Random Notes Anent the Antiquities, Traditions, Superstitions, and Old Manners and Customs of the Borders. – No. III. – Witchcraft (continued).

[Kelso Chronicle Articles Contents]

   IT is a remarkable fact in connection with the history of witchcraft that the more it was persecuted the more it multiplied and grew – showing that popular beliefs, whether religious or superstitious, whether true or false, instead of being eradicated, are fostered and strengthened by oppression. No sooner was the bull of a Pope or an act of Parliament or of a General Assembly promulgated than a a panic fear of witchcraft seized on the public mind, and a feeling of uneasiness and distrust pervaded all classes of the community. Nor was this feeling allayed till hundreds of innocent victims were accused, tortured, condemned, and executed. The maniac flame burned brightly for a time, and gradually becoming less vivid would probably have died out of itself had it not been again rekindled and fanned into life by the ill-judged edicts of unenlightened power. 

   I have already referred to the extraordinary powers ascribed to witches, and to the methods employed by the witch-finders, or proggers as they were called, in order to their discovery; and I have given a specimen of the confession of one and the tortures endured by another of the wretched victims of this deplorable superstition. The preservation against the fascination, or, as it was termed, the evil eye of witches, and which formed the most ridiculous act in this drama of popular delusions, next claims our notice. 

   Nailing a horse shoe to the door or the threshold of a house was considered a most effectual charm. As an illustration of this, a story is told of an old man being taken ill and confined to bed. When there he recollected that at the previous term he had driven from one of the cottages a poor decrepit woman who was generally regarded as being uncanny, or having an evil eye. he immediately ascribed his illness to her, and imagined that he was bewitched. He mentioned his conviction to the gossips who waited on him, who were only too glad to strengthen his impression. Having held a council, it was unanimously resolved to send for the smith to nail a horse’s shoe on the threshold, beyond which they believed that neither the witch herself nor her fascinations had any charm. The woman, in the meantime, having heard of what was done, and of the fama which had been raised against her character, applied for advice to the parish minister, who, as his stipend was not likely to suffer any diminution from her cantrips, turned the matter into ridicule, and dismissed her with a suitable admonition on charity and Christian forbearance. This proved unsatisfactory; for the reputed witch, unrestrained by the magic power of the horse shoe, and much to the bewilderment of the gossips, rushed, in the full flush of her ire, into the apartment of the bewitched man, and charged home upon her defamers the false and scandalous accusation. The popular faith in the witch-defying power of the horse shoe was considerably shaken till it oosed out that Vulcan, who happened to be somewhat of a wag, confessed that by way of experiment he had nailed, not a horse’s, but a donkey’s shoe to the threshold. The old man, however, recovered, and the eye of the witch was reputed to be as evil as before. 

   Another way of destroying a witch’s power was by pricking or scratching so as to draw blood. In the first part of Shakespeare’s Henry the Sixth, Act 1st, scene 5th, talbot says:- 

– “I’ll have a bout at thee, 

Devil or devil’s dam, I’ll conjure thee, 

Blood will I draw on thee, thou art a witch.” 

And in a satirical poem against the Scots by Cleveland, he says:- 

“Scots are like witches -do not whet your pen – 

Scratch till the blood comes, they’ll not hurt you then.” 

   But the most effectual way of all, in order to destroy the power of a witch, was scoring her above the breath. So recent as the year 1831, an elderly female, residing near Craigmillar, who bore the reputation of being uncanny, went to a neighbour’s house and asked for a piece of coal, which being refused, she said “they might repent that.” The female to whom this was said immediately concluded that she was bewitched, and some days after her husband, when under the influence of liquor, taken, it is presumed to inspire him with Dutch courage, in company with another man, went to the house of the old woman, and with a sharp instrument inflicted a deep wound across her forehead under the impression that scoring her above the breath would destroy her evil influence in all time coming. The poor woman was so severely injured that the Sheriff found it necessary to take a precognition into the facts, but the result I have not been able to ascertain. 

   Witches, it is well known, frequently exercised their evil eye on cows, calves, the making of butter, &c., and the following recipes for destroying its power were resorted to. When any cattle are suspected of being bewitched take some of the blood of the injured animal and mix it with a quantity of pins. Boil the mixture, taking care to stir it from time to time. During the performance of this charm the door of the house must be kept locked, and no one let into the secret but those of your own family. The suspected witch is sure to come to the door and demand admittance. This must be steadfastly refused till she promised to remove the spell from the diseased animal. Hence the old phrase, “She who comes first had injured your cow.” 

   To cure calves that have been bewitched, take of their own dung and rub their mouth and lips, but particularly their nose with it, and they will immediately recover from the effects of witchcraft. 

   In some of the pastoral districts of Roxburghshire, even at the present day, when any cow in a byre happens to cast her calf, the method resorted to in order to prevent the others from doing the same is to bury the first calf under the threshold of the byre-door. This charm, quoth my informant, is considered infallible. 

   If you suspect a woman of having bewitched your cows and preventing your butter from being procured by churning, press the churn-staff firmly down to the bottom of the churn, and in no long time the witch will come into the house and sit down. So long as the staff is held in this position, the witch will be unable to rise from her seat. You must then charge her with her guilt, and compel her to give a promise that she will remove the spell, and allow your butter to come as usual. You may then permit her to rise and leave the house, when it will be found that the ill luck in your churning has departed along with her. 

   There are certain trees, shrubs, plants, and animals which are more or less associated with witchcraft in the popular beliefs of the country. 

   The bourtree, or elder, was hateful to witches on account of the green juice obtained by squeezing from the inner bark being used to anoint the eyes of baptized people to whom it gave the power of seeing what the witches were doing in any part of the world. The virtues ascribed to the elder tree in the days of superstition were of the most varied kind. Boys beaten with an elder stick were hindered in their growth. If a man took an elder stick and cut it on both sides so as to preserve the joint, and put it into his pocket when he rode a journey, he would never gall. The leaves of the elder, gathered on the last day of April, were used in curing wounds, and affixed to the doors and windows of a house in order to disappoint the witches; and an amulet made of an elder on which the sun never shone was used as a potent charm against erysipelas. 

   The rowan tree, or mountain ash, was dreaded by witches more than all other trees. If any witch or fairy was touched with it by a christened person, that witch or fairy would be the kane one paid to Satan at the end of every seven years, which, it will be remembered, is alluded to in the old ballad of young Tam Lane – 

“O pleasant is the fairy land, 

And happy there to dwell; 

But aye at every seven years’ end 

We pay a kane to hell.” 

   The dread which the witches had of this tree may account for its having been often planted near cottages and old farm houses which invariably had 

– “A kail-yard afore and a peat-stack shin’, 

And a rowan tree to keep awa’ the witches and the win’.” 

   May not Shakespeare have had this witch-wood in his eye when he uses the phrase “Aroynt, ye witch, aroynte ye.” 

   The elm was a protecting tree. No malicious spirits would remain in its vicinity, or exercise any power over those who planted and preserved it. This may be the reason why we often see a large elm tree in the neighbourhood of old castles, towers, and keeps. In the old Border fort of Holydean, near Bowden, a very large tree of this kind stood, and is perhaps still standing in the very middle of the space which was formerly occupied as the courtyard of the castle. 

   The fern was detested because it had the letter C, or initial of the name of the anointed Saviour of the world, distinctly seen on its root when cut horizontally. 

   Witches were very fond of the herbs Hemlock, Night-Shade, St John’s Wort, and Vervain, which were always decocted in their lurid draughts. With the Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) they decorated their fingers; hence its flowers or bells still bear the name of “witches’ thimbles.” 

   The broom and the thorn were always the favourite wood of witches. These they used as horses in preference to any other, with the exception of the ragwort, on which they rode on their ruthless midnight errands. 

   “On a summer’s evening,” says Burns, in a letter to Captain Grose, “about the time Nature puts on her sables to mourn the expiry of the cheerful day, a shepherd boy belonging to a farmer in the immediate neighbourhood of Alloway kirk had just folded his charge and was returning home. As he passed the kirk, in the adjoining field, he fell in with a crew of men and women who were busy pulling stems of the plant ragwort. He observed as each person pulled a ragwort, he or she got astride of it, and called out ‘Up, horsie,’ on which the ragwort flew off like Pegasus through the air with its rider. The foolish boy likewise pulled his ragwort, and cried with the rest ‘Up, horsie,’ and strange to tell away he flew with the company. The first stop at which the calvalcade stopped was a merchant’s wine cellar in Bordeaux, where, without saying by your leave, they quaffed away at the best the cellar could afford, until the morning, foe to the waps and works of darkness threatened to throw light on the matter, and frightened them from their carousals. The poor shepherd lad being equally a stranger to the scene and the liquor, heedlessly got himself drunk, and when the rest took horse he fell asleep, and was found so next day by some of the people belonging to the merchant. Somebody that understood Scotch asking him what he was, he said such-a-one’s herd in Alloway; and by some means or other getting him home again, he lived long to tell the world the wondrous tale.” On this story the Ettrick Shepherd no doubt founded his weird ballad of “The Witch of Fife” in the “Queen’s Wake,” with one verse of which I conclude this rambling paper:- 

“Some horses were of the brume-cow framit, 

And some of the greine bay-tree, 

But mine was made of ane humloke, 

And a stout stallion was he.” 

J. G. S.      

– Kelso Chronicle, 10th July, 1863, p.2.

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