The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 7/The Witch

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Safeguards against the Witch.[1]

(A) Cows.

CROSSES made of "rawn-tree" (rowan, mountain ash) were placed over the doors of all the houses of a farm on Lammas day (August 1st, O.S.) at noon. This ceremony had to be gone through by the one that did it without the knowledge of any one, and without the utterance of a word to any one that might be met. (Tyrie.) In Strathdon pieces of "rawn-tree" were put into every byre on the Reed day"—Rood day—(May 2nd, O.S.) by the goodman after sunset. This had to be done in secret.

Pieces of it were placed over the stable door to prevent the witches from entering to take out the horses for their midnight rides. (Strathdon, Corgarff.)

On Beltane eve a cross made of rowan tied with red thread was placed in each opening in the walls of the byre. Next morning the crosses were tied to the tails of the animals when they were driven to the grazing grounds on the hills, and each "hird" received a rowan wand to drive them. My informant told me that on one occasion when the "hirds" were driving home. their cattle they were obliged to leave a weakly one behind them. After housing the animals the "hird" to whose care the animal was committed set out to bring it home. An old man called him back, gave him a rowan club with a cross cut on the end of it, and told him everything would now go well. (J. Farquharson, Corgarff.)

To save a newly-calved cow from the power of the witch:—

(A) The apron of a married woman who was a mother was placed for a short time over the horns or head of the cow, and a "seal," i.e. a binding, was tied round her neck. This "seal" was allowed to remain round her neck for some weeks. The first draught of water that was given her was warm, and into it was thrown a live coal. (Corgarff.)

(B) Some made it a practice to cut off a little of the hair of the cow's tail just as she was going out through the door for the first time after calving. (Pitsligo.)

(C) Others put both salt and a shilling into the milkin' cog the first time the cow was milked after dropping the calf. (Pitsligo.)

(D) To keep away the evil influence of the witch in butter-making, some had the habit of putting salt on the lid of the churn round the hole through which the stalk of the "plumper" passed. This was done in Pitsligo by a farmer's wife who died some years ago.

(B) Horses.

When a mare was taken from the stable the first time after foaling, a rowan cross was tied with red thread to her tail. My informant, J. Farquharson, has seen mares ploughing carrying such crosses. (Corgarff.)

A horse would not have been put into an open shed over night lest witches might come and take him for their dark purposes. If necessity compelled a horse to be left in such a house over night, a cross of rowan tied with red thread was tied to the animal's tail. (Corgarff.)

Mr., Corgarff, bought a horse, and when the servant brought the animal home he tied him up in the shed, as there was no room for him in the stable. 'Tahr (where) ha'e ye pitten (put) him?' said the farmer to the servant. "I' the shed," was the answer. "He winna (will not) need t' be there a' nicht," rejoined the farmer. The animal was accordingly taken to the stable of a neighbouring farmer.

(C) Man.

If one gets the "first word" of a witch, or of one having an "ill fit," or any supernatural being bent on evil, all power to injure is taken away. J— R—, a farmer in Strathdon, was returning home one wild stormy night in winter. When he came to a place called Dabrossach, he saw a creature that looked like a child cross the road in front of him. He at once cried out, "Peer (poor) thing! Ye're far fae hame in sic a stormy nicht." The creature disappeared. The farmer was convinced that mischief was intended to be done to him. (Told by Mr. Michie, Strathdon.)

Take a silver pin, conceal it between the finger and thumb of the left hand, contrive in some way to meet the witch in the morning "atween the sin (sun) an the sky," pass her on the right side, in passing draw blood from above the eyes with the pin; keep the pin covered with the blood, and the witch has no power over you. (J. Farquharson, Corgarff.)


How to find out the Witch.

1. Put a quantity of new pins into a pot, and as much of the milk of the cow which is under the spell as can be drawn from her over the pins. Place the pot with its contents over the fire, and let them simmer, but not boil. The one that has wrought the evil, if an opportunity can be snatched, will go to the house and take the pot off the fire. (Peathill, Pitsligo.)

2. When a cow's milk failed, and the work of a witch was suspected, a pair of the "gueedeman's breeks" was put over the cow's horns. She then made straight for the house of the witch and lowed at the door. (Strathdon.)


Modes of undoing her Work.

1. Mrs. Michie, Coull of Newe, Strathdon, began one day to make butter, but no butter could she get, though she churned from three o'clock in the afternoon till late at night. The cream was given to the pigs, but they turned away from it. On three separate occasions the same thing took place. Something was judged to be far wrong. Peter Smith, a man of skill, that lived in the adjoining parish of Towie, was sent for. He was fond of a glass of whisky, and on his arrival he was treated to one and a little more. So refreshed, he said, "Noo (now), a'm (I am) fit for wark (work)." He asked if there was any myrrh in the house. There was not. My informant, Mr. W. Michie, the present farmer, then a boy, was sent to the gardens of Castle Newe—not far distant—in search of the herb. He got a small quantity. The "skeely man" examined it, smelt it, and said, "There's nae muckle o't, bit (but) its gueede (good)." He then ordered a large copper to be placed over the fire and half filled with water. He put the myrrh and some ingredients he took from his pocket into the copper. He sat down and watched the mixture boiling for about three hours. The copper was then removed from the fire, and the mixture was allowed to cool. When it was cooled, a bottleful of it was given not only to each cow, but to each of the cattle on the farm. A small stream, or "burn," runs alongside the farm. He asked Mrs. Michie to go to it and to gather from it a quantity of "water-ryack" and to place it over the door of the cowbyre. He gave instructions that if there was any difficulty (which there might be) in the butter -making when the cream was next churned, a little rennet should be put into the churn. He asserted there would be no difficulty again.

Mrs. Michie asked Peter if he knew who had wrought the mischief. He said he did, but he refused to tell her as "it wid (would) only cause dispeace amon' neebours (neighbours)."

He was in the habit of saying that he had got the secret from his wife before she died, and that he could give it before he died to a woman. It was the common belief with regard to these occult powers that they could only be given just before death to one of the opposite sex. (Told by Mr. Michie.)

2. H— S—, Peathill, Pitsligo, when a girl, was one morning churning butter. A woman that lived close by, and was noted for her uncanny powers, came in at the time. On entering, her eye caught the cotton curtains of the bed, and she made the remark, "Eh! Sic a bonnie print." She then cast a quick glance on the churn, and, without speaking another word, rushed from the house. The cream was churned all that day, into night, and all next day, but no butter was got. The cream did only "ramp," i.e. rise in froth. Several churnings were tried as the cream was collected, but there was the same result. A man noted for his skill, who went by the nickname of "Sautie," was sent for. He came. After hearing all the facts of the case, he got a three-girded cog and a half-crown. With these he went to the well from which the family drew the supply of water, and went through some ceremonies. He returned, and went to the byre and performed some other ceremonies with the cow, which my informant unluckily could not describe. He ordered the "gueedewife" to get every morning from a neighbouring farmer's wife a mutchkin (an imperial pint) of newly-drawn milk and "sey" it amongst her own cow's till she was put forth to grass, for the thing took place in the early part of the year not long after the cow had dropped her calf. When the animal was put to grass, the "seal" or binding that bound her to the stall had to be fastened or tied as when round her neck every time she was driven forth to graze. (Told by H— S—.)

3. In the houses of the common people up to a period not Yery far back the couples were placed on upright posts fixed in the ground, and built into the walls. These upright posts were called in Corgarff "couple-reets," i.e. couple-roots. In many if not almost in all houses one of the couples was made of rowan-tree.

When a cow's milk was taken away, "the canny woman" of the district was called in. On her arrival slie took the "milkin' cog" and seated herself beside the "rawn-tree couple-reet," in the attitude of milking a cow. She got a knife, and with it cut three holes in the "couple-reet." Into these three holes she inserted three small pieces of wood, not necessarily of rowan; the first one in the name of the Father, the second in the name of the Son, and the third in the name of the Holy Ghost. She then drew each piece of wood three times, as if she had been milking a cow. She next went to the cow, and drew each of the cow's paps three times; the first in the name of the Father, the second time in the name of the Son, and the third time in the name of the Holy Ghost. The paps were drawn gently, so as not to bring milk from them. The next thing she did was to kindle "need fire," put it into an old shoe and burn it below the cow, and repeat the words, "May the Almichty smoke the witch in hell as T am smokin' the coo." She then poured some holy water on the beast's back and rubbed it along the backbone from head to tail. This was done three times, with the repetition of some words my informant could not give. Last of all she sat down and milked the cow. (J. Farquharson, Corgarff.)

The animal was measured by spanning. The spanning began at the point of the nose, was carried up the face, and along the backbone and tail. Whatever part of the tail was over a full span was cut off. A draught of water off a shilling was given. (Granton-on-Spey.)


Some of her Deeds.

1. A fisherman in Portmahomack had played false with a young woman. Her mother resolved to be avenged of him. He had occasion to sail with some other fishermen to a port at some distance. The mother and daughter went to a hollow between two high headlands round which the boat had to sail. They carried with them a tub and a "cog." Both took their station in the hollow within sight of the sea. The tub was filled with water. After waiting for such a time as was thought necessary for the boat to come round the first headland and get under the hollow, the mother asked her daughter to go to look if the boat had rounded the headland. The young woman did so, but came in a short time running back with the news that the boat was floating keel uppermost and with the men clinging to it. The mother was standing beside the tub with the cog in it bottom up. The men were rescued. The man who had been the cause of the mishap came to know that it was his forsaken lady-love and her mother that had caused the disaster, and he resolved to protect himself from the power of the offended mother. He, accordingly, watched his opportunity, fell upon her, and drew blood from her "abeen the breath," i.e. he cut her in the forehead in the form of a cross. The man was punished for assault, and the woman ever after wore a black band round her forehead. (Told by one who knew the man and has often seen the woman.)

2. A mole "abeen the breath" in a woman shows she is a witch.

G. Scott's father, who was a servant on the farm of Tillywharn, Aberdour, lived in a house near the farmhouse and steading. He had to be removed from that house, as it was inconveniently placed for the farmhouse. To make room for him, a woman who lived on the farm in another house, to which a small croft of a few acres was attached, had to be removed. She had "a mole abeen the breath," and much woe did she work to the man who displaced her from her home. Within a short time she by her power killed four cows belonging to him one after the other, as he bought them. Two of the animals he did not see die, but found them dead when he entered the byre in the morning. "He never got abeen't" (above it), as his son, now an old man, said to me in telling the story.

3. The Laird of Skellater^s Witch.

The old Laird of Skellater (Corgarff) had a witch that gave him help in his difficulties On one occasion he laid a wager with a neighbouring laird that his reapers would beat his by a long way at "shearing," i.e. cutting the crop with the sickle. The day of trial was fixed, and the reapers began. Skellater's reapers were soon left far behind. Old Janet appeared on the field and took the place of one of Skellater's reapers in the "kemp" (contest). Before she began work she turned three times round against the course of the sun, crying out, "Black nickie, you and me; and di'd tack the hinmost." The laird whose reapers were foremost in the "kemp " was standing behind them with his ^ace turned towards the sun. The devil in passing caught his shadow instead of himself, and he was ever after shadowless.

4. The Witch of Badachallach; or Jeanie Marae Alise.

(A) This woman, famed as a witch, was one day during a year of great scarcity passing a neighbouring farm. She observed the ploughman lying on the ground behind the plough. Going to him she asked what was the matter with him. He told her he was unable to stand from want of "meat," i.e. food. "Oh! peer (poor) man," said she, "I'll gee (give) you meat." So saying, she sat down, gathered together her apron as if in the form of a "milking cog," and repeated the words: "Froh (froth), milk, froh, milk, black stick, you an me, froh, milk." She then bade the man bring her a handful of mould from between the coulter and the sock. The man did as he was bidden. She took the mould from him, and dropped it slowly from her hand into her apron among the "froh milk." She gave the man the dish, apparently so prepared, for "meat." (Corgarff.)

(B) During another bad year a man was ploughing near a birch wood in the neighbourhood of the witch's house. He saw a fine roe grazing in the wood. He hurried home for his gun, and stalked the animal very carefully till within range. On looking up to take aim he saw no roe, but Jeanie gathering the dew into her apron.

(C) a farmer had for several evenings noticed a fine fat hare eating his briard. On more than one occasion he had shot at the animal but without hitting her. One evening he loaded his gun with a sixpence having a cross on it. He fired, the shot took effect, away rushed the hare, and disappeared down the "lum" (wooden chimney) of Jeanie's house. The farmer entered the house and found Jeanie on bed. "Ye've got sehr hips the nioht, Jeanie," said he. "Aye," answered she; "bit (but) your wife 'ill ha'e sehrer, or she get quit o' faht ye ga'e 'er." The wife died in childbed.

(D) On one occasion she paid a visit to a farmer, a great friend of hers. He had a son in bad health. A cow was ill and almost at the point of death at the same time. About midnight Jeanie heard a voice calling, "Will I tack the coo or Duncan?" (the son). "The coo, the coo, an leave Duncan," answered she. Next morning Duncan was restored to health, and the cow was dead.

(E) Jeanie's house caught fire one day when she was from home. Some neighbours were doing their best to save the house when the old woman arrived. She at once went into the smoke, crying, "If a'm yours, give me three puffs an three blaws, an in the diel's name oot it goes."

(F) She was passing a house after a heavy rain and whilst it was raining heavily. The river Don was in high flood. The gueedewife and children were standing in the door "greeting sehr" (crying bitterly). "Faht ails you?" quo' Jeanie. "See my peer man (husband) gan (going) to wide (wade) the wattir, an he'll be droont," said the weeping wife. "Gee me yer corn-riddle," quo' the witch, "an I'll tack 'im ower." The corn-riddle was brought and given to her. She launched it, stepped on it, and reached the middle of the stream without any mishap. When in mid -stream the riddle began to shake, and toss, and whirl to such a degree that it looked as if it would upset. The man saw what he thought the danger, and cried out, "God save you, Jeanie." In a moment Jeanie disappeared with the riddle and was never seen again.

(g) Jeanie had a son. He was a glutton and had a liking for milk. If a gueedewife refused to give milk when he asked it, her cows yielded little or no milk for the season. My informant assures me many firmly believed this. (Corgarff.)

5.—(A) L— D— had the reputation of being a witch. On several occasions J— F—, of P—, observed a hare in his garden. He tried to shoot the animal at three separate times, but to no purpose. He tried it a fourth time, loaded his gun with a sixpence, took aim, and fired. The shot took effect, and away limped the wounded hare and escaped. The witch when she next appeared was lame, and walking by the help of a stick, which she was obliged to use ever after on account of her lameness.

(B) One day she asked money from the man who had wounded her when in hare-shape. He was afraid to refuse her, and gave a half-crown piece. It was his usual assertion, on speaking of the matter, that he never "waart" (spent) money to better purpose, for whatever he took in hand afterwards throve beyond expectation. He tried to keep her favour by giving her year by year "a fraucht o' peats," i.e. two cart-loads of peats, to keep her warm during winter.

(C) One day she went into a house, and, seeing curds prepared for making cheese, she asked for a little. The gueedewife for some reason or other refused the request. Lizzie left the house in no kindly humour. The gueedewife in the doing of her work had shortly after to go outside for a little. She left the door standing open, the dog entered the house and ate the curds. Said the gueedewife, "A miclit as weel ha'e geen (given) some o' them t' Lizzie, as latten (let) the dog eht (eat) them."

(D) On another day she went into a house and begged for a little butter. The request was refused. Next time the cows were milked they gave no milk, nor did they give milk till Lizzie's favour was gained by a present, and so she would allow the cows to give their milk. My informant, Mr. Wm. Michie, farmer, Coull of Newe, Strathdon, knew the woman. (Strathdon.)

  1. See Folkore of the North-East of Scotland, pp. 71, 188, 189, 192.