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Random Notes Anent the Antiquities, Traditions, Superstitions, and Old Manners and Customs of the Borders. – XI. – Omens, or Freits (concluded.)

[Kelso Chronicle Articles Contents]

   10. Dr Jamieson says “that it is considered as an almost infallible presage of bad weather if the moon lies sair on her back, or when her horns are pointed to the zenith. It is a similar prognostic when the new moon appears wi’ the auld ane in her arms; or, in other words, when that part of the moon which is covered with the shadow of the earth is seen through it. A brugh, or hazy circle, round the moon, is accounted a certain prognostic of rain.” Every one will remember the allusion to one of these superstitions in the ballad of “Sir Patrick Spens”:- 

“Late, late, yestreen, I saw the new moon, 

Wi’ the aulde moone in her arme; 

And I feir, I feir, my master deir, 

That we will come to harme.” 

   11. To be without money or bread in the house on the last day of the year betokeneth that you will be in great want of these articles during the ensuing year. Burns refers to this in his “Epistle to Collector Mitchell”:- 

“So may the Auld Year gang out moaning, 

To see the New one come, laden, groaning 

Wi’ double plenty owre the loaning 

                              To thee and thine; 

Domestic peace and comforts crowning 

                              The hale design. 

   12. It was thought unlucky to enter any person’s house on the morning of the first day of the year, and thus be their first fit, as it is called, without having something in your hand to present to the inhabitants. What was usually carried on these occasions was a bottle of whisky, or a beverage known by the name of plotty, hetstoup, or hetpint, of which all, for good luck, were invited to partake. Even horse-dung has been carried by these early fortune-dealers and distributed to each of the inhabitants, who were regarded as fortunate all the year after. Hence, perhaps, the common adage “dirt bodes luck”; or it may arise from the common belief that a person sweeping all the dirt out of a house before flitting was said to “sweep all the luck out of the house.” 

   13. If, on the first morning of the year, you have in your pockets money of every description such as guineas, crown, shillings, &c., you will have a continuance of all such during the year. 

   14. The last glass of spirits of the last bottle drank on the last night of the year is called the lucky-glass, and the person who drink of it, if unmarried, will be the first person in the company who will be joined in the bands of wedlock. 

   15. If a person said to be lucky meet with a young tradesman the first day he is dressed with an apron, or going home to a master to learn any trade, and salute him with “Weel may ye brook (dirty) yere apron,” he will become an excellent tradesman, and be fortunate while he is an apprentice. 

   16. The person who cuts the last hookful or handful of corn at the termination of the harvest will be lucky, and have plenty to eat all the year. This handful of corn is dressed up with ribbons, pieces of scarlet, or blue cloth, cut into the shape of hearts, diamonds, &c., and called a kirn-baby, which is stuck up against the wall of the house, and allowed to remain there till the next season. 

   17. To hear the falling or rushing sound of water in your ears betokeneth that one of your relatives is either drowned or drowning at the time of your hearing the sound. When the ears tingle, it signifies that some one is speaking of us – if the left ear, they talk harm; if the right, good. To hear the sound of the dead-bell is very unfortunate, as either some of your relatives or yourself will soon die; or in a few hours after you will hear of the death of one of your relatives. The dead-bell takes its name from that peculiar sounding of the ears when under the influence of a severe cold, and which resembles that of the funeral warning bell, which in former times was rung by the hand of the sexton. This sound was taken notice of by the Lowland Scots at a very early period, and in many of the old songs it is mentioned, as for instance in that plaintive ballad of Barbara Allen:- 

“She hadna gane a mile but twa, 

When she heard the dead-bell ringing; 

And every jow the dead-bell gied, 

It cried woe to Barbara Allen.” 

   18. When blood drops from the nose of any person it is very unfortunate, as he will soon die or hear of the death of one of his relatives. Grose says a drop of blood from the nose commonly foretells death, or a very severe fit of sickness. Three drops are still more ominous; and Burton affirms that to bleed three drops at the nose is an ill omen. 

   19. If any person spilt salt at table, it was a sure prognostic of his being unfortunate in the choice of a wife; if by a woman, that the young man who was paying his addresses to her would soon forsake her, and betake himself to some one else. Salt falling towards a person was deemed a most unlucky omen, and denoted generally the falling out of friends, or some misfortune happening to one of the family. 

   20. For a young woman to boil the dishclout among the dishwater was a sure sign that all her suitors would forsake her; thus affording a key to the old Scots saying, “She has boiled away a’ her lads.” 

   21. To hear a smart or very loud stroke on the table, or on any article of furniture, as if it had been produced by a wand or club, is very unlucky for the hearer, as he will die in a few days; or he will next day hear of the death of one of his near relatives. To hear three successive strokes, or a sound as if a bullet dropped on the table, is equally unfortunate. 

   22. If the candle or lamp go out suddenly before you without any evident cause, it denotes that all your endeavours to do good will be frustrated by some unknown power. For a candle to burn faint and blue is a sign of sudden death, or that there is a spirit in the house, or in its neighbourhood. For a candle that is newly blown out to burst into flame immediately after, is very fortunate for him who blew it out. if your light grows dim and then bright alternately, you have evil spirits or witches surrounding you, and you are in their power for some time after this signal. If a candle, when burning, has a very large halo surrounding the flame, it is a very unlucky omen to the person who is using it. A collection of tallow, says Grose, rising up against the wick of a candle, is styled by some a winding-sheet, by others a dead spale, and deemed an omen of death in the family. A spark at the candle denotes that the party opposite to it will shortly receive a letter. A kind of fungus in the candle predicts the visit of a stranger from that part of the country nearest the object. 

   23. It is very unlucky to put on a new coat, &c., and not have money immediately put into the right-hand pocket. To have it put into the left-hand one is most unfortunate, as, while that article of dress lasts, you will have no money to put into either pocket; but vice versa if the right one is handsled first. 

   24. When a child, in learning to sup, begins by holding the spoon in his left hand, he will be an unlucky rascal all his days. 

   25. In the spring, observe whether the first harrows you see employed are going from, or coming towards you, or crossing the field in the direction you are walking. If they are going from you, you will have a very scanty supply of bread; if coming towards you, you will have a competency; – and if crossing the field you will have an abundance to eat all the ensuing season, and be successful in all your undertakings. 

   26. For a person to lose all his hair in the course of one day or night is a sure prognostication of his losing all his money, or all his friends, or to hear of the death of one of his children. 

   27. For a child to be born with a caul, as the little membranes encompassing the head of some children when born, is thought a good omen to the child itself. The good fortune extended also to the purchaser of the caul, for which, in the days of superstition, upwards of twenty pounds have been paid. 

   28. The following are very unlucky omens:- To break a looking-glass, or the glass of a watch; to put on left foot shoe or stocking first, a black spot appearing on the nails; washing one’s hands in the same basin, or in the same water, with another person; to lay one’s knife and fork crosswise; to present a knife or any sharp instrument to one’s friend or sweetheart, &c. 

   29. Certain old people, even at the present day, have a custom, when they get their hair cut, of seeing that it is burned as soon as the barber has done his work. It is reckoned unsafe to throw out the hair or to bury it, as the person whose hair is thus exposed will soon die, but if burned there is no danger. 

   30. If a person should lose one of his teeth by accident, it is unfortunate for him to throw it away, but the reverse if he burn it. If he burn it he must put a little salt along with it, and no evil will happen to him. 

   31. If the palm of the right hand itch it is a sign that you will receive money, but if the left, that you will be called on to give it away. 

   I cannot conclude this department of old Scottish superstitions more appropriately than by quoting Grey’s fable of “The Farmer’s Wife and the Raven”:- 

“Why are those tears? Why droops your head? 

Is then, your other husband dead? 

Or does a worse disgrace betide, 

Hath no one since his death applied? 


Alas! you know the cause too well, 

The salt is spilt, to me it fell; 

Then, to contribute to my loss, 

My knife and fork were laid across; 

On Friday, too, the day I dread – 

Would I were safe at home in bed! 

Last night – (I vow to Heaven ‘tis true) – 

Bounce from the fire a coffin flew; 

Next post some fatal news shall tell – 

God send my Cornish friends be well. 

That raven on yon left-hand oak – 

(Curse on his ill-betiding croak) – 

Bodes me no good. No more she said, 

When poor blind Ball, with stumbling tread, 

Fell prone; o’erturned the pannier lay, 

And her mash’d eggs bestrew’d the way. 

She, sprawling in the yellow road, 

Rail’d, swore, and curs’d; Thou croaking toad, 

A murrain take thy whoreson throat, 

I knew misfortune in the note. 


Dame, quoth the raven, spare your oaths, 

Unclench your fist, and wipe your clothes; 

But why on me these curses thrown? 

Goody, the fault was all your own; 

For had you laid this brittle ware 

On a Dun, the old sure-footed mare, 

Tho’ all the ravens of the hundred 

With croaking had your tongue out-thundered, 

Sure-footed Dun had kept her legs; 

And you, good woman, saved your eggs.” 

J. G. S.      

– Kelso Chronicle, 9th October, 1863, p.4.

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