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Charms and Amulets, pp.337-340.

[Scottish National Memorials Contents]

   In a scientific age it is difficult to apprehend and sympathise with the state of mind which endowed natural objects with the properties of charms and fetiches. Before it was the habit to trace phenomena to natural causes, faith in occult powers was strong, and credulity exercised a marked influence on the habits and actions of the people. But though education and intelligence tend now-a-days towards investigation and explanation, there is abundant evidence that we are yet but little removed from a state of superstition which clouded human life, filling the imagination with dread, and offering illusory immunity from all sorts of evils. 

   The land is covered with traces of superstitious practices; numberless empty forms are observed, which at no remote period were rites of grave import; and the mental attitude inherited from a superstitious ancestry is often still strong enough to overmaster reason and evidence, and induce faith in the supernatural. That this is so even amid advanced civilisation is made evident by the eager credulity with which the assertions of medical quacks are accepted, and the firm faith placed in the universal virtues of their nostrums. 

   In certain rural and remote Highland localities there still lingers a direct and primitive faith in the virtues of charms and amulets, and in the existence of invisible powers who influence the destinies of the race. 

   It is obvious that superstitious beliefs and practices can be but imperfectly illustrated by a collection of material objects. The venerated and dreaded powers were intangible and invisible, they rode on the blast or dwelt in the stream, mountain, and forest; and only in certain natural objects were specific virtues supposed to dwell. It is in these specimens alone that memorials are to be found of a phase in the evolution of humanity now rapidly passing away. Some of those which remain to us were once held in high esteem; but their virtues have left them for ever, as the spirits of the fountain and grove have quitted their haunts; and the more gloomy and malign powers of darkness, which clouded life to the very brink of the grave, have now become nothing more than the subject of idle jest. 

   THE GLENORCHY CHARM-STONE OF BREADALBANE. This Charm consists of a polished pyramidal piece of rock-crystal set in an octagonal disc of silver with eight pearls at intervals around it. It is particularly described in the Black Book of Taymouth, the work of Master William Bowie, pedagogue to the Glenurchy family towards the end of the sixteenth century, as ‘ane stone of the quantitye of half a hen’s eg set in silver, being flatt at the ane end and round at the uther end lyke a peir, whilk Sir Coline Campbell, first Laird of Glenurchy. woir when he fought in battell at the Rhodes agaynst the Turks, he being one of the Knychtis of the Rhodes.’ See Cosmo Innes in his Preface to the Black Book of Taymouth, p. iii, where he adds this note: ‘The jewel so particularly described as the amulet worn in battle by the Knight of the Cross would seem to have been used as a charm for more homely purposes afterwards; and one agreeing marvellously with its description is still at Taymouth, though it has not remained continuously in the family custody.’ Circa 1440. (See Fig. 273.) 

(1201) Lent by the MARQUIS OF BREADALBANE. 

   THE ARDVORLICH ‘CLACH DEARG.’ A ball of rock-crystal about an inch and a half in diameter in a mounting of two hoops of silver, with a clasp and chain for suspension. It has been long in the possession of the Stewarts of Ardvorlich, and was formerly held in great repute in the neighbourhood as a charm-stone for curing diseases of cattle. It is said to have been brought from the East by the Crusaders. The Ardvorlich Stone was one of the most famous of the curing stones in the Highlands of Scotland, and it was the last of them which continued to be in request. Regarding stones of this class Pennant (Tour, vol. i. p. 116) says: ‘The same virtue is said to be found in the crystal gems and in the adder stone, and it is also believed that good fortune must attend the owner; so for that reason the first is called Clach Bhuai or “the powerful stone.” Captain Archibald Campbell showed me one – a spheroid set in silver – for the use of which people came above a hundred miles, and brought the water it was to be dipt in with them, for without that, in human cases, it was believed to have no effect.’ Dalyell (Darker Superstitions, p. 155) also mentions and describes the above Glenlyon Charm, saying that it has been employed for curing cattle within the present century. He adds: ‘Another Amulet, much of the same description, is preserved in the family of Stewart of Ardvorlich, which is said to have been thus used within these three or four years.’ Dalyell’s work was published in 1835. The Ardvorlich Charm is figured in Wilson’s Prehistoric Annals, vol. i. p. 198, in Simpson’s Archæological Essays, vol. i. p. 212, and in plate xlvi. of Drummond’s Ancient Scottish Weapons. (See Fig. 274.) 

(1202) Lent by COLONEL STEWART, C.I.E., R.A. 

   ROCK-CRYSTAL CHARM STONE, for protection of cattle. A ball of rock-crystal hooped in silver, similar to the Ardvorlich Charm. 

(1206) Lent by W. MURRAY THREIPLAND. 

   A CHARM, consisting of three agate balls with a talisman of pale agate, mounted in a narrow gold band, attached. The number three was supposed to possess mystical value in the practices of sorcery and witchcraft. Dalyell (Darker Superstitions, p. 152) cites the trial of Hector Monro, 22d July 1598, in which ‘Marioun Macingarath administered “thrie drinkis of watter furth of thrie stanes” to Hector Monro of Foulis, which she produced on her examination before the King at Aberdeen, and they were deposited with the Justice-clerk.’ 

(1209) Lent by W. MURRAY THREIPLAND. 

   CHARM SERPENT-SKIN AND A TALISMAN RING, with adder bead attached. The adder bead or adder stone was a most powerful talisman in Scotland. While it was supposed to be produced within the body of the adder, the object so held in veneration consisted sometimes of an ancient Roman glass bead and sometimes of a stone whorl which had been used for weighting a spindle in spinning yarn. A ‘boird stane’ – that is, a stone pierced like a bead – gave ease to women in childbirth by being tied about the knee. Ure (Rutherglen and East Kilbride, p. 131), says of the adder bead: ‘It is thought by superstitious people to possess many wonderful properties. It is used as a charm to ensure prosperity and to prevent the malicious attacks of evil spirits. In this case it must be closely kept in an iron box to secure it from the fairies, who are supposed to have an utter abhorrence of iron.’ Dalyell (Darker Superstitions) mentions that the adder stone ‘was suspended from the neck for hooping-cough and other distempers of children.’1 The same authority further observes that water wherein adder stones had been boiled was administered to cattle for the cure of their diseases. 

(1208) Lent by W. MURRAY THREIPLAND. 

   CHARM STONES, used against witches at St. Andrews. 

(1207) Lent by W. MURRAY THREIPLAND. 

   A STRING OF LAMMER BEADS. Necklaces of Amber or Lammer (French I’ambre) beads were peculiarly prized in Scotland, especially among the fishing population of the East Coast, on account of the talismanic virtues of the substance. From the most remote times indeed, remarkable virtues were believed to dwell in amber beads. The mysterious occurrence of the substance, being cast up on the sea-coast after storms, and the remarkable electrical properties it displays, were sufficient to invest it with supernatural powers. Pliny states that a collar of amber beads worn about the neck of a young infant is a singular preservative against secret poison, and a counter charm for witchcraft and sorceries. In his time the price of a small figure of amber exceeded that of a healthy living slave. 

(1212) Lent by W. MURRAY THREIPLAND. 

   THE PLAGUE SPOON, once believed to possess talismanic or medicinal virtues. It is formed of a cowrie shell, set in silver, with a curiously wrought handle of the same metal, on which is inscribed G. T., Aug. 1603. The handle, which is hinged in the middle so that it can be folded, ends in two prongs, like a fork. These prongs are stuck through eyes in two small silver plates riveted to the back of the shell. The upper part is formed of two entwined serpents, and on the top is a figure with a bow, which may be intended either for Cupid or for Death. The spoon, when folded, is kept in a curious box, ornamented with old gilding. Medicine taken from this spoon was believed to be an infallible remedy for the plague, and so highly were its virtues esteemed, that persons flocked from all parts of the country to test its healing powers. (See Fig. 275.) 

(1210) Lent by W. MURRAY THREIPLAND. 

   WITCH CHARM. Brass disc, inlaid with wood of the rowan-tree or ‘mountain ash’ (Pyrus ancuparia). Worn hanging round the neck by a string, it was believed to avert the ‘evil eye’ from the person or cow wearing it. The rowan-tree itself planted near a house was one of the most effective bulwarks against supernatural influences, and the wood of it was an amulet ‘good to keip upon both man and beast.’ 

‘Rowan, ash, and red thread 

Keep the devils frae their speed,’ 

says the popular Scottish distich; and similarly Stewart, in his Popular Superstitions of the Highlands, speaking of a child, says: ‘A red thread tied about its neck, or a rowan cross, are said to be equally efficacious in preventing the influence of evil spirits, evil eyes, and other calamities of the same description.’ Evelyn (Silva, Chap, XVI.) mentions that one stood in every churchyard in Wales, as the yew did in England; and on a certain day in the year every person wore a cross of the wood, whereby fascination and evil spirits were warded off. Of the protective influence of rowan wood over cattle, Dr. George Johnston (Flora of Berwick-on-Tweed, p. 110) remarks: ‘The dairy-maid will not forget to drive them to the shealing or summer pasture, with a rod of the rowan-tree, which she carefully lays over the door of the sheal-bothy, or summer house, and drives them home again with the same.’ 

(1203) Lent by J. B. DALZELL. 

   A CELTIC BOOK OF POWER. It consists of a Gaelic metrical version of the Book of Psalms with an iron door-key and threads of black-and-white worsted yarn. It was obtained in 1863 by the late Alexander Thomson of Banchory, from the Rev. Charles Watson of the Free Church, Langholm, who sent with it the following note:- ‘I told you that I possessed the Book of Power wherewith a wizard or “wise man” in the Island of Lewis held in subjection a large district. It was taken from him by the factor in the year 1851, and given by the factor (John Mackenzie, now of Wishaw Distillery) to me. I said you should have it for your museum, so I now send it, as a contribution to the history of superstition in the nineteenth century. The black and the white yarn are both essential to its efficacy. The key was placed between certain pages and the yarn tightly wrapped round the whole. It then had power. The difficulty of our using it consists in not knowing where to place the key!’ 


   TOUCH-PIECES OF THE LATER STEWARTS (James-Francis, Charles-Edward, and Henry Cardinal York). (See also pp. 129, 130.) The divine gift of healing scrofula, cruelles, or king’s evil was supposed to be strictly a prerogative of the lawful monarchs of England and France, and the touch-pieces of the three claimants above-named (James [VIII]., Charles III., and Henry IX.) possess special significance as tokens of sovereign rights denied to them and sovereign powers no longer believed in. In Scotland cure by royal touch does not appear to have been practised till the reign of Charles I., who, on St. John’s day, 24th June 1633, at a solemn service in the Chapel Royal, Holyrood, touched and ‘healit’ 100 persons. Charles II. changed the coin or small medallion which was given at the religious service to each patient from gold to silver. King William did not claim or exercise the curative function with his other rights as English monarch, and the Athenian Mercury in 1691 asks, ‘What is the reason that his present Majesty King William has never yet toucht for the evil: and why is that divine gift neglected which has been so many ages inherent in all the lawful kings of England?’ Queen Anne, however, reverted to the practice, and among those touched by her was an infant who was to become famous as Dr. Samuel Johnson. Though never formally sanctioned by the Church, a special service, ‘The Office of Healing,’ was included in the Book of Common Prayer up till the time of George I. 


   ELF ARROW-HEADS. Till comparatively recent times the flint arrow-heads of our prehistoric ancestors were believed to be of supernatural origin, the bolts of spirits, both beneficent and malign, shot by invisible hands from the air. In accordance with their supernatural origin so was their mystical virtue, and no charm was so effective against the machinations of evil spirits and the spells of witches. Like charm-stones, also, they endowed water in which they were dipped with remarkable curative virtues for cattle, and, set in gold or silver, they were eagerly sought for wearing as amulets. Flint arrow-heads continue to be so much in request for mounting as brooches in Ireland, that a lively trade in fabricated imitations is maintained to meet the demand. It may be assumed that these fraudulent imitations by ‘Flint Jacks’ do not inherit the virtues of true elfin bolts. 

   COAL CIRCLET. Found in graveyard at Portpatrick. Believed to have been used by the females of ancient times as an ornament for the hair. 

(1204) Lent by J. B. DALZELL. 

1  A similar practice is recommended in the Wemyss MS. Book of Receipts (1628-49), described in pp. 192-3 of this volume. 

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