Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders/Chapter 3

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HE Borderland is peculiarly rich in ways and means for getting a peep into futurity, especially as regards the all-important point of the future partner in wedded life. Some of these may be practised at any time, but most are restricted to All-Hallowe’en, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and Beltane or Midsummer Eve.

The following rite seems of the former class. Let a youth or maiden pull from its stalk the flower of the “horse-knot,” or centaurea nigra, cut the tops of the stamens with a pair of scissors, and lay the flower by in a secret place, where no human eye can see it. Let him think through the day, and dream through the night, of his sweetheart, and then, on looking at it the next day, if he find the stamens shot out to their former height, success will attend him in love; if not, he can only expect disappointment.[1]

The next rite, however, is restricted to the above-named eves. Let a Border maiden take three pails full of water, and place them on her bedroom floor; then pin to her night-dress, opposite to her heart, three leaves of green holly, and so retire to rest. She will be roused from her first sleep by three yells, as if from the throats of three bears; as these sounds die away they will be succeeded by as many horse-laughs, after which the form of her future husband will appear. If he is deeply attached to her, he will change the position of the water pails; if not, he will pass out of the room without touching them. Tradition tells how, on one occasion, the lover who had been thus invoked, while moving the pails of water, let fall a rope with a noose at the end, which the young woman took up the next morning and laid in her press. She was married soon afterwards to the man whose form she had beheld, but within a fortnight of the marriage he hung himself with that very rope in a fit of intoxication.

The use of holly in this form of divination recalls a somewhat different use made of it in Northumberland. We hear there of he-holly and she-holly, according as it is with or without prickles, and the leaves of the she-holly are alone deemed proper for divination. These “smooth and unarmed” leaves, as Southey calls them, must be plucked, late on a Friday, by persons careful to preserve an unbroken silence from the time they go out to the next morning’s dawn. The leaves must be collected in a three-cornered handkerchief, and on being brought home nine of them must be selected, tied with nine knots into the handkerchief, and placed beneath the pillow. Dreams worthy of all credit will attend this rite, though, if the old rhyme be trustworthy, so would be any dream dreamt on that night and repeated the next day; for—

A Friday night’s dream on a Saturday told,
Is sure to come true if it’s ever so old.[2]

Compare this with the analogous south-country charm which prevails, or has prevailed, from Sussex to Devonshire. A damsel must pluck some yarrow (millefolium) from a young man’s grave, repeating these words:

Yarrow, sweet yarrow, the first that I have found,
In the name of Jesus Christ I pluck it from the ground.
As Joseph loved sweet Mary, and took her for his dear,
So in a dream this night, I hope, my true love will appear.

She must then sleep with the yarrow under her pillow.

On All Hallowe’en or New Year’s Eve a Border maiden may wash her sark, and hang it over a chair to dry, taking care to tell no one what she is about. If she lie awake long enough, she will see the form of her future spouse enter the room and turn the sark. We are told of one young girl who, after fulfilling this rite, looked out of bed and saw a coffin behind the sark; it remained visible for some time and then disappeared. The girl rose up in agony and told her family what had occurred, and the next morning she heard of her lover’s death. In another instance the young woman is said to have seen her lover at first, but his image quickly vanished, and was replaced by a coffin; she was shortly afterwards married to the man, but he soon died and left her a widow. I have heard of precisely the same practice in Ireland, and in the county of Sussex, where it seems to have been prevalent. I am told of one instance there in which a very tall man in black came in, turned the sark, and walked out again.

In Norfolk, this piece of divination was connected with St. Mark’s or St. Agnes’ Eve. It was resorted to some years ago by the servant of a house on Yarmouth Quay. She opened the doors and sat in silence to see the spectre enter, turn the shift, and go out again; but a sailor from one of the vessels on the Quay learned what was going on, came in, tore the shift away, and vanished, to her no small alarm; and the first thing which attracted her sight the next morning was her shift hanging up on the mast of one of the vessels. A variation of the rite is prescribed in a pamphlet, which appears to have had a wide circulation among the lower orders of our country generally. It is called The Universal Fortune Teller; being sure and certain directions for discovering the secrets of Futurity. The printer’s name is wanting, or has been obliterated, but it bears the date of Monmouth Court, Seven Dials. Oddly enough, the copy in my possession dropped from the pocket of a chorister on leaving Exeter College Chapel, Oxford, and was sent to me by one of the Fellows who picked it up. It prescribes the following charm for gaining sight of a future husband.

On Midsummer Eve, just at sunset, three, five, or seven young women are to go into a garden in which there is no other person, and each gather a sprig of red sage. Then going into a room by themselves, they must set a stool in the middle of the room, and on it a clean basin full of rose-water, into which the sprigs of sage are to be put. Lastly; tying a line across the room, each girl is to hang on it a clean shift, turned the wrong side outwards, and then all are to sit down in a row on the opposite side of the stool, as far off as may be, not speaking all the time, whatever they may see. Just after midnight the future husband of each one will take her sprig out of the water, and sprinkle her shift with it.

The same authority prescribes another mode of procedure. A young woman must sleep in a county different from that in which she usually resides, and, on going to bed, must knit the left garter about the right stocking, rehearsing the following verses, and at every comma knitting a knot:

This knot I knit,
To know the thing I know not yet,
That I may see,
The man that shall my husband be,
How he goes, and what he wears,
And what he does all days and years.

Accordingly, in a dream, he will appear with the insignia of his trade or profession.

Another mode of divination is by the willow wand. Let a maiden take a willow branch in her left hand, and, without being observed, slip out of the house and run three times round it, whispering all the time, “He that’s to be my gude man come and grip the end o’t.” During the third run, the likeness of her future husband will appear and grasp the other end of the wand, A sword is sometimes used instead of a wand, but, in this case, it must be held in the right hand.

This spell somewhat resembles one by which German girls ascertain the colour of their future husband’s hair. They call it hair-snatching, and practise it thus. Between the hours of eleven and twelve at night, on St. Andrew’s Eve, a maiden must stand at the house-door, take hold of the latch, and say three times “Gentle love, if thou lovest me, show thyself.” She must then quickly open the door wide enough to put out her hand, and make a rapid grasp out in the dark, and she will find in her hand a lock of her future husband’s hair.[3] Belgian girls, who desire to see their husbands in a dream, lay their garters crosswise at the foot of the bed, and a looking-glass under their pillow; in this glass the image of their future husband will appear.[4]

A story is told in the Wilkie MS. of a young woman who, on waking one New Year’s morning, found a sword lying at her bedside. Imagining that it had been used in the divinations of the previous evening, and carried away from its owner by some spirit who had been too rashly invoked, she took it up, and locked it in her chest. Those who find these swords or divining-rods do this, lest the spirits make them a means of temptation; at the same time, those who lose them are always restless till they can recover them. The young woman was afterwards married to a gentleman’s servant, and in course of time became a mother. One day, soon after her infant’s birth, she gave her husband the key of her chest, and begged him to give her some articles of clothing from it; he opened the chest, beheld the sword, recognised it as his own, seized it, and exclaiming, “This is my sword which has troubled me so long!” transfixed himself with it on the spot, to the consternation and horror of his poor wife.

The sowing of hemp-seed on All Hallowe’en, with a hope that the future husband or wife will appear to reap it, is a well-known Scottish observance. Burns describes how, in spite of Auld Grannie’s warnings,

Up gat fechtin Jamie Fleck,
And he swoor by his conscience,
That he could saw hemp-seed a peck,
For it was a’ but nonsense.

So the gudeman brought down the pock and gied him out a handful, and Jamie slipped away into the rick-yard,

And every now and then he says,
Hemp-seed I saw thee;
And her that is to be my lass
Come after me and draw thee
As fast this night.

Nothing however seems to have come of it but an encounter with “grumphie” and the overthrow of the hero. I learn with surprise from Mr. H. Denny that this rite was practised as far south as Norfolk. St. Martin’s night was the proper occasion for it, and he calls it a well-known custom. “I remember,” he writes, “a young girl who was staying at my mother’s house about fifty years since who wished to go through the ceremony a few minutes before 12 P.M. She accordingly went downstairs into the kitchen followed by me. In the centre was a round table, and around this she was to go at midnight with hempseed, repeating as she scattered her seed,

Hemp-seed I sow, hemp-seed I grow,
If you be my true love come after me and mow.

If the person intended to be evoked was to be the husband, he would appear behind the sower with a scythe in his hand to mow, and the sower must escape before the scythe reaches her, else some accident will happen. I remember as well as if it were only last night, just as I came downstairs in my night-clothes, the young woman came rushing upstairs in a great fright, and never did I get over the ground so quickly in my life as I did when I followed her. She thought she saw a figure coming after her.”

A new-laid egg offers another means of diving into futurity. On New Year’s Eve, perforate with a pin the small end of the egg, and let three drops of the white fall into a basin of water. They will diffuse themselves on the surface into fantastic shapes of trees, &c. From these the initiated will augur the fortunes of the egg-dropper, the character of his wife, number of his children, and so forth. This is still practised in Denmark, where also, as a variety, the girls will melt lead on New Year’s Eve, and, pouring it into water, observe the next morning what form it has assumed. If it resembles a pair of scissors, she will inevitably marry a tailor; if a hammer, her husband will be a smith, and so on.

A Yorkshire schoolmaster tells me the following tale of fortune-telling in that county. He learnt it from the wife of an intimate friend, and gives it in her words: “My sister and I made it up one day to go to the fortune-telling woman, so we went the next Sunday afternoon, and found a good many young men and women there for the same purpose. When my turn came to go into the room (for each person was let in alone) the old creature bid me get into bed and then gave me something like a hen’s egg made of glass. She covered me over with the bed-clothes and told me to look in the glass. Presently she asked me whether I saw anything. I said no, for there was nothing to be seen; but directly a light seemed to break out in the glass and I saw a row of three houses with a kind of shed at one end, and in a moment a man came out of the house next the shed, went past the other houses, and disappeared down a road. I noticed that he wore a blue coat and yellow buttons. Some three months afterwards my sister and I came here on a visit to an old friend of my father’s; we had never been here before. On our first Sunday morning here we took a walk out of the village, and as we were returning I noticed a man coming out of a house. I seemed to know the place quite well, though I had never been there before. All at once I knew it was what I had seen in the glass egg—three houses, a shed, blue coat and brass buttons. I pulled my sister’s arm and said, ‘That’s my husband,’ while he turned down a road and walked out of our sight. We walked straight to our friend’s house, and there we found the very man we had been talking about. He turned out to be a member of the same congregation as our friend, so we all went to chapel together, and in three months from that day I was married.”

The maidens in Durham have their own way of testing their lovers’ fidelity. They will take an apple-pip, and, naming the lover, put the pip in the fire. If it makes a noise as it bursts with the heat, she is assured of his affection; if it burns away silently, she will be convinced that he has no true regard for her.

As to wishing, we have wishing-chairs here and there through the country. There is one at Finchale Priory, near Durham; and he who seats himself in it, breathes a wish, and tells no one what it is, will receive it. But there is an easier mode of gaining what one desires. If you see a horseshoe, or piece of old iron, on your path, take it up, spit on it, and throw it over your left shoulder, framing your wish at the same time; keep the wish secret, and you will have it in time. Or, on meeting a piebald horse, utter your wish, and whatever it may be you will have it before the week is out.

In Cleveland, girls will resort to the following way of divining whether they will be married or no. Take a tumbler of “south running water,” that is, water from a stream which flows southwards; borrow the wedding-ring of some gudewife, and suspend it by a hair of one’s head over the glass of water, holding the hair between the finger and thumb. If the ring hit against the side of the glass the holder of it will die an old maid; if it turn quickly round she will be married once—if slowly, twice. This is practised in Durham “with a difference.” A shilling is used instead of a ring, the hair is held between the first finger of each hand, joined vertically, and the name of the person beloved is pronounced. If the coin strikes three times against the rim of the tumbler, marriage is to ensue. If more frequently there will be a lengthy courtship and nothing more; if less frequently the affair will be broken off, and if there is no striking at all it will never come on. I have heard of this as far south as Sussex.

One of my correspondents writes thus respecting the practice of different arts of divination: “Six-and-thirty years ago divination certainly used to be practised in the North of England by servants in two or three ways, which have come under my notice. A nurse more than once told my fortune by palmistry. Nor was this mere amusement; she thought it would come true; and, however arbitrary the science might be, she had a uniform way of explaining similar lines in different hands. Thus if I remember rightly the line round the thumb had to do with money. If deep and well defined, riches were denoted; if slight and delicate, a moderate estate. If cut by other lines, heavy losses were indicated; if it was broken before it ran into the transverse line of the palm, ruin was shadowed forth. Of course there was a marriage line somewhere telling whether the lady was dark or fair, and another which prophesied the extent of her dower. The nurse used to speak of all this as if she much more than half-believed in her own predictions.” The Universal Fortune Teller, still an authority in the North of England, is however fuller and more definite on this point. After dilating on the importance of the matter, the amount of knowledge to be gained, and its absolute certainty and truth, we read as follows:—

“There are five principal lines in the hand, viz.
“The Line of Life,
“The Line of Death,
“The Table Line,
“The Girdle of Venus,
“The Line of Fortune,
besides the Line of Saturn, the Liver Line, and some others which only serve to explain the principal Lines.

“The chief line on which the greatest stress is laid is the Line of Life, which generally takes its rise where the thumb-joint plays with the wrist on the inside, and runs in an oblique direction to the innermost joint of the little finger. If this line is crossed by other lines at or near the wrist, the person will meet with sickness in the beginning of life, and the degree of sickness will be proportioned to the size, length, and breadth of the intervening lines. If the Line of Life runs far and uninterrupted, the person will enjoy good health; and according to its length towards the outside of the forefinger you may judge if the person will live long, as the longer the line the longer the life.

“The next is the Line of Death, which separates the fleshy part of the hand, on the little-finger side, from the hollow of the hand, running in various directions in different people. If the Line of Death be short and runs even without being broken or divided, it shows that the person will enjoy length of days and not be subject to many maladies, but if it be interrupted it evidently shows that the person’s life will be endangered by illness. If this line ends abruptly and with a broad point, it shows that the person will die suddenly; if it goes off in a tapering point, the last illness will be slow and consuming by degrees. If other lines run across it, the person will be of a weakly and infirm habit of body, often incapable of following any hard or laborious business.

“The Table Line originates with the Line of Life at the wrist, and runs through the hollow of the hand towards the middle finger. If broad and fair without being broken, it is a sure sign of a happy and comfortable life; if narrow and contracted, it is a sign of poverty and crosses in the world.

“The Girdle of Venus takes its course from the extremity of the innermost joint of the little finger, and forming a curve terminates between the fore and middle fingers.

“The Line of Fortune strikes from behind the ball or mount of the forefinger, across the palm or Line of Life, and loses itself in or near the fleshy part of the hand on the little-finger side. If it runs smooth, broad, and clear, the person will enjoy affluence through life and be prosperous in all his undertakings.

“The ball of the thumb is called the Mount of Venus, and there are lines in the fleshy parts around it which are governed by the various planets; the hollow of the hand is called the Place of Mars.

“Always observe to choose the left hand, because the heart and brain have more influence over it than the right hand.”

  1. In Berwickshire a similar divination is practised by means of “kemps,” i. e. spikes of the ribwort plantain. Two spikes must be taken in full bloom, and, being bereft of every appearance of blow, they are wrapped in a dock-leaf and laid beneath a stone. One represents the lad, the other the lass. If next morning the spikes appear in blossom then there will be “aye love between them twae.” The same rite has been practised in Northamptonshire. Witness the following lines from Clare’s Shepherd’s Calendar:

    Or, trying simple charms and spells,
    Which rural superstition tells,
    They pull the little blossom threads
    From out the knotweed’s button-heads,
    And put the husk with many a smile
    In their white bosoms for a while.
    Then if they guess aright the swain
    Their love’s sweet fancies try to gain,
    ’Tis said that ere it lies an hour
    ’Twill blossom with a second flower,
    And from the bosom’s handkerchief
    Bloom, as it ne’er had lost a leaf.

  2. Local Historian’s Table Book, vol. iii. p. 254.
  3. Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. iii. p. 145.
  4. Ibid. p. 273.