Friday, 13 October 2017

The Slippery World of Superstition

Superstitions are distorting, fluid things, whose meaning cannot often be grasped in the decades after they may have been recorded.  Unlike the folk tale, the ghost tale, or the historical tradition, which may be dissected and broken down into core elements and motifs, there is no dissecting the simplest of superstitions. Others are of course more complex, readable.  Some may be unique to one particular area, some are local representatives of a widespread belief, but most are intriguing.

   Death naturally has its shadow army of associated beliefs.  Andrew Jervise noted the following superstition in Murroes in his Epitaphs of North-East Scotland (vol. 1, p. 126):

Not long ago, when the body of a suicide was found in the parish, it was buried in the clothes in which it was discovered, and upon the north, or shady side of the kirk, which was long believed to be the peculiar property of his Satanic Majesty!   When the grave of the unfortunate man was opened, his snuff-mull, and the sum of 6s 6d in silver, and a penny in copper, were found in it.  These had been buried along with the body; and as it was conveyed to the kirk-yard in the parish hearse, the feeling was carried to such a height that the hearse was never again used, but allowed to stand in a shed and rot!

   Another superstition associated with death was noted by Andrew Macgregor who pointed out the large numbers of knaps, or mounds, in the coastal parish of Lunan.  It was the habit of bereaved members of a household to carry the chaff and straw from a dead relative’s last bed, on the day after the funeral, to the knap nearest their house and there set it on fire.  This superstition was common in many parts of Scotland.  Warding off evil was the motive behind the actions and this was also behind the more general evil kept at bay by one Angus farmer who always wore a flat oval stone on a red thread around his neck.

Superstitions By the Sea
   In a previous post I ran through some superstitions which were rife in the various fisher communities along the Angus coast Angus Fisher Folk(lore). To summarise, I reported the 18th century belief that the people of Arbirlot considered seagulls ominous and the fear of fishermen in Arbroath and Auchmithie about close contact with pigs or their meat.  Ferryden fishermen in the Victorian era had an unaccountable aversion to the humble pigeon, while it was reported that Angus fishermen would adamantly refuse to go to sea if a hare happened to cross their path while they were on their way to their boats. These strange beliefs, often connected with animals, are widespread in Scotland and indeed Britain as a whole.  D. H. Edwards mentions an anecdote about a defamation case between two women from Usan which came to court.  While the accusation centred around the alleged theft of an item of clothing, one of the women pointed to the fact she was being targeted by seeing a key revolve around a bible three times. 

The Cauld Stane o Carmyllie

   Carmyllie is another place I have mentioned before.  The source of superstition here was described several times, in an unromantic fashion, such as the Rev. George Anderson who told the Committee on Boulders the object of awe was merely a

Granite or gneiss boulder, from 7 to 10 tons.  Differs from rocks near it.  It lies on a height.  Called “The Cold Stone of the Crofts.” Supposed to have come from hills thirty miles to north.

   The Cauld Stane – a large glacial erratic to geologists - allegedly marked the boundary between the parishes of Carmyllie and St Vigeans, though the current border is around 340m east-north-east.  This boulder, as I have elsewhere stated, may be the Grey Stone mentioned in records around 1280.  Its popular name is said to derive from the legend that it turns itself around three times at cock crow to welcome the rising sun.  The stone is said to have been accidentally dropped by a flying witch (or the Devil). 

   So much for the legend.  But did the story come from the name and the name derive from more general usage?  George Hay informs us that the whole of Carmyllie parish was popularly style Cauld Carmyllie because of its relatively elevated position and exposure to the elements. 

  On Carmyllie Hill there was an unattainable crock of gold, sometimes glimpsed but ever grasped and in 1838 a 'fairy hillock' was excavated on the hill.  A huge, two ton boulder was unearthed, along with some metal rings.  The underside of the stone had an imprint on it shaped like a foot mark, which locals took as evidence that fairies inhabited the hill.  Since then, many  'footprints' have been found in quarries north of the hill.  The Rev William Robertson, in the New Statistical Account, noted the number of fossils preserved in the local rocks and said the marks were sometimes called Kelpie’s Foot.  He stated that there were few surviving relics of superstition in his parish, although he acknowledged neighbouring parishes once thought Carmyllie odd and old fashioned:  its inhabitants were disparaged as the ‘Bodies o Carmyllie’.  A few generations before, superstition was indeed very rife in the area.  Church records show that a ‘reputed wizard’ was resorted to in 1743 by locals who used his services to supernaturally locate lost goods.  Carmyllie’s quarries provided high quality roof slates and paving stones, reaching peak production in the 1870s before dwindling away to nothing and closing in 1953.


Daniels, Cora Lyn and Stevens, C. M., Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult Sciences, volume 2 (Detroit, 1903).

Edwards, D. H., Around the Ancient City (Brechin 1904).

First Report by the Committee on Boulders appointed by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in April 1871, from the proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol VII, 1871-72.

Hay, George, Aberbrothock Illustrated (Arbroath, 1886).

Jervise, Andrew,  Epitaphs and Inscriptions From Burial Grounds and Old Buildings in North East Scotland (Edinburgh, 1875).

Macgregor, Andrew, Highland Superstitions (Stirling, 1901).

The New Statistical Account (1845).

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