No. III. – On the Popular Superstitions of Ghosts and Witches, incident to the Border, 1st May, 1816, pp.344-352.

[Scottish Antiquities Contents]

“Antiquam exquirite matrem.”

[“Seek out your ancient mother.”]

   Respectfully inscribed to Sir G. McKENZIE, President of the Royal Society of Scottish Antiquities. 

   THE belief in ghosts, boagles, brownies, witches, fairies, &c., formed the more prominent features of the superstitious creeds of our feudal forefathers: not an old ruin upon the Borders but had its appropriate spirit assigned it. “Redcap,” as it was generally denominated, fixed upon one of these roofless abodes for its habitation, to the great terror and confusion of “the gude fouks its neighbours,” or the benighted peasant, who had to pass its unhallowed precincts: here, by the light of the moon, it performed innumerable pranks, and assumed a multiplicity of forms; sometimes appearing in all the gorgeous trappings of an old baronial chieftain, at other times in the habit of a lady; nay, the Proteus spirit has been known to burst from its solitary donjon in the form of a huge mastiff, howling in a most unearthly tone, and rattling, as it were, a thousand chains. Often has it been seen in the semblance of a bundered bull, rushing from the herd, and dashing itself headlong over some immense precipice, then raising its infernal laugh at the dreadful anxiety which had seized upon the farmer for the loss of his valuable animal. 

   But the boagle (or ghost) of the greatest notoriety in the south of Scotland, was one said to have haunted the old border Fortalice, called Blackett-house Tower, and well known in the annals of legendary superstitions in that district. 

   The origin of this hideous spectre is said to have been as follows: Bell, the laird of Blackett-house, a lawless depredator, and one with whom “might still overcame right,” having been out upon a foraging party, drove off a “beautiful boute of cattle belonging to a farmer of the name of Johnstone, from a place called Mellental, upon the Water of Milk, in Tundergarth parish. Johnstone, seeing his cattle driven away, mounted his steed, and set out on the pursuit. Having traced them to Blackett-house Tower, he was confounded to see them all stalled up in one of the recesses of the castle, with a huge iron grating before them, and the old laird giving orders for the slaughter of two very fine heifers. Johnstone durst not lay claim to what he well knew to be his own, as being in the purlieus of the tyger’s den. He went up to the laird, acquainted him with his loss, and requested his assistance in the recovery of his gear. “Come, come, (quo’ the laird,) come in and eat a bit o’ dinner, and drink a glass o’ wine wi’ me, and gin the brutes be upo’ the yird, by my troth an’ yese hae them again.” After a good dinner, and a hearty glass, Bell summoned his attendant, graithed himself, and set off with Johnstone in his concerted raid. They had scarcely ridden a bowshot from the castle, when Bell, making a feint of turning his horse to the other side, drew his dagger, and stabbed the unfortunate victim to the heart. Johnstone died, but not till he had imprecated the vengeance of Heaven upon his murderer, and informed him, that his ghost should haunt him and his descendants to the latest generation; which hasbeen literally accomplished, as not one of that line, whether male or female, has died since, without being attended by “Auld Uncle,” as he was called, during their last moments, always appearing in the habit in which Bell was supposed to have been dressed when he murdered Johnstone. Another spectral appearance is also said to have haunted the Spedlin’s Castle, a strong hold of the Jardines of Applegarth, upon the banks of the Annan, a few miles above the royal burgh of Lochmaben, and which is narrated as follows: 

   In the time of the late Sir John’s grandfather, a person named Porteous, residing in the parish of Applegarth, had been arrested on suspicion of setting fire to one of the laird’s mills, and confined in the “massymore” or dungeon of the castle. The laird being suddenly sent for to Edinburgh, in the hurry and bustle of preparation, had unluckily forgotten to leave the key of the cell, which he always kept in his own custody. On passing down the West Port of Edinburgh, he discovered by accident that he had brought the key along with him. – Stung with remorse, he called his servant, delivered the key to him, and ordered him to ride back as fast as “whip and spur could take him.” – This was accordingly done, but, shocking to relate, the poor wretch was found dead, the flesh gnawed from off both hands, and one of his arms. – The fright threw the valet into a delirium, which shortly terminated his existence, and the baronet was never seen to smile more. 

   From that time the castle was haunted by a terrible apparition, till a chaplain of the family exorcised it, and confined it to the massymore, where Porteous had been imprisoned, from whence it never should make its escape, so long as a large black letter Bible, which he had used upon that occasion, remained in the castle. – The chaplain did not long survive this ghostly encounter. The spectre was, however, by the potency of the spell, kept quietly confined to the prison assigned it, till a great many years after, when the Bible, which was used by the family, was sent off to Edinburgh in order to be rebound. The absence of the Bible dissolved the charm. Redcap emerged from his dungeon, and roamed all over the castle, making the most hideous noises, opening the iron doors of the vaults, and flapping them again with a sound like thunder; sometimes appearing in one shape, and sometimes in another. The Bible was obliged to be brought back unbound, and the boagle by this means confined to its former durance. Various other superstitions, of a like nature, will be found under the descriptions of the respective ruins, &c. to which they are appended, but, if taken notice of in this place, would have swelled the article to an unnecessary length. 

   A ghost, or apparition, is supposed to be the spirit of a person who has wither died an unnatural death, been made away with, has robbed or murdered the orphan, or cheated the fatherless out of their patrimony; all, or any one of these, is matter sufficient to recall the spirit from that awful bourne, as it is deemed impossible for them to rest till discoveries and restitutions sufficiently adequate have been made. – Sometimes the occasion of spirits revisiting this world is to inform an heir in what secret place, or private drawer in an old trunk, they had hidden the title-deeds of the estate, or where, in troublesome times, their money or their plate had been buried. – Ghosts of murdered persons, whose bodies have been secretly made away with, cannot be at rest till their bones have been dug up, and buried with their accustomed rites, in consecrated ground. This idea is the relict of a very ancient heathen superstition. – The Greeks and the Romans believed that Charon was not permitted to ferry over the ghosts of unburied persons, who were doomed to wander up and down on the shores of Acheron for a hundred years, and were then admitted to be ferries across. Virgil, whose works are a treasury of the laws, manners, customs, and superstitions of “mighty Rome,” has given us a beautiful episode upon these rites in his Ænead. The pristess says to Æneas: 

“Hæc omnis quam cernis, inops inhumataque turba est: 

Portitor ille, Charon; hi quos vehit unda, sepulti. 

Nec ripas datur horrendas, nee rauca fluenta, 

Transportare prius quam sedibus ossa quierunt, 

Centum errant annos, volitantque hæc littora circum; 

Tum, demum admissi, stagna exoptata revisunt.” 

   “Sometimes ghosts appear in consequence of a paction having been made with some person or other that he who died first should appear to the survivor.”1 

   “In order to lay a ghost, or exorcise it, there must be two, or, if possible three, of the most learned and reverend divines in the Presbytery; three large candles must then be placed in a triangular form upon the table. The Bible must be opened at a certain place, and a sword with the “high name” enchased upon the blade, laid crosswise over it. When the ghost makes its appearance, the whole of the ceremony must be performed in Latin – a language that strikes the most audacious ghost with terror.”2 A ghost may be laid for any term less than an hundred years, and in any place or body, full or empty; the pommel of a sword, a barrel of beer, or a pipe of wine; but the most common state-prison for these nocturnal visitants, is the Red Sea, and of which they are in the greatest terror, often petitioning for a mitigation of their sentence.”3 

   Witches, again, were a common, and, of course, a more troublesome community. These “emissaries of Satan” have long held the minds of the border peasantry in uncontrolled sway. Tho’ reason and religion have triumphed, in a great measure, over their infernal machinations, still the remains of this once formidable conclave appear, on every hand, like the ruins which we contemplate after the torrents of ages have assailed them, and which, in all probability, will exist coeval with time itself. 

   The glorious dawn of reformation swept away numerous hosts of these formidable superstitions; but the more hellish one of sorcery, or witchcraft, remained unscathed amid the general conflagration: every thing in nature was deemed subject to its unlimited controul; in the air, on the earth, and in the waters, witches exercised their dominion, and gave laws to the whirlwinds and the storm. They could bridle the fury of the torrent, arrest the planets in their course, nay, such was the potency of their infernal charms, that the dead arose at their call, and the spirits returned, at their awful summons, from beyond the barriers of that unknown land, to answer their demands, and give evidence in matters of their diabolical concerns. This direful idea was laid hold on to convict numbers of poor infirm wretches, who were suspected of holding communion with the “father of superstitions,” merely because they were unfortunate, unfriended, and abandoned in the world. Old men and women were hurried to the ordeal of fire and water, or bound to the stake, and murdered on their own confessions; even trifles light as air were held as confirmations strong; and blood alone could expiate the crime of dealing with the “foul thief,” or holding their nocturnal revels by the light of the moon, in order to destroy their neighbour’s “goods and chattels.” To such a height was this persecuting spirit carried, in the beginning of the eighteenth, and latter part of the seventeenth century, that every suspected person was obliged to undergo the strictest scrutiny; and if any insensible mark, such as a mole, a strawberry, &c. was found, they were immediately convicted of fostering a succubus, or “imp of hell,” and giving it suck at one of these marks, to which they gave the name of an “infernal teat.” 

   The old, the infirm, and the illiterate, were those generally pitched upon by Belzebub for the enlargement of his kingdom, though a part of his mystic revels were intended solely for the amusement and recreation of his blooming proselytes, and in whose company and conversation he seems to have taken great delight. The great bard of Caledonia has represented Satan, when gazing upon the budding beauties of a young kimmer skipping in the dance, as “glow’ring and fidging fain,” and making use of every charm to please and astonish. 

   Certain times and places were consecrated and set apart for these infernal revels; and the “awsume trystes,” where the demonology of a whole country assembled, are yet pointed out by the finger of tradition with sentiments of terror and dismay. – Their annual processions were termed “hallowmass raides,” and people were of old accustomed to date the epoch of any remarkable occurrence from “Jenny Wishart’s, Meg Glendinning’s, or Luckie Little’s Brunswarke raide.” 

   The noted tryste of the westland witches and warlocks was held upon a beautiful knowe, finely fringed with broom, and covered with a profusion of daisies and other field-flowers, at a place called Lochen-brigg hill, in the parish of Kirkmahoe, and Stewarty of Nithsdale, about 5 miles to the N. E. of the town of Dumfries. Here the peasant has beheld them assembling in crows upon “auld hallowe’en,” arrayed in all the glory of their master’s kingdom, and singing the following “hymn,” as they alighted upon the swald: 

“When the auld houlet had three times twhoo’d, 

When the black cat has three times mew’d, 

When the tod has yowl’d frae his hole i’ the wud 

At the red mune cowering ahint the clud, 

When the starns hae smoor’d their gleam i’ th’ drift, 

An’ the fire drake hiss’d athwart the lift; 

Down, horses, down, but guide or groom, 

And stan’ till we daunce thro’ the bonny broom; 

Down, horses, down, i’ the red mune’s lowe, 

For our tryste to-night is the Lochen-brigg knowe.” 

   Some of those aged matrons well skilled in gramarie, and who were unable to ride on aught of mortal mould, could summon to their aid the denizens of air, or harness the sea-blasts to their hemlock chariots, and sail in awful majesty through the realms of space; but their principal stud consisted chiefly of broomsticks, “thrice warped i’ the wun, and virl’d wi’ a dead man’s banes;” their saddle laps the scalps of “unchristened bairnes;” the bridle-reins were tossels of the moon, and their stirrup-irons the collar bones of a she wolf, “worried i’ the birth;” “the bridle-bits were forged in Satan’s armoury, and possessed irresistible power when shaken over any living thing.” 

   A cantrip bridle is said to have been possessed by a wanton widow in the howmes of Nithsdale, which she was accustomed to shake over the head of her servant, a stout young man, who instantly started up a good grey horse, and flew like the lightning, at the will of his (kittle) mistress, over woods, waters, and wilds, where horse had never passed before, and where a shoe nail had seldom or never been imprinted. This young fellow suddenly lost all his gaiety, and became as lean as if he had “been ridden past by a witch.” One of his neighbours enquiring into the cause, “Lie ye at the stock to night, an’ ye’ll sune be as lean as me.” It was on a hallowe’en, and though he felt unusual drowsiness, he kept himself awake. At midnight, his mistress cautiously approaching his bedside, shook the charmed bridal over him, saying, Up, horsie, when, to his utter astonishment, he arose in the form of a grey horse. The bit was put in his mouth, and mounted by the carline. Feeling the prick of infernal spur, he took such leaps and bounds, that he reached the Locher-brigg knowe in a few moments. He was fastened by the bridle to a tree, with many more of his acquaintances, whom he recognized through their brutal disguise. He looked petrified with affright, when the father of the potent spell drew a circle around the knowe, within which no baptized brow could enter. All being assembled, hands were joined, and a ring of warlocks and witches danced in the enchanted bound, with many lewd and uncouth gestures. In the centre he beheld a thick smoke, and presently arose the piercing yells and screams of hellish baptism, which the new converts were enduring. Startled and terrified, he plunged and reared, and praying ardently to Heaven, shook off the bridle of power, and started up in his natural shape, seizing the instrument of his transformation. It was now grey day when the conclave dispersed, for their orgies could not endure the rebuke of the sun. He watched his mistress, who, all haste and confusion, was hurrying to her steed. Shaking the bridal over her brow, she started up “a gude grey mare,” and was hastened home with such push of spur, that all competitors were left far behind. The sun was nigh risen, as he hurried into the stable. Pulling off his bridle, the cantrip-loving dame appeared with hands and feet lacerated with travel, and her sides pricked to the bone. On her rider’s promising never to divulge his night’s adventure, she allowed him to keep the bridle as a pledge of safety.4 “Warlock weeds” was another article of which our forefathers have written and spoken much. One of these feckets, or coats of proof, we have described in an old absolete author, who informs us, that “the weird coat” was woven frae the skins o’ shelly-cows,5 jointed wi’ the whirl-banes o’ a water snake, and hung to sun and mune to harden for thrice three months and a day, then dipped in an ointment made o’ the fat o’ dead wolf’s heart and a lizard’s lungs, after which, it would resist any missile weapon, save a crooked sixpence shot from a sanctified tube two hours before the sun went down. – Claverhouse, the gallant Viscount of Dundee, is said to have been arrayed in a jacket of this nature; “he shook off the leaden bullets like hail,” but was at last mortally wounded in the side, when raising his arm to direct the pursuit of the flying foe. 

   To counteract the baneful effects of witchcraft, a horse-shoe was nailed upon the stable door, a piece of iron was put into the kirn (churn), sprigs of rowan-tree (the mountain ash) were cut, and, without being suffered to touch the ground, were placed above the “byre door head,” in the milk-house, and even sewed into the seams of the children’s clothing. At times, a most astonishing rite was performed, when the cattle of the village had been seized with any sudden disorder; a large fire was put on, every window and chimney top was completely blocked up, a green turf dug atween “sun and mune,” and stuck as full of large pins as it could hold, was then put into the seething pot, and suspended over the now blazing furnace, with such uncouth phrases and ejaculations, as the nature of the sacrifice seemed to call forth. In a few moments, the warlock who had been guilty of such nefarious practices, would have been heard trying every “creek and cranny” to get in, wringing her hands, and wailing in a most hideous manner; as the sod represented her heart, she, of course, felt the most grievous and excrutiating torments so long as it remained suspended over the fire. Upon being questioned as to the manner in which the cattle had been bewitched, and where the spell that bound them was hidden, on her reply, the doors were immediately thrown open, the sod taken out of the pot, and every thing restored to its former regularity. “But lucky was ever afterwards kept at the staff’s end,” nor once permitted to set foot either in barn or byre, from the notorious revelation of her trafficking with fiends, and holding communion with the spirits of darkness; and well for her if she was thus suffered to escape without being “scratched three times abun the breath with a big prin,” to point out thot he world what a monster of iniquity she had formerly been, and warning every person to beware of her snares and her incantations. These witches, it was firmly believed, had it also in their power to torment even to death the victim of their hatred or their malice. A piece of clay or wax being taken and moulded into the form of a human body, saying, at the same time, this is such a person (naming him or her,) thrusting its sides full of pins, then placing it on a block, &c. before the fire. those whom such images were intended to represent, would sweat and waste away, as the wax melted, and feel the most excrutiating pains in those parts where the pins had been stuck. This charm is alluded to by Allan Ramsay in beautiful pastoral, the Gentle Shepherd, where, after enumerating the various charms, spells, and incantations of witchcraft, he thus proceeds: 

“At midnight hours o’er the kirk-yard she raves, 

An’ houks unchristen’d weans out o’ their graves; 

Boils up their livers in a warlock’s pow, 

Rins widdershins about the hemlock low. 

Nine times she does her prayers backwards say, 

Till Plotock comes wi’ lumps o’ Lapland clay, 

Mix’d wi’ the venom o’ black tades and snakes: 

Wi’ this, unsonsie pictures oft she makes 

O’ ony ane she hates, and gaurs expire, 

Wi’ slow and racking pains, afore a fire; 

Stuck fu’ o’ preens the devilish pictures melt, 

The pains by those they represent are felt.”6 

   Burns, in his inimitable tale of Tam o’ Shanter, has also seized upon this most prominent superstition, and conferred all its infernal honours upon the heroine of the piece, who 

“Perish’d mony a bonny boat, 

And sheuk baith meikle corn and bear, 

And held the country side asteer.”7 

   The above charm is said to have been practised not many years ago, upon a young man of the name of Little, at a place called Mein Mill, in Annandale. This young man having fallen in love with the daughter of a woman who was in habit and repute a notorious witch, after the usual time spent in courtship, the day of marriage was appointed, and every thing went on in a tolerable manner: on the bridal eve, some friend or other of Little having informed him of the nature of that connection which he was about to make, (as he himself seems to have been ignorant that his intended mother-in-law was 

“Hated by baith pure and rich, 

And deem’d a vile unchancy witch.”) 

he, of course, withdrew, leaving the young woman a prey to shame and vexation. The mother immediately set about avenging the affront offered to her daughter; she haunted poor Little in every possible shape, by night and by day; sleeping or waking, she was his incessant tormentor, and seldom left him, till the anguish of his sufferings rendered him quite miserable. Having acquainted his friends with the nature of his torments, they advised him to set sail for America, and, upon the banks of the Susquehannah, seek an asylum from the rage of his merciless pursuer. this was accordingly done, with no better success; on sea and on shore she was still present with him, and, like his evil genius, stood ever arrayed in terrors before him. He returned to his native land “the ghost of what he was,” dragging on an existence which was now become a curse to him, and ardently longing for the delivering hand of death to put an end to his protected calamities. A few weeks after his return from America, he stept inadvertently into the mill, when his tormentor appeared to him in form of a large cat; she flew upon him, and dragged him irresistibly to the inner wheel, where he was shortly after found mangled in a most shocking manner, his arm literally torn from his shoulder, and his thigh bone broken into innumerable pieces. He was just heard, in a faint murmur, to articulate the name of his destroyer, then breathed his last in all the anguish of an excruciating death. The above-mentioned rites were immediately resorted to, (after the corpse had been laid out, and the salt and the earth placed upon its breast,) when the suspected witch made her appearance, uttering the most hideous shrieks; and imploring them to have mercy upon her, she confessed the whole, and was, after being bound upon a cart, carried to Dumfries jail, to await the awards of justice, but died in a few days after her imprisonment. The young man was buried in the church-yard of Pennersaughs, where a rose-bush was long pointed out as the place of his sepulture, and which, I make no doubt, is to be seen to this day. 

   Another prominent feature in this creed of witchcraft, is their being enabled to assume any form at pleasure, but especially that of a hare or a cat. Of this, there is a remarkable story still current in Annandale. “Carlyle, the laird of Bridekirk, a noted hunter in his time, had frequently started a hare, a little above the village of Ecclefechan, which always baffled his dogs, (though accounted the finest pack on the borders,) and gained the wood of Woolcoats, where she was sure to escape, as no further trace of her could ever be observed from that spot. Carlyle happened to mention this circumstance one day at dinner to the laird of Sorrysyke, who immediately laid a wager with him, that his black greyhound bitch, Smart, would turn her at least a dozen of times before she made cover, if not catch her. The wager was accepted, and the day appointed. Accordingly, having collected a numerous band of friends and acquaintances to witness the feat, they set out early on a fine October morning, while the dew was yet glittering on the grass, and the cottage smoke curling above the trees. After beating about for a considerable space with the beagles, Carlyle espied her slowly stealing down the back of an old fauld dyke; he instantly gave the view halloo, when Sorrysyke slipping his dog, exclaimed “Fye rin, Smart, as if the deil was in thee.” A fine chase ensued, in which Smart is said to have turned her game not less than twenty times before she made Brunswark-hill, where making a sudden spring upon her, she tore off the “fore spaul.” Mause immediately assumed her natural form, and Smart ran howling back to her master. Sorrysyke rode forward to the spot where the hare had vanished, when peeping over the dyke, picture his astonishment, on beholding a poor old woman wrapping a bit of rag around her bleeding stump, for the hand appeared to have been completely torn off. Sorrysyke “knew her to be a witch,” and, with a few hearty curses, bade her “gang hame for an auld wretch; gin he hadna had his black bitch Smart wi’ him, the feint o’ ane o’ them a’ could hae laid saat till her tail that day;” and so rode back to Ecclefechan, and drank the wager.” Upon this popular superstition is said to have been founded the beautiful air, entitled “Bridekirk’s hunting,” and which is still chanted, with all its plaintive wildness, by the border nurses, to still their weeping infants. 

   We shall close our notices of this infernal superstition, with an account of the charm for the baking of a witch-cake, whose pernicious virtues, and hellish properties, are thus described in traditional song, said to have been sung by the carlines over their unhallowed batch: 

THE WITCH-CAKE. 

“I saw yestreen, I saw yestreen, 

Little wis ye what I saw yestreen, 

The black cat puk’d out the grey cats een, 

At the hip o’ the hemlock knowe yestreen. 

Wi’ her tail i’ her teeth she whomel’d roun’, 

Wi’ her tail i’ her teeth she whomel’d roun’, 

Till twae starnes shot frae the lift abune, 

An’ she hauncht them ere they wan to the green. 

She turn’t them roun’ i’ her mouth an’ chow’d, 

Till the slaver fell, an’ her grey een low’d, 

Then drabbled them oure wi’ a black nowt’s blude, 

An’ bak’d a bannock, an’ ca’d it gude. 

She haurn’d it weel wi’ a blink o’ the mune, 

An’ drapt it a’ wi’ the ryme abune, 

Syne widdershins thrice she whirl’d it roun’, 

A feast for the bonniest lass i’ the toun. 

Gaur place a bit to the bride’s left sleeve, 

An’ a bit ‘mid the bridal blankets leave, 

They may suck the ale frae the bizzing horne, 

Ise warn’t they’ll skirl ere it be morne. 

Gaur place a bit at yon cradle head, 

The bairn will gasp wi’ the smeekit bread, 

An’ tho’ its mither should rock till day, 

The wretch sall skreech its wun’ away.” 

   Such are a few of the more prominent features of this once dreadful superstition, but which have in a great measure faded before the omnipotent agency of reason and of truth: the most formidable witch we have to encounter in these days, is the grisly fiend poverty; and the piercing charms of a pair of lovely eyes and rosy lips have more power over the young swains of the villages, than all the midnight spells and incantations of Old Mother Shipton and her three thousand cats. 

1  Gerse’s Vulg. Supers. 

2  Fusto’s Dæmonium, 12mo. 1600. 

3  The learned Selden observes, upon the conjuring or exorcising of ghosts, “that there was never a merry world since the fairies left off dancing, and the monks conjuring: the opinion of the latter kept thieves in awe, and did as much good as a country justice.” (Vide Polaythion.) 

4  Nithsdale and Galloway songs. Appendix, page 280. 

5  Shelly-cow, a monster, half fish and half cow, said to inhabit the inland lakes and bays of uninhabited countries. 

6  Vide Ramsay’s Gentle Shepherd, 4to. 144. 

7  Tam o’ Shanter, Currie’s ed. of Burns’s Works, vol. 3. 

One thought on “No. III. – On the Popular Superstitions of Ghosts and Witches, incident to the Border, 1st May, 1816, pp.344-352.

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