to the Quene of Elphen, is rasit be the speaking of the word Benedicite".

It was desired by church and state to typify witches as heretics not as infidels like Jews or Muslims. The concept of 'maleficia', harm to people, beasts or property was also important. Witches were blamed for causing everything from impotence to bad weather, this optimised public support for the persecutions, minimising any resentment over the seizing of friends, relatives and neighbours.

Records of witch trials do provide additional evidence of folk beliefs. Scottish witch trials in general and in particular the Aberdeen witch trials of 1597 are notable for their accounts of interaction with fairies, especially the Queen of Elfhame. The words fairy and elf have been used for many different concepts. It is of interest here that the fairies of the witches are in the heroic mould that suggests descent from the Celtic pantheon. They compare with the Queens of Elfland in the ballads of 'Tamlane' and 'Thomas the Rhymer' (both dealing with abductions into the fairy reality). To quote again from the accusations, against Andro Man:
"Upon the Ruidday in harvest (14th September, the exaltation of the cross, not Rood Day in May), in this present yeir, quhilk fell on a Wedinsday, thow confessis and affermis, thow saw Christsonday cum out of the snaw in likenes of a staig (the word staig, in Scots, usually refers to a horse, however as elsewhere in this trial the word horss is used describing one appearance of 'the devil' and staig to distinguish another, I presume a usage in the English sense), and that the Quene of Elphen was their, and utheris with her, rydand on quhyt haikneyes, and that thay com to the Binhill and the Binlocht, quhair thay use commonlie to convene, and that thay quha convenis with thame kissis Christsonday and the Quene of Elphenis airss. Thow affermis that the quene is verray plesand, and wilbe auld and young quhen scho pleissis; scho mackis any kyng quhom scho pleisis, and lyis with any scho lykis".

In part this conjures up a picture that brings to mind the celebrated hunting scenes on class II Pictish stones. Returning to the more general folklore, the international migratory legend of a witch's ability to change into a hare or cat and to suffer injury in that form (ML3055 The Witch that was Hurt, usually by being shot with a cross marked silver coin) has a wide spread and late occurrence in local lore associated with many specific places and individuals throughout the North East. Also part of the local witch lore is the concept of the witch stealing a cows milk by magic, trans-materialising milk by means of milking a rope made from the tail hair of all the local cows for instance.

Once being known as a witch or a warlock ceases to be fatal we see the open reappearance of the more traditional witch of popular culture. This is the solitary (not part of a coven) 'canny man' or woman the 'spae wife' or the 'hen wife' of Traveller tradition, a person with a reputation for clairvoyance and healing skills. These individuals seem to have successfully utilised the power of suggestion, common sense and subterfuge combined with an empirical understanding of herbal pharmacology and the importance of treating vitamin and mineral deficiencies in fighting illness. They responded to the clients' beliefs in curses and owerlookin (the evil eye), with protective spells. Some anecdotal evidence even suggests the empirical use of antibiotic moulds. Given the level of 'scientific' medicine up to the 19th century they were probably no more likely to kill the patients than physicians and certainly cheaper. From the modern perspective much folk medicine seems ludicrous in theory and potentially deadly but so does much of the orthodox medicine of the past.

The concept of witches causing harm by cursing also persists into the modern period. In the immediate vicinity of my own home, the last woman with such a public reputation as a witch died in 1900.

The modern witches or 'wicca' appear to be more of a self-conscious attempt at recreation from literary sources, than a survival of a belief system. While not being critical of their religious faith, I would say that from an anthropological point of view, they seem to have an essentially modern urban sentiment toward nature, which would have been alien to those whose living depended directly upon nature.


Ghosts, Fairies and Other Supernormal Entities

Belief in ghosts, spirits of the dead unable or unwilling to leave this world, is almost universal and by no means extinct even in the most sophisticated places and circles. North East Scotland in no exception. It has the usual compliment of discontented spirits mostly associated with aristocratic dwellings. More specific to Scotland is the tradition of the apparition of ghosts (wraiths) of the living usually foretelling their immanent demise. An Aberdeenshire belief is the concept of the 'Keeper of the Kirk Yard' it was held that the ghost of the last person buried had to guard the gate until the next internment. This is reported to have led to unseemly conflict between rival funeral parties competing to get through the cemetery gate first.

The spirits of the dead also have a connection to fairy beliefs. In many accounts, in witch trial evidence and elsewhere known dead individuals are met among the fairies. Folklorists of the past have often tried to pin down the origins of fairy beliefs to one neat theory. The three main contenders being: the no longer tenable 'anthropological theory' mentioned above, fairies as gods of the past and fairies as the spirits of the dead (in particular the pre-Christian, unbabtised or otherwise excluded from a Christian afterlife, dead). One should also bear in mind the theological view of some Christian believers in fairies that they are fallen angels not good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell, as this can influence their perception of the fairy phenomenon. Ultimately these kinds of speculation are fruitless because they attempt to impose the strict categorisations of intellectual reasoning on an amorphous expression of popular culture that is not itself a product of this kind of thought. There are though obvious connections that link fairylore with preceding cultures. The dwellings of fairies or the entrances to their world, are prehistoric burial mounds. The 'fairy rades' (rides) that feature in tales and ballads take place at Beltane and Samhain. Megalithic and Pictish monuments acquire the designation 'elphin stane'. Rather than seeing this as evidence that the fairies are categorically 'the ancestors' or represent the religious beliefs of the ancestors, I would say there is some truth in both. More importantly 'Elphin' is an amorphous conceptual category into which can be put many heterogeneous beliefs, concepts and feelings that are no longer fully understood or that are the subject of contemporary ambivalence.

The term fairy is not one used in everyday speech. To this day a euphemism is more likely: 'guid neibers', 'the people of peace', 'the fair folk', 'themselves' and many others or the 'seely (blessed) court' for helpful and 'unseely court' for hostile entities. The tiny fairies of Elizabethan and later poetry do not seem to exist at all in the folk tradition. The fairies of most popular accounts in the 17th and 18th centuries do seem to be smaller in stature and concern than those of the more heroic 'Celtic' tradition seen in ballads and the witch trial evidence. Amongst common fairy motifs are the following:
The belief that Neolithic and Bronze Age flint arrowheads were 'elf darts' used by the fairies or by witches to kill cattle was widespread in the past.
Stories of changelings - healthy human children swapped for unsound substitutes. From a modern perspective it is hard not to be reminded of autism, down's syndrome and similar medical conditions in descriptions of changeling children.
The abduction of adults, often with an erotic element as in various ballads and the abduction of women as wet nurses to fairy children.
The Fairies departing the country for ever, they seem to have done this at regular intervals.
The fairy rade, hunts or processions of the 'seely court' at the quarter days.
Fairies using mills at night to thresh their corn - A gift of their meal being an infallible insurance against want, it was given by grateful fairies with the formula "stamp this intae the foure corners o yir girnle (meal chest) an it will be lang ere yee see it again".
The belief that if the band is left on a spinning wheel at night the fairies will use it.

The folk concept of benign or malignant fairies is often ambiguous, respect is essential. Many folk tales illustrate the desirability of kindness, politeness, observance of taboos and correct etiquette in dealing with the fairies.

The Calvinist elite of the period from the end of the 16th to the start of the 18th century did not tolerate ambiguity and defined all things fairy, as with much else of popular culture, as diabolic. At times in the 17th century 'Guid Neibers', Witches and 'Egyptians' (Gypsies), seem to be almost synonymous as perceived agents of the Devil. This demonisation of elphin influences popular culture although I suspect the influence was not always in the direction the authorities intended. They wished to eradicate pagan beliefs that had already been melded with earlier forms of Christianity. By fitting fairies into their own dualistic world description on the diabolic side, they gave them if anything an increased power, especially in the minds of individuals alienated from or opposed to the new theology.

Beliefs such as the idea of protecting horses and cattle by talismans (holed flints, rowan wood, red thread, amber etc.) often blame fairies for the same phenomena as are attributed to malevolent sorcery by witches.

A far more well defined entity is the Broonie (Brownie). Broonies and similar entities were told of all over Scotland and in most of the rest of the British Isles. Broonies are usually solitary domestic spirits around three foot, or there abouts, tall. They are brown and although sometimes described as dressed in brown raggedy garments, this is more often interpreted as a rough hairiness. They are associated with particular houses or families. If treated kindly, with food and drink, left in their favourite resting places for them to find, they will help enthusiastically with farm and domestic chores. They are fond of sweet things. They often form strong attachments to particular individuals within a household. If criticised, offended, mistreated or emotionally distressed they can become irascible, breaking dishes, causing mishaps, slamming doors, throwing divots or worse. Broonies will sometimes leave a house if offended for example by food not being put out, by money being offered to them or even being given food directly if they feel they have a right to help themselves. However all tales agree that the infallible way to loose a broonie is to give one a gift of clothing of any sort. They have an association with pools and streams and may originally have lived outside. They have only been regarded as diabolic by the more extreme puritanical Christians. Stanley Robertson, (a well known writer and story teller from a Scottish Traveller family) tells an unusual Broonie story (Exodus to Alford, Third Tale at Aboyne, Balnain Books 1988). This unusually carnivorous Broonie, he consumes a leg of roast pork a night and takes umbrage when the husband gives him salted ham without water, is also unusual in not being connected to a house but to a Travellers' camp site near Aboyne.

Another less amiable Scottish entity that occurs in the North East and the Highlands is the Kelpie which is water horse associated with rivers, particularly with deep river pools and dangerous fords. Most of the area's rivers have localised Kelpie legends. He is always male and can metamorphose into a dark haired man. The Kelpie has a reputation as extremely dangerous and malevolent drowning travellers or even dismembering and consuming them. In more than one location stories are told of Kelpies being captured while in their horse form by being bridled while asleep. They are then put to work often shifting stones to build a mill or a castle. The story usually ends with an unaware person kindly removing the branks and bit (bridle) so that the horse can eat more easily. The Kelpie then gallops off issuing a curse appropriate to the specific case, in rhyming couplets.

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Part 3

The Horseman's Word
The Birth, Death and Survival of Folk Customs and Belief

The Horseman's Word

The horseman's word was a secret society mostly of farm horsemen, stallion walkers and farrier blacksmiths. Its senior members had a reputation for supernormal powers of control over horses. 'The Word' was also alleged to confer special powers of seduction on its possessors. Stallion (staig) walkers had a particular reputation for sexual conquests.

Craft and trade guilds and brotherhoods existed in one form or another in most of Europe from medieval times until industrialisation (The Miller's Word being another, slightly earlier, Scottish example). The Brotherhood of The Horseman's Word has some resemblance to these in its system of initiation, the idea of becoming 'a made horseman', its secrets and its ideal of mutual support. There are however some peculiarities and enigmas. Among these is that the period of the zenith of the Society is at a time when the other groups had either become extinct or, like The Masons, had become secret organisations largely divorced from their original professions and purposes. The other key difference between 'The Horseman's Word' and similar organisations is the obvious one of the horse.

Up to the 18th cent. the main source of traction on the farm was the ox. The objection to seeing the organisation as being a new creation at that period is the apparent antiquity of some of its practice. It 'feels old' with elements reminiscent of the mystery cults of the classical world. The initiation litany of questions and responses has a poetic profundity unlikely to have been achieved as a sudden invention. The practical lore in particular would seem to have taken time to evolve.

Some authorities regard the society as having elements drawn from witchcraft beliefs, the initiation involved 'shakin old clootie's han'. Old clootie being a man in a calf's skin representing the devil. If you ask a horseman where the organisation originated you will be told that it is "as old as horsmanry and was founded by Cain the first horseman". The current academic view is that the first horseman lived somewhere on the Eurasian Steppe. If aside from this you except the spirit of the claim, the question would be where was this body of practice, ritual and beliefs could have been preserved in the intervening millennia?

I think we can assume that many of its organisational elements were adoptions from other sources in response to the needs of the horsemen of that period. In particular their role as employees on short-term contracts, managing horses legally owned by others that were in their mind theirs. This still leaves much that may have been cultural transmission from other earlier professional horsemen, perhaps by way of the packhorse men of the preceding period when there was not much in the way of roads in the district.

We should also remember that the 'agricultural improvements' that introduced the horse cultivation were part of a set of changes that reduced the proportion of the population with tenant's rights of tillage and grazing. The first generations of farm horsemen were the newly dispossessed landless peasantry. They were drawn from the very stock of subsistence farmers who were most likely to have maintained the customs and beliefs of an earlier period. The Horseman's word provided a portmanteaux vehicle to both preserve and hide, fertility rites and other elements. Sentiments and behaviours that would have been inimical to the old religious establishment, the new 'empirical rationalism' and the new cultural aspirations to propriety and gentility could thrive at midnight "in the horseman's ha, where the sun ne'r shone' where the wind ne'r blew, where a cock ne'r crew, and the feet of a maiden never trod."

In part the organisation served some of the function of a 'trade union'. The skills of a master horseman, particularly the trick of 'reistin' (arresting movement of) a horse, have obvious uses whether in rivalry with other horsemen, the control of difficult animals or in giving an edge in disputes with an employer. To impress and exclude the uninitiated skills were performed with the necessary theatrical manner and deceit for them to be taken as magical. Most of them actually depend on intimate understanding of equine behaviour, response to scents and other stimuli and the psychological conditioning and training of the man.


The Birth, Death and Survival of Folk Custom and Belief

Questions such as, do people still believe in fairies are very hard to answer. Even without considering philosophical niceties like what do we mean by believe and in what sense did they use to believe. In the writings on such matters of the past three centuries or longer, one regularly comes across the assertion that such and such a belief or practice ended about 50 years ago. The fairies have always just left and they often seem to have taken the rest of folklore with them. A century later you may find the same claim about the same thing. My interpretation of this is that where a belief may cause you to be seen as primitive, uncouth, old fashioned, quaint, irreligious or these days not P.C. it is far easier to publicly admit to it on the part of your grandmother than yourself. In the realm of custom too, people will be discreet. We regard ourselves as a 'multi-cultural society' but a moments objective thought about what we can openly do will tell us that contemporary society's tolerance of deviation from a cultural norm is not that much greater than the past's.

Notwithstanding the above, suppression of custom seems to be less effective than those attempting it would like. It cannot change minds. When Kirk ministers in the Hebrides broke old men's fiddles, they did not destroy Gaelic musical traditions but encouraged the development of mouth music. What really seems to have a big effect is the cessation of the activity or lifestyle that gives a belief or custom its significance. For example Beltane and Samhain have more practical seasonal significance to pastoralists than to arable farmers. They seem to have survived longest where transhumance grazing was practised latest. This is one reason why Scottish Travelling people are so important as tradition bearers, particularly in the genres of Classical Ballads (muckle sangs) and Märchen or wonder tales. There have been many debates on the age or otherwise of the Traveller culture but this is not really what is important. As stated at the beginning science now shows that the 'Tinker' in the camp, the recent 'English' incomer , the local 'Scottish' farmer and even the 'Asian' shopkeeper are all quite likely to all be descended from the same woman of the upper Palaeolithic. We are all if not Jock Tamson's Bairns at least Joan Tamson's. What is significant is that the Travellers were until recent decades living a life that gave relevance to ancient cultural elements. As tent dwelling nomads engaged in; hawking (which in many ways can resemble hunting, an expression used to describe hawking when you actually have nothing to sell is 'dry hunting'), fresh water pearl fishing, general dealing, casual agricultural labour and a fair amount of actual hunting and gathering their lives had many correspondences to the traditional pre-agrarian human norm.

Fast trotting harness ponies and coursing hounds had the same iconic role for the Scottish Traveller as they have had for numerous other cultural groups including the Caledonians that fought Agricola at Mons Graupius in A.D.84 and the Dark Age Picts. As long as driving and hunting continue to be a part of their life related cultural understanding is incorporated and transmitted in tale and song. Once the activity stops the slow but sure progress of cultural loss is inevitable. Storytellers may tell a story verbatim for a generation or so, just as an overweight hound may be kept as a pet. Eventually, once the teller and their audience ceases to understand from their own experience the parts of a story, concerned with hunting or driving, it becomes hard to remember. In the end those bits will be left out. The rest of the story that deals with some still intelligible aspect of the human condition remains, it may still have the same Aarne Thompson tale type number but it is not exactly the same story.

The last hundred years have seen more such losses of core cultural activities for most of us than have happened for millennia. At the same time new technologies, circumstances and events have created new folklore and old motifs are adapted to fit new world descriptions. The close comparisons between fairy beliefs and extraterrestrial alien beliefs have often been commented on.

In colloquial usage the term 'that's folklore' often implies untruth. I would however interpret the term as being neutral as to what is or is not objective reality and see it rather as referring to the form and means of transmission of information and belief. An event may be historical but also a part of folklore. A good example is the winter of 1947. On making polite conversation about the weather, to an old man, you may find that after putting a large tumbler full of whisky in your hand to slow your escape, he adopts a storyteller's pose. It will start something like "aye weel you say it's ill noo, but I min the snaw o' 47, yon wis real starvation cauld". The story that follows is based on personal anecdotes they are however formalised, the best and most illustrative selected and given precise locations, the whole arranged as a coherent narrative. The same modular motifs recur: the snow to the top of the telegraph poles, the heroic journey on foot through huge drifts by a midwife, the corpse that had to stay in the house for weeks till it could be taken by pony sleigh to the road end, desperate cattle in byres eventually being fed and watered by letting fodder down through a skylight etc. It is quite legitimate to add in details that actually happened in some other year or to locate a distant incident in a more local location. To criticise such a story on points of historical detail is to misunderstand its principal cultural function. It is more than just entertainment, oral history or the boasting of the old, as in our winters were bigger than yours, although it also serves all these functions. When well told it provides younger generations with potentially important survival information, in a memorable form, in a way meteorological statistics cannot. It carries beyond a single lifetime knowledge on: how bad the weather can get, where the drifts will be deepest, what problems are likely to occur and what solutions have worked in the past.

There is much of both past and existing folklore that I have not had space to mention, especially the customs particular to fishing communities. There follows a short bibliography of works referred to and for further reading.



Anson, Peter F. Fisher Folk Lore, London 1965.
Buchan, David. Scottish Tradition, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1984.
Briggs, Katharine. A Dictionary of Fairies, Penguin 1977.
A Dictionary of British Folk Tales in the English Language, 4 vols., Routledge & Kegan Paul 1970-71.
Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelica (reprint) Floris Books 1992.
Davies, Norman. The Isles, a History, Macmillan 1999.
Gregor, Walter. Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, Folk-Lore Society. London, 1881. Henderson, Hamish. Alias MacAlias, writings on songs, folk and literature, Edinburgh, Polygon 1992.
Henderson, Lizanne and Cowan, J Edward. Scottish Fairy Belief, Tuckwell Press 2001
Hope, Robbins Rossell. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, Peter Neville Ltd 1959.
Kirk, Robert. The Secret Common-Wealth. 1691 ed and Commentary by S. Sanderson. Cambridge 1976. McPherson, J.M.. Primitive Beliefs in the North-East of Scotland, Longmans, London,1929.
Milne, John. Myths and Superstitions of the Buchan District, edited and published by Rosalind A Jack, Maud 1987.
Ritchie, Anna. Picts, H.M.S.O., Edinburgh, 1989.
Robertson, Stanley. Exodus to Alford, Balnain Books 1988.
Sykes, Bryan. The Seven Daughters of Eve, Bantam Press 2001. Spalding Club Miscellany, Aberdeen 1841.
Turreff, Gavin. Antiquarian Gleanings, John Menzies, Edinburgh 1871.
Wentz, Evans W. Y. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Oxford University Press, 1911.
Whyte, Ian. Agriculture in Aberdeenshire in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Review of Scottish Culture Vol3, National Museums of Scotland 1987.

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