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

[Kelso Chronicle Articles Contents]

   1. Powries or Dunters were spirits that inhabited old castles, peels, towers, dungeons, &c. They make a noise as if they were beating flax or knocking barley in the hollow of a stone, and this noise, whenever it was more than usually loud and longer continued, was a monitor to the family that some of them were going to die, or that some accident was about to befall one of their relations. 

   2. The representation of scissors on old tombstones shewed that the person had cut his locks and become a monk. A battle-axe marked the grave of a warrior; a sword, that of a knight; a hood or cowl, that of a monk or abbot; a bow and arrows, a quiver or a hunting spear, that of forester or huntsman to the king; and a horse shoe, that of a page or courier. 

   3. To be buried near the altar or in the church was an honour only allowed to people of rank and fortune. To be buried at the foot of the church wall, so that the rain might fall on the grave, was accounted as great an evil as to be buried where three lairds’ lands met or in an unpainted coffin. Tradition avers that Thomas Rhymer protested against this, and refused to be buried in the churchyard of Earlstoun where his fathers lay, close to the church wall, as the rain would fall on his grave. He rather chose to fulfil his promise to the Elfin Queen, and go to Fairyland, where no rain ever falls. 

   4. The amusement of drawing valentines was at one time very much attended to by all the young people in the south of Scotland on st Valentine’s e’en – the 14th of February. All the names of their acquaintances were written on slips of paper – the men putting all their female and the women all their male acquaintance into a bag, which was then well shaken. Then each drew out a slip in succession till all of them had drawn out three different names. The first and second which they drew out of the bag were returned at the end of each drawing – i.e., after each had pulled out one, and he or she who drew the same valentine three times will have the fortune to obtain the person whose name was written on the slip as his or her partner for life. Burns notices this amusement in his son of Tam Glen – 

“Yestreen at the Valentines dealing 

My heart to my mow gied a sten, 

For thrice I drew ane without failing, 

An’ thrice it was written Tam Glen.” 

The valentines thus drawn were taken home, wrapped in paper, and laid below the pillows on which they slept and dreamed of their lovers. They were also sometimes sent to their sweethearts at a distance, having been previously painted and decorated in the most elegant manner, and surrounded with verses either original or borrowed from the poets both ancient and modern. 

   5. It is reported that the nurse of one of the Earls of Torpichen was taught the power of sinking and saving boats by the devil, and that she taught the young Earl the same as an amusement in his boyhood, which diabolical propensity did not leave him in his manhood. He was said to be the cause of the loss of the Boldside boat in the vicinity of Selkirk; and report says that he sat on the stern in the likeness of a raven when the boat struck. In the following verses the blue thread of the nurse is mentioned. This refers to a custom which at one time prevailed on the Borders and elsewhere. Women were supposed to be cured of puerperal and ephemeral fevers while suckling their children by wearing a blue woollen thread or small cord round their neck till their offspring were weaned. The threads thus used were handed down from the mother to the daughter, and age enhanced their value. 

“Gar watch on the night of invokerie 

The carry for successful witcherie, 

And mark the pale moon as she sinks frae the day, 

And tent that ye meet wi’ nae corpse on the way, 

Or soon shall ye lie in the cauld, cauld clay. 


Procure from a nourice’s neck her blue thread, 

And roll it thrice round a ker-finger wi’ speed; 

                                     Gin a boat ye was sink, 

                                     Then ‘tis down in a jink; 

But gif ye wad like that same boat to save, 

And snatch the poor sailors frae a wat’ry grve; 

                                     Then contrarwise roll 

                      The blue thread round the pole, 

And again shall the boat dance along the blue wave.” 

   6. It is a general rule when any persons engages a servant for a specified time to give him a piece of money; in olden times a penny – a penny fee; but in our times more commonly a shilling. This is called arles (earnest), and confirms the bargain. If a servant when engaged has not received any arles, he cannot be obliged to enter on his service. Sometimes servants, over and above their wage, made bargain for a boon-tithi.e., a little gift at certain seasons of the year. It was no unusual thing for servants on Tweedside, in the vales of the Ettrick and Yarrow, as well as on the banks of other Border streams, to insist, as a part of the compact, that they should not have salmon to dinner oftener than four times a-week. On the Borders there are certain days which servants claim as their own. These are the fair days of the district, where lads and lasses used to congregate and enjoy themselves in their own rude fashion, though Cupid not unfrequently bent his bow on these occasions and aimed his unerring arrows at the hearts of many a Jockie and Jennie, and forthwith sent them reeling into the arms of Hymen at Coldstream Bridge. At a period not very remote servants also claimed the privilege of attending certain sacramental occasions in the neighbouring parishes. Holy fairs these were – at which scenes so graphically and faithfully painted by Burns took place, and which, with their “wooin’s an’ fleechin’s,” often ended in “hochmagandie some ither day.” 

   7. A history of the rise of the power of kirk sessions towards the end of the 17th century, and of their fall and decline in the 19th, would be an amusing, if not an instructive contribution to our literature. In our day these bodies exist only in our large towns, and are usually composed of men – I beg pardon – of ruling elders – who are seldom heard of beyond the threshhold of the session house. In our rural parishes matters are somewhat worse. There this court, which is a sine qua non in our ecclesiastical polity, is almost extinct, and the clergyman is compelled to perform all the duties of moderator and ruling elders “rolled into one.” But in the “good old times” it was not so. There were kirk sessions on the earth in those days. Elders were then the moral policemen of the parish, who made stated reports to their superintendent in regard to the “scandalous immoralities” which they observed on their beat. In proof of this, I have in my eye a small rural parish, in the records of which towards the end of the 17th century it is ordained that two elders go through the village every Lord’s day during divine service and see who absent themselves from public worship without a reasonable excuse. One of their official reports is worth nothing:- “The elders report all orderly except one family, who reset common randie beggars who drink themselves drunk after eleven o’clock at night.” 

   These reports were not, to use a parliamentary phrase, merely ordered to lie on the table. they were immediately acted on, and the parties were cited with all the pomp and formality which the parish beadle could assume, to compear before the session and answer for their sin. To give sessions justice, neither boots nor thumbikins were used to extort confession, but witnesses were cited who confirmed the elder’s report, and so the culprit was ordered to “stand at ye pillar for three Sabbaths, and thereafter to be publicly rebuked for the sin of which he had been found guilty.” 

   It may not be uninteresting to give a list of the sins which prevailed towards the close of the 17th century, and of the number of persons who were convicted of having committed them. In the records of the parish above referred to – from 1692 to 1698 – the following cases were disposed of by the session:- Fornication, 11; attempts at do., 1; breach of Sabbath, 12; do. of Fast, 10; cursing and scolding, 22; drunkenness, 9; calumniating, 3; gross swearing, 3; consulting a dumb woman, 2 – in all, 73. 

   It may throw an additional interest around these cases when it is known that the father of the author of “The Seasons” presided as moderator of the session by whom the culprits were tried and found guilty. 

   On entering a parish church a century ago, there was one seat considerably elevated above the other pews, right in front of the pulpit, and near one of the pillars which supported the gallery, which was sure to attract the gazer’s eye. This was the stool of repentance, which all persons found guilty by the session of any of the sins mentioned in the foregoing list were condemned to occupy for three successive Sundays. The order of procedure was this. The culprit on each day was put in the jougs, which consisted of a collar of iron, and a strong chain fixed into a staple in the wall near the most patent church door. With this collar round his neck and firmly secured by a padlock, the evil-doer, arrayed in sackcloth, had to stand for three successive Sundays, a scorn and derision of the whole congregation. After each exhibition he was conducted by the church-officer with all due solemnity to the celebrated stool at ye pillar. On the last day, at the conclusion of the service, he was obliged to stand up and receive such a clapper-clawing from the minister as would have the effect of weaning him from the commission of the sin in all time coming. The jougs, the sackcloth, the cuttie stool, and all the emblems and instruments of ecclesiastical power, have passed away, and not one drop even of “the glorious punch on a sacrament Monday” is left behind to reconcile us to their mighty loss. 

   From a paragraph which appeared in the Inverness Advertiser some time ago, it appears that in some parts of the north countrie the cuttie stool is not yet numbered with the things that were. “A correspondent informs us,” says the paper above named, “that the practice of ‘doing penance’ for a certain moral offence still lingers in some of the churches of Sutherlandshire. On a recent occasion a woman stood up in the church on three separate occasions clothed with a sheet or sackcloth about her, and was publicly reprimanded (in Gaelic) by the minister for the sin of which she had been guilty. In an adjoining parish to where this occurred a shepherd lad was also similarly treated. Our correspondent says that these exhibitions are so offensive to the English part of the congregation that they are always gone through during the Gaelic services, and he is very decided in his opinion that they produce more harm than good by familiarising the minds of the young people with the forms of vice which are thus publicly brought before them, at the same time producing no beneficial effect on the culprits themselves. As an instance of this latter effect he says that the woman referred to, on being condoled with by an acquaintance on her pitiable position on the Sunday, merely replied, ‘What did you think of my dress – did you admire it?’ ”  

J. G. S.      

– Kelso Chronicle, 11th December, 1863, p.3.

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