[For early historical material on Scotland, see the entry on
Witchcraft and, more commonly, sorcery, malevolent
magic, appear to have been practiced in the earliest historical
and traditional times in Scotland. It is related that during the
reign of Natholocus in the second century there lived in Iona
a witch of great renown, so celebrated for her marvelous power
that the king sent one of his captains to consult her regarding
the issue of a rebellion then troubling his kingdom. The witch
declared that within a short period the king would be murdered,
not by his open enemies but by one of his most favored
friends, in whom he had most special trust. The messenger inquired
the assassins name. Even by thine own hands as shall
be well known within these few days, replied the witch.
So troubled was the captain on hearing these words that he
abused her bitterly, vowing that he would see her burned before
he would commit such a crime. But after reviewing the
matter carefully in his mind, the captain arrived at the conclusion
that if he informed the king of the witchs prophecy, the
king might, for the sake of his personal safety, have him put to
death, so thereupon he decoyed Natholocus into his private
chamber and killed him with a dagger.
In about the year 388, the devil was said to be so enraged
at the piety of St. Patrick that he assailed the saint with a whole
band of witches in Scotland. The story goes that St. Patrick fled
to the river Clyde, embarking in a small boat for Ireland. As
witches cannot pursue their victims over running water, they
flung a huge rock after the escaping saint, which fell harmlessly
to the ground, and which tradition says now forms Dumbarton
Catholic and Protestant church leaders alike pursued the
crusade against witchcraft with equal vigor, drawing their support
from biblical passages such as Exodus 2218, which commands,
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. Witches were believed
to have sold themselves, body and soul, to the devil.
Their ceremony was said to consist of kneeling before the devil,
who placed one hand on the individuals head and the other
under her feet, while she dedicated all between to the service
of the devil and renounced baptism. The witch (usually thought
of as a female) was thereafter deemed to be incapable of reformation.
No minister of any denomination whatever would intercede
or pray for her. On sealing the compact, the devil then
proceeded to put his mark upon her.
Writing on the Witches Mark, the Reverend Bell, minister
of Gladsmuir, in 1705 states,
The witches mark is sometimes like a blew spot, or a little
tale, or reid spots, like fleabiting, sometimes the flesh is sunk
in and hollow and this is put in secret places, as among the hair
of the head, or eyebrows, within the lips, under the armpits,
and even in the most secret parts of the body.
The Reverend Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle in his Secret Commonwealth
of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (written in 1691) notes,
A spot that I have seen, as a small mole, horny, and brown
colored, throw which mark when a large brass pin was thrust
(both in buttock, nose, and roof of the mouth) till it bowed
[bent] and became crooked, the witches, both men and women,
nather felt a pain nor did bleed, nor knew the precise time
when this was doing to them (their eyes only being covered).
In many cases the mark was invisible, and according to popular
lore, no pain accompanied the pricking of it. Thus, there
arose a group of experts who pretended great wisdom and skill
concerning the marks. They referred to themselves as witch
prickers and it became their business to discover and label
The method employed was barbarous. First, having
stripped and bound his victim, the witch pricker proceeded to
thrust his needles into every part of the body. When at last the
victim, worn out with exhaustion and agony, remained silent,
the witch pricker declared that he had discovered the mark.
The witch pricker could also resort to trial by water. The suspects
were tied, wrapped in a sheet, and flung into a deep pool.
In cases where the body floated, the water of baptism was supposed
to be giving the accused, while those who sank to the bottom
were absolved, but no attempt was made at rescue.
If a confession was demanded, tortures was resorted to,
burning with irons being generally the last torture applied. In
some cases a diabolic contrivance called the witches bridle
was used. The bridle encircled the victims head while a
pronged iron bit was thrust into the mouth, piercing the
tongue, palate, and cheeks. In cases of execution, the victim
was usually strangled and her body later burned at the stake.
Witches were accused of a great variety of sorceries. Common
offenses were bewitching milk cattle by turning their milk
sour or curtailing the supply, raising storms, stealing children
from their graves, and promoting various illnesses. A popular
device was to make a waxen image of the victim, thrust pins into
it, and sear it with hot irons, all of which the victim was supposed
to feel. Upon domestic animals witches cast an evil eye,
causing emaciation and refusal to take food until at length
death ensued. On the other hand, to those who believed in
them and acknowledged their power, witches were supposed to
use their powers for good by curing disease and causing prosperity.
Witches were believed to meet weekly, at which time the
devil presided. Saturday was commonly called the witches
sabbat, as their meetings were generally believed to be held
on that day in a desolate place or possibly a ruined church
building (a number of which had been left by the invading Vikings).
They rode to the gatherings through the air on broomsticks
(see transvection). If the devil was not present on their
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. SCOTLAND
arrival, they evoked him by beating the earth with a fir stick and
saying Rise up foul thief.
The witches appeared to see the devil in different guises; to
some he appeared as a boy clothed in green, others saw him
dressed in white, while to others he appeared mounted on a
black horse. After delivering a mock sermon, he held a court
at which the witches had to make a full statement of their doings
during the week. Those who had not accomplished sufficient
evil were beaten with their own broomsticks, while those
who had been more successful were rewarded with enchanted
bones. The proceedings finished with a dance, the music to
which the fiend played on his bagpipes.
The poet Robert Burns in his Tale of Tam oShanter gave a
graphic description of a witches gathering. There were great
annual gatherings at Candlemas (February 2), Beltane (April
30), and Hallow-eve (October 31). These were of an international
character and the witch sisterhood of all nations assembled,
those who had to cross the sea performing the journey in
barges of eggshell, while their aerial journeys were on goblin
horses with enchanted bridles.
Laws Against Witchcraft
Through the confessions extracted from accused witches,
guided by the fantasies about witchcraft in the several manuals
that circulated through Europe beginning late in the fifteenth
century, a picture of witchcraft was constructed and then promulgated
into a society that still strongly believed in the powers
of supernatural magic. In response to the fear of sorcerers and
witches, the government passed laws outlawing their reported
activities. In Scotland, less than a century after the redefinition
of witchcraft as apostasy by the Roman Catholic Church in the
1480s, the first witchcraft law was enacted in the form of statute
passed in 1563 in the Parliament of Queen Mary. It read (in the
now archaic English of the time),
That na maner of person nor persons of quhatsumever estaite,
degree or condition they be of, take upon hand in onie
times hereafter to use onie maner of witchcraft, sorcerie, or
necromancie, under the paine of death, alsweil to be execute
against the user, abuser, as the seeker of the response of consultation.
Scottish Catholics then accused Protestant reformer John
Knox of being a renowned wizard and having by sorcery raised
up saints in the churchyard of St. Andrews, when Satan himself
was said to have appeared and so terrified Knoxs secretary that
he became insane and died. Knox was also charged with using
his magical arts in his old age to persuade the beautiful young
daughter of Lord Ochiltree to marry him.
There were numerous trials for witchcraft in the Justiciary
Court in Edinburgh and at the circuit courts, while session records
preserved from churches all over Scotland also show that
numerous cases were dealt with by local authorities and church
C. Rodgers, in his book Social Life in Scotland, (3 vols.,
From the year 1479 when the first capital sentence was carried
out thirty thousand persons had on the charge of using enchantment
been in Great Britain cruelly immolated; of these
one fourth belonged to Scotland. No inconsiderable number of
those who suffered on the charge of sorcery laid claim to necromantic
acts with intents felonious or unworthy.
When James VI of Scotland in the year 1603 was called upon
to ascend the throne of Great Britain and Ireland (as James I),
his own native kingdom was in a rather curious condition.
James himself was a man of considerable learning, intimate
with Latin and theology, while his book, Daemonologie marks
him as a person completely absorbed in the supernatural.
Moreover while education and even scholarship were comparatively
common at this date in Scotland (more common in fact
than they were in contemporary England), the great mass of
Scottish people shared abundantly their sovereigns dread of
witches and sorcery. The efforts of Knox and his associates had
brought about momentous changes in Scottish life, but if the
Reformation rejected certain popular beliefs, Presbyterianism
(the particular form of Protestant Christianity that came to
power in Scotland) undoubtedly tended to introduce others.
For that stern Calvinistic faith that now began to take root in
Scotland nourished the idea that sickness and accident were a
mark of divine anger. This theory did not cease to be common
in the north till long after King James day.
King James mentioned few precise facts concerning the
practitioners of magic who were said to flourish in Scotland
during his reign. But other sources of information claimed that
these people were very numerous, and whereas in Elizabethan
England it was customary to put a witch to death by hanging,
in Jacobean Scotland magistrates employed harsher measures.
In fact, the victim was burned at the stake, and it is interesting
to note that on North Berwick Law, in the county of East Lothian,
there is a tall stone that, according to local tradition, was
formerly used as a site for such burnings.
Yet it would be wrong to suppose that witches and sorcerers,
although handled roughly, were regarded with universal hatred,
for in seventeenth- century Scotland medicine and magic
went hand in hand, and the man suffering from a physical malady
(particularly one whose cause he could not understand)
very seldom entrusted himself to a professional leech (a physician
whose medical technique was the placement of bloodsucking
leeches on the patients body) and much preferred to consult
one who claimed healing capacities derived from
intercourse with the unseen world.
Sorcerers, however, were generally also experts in the art of
poisoning, and while a good many cures are credited to them,
their triumphs in the opposite direction would seem to have
been much more numerous. Thus we find that in July 1702, a
certain James Reid of Musselburgh was brought to trial, being
charged not merely with achieving miraculous cures, but with
contriving the murder of one David Libbertoun, a baker in
Edinburgh. This Libbertoun and his family, it transpired, were
sworn enemies of a neighboring household, by the name of
Christie, and eventually their feud grew as fierce as that between
the Montagues and Capulets. The Christies swore they
would bring things to a conclusion, and going to Reid they petitioned
his nefarious aid.
His first act was to bewitch nine stones, these to be cast on
the fields of the offending baker with a view to destroying his
crops. Reid then proceeded to enchant a piece of raw flesh and
also to make a statuette of wax. The nature of the design is not
recorded, but presumably Libbertoun himself was represented.
Mrs. Christie was instructed to thrust the meat under her
enemys door, and then to go home and melt the waxwork before
her own fire. These instructions she duly obeyed, and a little
later the victim breathed his last. Reid did not escape justice
and after his trial suffered the usual fate of being burned alive.
Isobel Griersone, a Prestonpans woman who was burned to
death on the Castle Rock, Edinburgh, in March 1607, had a record
of poisonings rivalling that of Cellini himself, and it is
even recorded that she contrived to put an end to several people
simply by cursing them.
Equally sinister were the exploits of another sorceress, Belgis
Todd of Longniddry, who was reported to have brought
about the death of a man she hated just by enchanting his cat.
This picturesque method was scorned by notorious Perthshire
witch Janet Irwing, who in about the year 1610 poisoned various
members of the family of Erskine of Dun, in the county of
Angus. The criminal was eventually detected and suffered the
The wife of John Dein, a burgess of Irvine, conceived a violent
aversion for her brother-in-law, Archibald, and on one occasion,
when the latter was setting out for France, Margaret
hurled imprecations at his ship, vowing none of its crew or passengers
would ever return to their native Scotland. Months
went by, and no word of Archibalds arrival reached Irvine,
until one day a peddler named Stewart came to John Deins
SCOTLAND Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed.
house and declared that the baneful prophecy had been duly
Learning of the affair, municipal authorities arrested Stewart,
whom they had long suspected of practicing magic. At first
he confessed innocence, but under torture he confessed how,
along with Margaret Dein, he had made a clay model of the illstarred
ship, and thrown this into the sea on a particularly
stormy night. His audience was horrified at the news, but they
hastened to lay hands on the sorceress, whereupon they dealt
with her as noted above.
No doubt the witches of Jacobean Scotland were credited
with triumphs far greater than what they really achieved. At the
same time, a number of the accused sorcerers firmly maintained,
when confronted by a terrible death, that they had been
initiated in their craft by the devil himself, or perhaps by a band
of fairies. It is not surprising that they were dreaded by the simple,
illiterate folk of their day, and, musing on these facts, we
may feel less amazed at the credulity displayed by King James,
who declared that all sorcerers ought to be put to death according
to the law of God, the civill and imperiale Law, and
municipall Law of all Christian nations.
The last execution of a witch in Scotland took place in Sutherland
in 1722. An old woman residing at Loth was charged,
among other crimes, with having transformed her daughter
into a pony, shod by the devil, which caused the girl to turn
lame both in hands and feet. Sentence of death was pronounced
by Captain David Ross, the Sheriff-substitute. C. Rodgers
relates The poor creature when led to the stake was unconscious
of the stir made on her account, and warming her
wrinkled hands at the fire kindled to consume her, said she was
thankful for so good a blaze. For his rashness in pronouncing
the sentence of death, the Sheriff was emphatically reproved.
In more recent centuries witchcraft has been dealt with
under laws pertaining to rogues, vagabonds, gamesters, and
practitioners of fortune- telling.
Magic and Demonology
Magic appears to have been common in Scotland until a late
period. In the pages of Adamnan, Abbot of Iona (ca. 625704
C.E.), St. Columba and his priest regarded the Druids as magicians,
and he countered their sorcery with what was believed to
be a superior celestial magic of his own. Thus does the religion
of one race become magic in the eyes of another.
Notices of sorcery in Scotland before the thirteenth century
are scanty, if we except the tradition that Macbeth encountered
three witches who prophesied his fate to him. There is no reason
to believe that Thomas the Rhymer (who was endowed by
later superstition with adventures similar to those of Tannhauser)
was really other than a minstrel and maker of epigrams, or
that Sir Michael Scott was other than a scholar and man of letters.
The rhymed fragment known as The Cursing of Sir John
Rowil, by a priest of Corstorphine, near Edinburgh, which
dates perhaps from the last quarter of the fifteenth century,
provides a glimpse of medieval Scottish demonology. The
poem is an invective against certain persons who rifled his
poultry-yard, upon whom the priest called down divine vengeance.
The demons who were to torment the evildoers were
Garog, Harog, Sym Skynar, Devetinus the devill that maid the
dyce, Firemouth, Cokadame, Tutivillus, Browny, and Syr
Garnega, who may be the same as Girnigo, to whom cross children
are often likened by angry mothers of the Scottish working
classes. The Scottish verb, to girn (to pull grotesque faces
or grin), may find its origin in the name of a medieval fiend,
the last shadow of some Teutonic or Celtic deity of unlovable
In Sym Skynar, we may have Skyrnir, a Norse giant in whose
glove Thor found shelter from an earthquake, and who sadly
fooled him and his companions. Skyrnir was one of the Jotunn
or Norse Titans, and probably one of the powers of winter, and
he may have received the popular surname of Sym in the
same manner as we speak of Jack Frost.
A great deal has still to be done in unearthing the minor figures
of Scottish mythology and demonology, and even the
greater ones have not received the attention due to them. For
example, in Newhaven, a fishing district near Edinburgh, we
find the belief in a fiend called Brounger, who is described as
an old man who levies a toll of fish and oysters upon the local
fishermen. If he is not placated with these, he wreaks vengeance
on the persons who fail to supply him. He is also described
as a Flint and the son of a Flint, which strongly suggests
that, like Thor and many other gods of Asia and America,
he was a thunder or weather deity. In fact his name is probably
a mere corruption of an ancient Scandinavian word meaning
to strike, which still survives in the Scottish expression make
With regard to practical magic, a terrifying and picturesque
legend tells how Sir Lewis Bellenden, a lord of session and superior
of the Barony of Broughton, near Edinburgh, succeeded
by the aid of a sorcerer in raising the devil in the backyard of
his own house in the Canongate, somewhere around the end
of the sixteenth century. Bellenden was a notorious trafficker
with witches, with whom his barony of Broughton was reportedly
overrun. Wanting to see the devil in person, he secured the
services of one Richard Graham. The results of the evocation
were disastrous to the inquisitive judge, whose nerves were so
shattered at the devils appearance that he fell ill and soon expired.
The case of Major Thomas Weir in 1670 is one of the most
interesting in the annals of Scottish sorcery. Master storyteller
Sir Walter Scott recounts the major aspects of the curious occurrence
It is certain that no story of witchcraft or necromancy, so
many of which occurred near and in Edinburgh, made such a
lasting impression on the public mind as that of Major Weir.
The remains of the house in which he and his sister lived are
still shown at the head of the West Bow, which has a gloomy aspect,
well suited for a necromancer. It was, at different times,
a braziers shop and a magazine for lint, and in my younger
days was employed for the latter use; but no family would inhabit
the haunted walls as a residence; and bold was the urchin
from the High School who dared approach the gloomy ruin at
the risk of seeing the Majors enchanted staff parading through
the old apartments, or hearing the hum of the necromantic
wheel, which procured for his sister such a character as a spinner.
The case of this notorious wizard was remarkable chiefly
from his being a man of some condition (the son of a gentleman,
and his mother a lady of family in Clydesdale), which was
seldom the case with those that fell under similar accusations.
It was also remarkable in his case that he had been a Covenanter,
and peculiarly attached to that cause. In the years of the
Commonwealth this man was trusted and employed by those
who were then at the head of affairs, and was in 1649 commander
of the City-Guard of Edinburgh, which procured him
his title of Major. In this capacity he was understood, as was indeed
implied in the duties of that officer at the period, to be
very strict in executing severity upon such Royalists as fell
under his military charge. It appears that the Major, with a
maiden sister who had kept his house, was subject to fits of melancholic
lunacy, an infirmity easily reconcilable with the formal
pretences which he made to a high show of religious zeal. He
was peculiar in his gift of prayer, and, as was the custom of the
period, was often called to exercise his talent by the bedside of
sick persons, until it came to be observed that, by some association,
which it is more easy to conceive than to explain, he could
not pray with the same warmth and fluency of expression unless
when he had in his hand a stick of peculiar shape and appearance,
which he generally walked with. It was noticed, in
short, that when this stick was taken from him, his wit and talent
appeared to forsake him.
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. SCOTLAND
This Major Weir was seized by the magistrates on a strange
whisper that became current respecting vile practices, which he
seems to have admitted without either shame or contrition.
The disgusting profligacies which he confessed were of such a
character that it may be charitably hoped most of them were
the fruits of a depraved imagination, though he appears to
have been in many respects a wicked and criminal hypocrite.
When he had completed his confession, he avowed solemnly
that he had not confessed the hundredth part of the crimes
which he had committed.
From this time he would answer no interrogatory, nor
would he have recourse to prayer, arguing that, as he had no
hope whatever of escaping Satan, there was no need of incensing
him by vain efforts at repentance. His witchcraft seems to
have been taken for granted on his own confession, as his indictment
was chiefly founded on the same document, in which
he alleged he had never seen the devil, but any feeling he had
of him was in the dark.
He received sentence of death, which he suffered 12th
April, 1670, at the Gallow-hill, between Leith and Edinburgh.
He died so stupidly sullen and impenitent as to justify the opinion
that he was oppressed with a kind of melancholy frenzy, the
consequence perhaps of remorse, but such as urged him not to
repent, but to despair. It seems probable that he was burnt
His sister, with whom he was supposed to have had an incestuous
connection, was condemned also to death, leaving a
stronger and more explicit testimony of their mutual sins than
could be extracted from the Major. She gave, as usual, some account
of her connection with the queen of the fairies, and acknowledged
the assistance she received from that sovereign in
spinning an unusual quantity of yarn. Of her brother she said
that one day a friend called upon them at noonday with a fiery
chariot, and invited them to visit a friend at Dalkeith, and that
while there her brother received information of the event of the
battle of Worcester. No one saw the style of their equipage except
On the scaffold this woman, determining, as she said, to
die with the greatest shame possible was with difficulty prevented
from throwing off her clothing before the people, and with
scarce less trouble was she flung from the ladder by the executioner.
Her last words were in the tone of the sect to which her
brother had so long affected to belong Many, she said, weep
and lament for a poor old wretch like me; but alas, few are
weeping for a broken covenant.
While fearful of sorcery and witchcraft, James IV was attracted
to the science of alchemy. The poet William Dunbar described
the patronage the king bestowed upon certain adventurers
who had studied the mysteries of alchemy and were
ingenious in making quintiscence, which should convert
other metals into pure gold. In the Treasurers Accounts there are
numerous payments for the quinta essentia, including wages
to the persons employed, utensils of various kinds, coals and
wood for the furnaces, and for a variety of other materials such
as quicksilver, aqua vitae, litharge, auri, fine tin, burnt silver,
alum, salt and eggs, and saltpeter.
The Scottish monarch appears to have collected around him
a multitude of quacks of all sorts for mention is made of the
leech with the curland hair, of the lang Dutch doctor, of one
Fullertone, who was believed to possess the secret of making
precious stones, of a Dr. Ogilvy who labored hard at the transmutation
of metals, and many other empirics, whom James not
only supported in their experiments, but himself assisted in
their laboratory. The most noted of these adventurers was Master
John Damian, the French Leich. He probably held an appointment
as a physician in the royal household.
John soon ingratiated himself with the king, who had a
strong passion for alchemy. He remained in Jamess favor
throughout the rest of his life, the last notice given to him being
on March 27, 1513, when the sum of £20 was paid to him to
travel to the mine in Crawford Moor, where the king had artisans
at work searching for gold.
From the reign of James IV to that of Mary Stuart, no magician
or alchemical practitioner of note appears to have existed
in Scotland, and in the reign of James VI, too great a severity
was exhibited against such to permit them to avow themselves
publicly. In the reign of James VI, however, lived the celebrated
Alexander Seton of Port Seton near Edinburgh, known abroad
as The Cosmopolite, who is said to have succeeded in achieving
the transmutation of metals.
Magic and Religion in the Scottish Highlands
Pagan Scotland appears to have been lacking in benevolent
deities. Those representatives of the spirit world who were on
friendly terms with mankind were either held captive by magic
spells or had some sinister object in view which caused them to
act with the most plausible duplicity. The chief demon or deity
(one hesitates which to call her) was a one-eyed hag who had
tusks like a wild boar. She was referred to in folk tales as the
old wife (Cailleach), Grey Eyebrows, or the Yellow Muitearteach,
and reputed to be a great worker of spells. Apparently
she figured in a lost creation myth, for fragmentary accounts
survive of how she fashioned the hills, brought lochs
into existence, and caused whirlpools. Echoes of this boar-like
hag survive in folk ballads of Old Bangum and Sir Lionel
(Child No. 18), prefigured in ancient Hindu legends of the god
Vishnu as the giant boar Vahara.
The hag was a lover of darkness, desolations, and winter.
With her hammer she alternately splintered mountains, prevented
the growth of grass, and raised storms. Numerous wild
animals followed her, including deer, goats, and wild boars.
When one of her sons was thwarted in his love affairs by her,
he transformed her into a mountain boulder looking over the
sea, a form she retained during the summer. She was liberated
again on the approach of winter. During the spring months,
the hag drowned fishermen and preyed on the food supply; she
also stole children and roasted them in her cave.
Her progeny included a brood of monstrous giants, each
with several heads and arms. These were continually operating
against mankind, throwing down houses, abducting women,
and destroying growing crops. Heroes who fought against
them required the assistance of a witch who was called the
Wise Woman, from whom they obtained magic wands.
The witch of Scottish folk tales is the friend of man and
her profession was evidently regarded in ancient times as a
highly honorable one. Wizards also enjoyed high repute; they
were the witch-doctors, priests, and magicians of the Scottish
Pagans, and it was not until the sixteenth century that legal
steps were taken to suppress them in the Highland districts.
There seems to have been no sun-worship or moon-worship
in Scotland, for neither sun nor moon was individualized in the
Gaelic language; these bodies, however, were reputed to exercise
a magical influence. The moon especially was a Magic
Tank, from which supplies of power were drawn by those capable
of performing requisite ceremonies. This practice has
been revived by modern neo-pagan witches in the ritual referred
to as drawing down the moon.
But although there appear to have been no lunar or solar
spirits, there were numerous earth and water spirits. The
water wife, like the English mer wife, (see mermaids), was
a greatly dreaded being who greedily devoured victims. She
must not be confused with the banshee, that Fate whose chief
business it was to foretell disasters, either by washing bloodstained
garments or knocking on a certain boulder beside the
The water wife usually confronted a late traveler at a ford.
She claimed him as her own, and if he disputed her claim she
asked what weapons he had to use against her. The unwary one
named each in turn, and when he did so, the power to harm
her passed away. One story of this character is as follows
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The wife rose up against the smith who rode his horse, and
she said, I have you what have you against me My sword,
the man answered. I have that, she said, what else My
shield, the man said. I have that and you are mine. But, protested
the man, I have something else. What is that the water
wife demanded. To this question the cautious smith answered,
I have the long, grey, sharp thing at my thigh. This was his
dirk, and not having named it, he was able to make use of it.
As he spoke he flung his plaid round the water wife and lifted
her up on his horse behind him. Enclosed in the magic circle
she was powerless to harm him, and he rode home with her,
deaf to her entreaties and promises.
He took her to his smithy and tied her to the anvil. That
night, her brood came to release her. They raised a tempest
and tore the roof off the smithy, but the smith defied them.
When day dawned they had to retreat. Then he bargained with
the water wife, and she consented that if he would release her,
neither he nor any of his descendants should ever be drowned
in any three rivers he might name. He named three and received
her promise, but as she made her escape she reminded
him of a fourth river. It is mine still, she added. In that particular
river the smith himself ultimately perished.
Ever since, fishermen have not liked to name either the fish
they desire to procure or those that prey on their catches. Haddocks
are white bellies, salmon red ones, and the dog-fish
the big black fellow. It is also regarded as unlucky to name
a minister, or refer to Sunday, in a fishing boata fact that suggests
that in early Christian times fishermen might be pious
churchmen on land but continued to practice paganism when
they went to sea, like the Icelandic Norsemen who believed that
Christ ruled their island, and Thor the ocean. Fairies must not
be named on Fridays, at Halloween, or on Beltane (May Day)
when charm fires were lit.
Earth worship, or rather the propitiation of earth spirits,
was a prominent feature of Scottish paganism. There too magic
played a leading role. Compacts were confirmed by swearing
over a piece of turf, certain moors or mounds were set apart for
ceremonial practices, and these were visited for the performance
of child-procuring and other ceremonies, which were
performed at a standing stone.
In cases of sickness, a divination cake was baked and left at
a sacred place If it disappeared during the night, the patient
was supposed to recover, if it remained untouched until the following
morning it was believed that the patient would die.
Offerings were constantly made to the earth spirits. In a
witch trial recorded in Humbie Kirk Session Register (September
23, 1649) one Agnes Gourlay was accused of having made offerings
of milk, saying, God preserve us too; they are under the
earth that have as much need of it as they that are above the
The milk poured out upon the earth at magical ceremonies
was supposed to go to the fairies. Gruagach stones survived
into relatively modern times in the Highlands. These were flat
stones with deep cup marks. After a cow was milked, the
milker poured into a hole the portion of milk required by the
Gruagach, a long-haired spirit who is usually dressed like a
gentleman. If no offering was given to him, the cream would
not rise on the milk, or even if it did, the churning would be
a failure. There are interesting records in the Presbytery records
of Dingwall, Ross-shire, regarding the prevalence of milk
pouring and other ceremonies during the seventeenth century.
The seer was usually wrapped in the skin of a sacrificed bull
and left lying all night beside the river. He was visited by supernatural
beings in the darkness and obtained answers regarding
future events. Another and horrifying way to perform this divination
ceremony was to roast a live cat. The cat was turned on
a spit until the Big Cat (the devil) appeared and either granted
the wish of the performer of the ceremony, or foretold what
was to take place in answer to a query. In the twentieth century,
there are still memories of traditional beliefs regarding witchcraft,
fairies, the evil eye, second sight, and magical charms to
cure or injure.
Individuals, domesticated animals, and dwellings were
charmed against witchcraft by iron and certain herbs or berries.
The evil eye influence was dispelled by drinking water of silver
from a wooden bowl or ladle. The water was taken from
a river or well of high repute, silver placed in it, then a charm
repeated. When it had been passed over a fire, the victim was
given it to drink and what remained was sprinkled around the
hearth-stone with a ceremony that varied according to district.
Curative charms were handed down in families from a male
to a female and a female to a male. Blood-stopping charms
were regarded with great sanctity and the most persistent folklore
collectors were unable to obtain them from those who were
reported to be able to use these with effect.
Accounts were given of blood-stopping from a distance.
Although the possessor of the power usually had a traditional
charm, he or she rarely used it without also praying. Some
Highland doctors testified in private to the wonderful effects of
blood-stopping operations. In relatively recent times, a medical
officer of Inverness-shire stated in his official report to the
county council that he was watching with interest the operations
of Kings Evil Curers, who still enjoyed great repute in
the Western Isles. These were usually seventh sons.
Second sight, like the power to cure and stop blood, runs
in families. There is scarcely a parish in the Scottish Highlands
without a family in which one or more individuals are reputed
to have occult powers. Some had visions, either while awake or
asleep. Others heard ominous sounds on occasions and were
able to understand what they signified. Certain individuals confessed,
but with no appreciation of the faculty, that they were
sometimes able to foretell that a person was likely to die soon.
Two instances of this kind may be cited. A younger brother
caught a chill. When an elder brother visited him, he knew at
once that the young man would die soon, and communicated
a statement to that effect to a mutual friend. According to medical
opinion, the patient, who was not confined to bed, was in
no danger, but three months afterward, he developed serious
symptoms and died suddenly. When news of the death was
communicated to the elder brother, he had a temporary illness.
The same individual met a gentleman in a friends house
and had a similar experience; he felt, he could not explain
how, that this man was near death. On two occasions within the
following week he questioned the gentlemans daughter regarding
her fathers health and was informed that he was as
usual. The daughter was surprised at the inquiries. Two days
after this meeting, the gentleman in question expired suddenly
while sitting in his chair.
Again the individual, on hearing of the death, had a brief
but distressing illness, with symptoms usually associated with
shock. The mother of this man had a similar faculty. On several
occasions she saw lights. One day during the Boer War, an officer
passing her door bade her goodbye, since he had been ordered
to South Africa. She said, He will either be slain or come
back deformed, and turned ill immediately. A few months
later the officer was wounded in the lower jaw with a bullet and
returned home with his face much deformed.
The faculty of second sight manifests itself in various ways,
as these instances show, and evidence that it is possessed by individuals
may occur only once or twice in a lifetime. There are
cases, however, in which it is constantly active. Those reputed
to have the faculty are most reticent regarding it and appear
to dread it.
At the close of the nineteenth century, tow-charms to cure
sprains and bruises were sold in a well-known Highland town
by a woman who muttered a metrical spell over each magic
knot she tied as the afflicted part was treated by her. She had
numerous patients among all classes. Bone-setters (the precursors
of modern chiropractors) enjoyed high repute in some localities.
In modern memory a public presentation was made to
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. SCOTLAND
a Ross-shire bone-setter in recognition of his life-long services
to the community. His faculty was inherited from his forbears.
Numerous instances may be gleaned in the Highlands of the
appearance of the spirits of the living and the dead. The appearance
of the spirit of a living person is said to be a sure indication
of the approaching death of that individual. It is never
seen by a member of the family, but appears to intimate
friends. Sometimes it speaks and gives indication of the fate of
some other mutual acquaintance.
The Supernatural in Scottish Fiction
While Sir Walter Scott frequently introduced supernatural
traditions into his novels and poems, and writers like Robert
Louis Stevenson published powerful stories on occult subjects
(see fiction, English occult), the magical and supernatural stories
of the land go back to the ancient balladry of Scotland.
Many of the 305 ballads collected and classified by Francis
James Child (regarded as definitive in its time) echo ancient
stories and beliefs from a magical past. Some of these themes
seem to have descended from Scandinavian balladry.
From Folklore to Psychical Research
The study of Scottish occultism was begun by the collectors
of folklore. Among the earliest was the Reverend Robert Kirk,
whose The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, (written
in 1691, but not published until 1815) reads like an anthropologists
report on a foreign country. The work is precise in
its descriptions of fairy life and customs, and some believed that
Kirk himself became a prisoner of the fairies.
Among Scottish folklorists whose research preserved ancient
legends and magical traditions, the most prominent was
John Francis Campbell of Islay (18221885). His great collection,
Popular Tales of the West Highlands, Orally Collected (4 vols.,
186062), achieved for Scotland what Jacob Grimm had done
for the Household Tales of Europe. Alexander Carmichael
(18321912) collaborated with Campbell and preserved the ancient
Gaelic culture in his collection Carmina Gadelica, Hymns
and Incantations, With Illustrated Notes in Words, Rites, and Customs,
Dying and Obsolete, Orally Collected in the Highlands and Islands
of Scotland (2 vols., 1900).
The versatile genius Andrew Lang (18441912) published
over fifty major works concerned with poetry, book collecting,
classical studies, Scottish history, English literature, anthropology,
folklore, and fairy tales. Lang was a founder-member and
later president of both the Society for Psychical Research,
and the Folk-Lore Society. Lang was one of the earliest writers
on psychical research to collate modern phenomena with the
traditions and beliefs of ancient peoples, and his knowledge in
this wide field was encyclopedic. He noted, for example, in regard
to reports of crystal gazing that he found it difficult to understand
why as long as such things rested only on tradition,
they were a matter of respectable folklore, but whenever contemporary
evidence was produced, folklorists dropped the subject
In 1897, he published The Book of Dreams and Ghosts, in
which he collated stories from all ages dealing with the whole
field of the supernatural, including uncanny dreams, hauntings,
bilocation, crystal gazing, animal ghosts, and poltergeists.
His classic study, Cock Lane and Common-Sense (1894), reviewed
ancient spirit contact, haunted houses, the famous Cock Lane
poltergeist of London in 1762, apparitions, ghosts, hallucinations,
second sight, table-turning, and comparative psychical
In Scotland, the study of parapsychology has become a degree-bestowing
science. Noted writer and critic Arthur Koestler
provided in his will the establishment of an endowed Chair
of Parapsychology at a British University. His intention was to
further objective scientific research into . . .the capacity attributed
to some individuals to interact with their environment by
means other than the recognised sensory and motor channels.
Following Koestlers death in 1982, his trustees advertised the
post and in 1984 awarded the Chair to the University of Edinburgh.
Today, The University of Edinburghs Koestler Parapsychology
Unit, a part of the Department of Psychology, offers
a doctorate program in parapsychology and publishes the
European Journal of Parapsychology. Similarly, St. Andrews
University has also offered courses in parapsychology.
Scotland remains famous for its ghost tales and haunted
dwellings, with the natives proud to quip that ghostly spirits
are second only to the drinkable kind in the hearts of Highlanders.
Cities such as Edinburgh offer organized ghost walks
and haunted tours through selected castles and ancient hotels.
Ghostly notoriety is shared among spectors of famous as well
as common folk, male and female, young and old. It is the spirit
of Mary Queen of Scots that seems to be the most prevalent
among Highland haunters. The queens spiritual presence has
reportedly appeared in nearly every castle she visited during
her life. In addition to ghost tours for mortal visitors to Scotland,
interested parties can learn more about Scottish hauntings
at web sites devoted to the subject, as well as the bimonthly
magazine, Haunted Scotland.
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Bliss, Douglas Percy, ed. The Devil in Scotland. London Alexander
Bronson, Bertrand Harris. The Traditional Tunes of the Child
Ballads. 4 vols. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press,
Campbell, John F. Popular Tales of the West Highlands, Orally
Collected. 4 vols. Edinburgh, 186062. Rev. ed. London and
Paisley Alexander Gardner, 189093. Reprint, Detroit Singing
Tree Press, 1969.
Campbell, John L., and Trevor H. Hall. Strange Things The
Story of Fr. Allan McDonald, Ada Goodrich Freer, and the Society for
Psychical Researchs Enquiry into Highland Second Sight. London
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968.
Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelica, Hymns and Incantations.
2 vols. 1900. 2nd ed. 5 vols. Edinburgh & London,
Chambers, Robert. Traditions of Edinburgh. N.p., 1825.
Child, Francis J. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 5
vols. Boston, 188298. Reprint, Folklore Press; Pageant Book,
Davidson, Thomas. Rowan Tree and Red Thread. Edinburgh
Oliver and Boyd, 1949.
Ferguson, John. Witchcraft Literature of Scotland. Edinburgh
Edinburgh Bibliographical Society Papers, 1899.
Ghosts of Scotland. httpwww.tartans.comarticlesghostwomen.html.
June 19, 2000.
James I. Daemonologie. Edinburgh, 1597. Reprint, London,
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Kirk, Robert. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and
Fairies. Edinburgh, 1815. Reprint, Stirling, Scotland Eaneas
Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the Department of Psychology,
University of Edinburgh, Scotland, U.K. http
moebius.psy.ed.ac.uk. June 19, 2000.
Lang, Andrew. The Book of Dreams and Ghosts. London, 1897.
Reprint, New York Causeway Books, 1974. Lowry, Betty.
Scotlands Lady Ghost Scream in Shades of Gray and Green.
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Macgregor, Alexander. Highland Superstitions Connected with
the Druids, Fairies, Witchcraft, Second-Sight, Halloween, Sacred
Wells and Lochs. Stirling, Scotland Eaneas Mackay, 1922.
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Eaneas Mackay, 1935.
Maclagan, Robert Craig. The Evil Eye in the Western Highlands.
London David Nutt, 1902. Reprint, U.K. E. P. Publishing,
1972. Reprint, Norwood, Pa. Norwood Editions, 1973.
MacLeod, Nicholas A. Scottish Witchcraft. St. Ives, England
James Pike, 1975.
Macrae, Norman, ed. Highland Second-Sight With Prophecies
of Conneach Odhar of Petty. Dingwall, Scotland G. Souter, 1908.
Reprint, Norwood, Pa., 1972.
McNeill. F. Marian. Scottish Folklore and Folk-Belief. Glasgow
William Maclellan, 1957.
Scott, Sir Walter. Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. London,
1830. Reprint, New York, 1831.
Sharpe, Charles Kirkpatrick. Historical Account of the Belief in
Witchcraft in Scotland. N.p., 1819.
Sinclair, George. Satans Invisible World Discovered. Edinburgh,
1685. Reprint, Edinburgh Thomas G. Stevenson, 1865.
Sutherland, Elizabeth. Ravens and Black Rain The Story of
Highland Second Sight. London Constable, 1986.
Thompson, Francis. The Supernatural Highlands. London
Robert Hale, 1976.