Easter Ross is not now a
field in which the folk-lorist can gather an abundant harvest, nor is it
likely it ever was. For many generations there have been no dense forests,
neither do mists brood jhow over the mountains, nor treacherous moorland
bogs exist from which will-o-the-wisp may spring. But the grand mountains
have always been there, and even on the clearest of summer days they fade
away in a covering of hazy blue something which gives an air of mystery to
their majesty, and the mysterious is one of the things in which Highlanders
seem to revel. And as superstition has well been said to be a weed
indigenous to the human mind, there can be little doubt that the Celtic
people with their emotional, imaginative nature must have peopled the
mountains with fairies and goblins. There is also the mysterious ocean, and
well those who get their livelihood by it know that “There is sorrow on the
Easter Ross was one of the earliest parts of Scotland to be civilized, and
with the growth of civilization the old beliefs and stories lost much of
their significance, yet the more ignorant of the people clung to the
traditional lore of the past, and though the meaning of the old stories was
forgotten, conceptions that were once earnest attempts to grasp the nature
of the universe, were perpetuated because they appealed to the childish
Nothing appears more evident to those who study folk-lore than the essential
unity of the mental constitution of men of different races. The same stories
and beliefs appear in widely different parts of the world, clothed perhaps
in varying garments to suit the local environment, so that it would seem as
if certain superstitions sprang up everywhere under similar social usages
and conditions. The task of collecting these survivals of popular belief is
annually becoming more difficult as belie in them wanes, and it is
peculiarly difficult to “localise” much folk-lore, though distinctions do
Here are given such as have found a home in the district, though many are
even now dead. Some are common to the whole district, while some have been
heard of only by a small circle. A few have been brought into the county by
Southrons within the past century ; others bear the impress of a hoary local
Round all the more important events of life, from birth to death, these
beliefs cling; and there are still a few people who have the notion that
there are ways and means of foretelling adversity or prosperity, if not of
ensuring them—all of them prompted by a desire to know something of the
If the course of life be followed in this way and the folk-lore associated
with each stage noted, one can realise how numerous are the beliefs which
are held even in such a small district as Easter Ross.
BIRTH AND INFANCY.
The day of birth, if not the hour, is significant, and the well-known rhyme
is oft repeated
“Sunday’s child is full of grace,
Monday’s child is full in the face,” etc.
As to the hour it is thought that a child born at midnight will grow up “
uncanny,” and if with a “caul” that it cannot be drowned and that the
fairies cannot in such a case effect a change. When a child is to be carried
from the room in which it is born, it is best that it should be carried
fouards (upstairs). If this is impracticable the nurse with the child in her
arms should reach the door over a chair placed in her way. Then there are
quite a large number of superstitions connected with the rite of baptism,
showing the good effects which at once accrue to the child because of it,
and of the evils which follow if it be not performed soon after birth and in
the parish in which the child has been born. It is considered very unlucky
that it should be baptised in another year than that in which it was born,
hence the great number of baptisms annually taking place during the last
weeks of December. Whatever arrangements parents may make between themselves
as to what the little one’s name is to be, they take care not to let an
outsider call it anything but baby until it has been christened. Even at the
ceremony they hand the acting clergyman a slip on which the name is written,
so that it may first be spoken by his lips. It is reckoned an excellent sign
to have the child cry when the water falls on its face. When several
children are to be baptised together, great care is taken that the boys are
baptised first, for should it unfortunately happen that a boy be baptised
after a girl and out of the same water, then it is believed that the girl
will have more hair on her face than she likes, while the boy will have
correspondingly less. After this when a visitor sees the baby for the first
time it is lucky to place a piece of silver in its hand. If the child grasps
the coin, it may be reckoned to grow up “close fisted” ; but if not one may
safely prognosticate openhandedness.
COURTSHIP AND MARRIAGE.
Round marriage, charms, omens, divinations, and strange customs have here,
as elsewhere, clustered.
A young lady can calculate the number of years she has still to remain
single by counting the cuckoo notes when first she hears them in spring.
There are also the Halloween prognostications, and much is made of the
dreams of the “likely” sweethearts. Here, as elsewhere, it is believed that
only they who are stark mad marry in May. All other months, however, are
quite lucky, and though folk know the rhyme—
“Monday for wealth,
Tuesday for health,
Wednesday the best day of all.
Thursday for crosses,
Friday for losses.
Saturday no luck at all."
Easter Ross youths are quite willing to risk any day. When the day arrives,
the bride ought to be careful to put on her right shoe first, as to put on
the left spells bad luck; and as to her dress, she must wear:—
"Something old and something new,
Something borrowed and something blue.”
The years glide on, and by and by the last dread summons comes ; and here,
as elsewhere, men have construed every incident out of the common course as
a sign of the approach of the dark messenger. It seems strange that the
howling of a dog at night is still regarded as one of the certain signs of
death’s coming, just as it has been in most counties from the earliest
times. When horses on a road which they know quite well appear to be in
terror from some cause which the driver is unable to understand, it is
thought that the fear comes from a phamtom funeral seen by the animal, whose
senses are more acute than those of any human being. “Corpse candles” are
said to have often been seen and they are by some meant to warn the beholder
that it were well that he should prepare for “the change” as death is here
euphemistically called by the kindly.
There is a strange story told of the old Castle of Cadboll to the effect
that though it was inhabited for ages yet never a person died in it ; and
many of those who lived in it, wished to be brought out of it as they longed
for death, especially one, Lady May, who resided there about 150 years ago.
She was long sick and longed for death. She heard the story, asked to be
carried out, and no sooner was she out than she expired.
To know medicine one must know the human body, therefore one of the first
things a folk doctor notices is any peculiar mark. Thus a “mole” on the
throat indicates good luck, while one on the left side of the forehead
betokens misfortune, and one on the breast, poverty. The ears afford means
of knowing whether people speak well or ill of us, for when the left glows
hot it is certain they speak well of us, and the reverse when the right ear
glows. If there be tingling in the ears, one may be sure to hear of the
death of a friend soon after. An itch in the hand means that it is soon to
handle money, while a similar sensation in the foot means that strange
ground is soon to be trodden on. An itch on the nose foreshadows the early
receipt of news of some kind—brought probably by a visitor, while an itch in
the right eye is the harbinger of coming joy. Teeth widely set mean
prosperity, while people having them closely set are set down as miserly,
and to dream of losing a tooth betokens that one will soon have a friend the
People are always ready to get rid of warts and dozens of cures may be had
for them. Some of the cures supplied the writer are: (1) Rub them with water
found lying on a flat stone in a graveyard; (2) Rub them with pig’s blood;
(3) Tie a horse hair round each; (4) When there is a new moon, go to the
seashore and wash them in mud and salt water; (5) Spit on them each morning
before breakfast time; (6) Rub them with a snail. For a “sty” the cure is
rather peculiar. Catch a black cat by the tail, pull out one hair and rub
one end of it three times over the pustule.
For toothache there are also many cures, but of them all a “line” from some
wise man or woman is most effectual. The “line” contains words of a
semi-religious nature, and has to be worn over the heart for several days.
There also still lingers a faint belief in the power of the evil eye, and
stories are told of its power.
Minor ailments have their own specific cures. Thus sore eyes are believed by
some to be curable by the wearing of ear-rings and one sometimes still sees
a man wearing them. Some believe that rheumatism can be cured by wearing a
“galvanic” ring which ought to be as effectual as a potato carried in the
pocket for this purpose.
Many are the devices used to ensure luck. The belief that luck can be coaxed
is common everywhere and the large communication which the district has had
with the south is responsible for many which were unknown fifty or a hundred
years ago. Thus spilling salt was not here always considered unlucky neither
was it thought unlucky some time ago to walk underneath a ladder. Perhaps
not many years have elapsed since the sitting down of thirteen at table was
thought to mean the death of one within a twelvemonth. The breaking of a
looking glass is not of great import but it is best not to see the new moon
through glass or empty handed and the best thing to have in one’s hand at
such a time is a silver coin or a piece of woollen cloth. As regards the
moon itself the belief is still held and openly expressed that a change of
weather is to be anticipated at each quarter.
Luck, good or bad, was, and is, most generally belived in by those whose
prosperity and livelihood depend on the uncertain result of their labours.
The various means by which fishermen for example try to secure luck is most
interesting. They believe it is unlucky to meet a minister as they are going
to sea or to have one aboard. They believe that whistling will raise the
wind. There are many quaint stories of their consultations with witches, and
Hugh Miller tells a typical one regarding the Tarbat witch in Chapter XIX.
of Scenes and Legends which is full of Rosshire Folk-Lore.
There was a belief in fairies as the old story of the Gizzen Brigs shows.
This “Brig” a bank of shingle and sand stretches across the Dornoch Firth
and the story of its origin is that the fairies were tired of crossing from
Ross to Sutherland in their cockle shell boats and therefore began to build
a magnificent gold bridge across. When the work was only half done some
passing- stranger lifted up his hands and exclaimed “God bless the workmen,”
which is exactly what fairies cannot stand. They at once jumped beneath the
waves, and as they never returned to their work it has since been the going
to ruin, and is to this day a source of danger to sailors.
Tales of water kelpies and of ghosts may yet be heard round winter
firesides. Peculiar things are still being done to get a glimpse of the
future. But all their old world fancies are being steadily laughed out of
existence and are giving place to the new order of crystal gazing, palmistry
and spooks. Ross-shire people however have a more tender regard for their
county on account of all these old imaginings, because they go back to the
infancy of county history. They also have learned that:—
Sucks kindlier nurture from a soil enriched
By its own fallen leaves; and man is made
In heart and spirit from deciduous hopes
And things that seem to perish.”