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Random Notes Anent the Antiquities, Traditions, Superstitions, and Old Manners and Customs of the Borders. – XIII. – Miscellaneous.

[Kelso Chronicle Articles Contents]

   1. The Still-Born Baby. When a child is still-born – i.e., one who never saw the sun – he is buried the same evening afterward, as near to the north wall of the church as it is possible to dig a grave, in order to prevent people from stepping over the place where the body is deposited. It is generally believed by the superstitious that whoever treads on or steps over the graves of still-born or unchristened children will soon after be seized with an incurable disease. This disease is known by a severe fit of trembling, sickness, and difficulty of breathing in the first stage. In the second, the skin peels off as if heated iron were applied to it, and this is followed by the breaking out of blotches commonly called the grave merles or grave scab. This superstition is embodied in the following rude verses: 

Wae be to the babie that never saw the sun, 

All alone and alone O; 

His body shall lie by the kirk ‘neath the rain, 

All alone and alone O. 


His grave must be dug by the foot of the wall, 

And there he must lie all alone O; 

The foot that treadeth his body upon 

Will get scab that will rot to the bone O. 

   It was believed that the witches only had the power of curing this disease, which was done by means of a shirt prepared according to the following directions:- The lint must have grown in a field manured from a heap which had not been removed for forty years. It must have been spun by a fairy of the name of Habbie-trot (who presided over spinsters), woven by an honest weaver, bleached by an honest bleacher, washed in the dam of an honest miller, and sewed by an honest tailor. If a shirt thus prepared were worn by any person suffering from the grave merles he would instantly recover his former health and strength. 

2. Dead Lights, as the phosphorescent light is called, which is produced by the putrifying of animal matter lying at the bottom of water, were regarded with feelings of dread by the superstitious. The body of a man was discovered in a pool of the river Yarrow some years ago by this luminous appearance being observed on the surface of the water in a dark and hazy night. In some of our oldest Scottish songs we find allusions made to this phenomenon, as in the stanzas following, where, it may be explained, the word plum signifies a deep pool: 

Go to the plum yeresel, dear May, 

Go to the plum yeresel; 

An’ there ye’ll see a deadly light, 

As the drumlie surge’s swell, dear May. 


An’ dive the plum at dark midnight, 

O dive the plum yeresel; 

An’ there ye’ll find yere William sweet, 

‘Neth the light on the surges swell, dear May. 

    Other verses may be quoted on this subject, but the above is sufficient to show that the appearance was not unknown to our forefathers, who were, however, ignorant of its cause, and called superstition to their aid – their never-failing resource in all such cases. 

   3. The Girdle, or circular plate of iron used for toasting bread, was often employed by the Border villagers for a very different purpose – viz., for that of calling on the inhabitants to arise in arms and defend themselves from the attacks of the enemy. When Sir Ralph Evers and Sir Brian Latoun made their famous raid on the villages of Teviotdale, the inhabitants were assembled by ringing the girdle, just as the Indian nations do the gong when in danger of an attack from their ruthless invaders. Tradition informs us that, when the Danes landed on the shores of Scotland in large numbers, the women roused the people to arms b ringing on girdles, in order to avenge themselves for the wrongs they had sustained, and that each woman sought out and killed her own ravisher in cold blood. The evening ever after was called Ring girdle e’en, and was annually observed as a night of mirth and festivity. In former times the sound produced by ringing the girdle was the signal for the women to assemble in order to inflict punishment on those husbands who were brutal enough to strike their wives, by ducking them in the village well, or by making them ride the stang, which was performed as follows:- The culprit was placed astride on a long piece of wood, and carried through the village in this unenviable position, amid the hootings of the assembled population, who, at the same time showed their detestation of the crime by beplastering him well with filth and mud, of which there was no scarcity in the old villages of Scotland. The stang, it may be mentioned, was just as frequently a knotty thorn or a rough piece of fir as a bar of a smoother kind. Similar punishments were also inflicted on women who struck their husbands, or who were inconstant, or who got drunk more than once in lead year. In the good old times wife-beating was looked on as a crime of the deepest dye, and deserving of summary punishment. Now it has become a fashionable amusement, the pleasure derived from which may be enjoyed by any of her Majesty’s subjects by handing over a few shillings to the magistrate who presides in the nearest police court. 

   4. Blowing the Horn. – In many of the villages of the southern counties of Scotland a man or boy was employed by the villages to blow a horn at a specified hour ever evening. This custom is said to be derived from a very ancient game called “Watching the enemy by the horn.” There was a particular night of the year, on which all the young people of the village used to assemble, each with a horn. They continued to blow on it every four or five minutes during the night, each of them stationed by something belonging either to himself or to his neighbour, which he guarded by a blast of his horn. If he left his charge unprotected, the first person who could take it and throw it into a pool of water, and return to his station was accounted one of the faithful guardians. Everything they found unprotected belonging to any person in the village, they were at liberty to hide in water. 

   These boys who blew the village horn collected on the first Monday of the year a small sum from each villager, which was termed his Handsel, and all who gave him a sum had a right to try one blast on his horn, the money having been first put into the open end of it. 

   5. Dishes, &c. – The dishes common at kirns are first the haggis; singit sheep’s head and feet; dumplings, or hodgels, surrounded by greens; and, lastly, a whang o’ the gudewife’s cheese, made from the milk of her own cows. The drink used on such occasions is home-brewed ale or whisky. 

   The curlers’ dinner is always beef and greens – drink, whisky punch. 

   The dinner of the lint-swinglers was potatoes and butter – drink, whey or sour milk among cottars, and sweet milk among farmers. 

   The Hallow-e’en supper was sowens and butter. 

   The Fasten’s-e’en supper was cockileeky. 

   Wedding dinners consisted of all the dishes in use through the year, except broths having greens in their composition, that colour being thought unlucky. 

   At births, always tea, bread, and cheese, succeeded by short-bread, bun, and whisky. 

   At funerals, bread and cheese, sweet biscuits, short-bread &c., followed by whisky, or a glass of wine – no ale being ever drunk at funerals. 

   Mossers were fed on porridge and milk in the morning, oatcakes and butter with milk at dinner, and potatoes at supper. 

   The drunkard got a salt-herring and a flyte to supper, and porridge and sour milk next morning to breakfast. 

   In some parts of the country, especially in the upper ward of Lanarkshire, the usual meal on New Year’s morning consisted of “The kail brose o’ Auld Scotland.” 

   These were old standing rules for feeding, rigidly observed by the peasantry of the Borders, from which there was seldom any deviation. 

J. G. S.      

– Kelso Chronicle, 6th November, 1863, p.4.

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