Random Notes Anent the Antiquities, Traditions, Superstitions, and Old Manners and Customs of the Borders. – VII. – Omens, or Freits.

[Kelso Chronicle Articles Contents]

   OMENS, or signs of impending good or evil, but more frequently of the latter, were, in the days of superstition, so numerous that it is almost impossible to give a complete list of them. They were derived from every conceivable source – from things animate and inanimate, from things in air, earth, and water – from the extraordinary phenomena of nature, as well as from the commonest objects and occurrences of every-day life. They are not yet wholly extinct in the minds of our peasantry, many of whom would regard it as a presage of some misfortune happening to them during the day were they to put their stocking or shoe on their left foot first in the morning. In presenting a catalogue of such omens as I have been able to recover I shall adopt the obvious arrangement of omens derived – 1st, from animals; 2d, from vegetables; and 3d, from all other sources. 

1st. From Animals

   1. Dogs. – The howling of dogs is a certain sign that some one of the family will very shortly die. (Grose.) If doggs houle in the night near an house where somebody is sick, ‘tis a signe of death. (Home.) That dogs by their howling portend death and calamities is plaine by historie and experience. (Ross.) The howling of dogs has generally been accounted a sign of approaching death. (Douce.) And Shakespeare mentions it among others as a portent of evil – 

“The owl shriek’d at thy birth – an evil sign! 

The night crow cried aboding luckless time; 

Dogs howled and hideous tempests shook down trees.” 

   2. Cats, &c. – When the cat washes her face over her ears we are sure to have rainy weather. This is so well known, even among children, that it requires no confirmation. Rats taking possession of a house, barn, or stackyard is a fortunate omen to the person with whom they have taken up their abode, and equally unfortunate when they leave their usual haunts and go to the fields. In their march, it is reported that there is always a blind one of the party who is led by one of his own family by a small piece of stick which he holds in his mouth. Their desertion of their usual haunt is a certain prognostication of the death or failure of the owner or tenant. (Wilkie’s MS.) 

   3. Hares and swine are both unlucky animals, and if either cross the highway before a person he is sure to meet with some misfortune, or not to succeed in the purpose of his journey. If going on a journey on business a sow cross the road, you will probably meet with a disappointment, if not a bodily accident, before you return home. (Grose.) If swine cross the way on the approach of a wedding party, it is a bad omen of their future happiness. Hence, the old Scottish adage – “The sow’s run through’t.” Hares running through a village betokens that that village will soon be pulled down, or that the villagers will be obliged to flee before the enemy. (Wilkie’s MS.) Witches, it is well known, frequently assume the form of hares – and Satan has even condescended to appear in the shape of a sow. 

   4. Lambs. – The first lamb you see in the season take notice whether the head or the tail of the animal is towards you. If the head you will have a good chance to live more on butcher-meat than on milk, but if the tail it will be the reverse. If the side of the lamb be towards you, you will have abundance of both all that season. (Wilkie MS.) 

   5. Hens. – It is very unfortunate when a hen lays small eggs like those of a pigeon, or wind ones – i.e., eggs whose shells are not sufficiently hard, so as to prevent them from being pressed flat by the fingers. This generally takes place before the death of the chief or head of a family. Hens falling down dead suddenly without having any apparent disease is a bad omen to the owner, as he will soon after die. The wife who hears her own hens crow, will hear soon after of the death of some of her family or relations. An instance of this kind took place in the parish of East Kilbride a few years ago. An old woman one morning heard one of her hens, which was roosting on the top of a dyke before her house, crow loudly. She told one of her neighbours the circumstance, which she said foreboded ill, and it so happened that her husband died soon after this warning. About a month after she heard it crow again, and in the course of a few days, her eldest son died. One week intervened and the hen crew once more, and her eldest daughter died. These deaths were all attributed by the old woman to the crowing of the hen, and with the savageness of a hero she killed and burnt the faithful monitor. (Wilkie MS.) 

   6. The Robin and Wren are held sacred by schoolboys, who regard the harrying of their nests as an omen of bad luck. According to one of their rhymes, 

“The Robin and the Wren 

Are God’s cock and hen.” 

These two birds are always associated in the rhymes of children – 

“The Robin Redbreast and the wren 

– Cuist out about the parritch pan; 

But, or the Robin gat a spune, 

The wren, she had the parritch dune. 

Malisons, malisons, mair than ten, 

Wha harry the lady o’ heaven’s hen.” 


“The laverock and the lintie, 

The Robin and the wren, 

If ye harry  ony o’ their nests, 

Ye’ll never thrive again.” 

   The Robin is a selfish fellow, and owns his popularity, especially among the young, to the well-known ballad of the “Babes in the Wood.” 

“No burial this pretty pair 

Of any man receives, 

Till Robin Redbreast painfully 

Did cover them with leaves.” 

   Perhaps the old ballad of “Lennox’s Love to Blantyre” has contributed in some measure to render him a favourite. 

“The wren schee lyes in care’s bed, 

In care’ bed, in care’s bed, 

The wren schee lyes in care’s bed, 

In mickle dule an’ pyne, O. 

Quhen in cam’ Robin red-breist, 

Red-breist, red-breist, 

Quhen in cam’ Robin red-breist 

Wi’ siccar-saps an’ wine, O. 

Now, maiden, will ye taste o’ this, 

Taste o’ this, taste o’ this, 

Now, maiden, will ye taste o’ this, 

It’s succar-saps an’ wine, O. 

Na, ne’er a drap, Robin, 

Robin, Robin, 

Na, ne’er a drap, Robin, 

Gin it were ne’er sae fyne, O. 

O quhare’s the ring that I gied ye, 

That I gied ye, that I gied ye, 

And quhare’s the ring that I gied ye,  

Ye little cutty quean, O. 

I gied it till a sodger, 

A sodger, a sodger, 

I gied it till a sodger, 

A kynde sweetheart o’ mine, O.” 

   Much of the popularity of the Robin may be attributable to his familiarity in winter, when he leaves 

“His shivering mates, and pays to trusted man 

His annual visit.”                                    

   And while on this subject, I cannot resist quoting a few exquisite verses in our expressive Doric by my highly-gifted friend, James Thomson of Hawick. 


The blasts o’ the winter sae bitter and keen 

Had reft the sward o’ its brightest green, 

The flowers were gane frae the hill and lea, 

And the brown leaf fa’n frae the sapless tree, 

When a wee bird left the beildless glen 

To seek the hames and the haunts o’ men, 

And langing looked through the window-pane 

At our cosie beild and our warm hearthstane. 


We took the weary wanderer in 

Frae the snawy drift and the wintry win’, 

A welcome blythe we gied the chield 

To share the warmth o’ our cosie beild, 

He shook the frost frae his chittering wing, 

Syne thow’d his taes, and began to sing, 

And the bairnies clap’t their hands wi’ glee 

At his bosom red and his glancing e’e. 


As the Robin sang his lo’esome strain 

A dream o# my bairnhood came back again – 

A vision sweet o’ happier hours, 

O’ sunny braes and leafy bowers, 

A lowly beild ‘neath a roof o’ strae, 

And a little band that ha’e passed away 

Frae flow’ry glens where the blossoms hang, 

A’ sweep’d o’er my heart at that wee bird’s sang. 

And yet the Robin, in spite of all his popularity both among old and young, is a bird of evil omen, and his sweet charming song, if heard by a person laid on a sick-bed, is a sure indication of approaching dissolution. 

   7. Swallows, Martins, &c. – It is extremely unlucky to kill a swallow, &c. (Grose.) Swallows flying low, and touching the water often with their wings, presage rain. Sparrows in the morning early chirping, and making more noise than usual, foretells rain or wind. (Willsford.) Our present miseries and unnatural wars have been forewarned by armies of swallows, martins, and other birds fighting against one another. (Ross.) It is a very fortunate omen when swallows take possession and build their nests in any person’s premises; and equally unfortunate when they take their departure and never return. (Wilkie MS.) 

J. G. S.      

– Kelso Chronicle, 4th September, 1863, p.4.

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