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Scottish Charms and Amulets
Seeds used as Charms

Throughout the West Highlands and Islands, for the last two hundred years at least, various seeds have been held in high repute as amulets, principally in alleviating the pains of childbirth. These seeds, like numerous other articles, have been carried across the Atlantic Ocean by the Gulf Stream, and cast ashore on the islands of the West Coast of Scotland. The commonest specimens found are Dolichos vulgaris, Guilandina Bonduc, Entada gigantea, and Ipomeae tuberosa. A specimen of the last-mentioned seed was exhibited at the meeting of the Society held in January last by the Rev. Dr Stewart, of Nether Lochaber, a Fellow of the Society. According to Dr Stewart, the seed in North and South Uist and in Benbecula is considered more valuable and sacred if there are lines arranged in the form of a cross on one side of it. The seed is used by midwives in alleviating the labours of parturition; and it is also used in infantile disorders, such as teething. When used in infantile troubles, a small hole is drilled through either end, and the seed suspended round the child’s neck by a cord. The seed is mostly in request among Catholics, as its local name "Airne Moire = (Virgin) Mary’s Kidney," indeed implies; but Protestants also sometimes use it. The use of the seed is now oftenest met with only in South Uist and Barra. Dr Stewart adds that canary-coloured specimens and specimens of an almost white colour are sometimes found, and these are the most highly prized.

At the same meeting in January last a second specimen of Ipomeae tuberosa, mounted in silver, evidently, for use as an amulet, formerly preserved in the Lyon Office, was exhibited and deposited in the Museum (fig. 7). The silver mounting is probably of the last century, and has engraved on it a Rock in the Sea, the cognisance of the family of Macneil of Barra, and the motto Vincere aut mori.

The earliest reference I have been able to find of the use of these seeds as amulets in the West Highlands is in Johne Morisone’s "Deseription of Lewis," supposed to have been written between 1678 and 1688. His words are:-

"The sea casteth on shore sometimes a sort of nutts growing upon tangles, round and flat, sad broun or black coullered, of the breadth of a doller, some more, some less; the kernal of it being taken out of the shell is an excellent remedie for the bloodie flux. They ordinarlie make use of the shell for keeping their snuff. Ane other sort of nutt is found in the same maner, of less syze, of a broun colour, flat and round, with a black circle, quhilk in old times women wore about their necks both for ornament and holding that it had the virtue to make fortunate in cattle, and upon this account they were at the pains to bind them in silver, brass, or tinn, according to their abilities. There are other lesser yet, of a whitish coulour and round, which they call Sant Marie’s Nutt, quhilk they did wear in the same maner, holding it to have the virtue to preserve women in childbearing."

Martin also refers to these seeds, and gives some additional particulars of their use as follows:—

"There is variety of Nuts, call’d Molluka Beans, some of which are used as Amulets against Witchcraft, or an Evil Eye, particularly the white one; and upon this account they are wore about Childrens Necks, and if any Evil is intended to them, they say the Nut changes into a black colour. That they did change colour, I found true by my own observation, but cannot be positive as to the cause of it.

"Malcolm Campbell, Steward of Harries, told me that some Weeks before my arrival there, all his Cows gave Blood instead of Milk, for several days together; one of his Neighbours told his Wife that this must be Witchcraft, and it would be easy to remove it, if she would but take the white Nut, call’d the Virgin Mary’s Nut, and lay it in the Pail into which she was to milk the Cows. This Advice she presently follow’d, and having milk’d one Cow into the Pale [sic] with the Nut in it, the Milk was all Blood, and the Nut chang’d its colour into dark brown: she used the Nut again, and all the Cows gave pure good Milk, which they ascribe to the Virtue of the Nut."

Campbell, also refers to these seeds, and says: "In 1825 these nuts were mentioned in letters from the Irish highlands. ‘The Irish then laid them under their pillows to keep away the fairies.’ A Highland woman has twice refused to part with a grey one, which she ‘had from her mother,’ and which is ‘good against fire.’ I have seen one which was left to a girl by her nurse, and had been silver-mounted. A minister told me that they were blessed by the priests, and worn by Roman Catholics only, but I think this was a mistake. Protestants keep them, I know."

In the Life of Sir Robert Christison there is an extract from his Journal of May 30th, 1866, in which Sir Robert records that Dr Macdonald of Lochmaddy had not been able to get him a specimen of Guilandina Bonduc, because it is "so rare and is so prized as a charm during childbirth that the midwives wear the seeds set in silver for the women to hold in their hands while in labour; and a husband, who had two, refused twenty shillings for one of them, saying he would not part with it for love or money till his spouse be past childbearing."

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