Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Folklore of the Scottish Highlands

Folklore of the Scottish Highlands By Anne Ross (1976)

This is a survey of remnant Celtic customs from a folkloric perspective. Strange taboos and peculiar social customs abound - some fun and lighthearted, others repugnant and disturbing. Much of the data is composed of surviving customs and lore as of the the last few centuries when lore was collected for posterity and academia as old customs were dying off. Of course, lore was found to be more intact in the more isolated areas of the north and the numerous isles. There is an in interesting section mentioning the very ancient lore in communal labor songs:

“There were rowing songs, reaping songs, milking songs, churning songs; songs to soothe the tired infant, songs to lighten the task of querning the grain. But the richest and most important group of songs in the entire tradition are those known as orain luadhaidh, or ‘waulking’ songs, songs sung to fascilitate the heavy labor of ‘waulking’ or shrinking by hand the tweed and make sturdy the Highland cloth proof against rough country and wet, inclement weather.”

There is a section on clan lore which attests to the stubborn independence of Highland folk with all the petty quarrels and wild lawlessness that go along.

The section on Seers and Second Sight is interesting. It seems that those having the ‘Sight’ tend to fear it as do others. It also seems that in Druidic times there was more training in such matters as Christianity discouraged such abilities. Apparently most seeing was/is of a more foreboding nature such as a coming death.

“It is believed that these people have the power of seeing a person’s dopfelganger or ‘other self.’ If a person sees his own ghost then death is believed to be imminent.”

The integration of ancient paganism with Christianity is everywhere here. In Catholic areas the old gods live on in the saints. In Protestant areas the power of the trinity is emphasized. The Great Triple Goddess Bride (Brigid) is venerated as the foster-mother of the young Christ.

The section on Witchcraft: Black and White indicates that black magick was thought to be used to steal milk, to make cows not produce it and to render ale impotent. Of course, there was much Christian-induced fear and persecution of witches - especially women. White or healing witches were called ‘charmers.’ Superstitions were numerous - lucky days, unlucky days abound. Death customs of the ancient Celts included funeral games and merry-making. The Irish Wake comes to mind.

“In some districts it was believed that the soul stayed close to the corpse until after burial; the body must be watched day and night. The custom was known as the ‘late wake’, and very unChristian activities could take place during this period of watching over the dead, and keeping guard on the restless spirit. All sorts of tricks were practiced, games of leaping and wrestling were indulged in, riddles were asked and answered, music known as the coronach, or ‘lament’ was played, and the whole sad situation was treated with an almost callous revelry.”

“The nearest of kin ….. - would open a melancholy ball, dancing and at the same time weeping” Bagpipes and fiddles were played.

“It was commonly said that at … death one passed into the soaghal thall, or ‘Yonder World’.

The calendar festivals covered are mostly those of Beltaine,Brigid’s Day, Lughnasad, and Samhain, as well as some Saint’s Days and some curious New Years customs such as follows:

“…. People went round the houses in every township carrying dried cow-hides and chanting special rhymes continuously. They beat the skins with sticks and struck the walls of the houses with clubs; this ritual was believed to keep at bay fairies and evil spirits and hostile forces …” The hide of loose flap of the cow’s neck was used. It was singed in a fire and each member of the family would smell it as a charm against misfortune.

Many interesting feast day customs are recounted. Here is a saying for Brigid’s Day:

On the Feast Day of beautiful Bride,
The flocks are counted on the moor,
The raven goes to prepare the nest,
And again goes the rook.

And perhaps a more well known one:

The feast day of Bride
The daughter of Ivor shall come from the knoll
I will not molest the serpent,
Nor will the serpent molest me.

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