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

[Kelso Chronicle Articles Contents]

   HAVING devoted a few lines to the various trees which were entwined in one way or another in the superstitious beliefs of the country with the incantations of witchcraft, these Notes would be incomplete were no reference made to those animals – especially the cat and hare – whose forms witches had at all times the power of assuming, in order to carry on undiscovered the business of their supernatural craft. 

   Witches had not merely the power of assuming the form of a cat, but this useful domestic animal was their constant companion. The picture of a witch without her cat would be incomplete. Thus Ramsay – 

                      “And yonder’s  Mause; 

She and her cat sit beaking in her yard.” 

   “A witch, according to my nurse’s account (says the author of this curious tract), must be a haggard old woman, living in a little rotten cottage, under a hill, by a woodside, and must be frequently spinning at the door; she must have a black cat, two or three broom sticks, an imp or two, and two or three diabolical teats to suckle her imps.” 

   On Hallow E’en, when some great witch convocation was held, cats were the favourite coursers on which the hags made their aërial excursion to the place of rendezvous; and in some parts of the Borders when a cat became lean without any apparent cause, it was firmly believed that she was witch ridden. This last phrase reminds me of a story in Patie Galbraith’s Diary, from which it will be seen that some witches were more ambitious in the choice of their coursers, and preferred a good horse to a broomstick, a cat, or even a “humloke schaw”:- 

   “1771. – Dec. 23. – Yesterday was an awsome day amang the hills, the drift blawin’ sae thick that it was mair than possible to see onything farther off than a Scots ell. But yet, in the gude providence o’ God, I managed to get a’ my charge in geyan snug quarters till the storm blaws by. I cam’ hame at the gloamin unco forfouchten like, and Mysie and the bairns were neither to haud nor bind wi’ joy when they saw me again; for nae doubt, as was natural, they thought I micht ha’e fa’en owre some crag into a deep gulley, and never mair be seen or heard tell o’. Howsomever, it was a’richt, and I had nae sooner sat down in my elbow chair at the side o’ a canty fire, and after the fatigues and dangers o’ the day, enjoyin’ a halesome supper o’ reekin’ champies and milk, when wha should lift the sneck and keek ben than the auld gaberlunzie wha has sorned wi’ us mony a time, and was aye made welcome baith by Mysie and me to a bite and a sup sic as we had to gie. Forbye, Davie, as he ca’s himsel’, is a weel informed body, and kens a’ the ongoin’s at a’ the clachans for twenty miles round. Sae after gettin’ the snaw daddit aff frae his auld blue bonnet and his cloak, which is geyan bare and thin now, we made him draw in his chair and thowe his outward man at the bleezin’ ingle, and his inner man wi’ the het savoury champies, which a’ the folk i’ the Overtown ken naebody can make like Mysie; and I may say mair, that even cauld sowens het owre again wad be a maist delectable treat when spiced wi’ the blith blink o’ her bonny blue e’e, and the smile that kithes sae sweetly on her dimpled cheek. Weel, after we had gotten our bit comfortable supper, Mysie biggit a wheen peats on the fire, and we drew closer round the bleeze to thowe our taes, and ha’e a crack about a’ the uncos round about, and specially about our friends in the west country. At lang and last we cam’ nearer hame, and I tauld him a’ the queer stories about Eppie Lang. This led on to a witch crack, and Davie, lauchin’ a’ the time at the superstitions, and yet half believin’ them, said he had heard a verra queer ane the ither nicht, and without even clearin’ his throat, as young women do afore they sing a sang, he narrated as follows:- 

   “Ye ken brawly where the clachan o’ Yarrowford stands – a few miles up frae Selkirk – which has aye ha’en the repute o’ bein’ the witch capital o’ the Borders. Aweel, the smith there, ance on a time, had twa appresntices – brithers – baith lithe, brawny chields, wha for the first towmond o’ their apprenticeship, enjoyed the verra best o’ health, and their like wasna to be seen in either Ettrick or Yarrow. At the beginnin’ o’ the second towmond, the youngest brither began to look unco shilpit and dwaumy like. He couldna clean out his bicker i’ the mornin’ as he used to do; and his elder rbither, wha began to be anxious about him, couldna faddom the cause o’ the wonderfu’ change. Things gaed on frae ill to waur; he was unable to be at his wark frae day to day; and though he had nae spittin’ or host about him, he lookit like ane wha was gaun gey fast down the brae o’ a consumption. Ae nicht, when the twasome were lyin’ i’ their beds, he burst into tears and tauld his brither he couldna live lang, for his maister’s wife was a witch, and cam’ regularly ilka nicht and touched him wi’ a wand, when he was immediately transformed into a horse, which she mounted and rode off to the infernal meetings of her sister witches. These midnight meetings were held often at a great distance, wherever Auld Nick, their maister, appointed them; and mair than anee they had broken into cellars and continued drinkin’ and gulravigin’ till the mornin’. When a’ was owre, she slippit the bridle aff his head, when he resumed his wonted shape. This took place when the elder brither was sound asleep after the hard toils o’ the day. The elder advised his younger brither to sleep ayont him, and he would take his chance o’ a nicht amang the witches. The next nicht he lay awake till the hour mentioned by his brither, when prompt at the exact time her ladyship made her appearance, rigged out in high style, with a bridle in ae hand and a wand i’ the ither. She cuist the bridle owre his head, and gied him a touch wi’ her wand, and in a jiffey he sprang up in the shape o’ a fine huntini’ horse. She vaulted into the saddle, and in the midst o’ a vast calcalcade o’ witches, she rade straight to the cellar o’ a neibourin’ gentleman, where they plied the inspirin’ juice o’ the grape till their ain torches burnt blue afore them. A’ the time her horse keepit rub, rubin’ his head against his stall, till aff cam’ the bridle, an’ he was himsel’ ance mair. He took the bridle an’ stood in a neuk till his mistress an’ a’ the lave o’ the hags made their appearance in the stable, when, as quick as lightnin’, he threw it owre her head, when a fine grey mare started up in his hand. He mounted and rade through thick and thin till he noticed that ane o’ her forefeet had lost a shoe. He took her to the first smiddy he cam’ to, and had anither ca’ed on, and likewise a new ane on the ither foot. After this he led her into a ploughed field and gallop’d up and down amang the deep furrows till she had nearly drappit down. He pu’ed aff the bridle so that she might resume her ain shape an’ get into bed afore her husband gat up to begin his wark i’ the mornin’. When he cam’ in at parritch-time he fand his wife lyin’ i’ the bed, and mair like a corp than a leevin’ body. The blacksmith being seriously alarmed, sent off to the town for a doctor, wha in nae lang time stood at the bed-side of the sick wife. He lifted her arm to examine the state o’ her pulse, when to his great astonishment he observed that she had the shoes of a horse nailed to her hands. The apprentice wha was present stepped forward and tauld the hale circumstances, and the next day she was tried by the Magistrates o’ Selkirk, and condemned to be burnt on a stane in Bullsheugh – which sentence was as promptly carried into effect as her discovery, trial, and condemnation had been.” 

    In addition to this wonderful and almost incredible story of the old gaberlunzie, I will subjoin one or two more, which will serve to illustrate the witch literature of a former period, and afford amusement to the lovers of the supernatural of the present age. 

   As a man of the name of Ronaldson was one morning about sunrise tying his garter, having his foot upon a stone, he was astonished when something like a rope of straw was passed between his legs, on which he was carried to a small brook at the foot of the South Hill of Eildon. from heating a hoarse laugh, he imagined that he was taken away by the witches, and as he was endeavouring to dismount from the rope at a ford called the Brig-o’-Stanes, he chanced to get his foot against a large stone, and exclaimed “In the name of God, ye’ll get me nae farther,” when, in a moment, the rope broke, and the whole air resounded as if a thousand people were laughing, and a voice was heard saying, “We’ve lost the coof this time.” Ronaldson lived in the village of Bowden, and had frequent encounters with the witches of that place. (Wilkie’s MS.) 

   A clergyman who took every opportunity of inveighing against the superstitious opinions of the times, and who denounced with all his powers of eloquence the popular belief in witches, fairies, and brownies, became convinced of his error in a rather practical manner. Returning home at a late hour from a meeting of Presbytery, at a period in the Church’s history when social intercourse and good fellowship had not been disturbed by the ghosts of non-intrusion or spiritual independence, he was seized by witches and carried aloft into the air. 

“Over the cloudlet dim, 

Over the rainbow’s rim,” 

he was conveyed for a many a mile; and so far distant was he removed from the earth that neither manse, glebe, nor church was discernible, and he despaired of ever beholding these dearly beloved objects again. The witches, seeing that he was sufficiently convinced of their existence, brought him once more to terra firma, and set him quietly down beside the door of his manse, where he was found next morning to the no small astonishment of the household. He lived many years to relate to admiring circles the wondrous tale of his adventures – though his man, John, used to shrug his shoulders and aver that it “wasna for ane i’ his place to contradick the minister, but he kenned fu’ weel that he cam’ to his ain door on his ain mare, but nae doubt for a’ that, he had some unco sair encounter wi’ speerits, but whether they were the witches o’ Glenlivet or the brownies o’ Campbeltown he could na’ tell. – Old Tradition

   Tradition says that the Laird Harry Gillies of Littledean was extremely fond of hunting. One day as his dogs were pursuing a hare, they suddenly stopped and gave up the pursuit. In a rage, he swore that the animal they had been in chase of was one of the d—d witches of Maxton. He had no sooner spoken than the hares arose all around so numerous that they were springing over the saddle before him. His rage was so violent when he saw his hounds would not kill them that he jumped off his horse and slew them all but one black hound, who at that moment was in pursuit of a very large hare. He remounted and rode after the black gray hound who had turned the hare, which was coming directly towards him. She made a spring to clear his horse’s neck, but he dexterously laid hold of one of her fore legs, and drawing his knife cut it off, and very soon the hares, which were running in such multitudes, instantly disappeared. Next morning, he learned that an old woman of Maxton had lost her arm, but in what way his informant could not account. When the laird went to her house he pulled out his hare’s foot, which by this time had changed into a woman’s arm. On applying it, he found that she had been the hare he had mutilated, as it answered the stump perfectly. She confessed her crime, and was taken the same day and drowned in a pool of the Tweed by the people of the village. (Wilkie’s MS.) 

   “The fairies” (says the Ettrick Shepherd, no mean authority on the subject) have now totally disappeared; and it is pity they should; for they seem to have been the most delightful little spirits that ever haunted the Scottish dells. There are only very few now remaining alive who have ever seen them; and when they did, it was on Hallow evenings, while they were young, when the gospel was not very rife in the country. But, strange as it may appear, with the witches it is far otherwise. Never, in the most superstitious ages, was the existence of witches, or the influence of their diabolical power, more firmly believed in than by the inhabitants of the mountains of Ettrick Forest at the present day. Many precautions and charms are used to avert this influence, in order to free flocks and herds from the blasting power of these old hags. There are two farmers still living, who will both make oath that they have wounded several old wives with shot as they were traversing the air in the shape of moor-fowl and partridges. A very singular amusement that for old wives! – I heard one of these gentlemen relate, with the utmost seriousness, and as a matter he did not wish to be generally known, that one morning, going out a fowling, he sprung a pair of moor-fowl in a place where it was not customary for moor-fowl to stay – he fired at the hen – wounded her, and eyed her until she alighted beyond an old dyke – when he went to the spot, his astonishment may be well conceived, when he found Nell – picking the hail out of her limbs! He was extremely vexed that he had not shot the cock, for he was almost certain he was no other than Wattie Grieve!! 

   “The tales and anecdotes of celebrated witches, that are still related in the country, are extremely whimsical and diverting. The following is a well-authenticated one:- A number of gentlemen were one day met for a chase on the lands of Newhouse and Kirkhope – their greyhounds were numerous and keen, but not a hare could they rise. At length a boy came to them, who offered to start a hare to them, if they would give him a guinea, and the black greyhound to hold. The demand was singular, but it was peremptory, and on other conditions he would not comply. The guerdon was accordingly paid – the hare was started, and the sport afforded by the chase was excellent – the greyhounds were all baffled, and began to give up one by one, when one of the party came slily behind the boy, and cut the leash in which he held the black dog – away he flew to join the chase. The boy, loosing all recollection, ran, bawling out with great vociferation, ‘Huy, mither, rin!!! Hay, rin, ye auld witch, if ever ye ran i’ yer life!! Rin, mither, rin!!’ The black dog came fast up with her, and was just beginning to mouth her, when she sprung in at the window of a little cottage and escaped. The riders soon came to the place, and entered the cot in search of the hare; but, lo! there was no living creature there but the old woman lying panting in a bed, so breathless that she could not speak a word!!! 

   “But the best old witch tale that remains is that which is related of the celebrated Michael Scott, Master of Oakwood, Sir Walter Scott has preserved it, but so altered from the original way that it is not easy to recognise it. The old people tell it as follows:- There was one of Mr Michael’s tenants who had a wife that was the most notable witch of the age. So extraordinary were her powers that the country people began to put them in competition with those of the master, and say that in some cantrips she surpassed him. Michael could ill brook such insinuations; for there is always jealousy between great characters, and went over one day with his dogs on pretence of hunting, but in reality with an intent of exercising some of his infernal power in the chastisement of Lucky —– (I have the best reason in the world for concealing her reputed name). He found her alone in the field weeding lint; and desired her, in a friendly manner, to show him some of her powerful art. She was very angry with him, and denied that she had any supernatural skill. he, however, continuing to press her, she told him sharply to let her alone, else she would make him repent the day he troubled her. How she perceived the virtues of Michael’s wand is not known, but in a moment she snatched it from his hand, and gave him three lashes with it. The knight was momently changed to a hare, when the malicious and inveterate had cried out, laughing, ‘Shu, Michael, rin or dee!’ and baited all his own dogs upon him. He was extremely hard hunted, and was obliged to swim the river, and take shelter in the sewer of his own castle from the fury of his pursuers, where he got leisure to change himself again to a man. 

   “Michael being extremely chagrined at having been thus outwitted, studied a deadly revenge; and going over afterwards to hunt, he sent his men to Fauldshope to borrow some bread from Lucky —– to give to his dogs, for that he had neglected to feed them before he came from home. If she gave him the bread, he was to thank her and come away; but if she refused it, he gave him a line written in red characters, which he was to lodge above the lintel as he came out. The servant found her baking of bread as his master assured him he should, and delivered his message. She received him most ungraciously, and absolutely refused to give him any bread, alleging, as an excuse, that she had not as much as would serve her own reapers to dinner. The man said no more, but lodged the line as directed, and returned to his master. The powerful spell had the desired effect; Lucky —– instantly threw off her clothes, and danced round and round the fire like one quite mad, singing the while with great glee – 

“ ‘Master Michael Scott’s man 

Cam’ seekin bread an’ gat nane.’ 

The dinner hour arrived, but the reapers looked in vain for their dame, who was wont to bring it to them to the field. The goodman sent home a servant girl to assist her, but neither did she return. At length he ordered them to go and take their dinner at home, for he suspected his spouse had taken some of her tirravies. All of them went inadvertently into the house, and, as soon as they passed beneath the mighty charm, were seized with the same mania, and followed the example of their mistress. the goodman, who had tarried behind, setting some shocks of corn, came home last; and hearing the noise ere ever he came near the house, he did not venture to go in, but peeped in at the window. There he beheld all his people dancing naked round and round the fire, and singing, ‘Master Michael Scott’s man,’ with the most frantic wildness. His wife was by that time quite exhausted, and the rest were half trailing her around. She could only now and then pronounce a syllable of the song, which she did with a kind of scream, but seemed as intent on the sport as ever. 

  “The goodman mounted his horse, and rose with all speed to the master, to inquire what he had done to his people which had put them all mad. Michael had him take down the note from the lintel and burn it, which he did, and all the people returned to their senses. Poor Lucky —– died overnight, and Michael remained unmatched and alone in all the arts of enchantment and necromancy.” 

J. G. S.      

– Kelso Chronicle, 24th July, 1863, p.3. 

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