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Easter Ross
Folk-Lore


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 sea.”

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 imagination.

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 exist.

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 antiquity.

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 unknowable future.

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.”

DEATH.

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.

MEDICINAL LORE.

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 fewer.

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.

LUCK.

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:—

“The tree
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.”


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