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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Folklore & Customs
Miss H Munro

I was brought up with a great many stories and beliefs, but the trouble is that I have been interested in the subject for a very long time, and now I am not clear in my mind about what I was told as the child, what I have been told by other interested people, and what I have read. However it would be a great pity if the old beliefs and superstitions were completely forgotten. Most of them had some basis in real happenings, I am sure.

In matters like old cures for troubles, it has been recognised that today a number of the new cures are based on the old. As we know, in some countries, particularly I understand in the East, the mould on milk or cheese was put on cuts....... Penicillin?

On another matter, I was listening to a talk on carnation breeding one day, and there is a gentleman somewhere near Berwick who grows the most magnificent prize carnations. He says the secret is that when he takes cuttings he puts a barley seed in the stalk and this makes them grow much better. The speaker said that they had analysed the barley and discovered that one of the components in the barley is used today in the special fertiliser which is made for carnation growers.

Fishermen had their own superstitions - many and various. I do not know if there were many that are peculiar to Caithness but they do not like ministers on board their boats. Neither do they like whistling on board otherwise a wind will follow. They used to secrete a silver coin in their nets for luck.

A mixture of meal and salt was kept in the house as a precaution against trouble and I remember the cottages in Shore Street, Thurso which all had one or two silver or golden Yarmouth balls in their windows as a protection against witches. Sometimes they are called witch balls.

To divert a little - if you make a glass ring you must stop the sound before it dies away else a sailor drowns.

Fishermen divided the catch by casting 'caivels' . One man stood with his back turned and dropped stones on the piles of fish; one pile for each member of the crew and one for the boat. Casting caivels is mentioned in a ballad 'Gil Brenton' dating from the seventeenth century.

Because of the battle of Flodden it is unlucky for a Sinclair to leave Caithness on Monday wearing green.

One must never go back for something you have forgotten unless you sit down in the house for a minute, and then it is considered a fresh start.

If you put part of your clothes on outside-in by mistake you must wear it like that all day or you will be unlucky. If this is impractical you must change and wear something else.

Witches, in the shape of cats or hares, were well known and the trick was to shoot them with a silver bullet. There are many tales told of old women being found next day with broken arms or legs and cases may be read of witches being taken to the High Court. Such visitations as did occur were called foregangs.

Birds are sometimes an ill omen and warning of death. Owls screaming or a solitary crow that always stays around the house gable can be such an omen. The swallow was called the ‘witch hag' . Robins are lucky because with their breast feathers they are said to have wiped the blood from Christ's feet on the cross. There was a gravedigger in Bower, Horne tells us who always said he heard three taps on the window pane before someone died in the parish but he doesn't say which bird came.

After death the ‘kisting' was the great event and all the friends and neighbours came to pay their respects which meant that they were taken into the room to view the corpse. They then gathered in the other room and a short service was held. After this the coffin was nailed down. It is not so long since this custom died out and indeed may still go on.

One always thoroughly cleans the house before the new year, and always just before midnight we open the door to let the old year out and the new year in and, of course, one 's first foot must be dark and preferably a man. Horne says that one keeps the cat inside on hogmanay in case one has a bad foot or a fair first foot and then one puts the cat outside.

I hope when you go on a journey you always put a bit of rowan or a red thread in your buttonhole to keep the witches away, and you must always have a rowan tree in your garden. Only about five years ago a friend of mine met an old lady who had made the journey from Lybster to see, her brother in Thurso. When asked if the journey was tiring she said "Och no, my dear, you see I hed ‘e threedie in ma coat so ah niver bothered".

The Devil
Did you know that when they were building the Causewaymire and they put up the stone bridge the devil was very angry - so angry that every night he pulled down the work the men had done during the day. They then rebuilt the stones and bound them with iron. That night when the devil returned he lashed the bridge with his fiery tail but could not make any impression. But if you look there you will find the black fire marks on the bridge honestly, I have seen them.

Freet is a word one used to hear. There was an old fishwife in Thurso who was the only one I have ever heard of who used it. She used to make up a mixture of some kind of grease and put it on a rag to cure cuts. This word was also used by dairymaids when they were churning. If the butter would not come they said someone had taken the freet from the milk. Could this be dialect for fruit?

There are many superstitions about new babies, from the almost classic one about guarding the child in case it is stolen by the fairies and becomes a changeling, to the rocking of empty cradles. Most of them tie in with the usual Scottish, and indeed sometimes worldwide, tales. In Caithness there are two diametrically opposite ideas about rocking the empty cradle:- if you rock the cradle empty, you shall have babies plenty; also if you rock the empty cradle it portends the death of a child.

I remember being told by my father about a well known citizen of Thurso who had gone to the hospital to see his first great grand-child. The old boy had taken a gold sovereign as a hansell. (You must never see a new baby for the first time without giving it silver or gold). The week-old child grasped the coin tightly and the old man, who was a bit tight fisted, came back delighted that the bairn would have a good grasp of what mattered. If the child lets go the coin it is said that he will grow up open-handed, depending upon one’s outlook on the matter.

Do children still carefully wrap up their first teeth, and put them under the pillow for, some say, a ‘moosie’ and some say, the fairies. In the morning, lo, the tooth was gone and in our day a silver threepenny piece was left. Poor mothers today with inflation - but, maybe the custom has gone also. When I was young one' s silver threepenny pieces were a source of great pride and I remember a girl in my class at school who kept them all and then had a bracelet made from them. I was very envious.Stil1-born infants must be buried before sunrise or after sunset. This practice was usual in the Black Isle certainly until early in the 19th century.

Plants and Fortune Telling
Never have I taken ivy or snowdrops or May blossom into the house. They are very unlucky. Of course, we all found out about our lovers by blowing on dandelion-clocks "he loves me, he loves me not' - or doing the same with daisies. Once I remember seeing an old lady in the country telling fortunes by dropping white of egg into a glass of water and watching for the shape it made. This is particularly associated with Halloween.

Always, when the small box of wedding cake arrived, the cake was put under one' s pillow, and, of course, you dreamed of your sweetheart. A May wedding was supposed to be unlucky, but Caithness is unusual in that Friday was a popular day for weddings whilst elsewhere it was unlucky. John Horne suggests that the reason might be that weddings always had to end at midnight on Saturday and if they were held on Friday one did not have to provide such large feast. At weddings, as in other places, it was the custom for the couple to toss coins to the crowd as they left the church. I remember a very large wedding in Thurso - I think it -.was just after the war when the bridegroom tossed pennies to the crowd, as the couple went from the West Church to the Pentland Hotel.

Do you know that if your left ear is hot and itching someone is sneaking well of you and if it is your right one you had better be careful because someone is giving you your character? The other superstition is "right for right and left for spite” . This is because the devil sits on your left shoulder and your guardian angel on your right.

An itching palm means you will handle money soon, .whilst an itching nose means news of someone or maybe a visitor.

Falling Coals
If a coal falls from the fire a visitor will come. An old lady told me that when a burning peat fell from the fire it meant a visit from a stranger, so it was carefully put into the middle of the fire to ensure a warm welcome.

When we got white spots on our nails we were told it meant that a present was coming, so we watched the spots climb closer to the top and when they were cut you were supposed to get the present. I cannot remember the excuse we were given if nothing came, but I’m quite certain that for every present which came several must have proved blank. 

You never cut your nails on Sunday:-

"Cut them on Sunday, cut them for evil, For all the next week, you’ll be ruled by the devil.”

Does not the Bible say "cursed is the man that pareth horn or hoof' on the Sabbath -Day?" We were also never allowed to cut nails on Friday because of bad luck but I can't remember why. All I know is that we were so well drilled that I never cut my nails on Friday or Sunday. Mad isn't it?

To cure a stye one rubs it with a gold ring, and I can remember my mother lending us her wedding ring for this purpose. We used to rub it before we went to school in the morning. Did it cure it? Of course it did - often. Also ear-rings were supposed to help one to have good eyesight and I remember a girl in school wearing these tiny gold rings because her family believed this to be true. We envied her like anything but were never allowed to have this done.

I still toss salt three times over my left shoulder.

Superstitions about breaking a mirror, walking under a ladder and wearing green were still current here until after the war, and probably still are. I may not believe them but I don't want to tempt the gods by going against them.

I hope you always try to see the new moon outside and have some money to turn over in your pocket.

If I screwed my face up at home I was told that if the wind changed my face would always like that.

These were the tales we were brought up with and whilst they didn't rule our lives as they did in previous generations, we had a sneaking belief.

Did you know that you never put new shoes on the table? Indeed some folk will not put any shoes on the table for fear of bad luck, and if your new shoes squeak it is because you have not paid for them.

When we were young, if one had a pair of new shoes, someone at school nearly always said "spit on them for luck".

Things always come in threes. If you hear of a happening, be it a birth, marriage or death, you will always hear of three. If you break something, and then another piece, just you run and break a jam jar to take away the bad luck or again you will break a third, thing.

Horse Hair
Although I did not know this until I was grown up, there is a fairly well-known superstition that hair from a horses tail will turn into an eel if you keep it in water. An old uncle of mine, who lived on a croft where we used to go for holidays, made us believe this story. I think now it must have been to keep us quiet whilst he got on with his work. Anyway, many's the hair I have kept in a jam jar, and every morning was sure that it moved a little bit. Sometimes we used to put them in the quarry pool in the mistaken belief that running water might help the process. Funnily enough we never did get an eel from a horse’s hair, although occasionally they used to try to persuade us that sticklebacks in the burn had been born overnight from the hair, but even then we rather doubted it.This is also rather like the legend of barnacle geese being born from shells.

Press Gangs
There was a law about press gangs. You could not leave a boat in danger and had to leave sufficient men on board to take her safely back to land. One day three Freswick men were out fishing when the press gang took one man, but the other one had his wits about him. He said the third chap was daft and that he could not be left alone in a boat with a daft man. The naval officer did not believe it until he threw half a crown at the daft man, and the daft man threw it into the sea. Then he did believe him and put the first man back in the boat and and so he was saved from the press gang.

The Guagers
Kirsty Banks from Stroma used to do a bit of distilling, and once when she had a browst ready she heard that the gauger was coming. Not long before Kirsty had had a still-born baby so, quick as light, she got the bairns to make up a bed in the kitchen and put the malt in the bed; then Kirsty got in beside it. When the gauger came she told him about the baby but he already knew, and she said that the bairns had wanted her to be beside them to guide them in the work as she was still not very well. The gauger of course respected this, searched the rest of the house, but found nothing, so again they got away with it.

Need Fire
The last known use of the need fire was in Houstry about the end of last century, but I have been taken to a small island near Shurrery and shown stones with black markings on them where the need fire was supposed to have been used just before the first war.

The need fire was of course not peculiar to Caithness. It was used when some calamity came on the glen such as cattle disease. All the fires then had to be put out, and then men repaired usually to a small island and rubbed sticks together until they ignited. The flame was then carried to all the houses and the fires re-lit, and the dreaded disease vanished so it is said. This was a belief common all over the Highlands.

Christian Customs
The only holy loch or well I have heard of in the county is St. John’s loch. We were brought up to believe that if one walked round the loch three times, and then threw a coin in and left the area before sunrise one would be cured. Certainly coins, quite old ones, are found in the loch even today, but we were told it was an old story and never knew anyone who actually did this. Horne tells that as late as 1841 the Wick minister sayd that within living memory people left bread and cheese at St. Tear's chapel on Holy Innocent's day as an offering to the souls of the children killed by Herod. He also says that until a few years before he writes, in 1907, the inhabitants of Morelandhorn visited the Kirk-o’-Moss every Christmas before sunrise and placed bread, cheese and a silver coin there, all of which disappeared before sunrise. Maybe the minister added to his salary in this way.

There is a place near Clatequoy called Lower Howe which is supposed to have been a burial ground. Within living memory the Sutherlands of Clatequoy removed this mound and cultivated the ground. Almost immediately they lost a number of animals and the old folk who believed it to be unlucky to interfere with the dead were sympathetic but satisfied.

Do you know the correct way to treat whisky drinking? Well this is the way of it: -

"One glass, neither my body nor my soul is the better nor the worse of it;
Two glasses, my body is the better of them and my soul is not the worse of them:
Three glasses, my soul is the worse for them and my body is not the better of them'."


CalderCivil and traditional History of CaithnessMurray 1861
CampbellTales of the Highlands
GuthrieOld Scottish Customs1885
HorneCounty of Caithness
LaingNotes on Superstition and Folklore1885
MarwickFolklore of Orkney and Shetland1975
SutherlandFolklore Gleanings and Character Sketches1937
The Popular Superstitions and Festive Amusements of the Highlands of Scotland1851
Old Lore Miscellany - Several Volumes
TocherSchool of Scottish Studies
Published April 1976 Bulletin