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Random Notes Anent the Antiquities, Traditions, Superstitions, and Old Manners and Customs of the Borders. – No. XIX. – The Deil.

[Kelso Chronicle Articles Contents]

   THE foul fiend, as he was not inappropriately designated by our covenanting ancestors, played so distinguished a part in the drama of superstition, that it would be unpardonable were I to pass him by without deigning at least a cursory notice. Itis right, at the outset, to remind the reader, that it is not the Satan of Scripture, or the proud, heaven-defying Lucifer of Milton and Byron, concerning whom I purpose to write a few sentences; but our Scottish Deil – a being who seems to be possessed of all the characteristic traits of the Scottish nation, and whose habits, disposition, and occupation, as ascribed to him by the poets and religionists of a bygone age, are so ridiculous and outré, that “none but himself can be his parallel.” His absurd and often stupid pranks, having apparently no other object in view than to frighten harmless old women at the dead of night, abundantly demonstrate that, without medical certificate, he deserves to be consigned to the lunatic asylum of Pandemonium, if such there be. 

   Our Deil seems to be a cross between the Roman satyr, and some of the rude impersonations of the Gothic nations. For instance, he is always represented with a long tail, as an old song hath it – 

“How was the devil dressed? 

He was in his Sunday’s best; 

His coat was red, and his breeks were blue, 

With a hole behind where his tail came through.” 

   He is also endowed with horns and hoofs; hence his soubriquets of Hornie and Clootie, so often applied to him by Burns and other Scottish poets. To show one’s cloven fit is an expression which indicates the discovery of a person’s real sentiments and intentions, however disguised by the garments of outward profession. Reginald Scot, in his “Discovery of Witchcraft,” describes his Satanic majesty as “an ugly devil, having horns on his head, fire in his mouth, a tail in his breech, eyes like a bason, fangs like a dog,.. , and a voice roaring like a lyon.” 

   But then he had the power of assuming other shapes. Though he has never been known to assume that of a lamb, he has been detected under the form of a black ram with long horns and fiery eyes. He has been frequently seen in the shape of a sow, a bull, and a goat, and sometimes in that of a horse, a very large dog, or a brindled cat. Among the various birds he has never been known to assume the shape of any but that of a crow or a drake. He has been met with as a very tall man dressed in black, or a tall woman dressed in white, but he never condescends to become a little squat man or a dumpy woman. Near the western end of that long dreary moor in the upper ward of Lanarkshire, called the Lang Whang, there stood a solitary house, which had at one time been used for farm purposes, but which latterly degenerated into a sort of depot for hay, and which was also not unfrequently used as a resting place for the night by the weary vagrant who had plodded along the dreary solitudes of the Lang Whang. Like all places similarly situated, the house was haunted and many a story was told around the farmers cozy ingle by gaberlunzies of the ghosts which had appeared to them n that old solitary house. On one occasion an auld beggarman, who, in defiance of the superstitious reports which were spread abroad, and in humble reliance on the protection of a higher power, had taken up his quarters for the night in the old house, was awakened out of sleep by the most hideous and terrifying noises. On looking up, he beheld by a dim lurid light, an enormous boar with flaming eyes standing at no great distance from him. No way dismayed, the old man looked sternly at the unwelcome apparition, and said with the greatest coolness – “Hech, man, if ye be the Deil, ye are sair come doon i’ the warl’. Wha wad ha’e thought that ye ever wad be sae far left to yeresel as to gang about the country grumph, grumphin’ like a muckle sow. I wonder ye’re no ashamed o’ yeresel’.” It is said that on this occasion he was ashamed of himself, for in a flash of fire he instantly vanished, and was never after known to haunt in any shape the old solitary house. In one way the wish of Burns was realized – 

“Now, fare ye weel, auld Nickie Ben, 

O wad ye tak’ a thought an’ men’,” 

   Let us take a look at Auld Nick at home. He does not disdain to enter into amusements, and in Dunbar’s dance of the seven deadly sins through hell, we cannot fail to discern his pawkie humour, and to experience a sort of human sympathy with him when he was deaved with the yell of the termagant Ersch, and of human approbation too, when in “the deepest pot of hell he smored them with smoke.” 

Then cried Mahoun for a Highland padyane 

Syne ran a fiend to fetch MacFadyane, 

Far northward in a nook; 

By he the Correnoch had done shout, 

Ersch-men so gather him about 

In hell great room they took. 


These termagants with tag and tatter, 

Full loud in Ersch began to chatter 

And roup like raven and rook, 

The devil so deaved was with their yell 

That in the deepest pot of hell 

He smored them with smoke.” 

What can be more ludicrous than for a personage of such importance and historical fame to lay aside the insignia of his power, and 

“Come fiddlin’ thro’ the toon, 

And dance away with the exciseman?” 

Or the scene in Alloway Kirk, 

“A winnock-bunker in the east, 

There sat Auld Nick in shape o’ beast, 

A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large, 

To gie them music was his charge. 

He screwed his pipes an’ gart them skirl, 

Till roof an’ rafters a’ did dirl.” 

   “How do ye ken whether I am onest or what I am?” said Wandering Willie to Darsie Latimer. “I may be the Deevil himsel for what ye ken; for he has power to come disguised like an angel of light; and, besides, he is a prime fiddler. He played a sonata to Corellli, ye ken.” 

   Tradition says that Auld Nick was really anxious to turn over a new leaf, and to earn an honest livelihood by engaging in some trade. He became a blacksmith, a farrier, a tailor, a shoemaker, a weaver, &c., &c., in all of which he displayed so much of his wicked and prankish disposition as caused him to lose his situation. The following old rhyme refers to this tradition:- 

“The weaver deil gaed out at night, 

To see the new moon, 

Wi’ a the niddles on his back 

An’ the sowan mug aboon.” 

   Our ancestors, driven by the severities of persecution to hide themselves in dens and caves of the earth, ad not only to struggle with real dangers, but to oppose the infernal powers by whom they imagined they were assailed. One of these encounters between the Foul Fiend and the champions of the Covenant is preserved in certain rude rhymes, not yet forgotten in the Forest. Two men, it is said, by name Halbert Dobson and David Dun, took refuge in a hidden ravine in the immediate vicinity of the “Grat Mare’s Tail,” near the head of Moffat water. Here they were assailed by Satan himself, who came upon them grinning and making mouths, as if trying to frighten them and disturb their devotions. A dreadful conflict ensued. They buffeted him soundly with their bibles, and at last compelled him to roll down the precipice in the shape of a pack of dried hides. 

“Hab Dab an’ Davie Dun, 

Dang the Deil owre Dab’s lin. 

Weir, quo’ he, an’ weir, quo’ he, 

Haud the Bible till his e’e. 

Then he owre him, an’ he owre him, 

He owre him, an’ he owre him, 

Till, like a batch o’ barkit skins, 

Down fell Satan owre the lins.” 

To recount all the traditionary notices of the sayings and doings of the foul fiend would fill a volume, and we can only refer the reader who may be desirous of becoming better acquainted with them to consult Scot’s “HIstory of Witchcraft” and similar works, and more especially Burns’ “Address to the Deil,” which, as a serio-comic embodiment of popular superstition is unrivalled. We will conclude in the words of the old song – 

“Some say the Deil’s dead, the Deil’s dead, the Deil’s dead, 

Some say the Deils dead, and buried in Kirkcaldy; 

But other’s say he’ll rise again, he’ll rise again, he’ll rise again, 

But other’s say he’ll rise again, an’ dance the Hieland Laddie.” 

J. G. S.      

– Kelso Chronicle, 18th December, 1863, p.3.

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