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

[Kelso Chronicle Articles Contents]

   PERHAPS some of my readers may be disposed to enquire – What is the difference between omens and divinations? They have the same object in view. They both aim at lifting the veil from futurity, though not in the way. An omen is accidental; it may be derived the croaking of ravens, the howling of dogs, or from any appearance, either real or imaginary; while a divination is some spell performed on purpose to ascertain the future weal or woe of the diviner. The observer of omens predicts good or bad fortune from the flight of birds – the diviner catches the birds and augurs from their entrails the destinies of individuals, of armies, and of nations. A very common method of divining or telling fortunes among the peasantry of the Borders was by the air bag, or what is commonly called the soam, of fishes; that of the herring being the one generally used in this ordeal of fortune. A young man or woman takes the soam by one of the ends and throws it against the wall, near to the fire-place, and if it sticks there the person will be lucky in all his love undertakings, and vice versa, unlucky. The ancient place on which the soam was thrown was the girdle, which, for the most part, in cottages, hung in the lower part of the chimney.  It is said that the divining by the soam was practised by a number of the low country peasants, who took up arms for the restoration of the family of the Stewarts, and that all who threw the air-bag were as unsuccessful in causing it to adhere to the girdle as they were in their rightful [?] but unfortunate undertaking. 

   Another mode of divining was by the flower of the plant commonly called the horse knot. If an unmarried person cut the tops of the stamina of this flower with a pair of scissors, and lay it away in a secret place, where no other person can see it, and then go and think of her sweetheart during the day, and dream of him during the night, she will find the morning that if she is to be successful in love that the stamina of the flower have shot out to their former length, and vice versa if no change whatever has taken place. 

   Divining by the coal leafi.e., flakes of smoke attached to burning coal – was at one time very common among young girls in the southern counties of Scotland. From the appearance it has to a leaf they call it a letter, which they will receive next evening, or that day, if they, by the wind occasioned by clapping their hands together, drive this monitor from the coal. If the first fails, another tries it, and a third, till it flies off, and she who is so fortunate as to accomplish it will receive from her sweetheart a letter the same evening. 

   Grose says that a flake of soot hanging at the bars of the grate denotes the visit of a stranger; and Cowper, in his “Winter Evening,” mentions the same superstition:- 

“Not less amused have I quiescent watched 

The sooty films that play upon the bars 

Pendulous and foreboding in the view of superstition, prophesying still, 

Though still deceived, some stranger’s near approach.” 

   Another mode of divination was by taking a piece of paper or wood, and lighting it at the fire, and waving it quickly in a circular direction, and repeating at the same time the singular old verse – 

“Dingle, dingle dousie, 

The cat’s in the well; 

The dog’s away to Berwick 

To buy a new bell” – 

When an augury is taken from the last spark of fire on the paper or wood. Many round spots signify money, and, if they quickly disappear, loss of money, &c. 

   May not this verse allude to the family of Douglas, probably old “Bell the Cat?” Dogs may be contraction for Douglas. DIngle dousie – the name of this amusement – is said to signify “a rough light.” 

   This is now only a childish pastime, though it can hardly be doubted that it belonged to the class of divinations by fire to which our ancestors had so often recourse. 

“So when a child, as playful children use, 

Has burnt to tinder a stale last year’s news – 

The flame extinct, he views the roving fire – 

There goes my lady, and there goes the squire; 

There goes the parson, oh, illustrious spark! 

And there, scarce less illustrious, goes the clerk.” 

   Hallowe’en or the last night of the year was commonly set apart for the practice of these divinations, an excellent and amusing collection of which will be found in the notes to Burns’s admirable poem of “Hallowe’en.” These it is unnecessary to transcribe, as they are so well known, and were practised almost with the same ceremonies in the western as in the Border counties. The following divinations, for which I am indebted to the Wilkie MS., are not included by Burns in his Notes:- 

   Let a young woman wash her shift, and hang it over the back of a chair to dry on going to bed, taking care that nobody knows she has done so, and let her keep awake, she will see the man who will be her husband enter the room and turn the shift. 

   A story is related of a young woman, who, while practising this incantation, saw a coffin set down apposite to the wet shift, where it continued some time and then disappeared. She arose in a state bordering on delirium and told what had befallen her; and next morning she was informed of the death of her lover. 

   A similar story is told of a young woman who was divining by the shift – that the appearance of her lover came in and turned it, and immediately after a coffin was set down on the chair where the shift was suspended. The girl was married and became a widow within a year afterwards. 

   Another method of divining was by a willow-wand. Let the person who wishes to know who she will get for a husband take a willow in her left hand and leave the house unnoticed, and run thrice round the house repeating to herself as she runs “He that is to be my true love, come and grip the end o’t,” and as she runs round the last time, the appearance of the man to whom she will be married will come and take hold of the end of the willow wand. The same divining is performed by a sword, instead of a rod of willow, held in the right hand. 

   The spell of throwing the blue clue darkly and alone into a pot, pan, &c., which is left empty for that purpose on Hallow-day. – In the evening the young men and women convene and wind the thread off the old clue and form a new one. When the thread is nearly done, Kilmoulis will hold it, and on asking who holds it, he will snort out the Christian name and surname of the person who will be their companion through life for better, for worse. 

   Another spell is to take a clue of blue thread and hold by the end of it, and throw it over the house unseen and alone – taking care not to break the thread in doing so. When the clue falls on the other side something will take hold of the other end and hold it fast. On asking who holds, the answer will give the Christian name and surname of your future spouse. 

   Another mode of divination is by three pails of water, which a young woman takes and places on the floor of her room. She then pins to her breast three leaves of green holly, and after she has slept some time, she will be roused by three yells as if there were three bears in the room. Three deep groans, and then three hoarse laughs will be heard – after which the person to whom she is to be married will come into the room and change the position of the water-pails. 

   Tradition says that one of these lovers thus raised by the powers of “inokerie” let fall as he was shifting the position of the pails of water, a rope with a noose at one end which the young woman next morning took up and laid aside. She was soon after married to a person resembling the spectre, who two weeks after hanged himself with the same rope which she had picked up. 

   On the last night of the year take a new laid egg and perforate the small end of it with a pin and let fall into a basin filled with water three drops of the white or albumen, which immediately diffuses itself on the surface in beautiful and fantastic shapes of trees, &c., from which auguries are taken of the fortunes of those present. 

   In the olden time divination was reduced to a science of which Gaule enumerates no fewer than fifty-three distinct divisions, all deriving their name from the object of the divination. Thus we have geomancy, divination by earth; Hydromancy, by water; Aeromancy, by air, &c., &c. Instead of giving verbatim such a formidable list, I prefer substituting the following lines of the poet:- 

Since ‘tis impiety to pry 

Into the rolls of destiny, 

Heed not the secrets they impart 

Who practice the divining art. 

J. G. S.      

– Kelso Chronicle, 13th November, 1863, p.3.

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