Random Notes Anent the Antiquities, Traditions, Superstitions, and Old Manners and Customs of the Borders, – No. VI. – Brownies:- Wag-at-the-Wa’; Red-cap; Kilmoulis.

[Kelso Chronicle Articles Contents]

   Wag-at-the-Wa’ was a species of Scotch brownie, who, it is understood, presided over the affairs of the kitchen, and was in some respects the family monitor as well as the servants’ constant tormentor. His usual seat was by the kitchen fire, or on the crook, which it was his great delight to swing backwards and forwards immediately after the pot or pan which had been hanging on it was removed. This swinging of the crook was held to be an admonition to the family that one of them would soon die, or become sick; or that one of the relatives of the family was dead, or going to die suddenly. It was therefore laid down as a rule that it was prophetic of some disaster befalling either their friends, their relatives, or themselves. If the crook swung backwards and forwards, and the fire sparkled or crackled and emitted small blue flames, and if moanings were heard in the house at the same time, it was a certain indication of the death of the master or mistress of the family next day, and that Wag-at-the-Wa’ had left his usual seat and gone from the house, which he always did before any death in the family, nor did he return to his accustomed place till all the funeral rites had been performed. His travelling dress on these occasions is thus described in an old song:- 

“His ears they were long, and his snout like a sow, 

His stockings were made o’ the Fernielee woo’; 

His coat it was red an’ his breeks they were blue, 

With a hole behind where his tail cam’ through.” 

   This uncouth being is represented as having the appearance of an old man, with a grizzly head, very long ears, and fiery eyes. He had long arms, which, as well as the rest of his body, were covered with yellow hair. His legs were small, crooked, and very short. He was not fond of touching the fire, but loved always to be in its vicinity. He seems to be the last of the evil spirits who contended that fire is not holy, and his total disappearance has been caused by the new fangled mark of the cross, which, under the name of the witches’ nick, is usually impressed upon the crook, and which effectually prevents supernatural beings of every description from approaching near it. It is very singular that the cross should have been marked on almost every mechanical implement – even the torwuddie of the barrow always had it, and many of our domestic utensils may be found with it at the present day. It is an evidence of the universal belief in the existence of supernatural beings, and of the care which was taken to prevent those of a malicious disposition from frustrating any undertaking in the ordinary occupations of life. The following curious and somewhat unintelligible fragment relates to this imaginary personage:- 

“Wag-at-the-Wa’ gaed out i’ the night 

To see that the moon was shinin’ bright; 

The moon, she was at the latter-fa’: 

‘Gang hame to yere beds,’ cried Wag-at-the-Wa’. 


“ ‘Why d’ye wag the witch-nickit crook 

When the pyet’s asleep where the corbies they rook, 

Hell’s e’en shimmert on ye i’ the moono’s latter-fa’, 

An’ ruin’s fell cooter will harrie ye a’. 


“ ‘I maun gae frae ye, tak’ tent what I say, 

Gae tear frae the sowie ane armfu’ o’ hay, 

Fling wisps i’ the fire till it mak’ a red lowe, 

Frae the aisele will rise up a deid man’s pow. 


“ ‘The pow will stare ugsome, but never mind that, 

Fling fast on the wisps, but beware o’ yere cat, 

For she will yere fae be wi’ teeth an’ wi’ claw, 

An’ her mewin’ will warn soon auld Wag-at-the-Wa’. 


“ ‘Whenever the e-en-holes wi’ lowe shall be fow, 

Then, then is the time that ye may dreid the pow; 

For hell’s e’en are fire-like an’ fearfu’ to view, 

Their colour they change aft frae dark red to blue. 


“ ‘They pierce like ane elf-prick ilk ane that they sae, 

When beware o’ their shimmer, if ye’re seen ye will dee, 

Yere heart’s pulse will riot, yere flesh will grow cauld – 

Ah! how happy’s the wight wha draws breath till he’s auld. 


“ ‘Then fly from the house, to the green quick repair, 

And Wag-at-the-Wa’ will soon meet ye there, 

As ye kneel ‘nent the rood and mutter yere prayer.’ ” 

*     *     *     *     * 

   These rhymes, which seemed to have formed a part of some incantation, were taken down many years ago from the recitation of an old lady who lived in the village of Bowden. (Altered from wilkie’s MS.) 

   Red Cap, Red Cowl, or Bloodie Cap, was a tutelary spirit of a mischievous and very cruel description. He inhabited old towers, castles, and peel-houses, and was the terror of benighted travellers. he is represented as a very thick, short, old man, having long, prominent teeth, fingers armed with nails like the claws of eagles, large eyes of a fiery red colour, grisly locks of hair hanging in disorder over his shoulders, iron boots or shoes – a piked staff in his left hand – and a red cap on his head. He wore on all occasions a leathern jacket and a blue doublet. travellers who had taken up their residence in any of his favourite haunts he disturbed by throwing at their head large stones or any other missile he could get. He was fond of grinning in their faces, but was easily put to flight by the repetition of a portion of Holy Writ, or by the representation of the cross held out in his path, which made him yell dreadfully, and disappear in a flame of fire, always leaving behind him a tooth of a large size on the spot where he vanished. The characteristics of this hideous and unsociable demon are well brought out in the following rhymes – 

“Now Red-cap he was there, 

And he was there indeed; 

And grimly he grinn’d and glower’d 

Wi’ the red cowl on his head. 


Then Red-cap gave a yell, 

It was a yell indeed; 

That the flesh ‘neth my oxter grew cauld – 

It grew as cauld as lead. 


Auld Bloodie-cowl gave a grin, 

It was a grin indeed; 

Syne my flesh it grew mizzled wi’ fear, 

And I stood like a thing that was dead. 


Last, Red-cowl gave a lauch, 

It was a lauch indeed; 

‘Twas mair like a hoarse, hoarse scrauch, 

Syne a tooth fell out o’ his head.” 

   Kilmoulis was a singular species of brownie, whose residence was in the killogiei.e., the empty space before the fire place in a kiln for drawing air. He was one of those domestic spirits who took an interest in the fortunes of millers, and intimated by his wailing the approaching disaster of the burning of the kiln or the death of his master or any of his family. His name is probably derived from the fact that he had no mouth, or it may be that he claimed kindred with the May Moullaeh, or female banshee. Kil, or Gil means a servant – hence the word may signify the miller’s servant. He is represented as wearing the appearance of an old man, having no mouth, but very large nostrils, from which issued tufts of grizzly hair, and into which he put all the victuals he received from the miller or his family. He was particularly fond of swine’s flesh, as appears from an old rhyme, which runs thus – 

“Auld Kilmoulis, wanting the mou, 

Come to me now, come to me now; 

Where was ye yestreen when I killed the sow, 

If ye’d come, ye’d gotten yere belly fou.” 

Every kiln was protected by a kilmoulis, who never left the ogie but when the miller wanted a person to thrash his corn, which he always did if no other person could be got for that purpose. He was also employed in riding to the nearest town for the midwife, which he performed with great expedition, though at times he handled the horses rather roughly on the road. He was a perfect fiend when he got the command of a whip, and to ride at any pace short of a gallop was as foreign to his ideas, as for a douce elder to dance the “Highland Fling” in the moonlight circle with the witches o’ Selkirk on Bulsheugh or the Goaliedales. (Altered from Wilkie’s MS.) 

J. G. S.      

– Kelso Chronicle, 28th August, 1863, p.3. 

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