Rothiemay: Wood Sorrel

Folk History

"An' ilka body that there's breath in
Maun some ane hae to put their faith in;
An' may they, 'mang life's holes an' hitches
Hae nae waur help than the auld witches"
from "The Last of the Witches"
by Robert H. Calder



The north eastern area of Scotland, from the base of the Grampians to the Moray Firth has long been a fairly quiet corner of the British Isles in terms of numbers of people. Fine agricultural land, grand mountains, peat bogs, granite rock, woodland and good fishing in sea and rivers has served the populations down the millennia with food and shelter and fire. Although not as intensely populated, outside the main cities, as more lowland areas it has been home to people from the far north in Sutherland and Caithness, from Orkney and Shetland, from the Black Isle, from Inverness-shire and from Ross and Cromarty as people have moved from harsher, more difficult or less settled areas into the old counties of Elginshire, Morayshire, Banffshire and Aberdeenshire.

All these people, over the centuries, have brought with them their own customs and beliefs, their own cultural observances, folk tales and ways of making sense of the world around them and these have melded into the old concepts, beliefs and practices of the peoples who take their lineage from the Picts who inhabited the area in the early and mid first millennium AD. This produced a rich array of ideas and ways of dealing with the world in everyday life that, today, we might call superstitious.

The supernatural landscape

Heathenish Custom

The Celts, who we know most about presently, marked their year with fire. They started their year on 31st October, their Samain (our Halloween) and, with skulls of their ancestors, lit from within, at their doors (we use turnips or swedes or pumpkins) celebrated with families sat round their warm hearths telling tales of the ancestors. The hearth fire would have been put out during the previous day to be re-kindled at evening to herald the new year. Burning embers of the head family's fire were taken to other's in the clan to start their fires. To start a fire another way without receiving fire from the head of the small clan was unthinkable and courting danger as the first fire would be seen as - effectively - consecrated. And the idea of the fire was to ward off the coming darkness that held unknown terrors for these people. Such fires were started by the age-old method of rubbing sticks together to create heat and a tiny flame. This practice, which in the later 17th century used metal as flint, was called 'needfire' and was outlawed by the Kirk, presumably because of its 'pagan' heritage. It is reported that 'Strathbogie was notorious for its practice of this "heathenish" custom, and the Synod of Moray in April 1649, adopted a general rule to be applied to all offenders" - "three days in sackcloth."

The Celtic celebration of Beltaine in May (which we now know as May Day) was the summer of their seasonal calendar and again the fire was viewed as sacred. Beasts were driven between two fires. No doubt the smoke got rid of lice and other parasites garnered during being shut up in winter quarters. This idea of the smoke being part of the ritual was still very important in the Middle Ages when, in Buchan, it is reported that young lads would lie near to the farm bonfire at that time so that the smoke would roll over them; and others would run through the smoke and jump over the lads on the ground.

In much later years, in the Highlands, it was the custom to take smoking brands and call at house doors to puff smoke into homes. No doubt, if you were not superstitious, you'd 'pay or bribe' them to go away. Now we give sweets, gingerbread, apples and cakes to 'appease' the Halloween callers.

Superstition as Insurance

Superstition is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as 'an irrational fear of the unknown'. And superstitious is a word that can conjure up, in our modern minds, something that 'old country folk' did - and not something we do today. That is until we possibly avoid walking under that ladder. Well, we don't want water or paint or tools on our heads. While that's eminently sensible, what we don't recognise, from this so-called superstition, is that it comes from the idea of the ladder, propped against a building, forming a triangle with the ground. To our 12th century forefathers this triangle represented the Holy Trinity and walking under that ladder, and thus through that triangle and changing the image of the Trinity, might land them in Hell on their way to the afterlife.

Our desire as humans is, and always has been, to make sense of the world around us in the best way that we can. We also like to be able to control our world as much as we can, to see and feel predictable patterns in our lives that we can see - and rely on. We do things in a certain way, we follow processes and procedures and that all makes us feel more comfortable, reassured and sure of ourselves and our environment. Our ancestors lived in worlds that were less sure, more hostile, a lot more uncertain and they felt the need to obey processes and procedures that felt best to them; and helped them to feel that they were being careful to control their actions, and thus their world, against unseen and unknown forces. Today we call this folk lore, superstition; to them it was insurance.

Superstition Travels

Today, if we spill salt, many of us will pick up a pinch in the right hand and throw it over our left shoulder. We just do it - we don't always know the origin of the action, but it's back to our distant past when salt was expensive, sometimes used as currency. Spilling it was a waste and marked you down as careless, profligate. Throwing it over your left shoulder (the area where the Devil was said to be watching what you do) meant you threw it into his eyes and off he went for a time. Otherwise he'd know that you were just what he was looking for to lead astray.

Superstitions - and the actions that surround them - travel too. Take the case of my Grandmother, who was born and brought up in Rothiemay. At night she would always say, as she tucked me into bed:

'From Ghosties and Ghoulies
And Long-Leggedy Beasties
May the Good Lord protect us.'

This is a rhyme that is attributed to Cornwall and yet she, in Rothiemay, used it. She said her mother taught it to her and her mother came from Buckie to Rothiemay in 1860. Perhaps it passed among fishermen around the coasts. It is in the coastal areas with their fishing communities that superstition is much apparent. Risking life and limb daily, in bad weather and rough seas to catch fish would make many of us wanting whatever protection or help we could get and life was surrounded by what we might call superstitions. For example: no women on a boat and no mention of ministers of the church either. A hare or a rabbit - which have long been associated with supernatural powers by our ancestors - are not allowed near or on a boat. If, in the past, you wanted to put off the competition for fishing grounds, then a hare or rabbit left on the opposition's boat would do the trick. If you'd put on your ganzie the wrong way out, then that was that, no changing it to make it right way out, much too unlucky.

For some seeing a black cat on the way to the boat heralded a bad day and maybe, in earlier times, you wouldn't take the boat out at all. Going to sea on a Friday was avoided, because Christ was crucified on a Friday. And at sea they said "rain at seven, fine by eleven". On land this is reversed to "sun before seven means rain by eleven". A black cat was fine actually on a boat for some - but not for others. Presumably because black cats were reputedly a witch's familiar.

The Rowan, the Birch and the Holly The rodden tree

Witches held sway on land too. Rodden (Rowan), or Mountain Ash, was - and is - planted at croft doors and barns and with holly, (the holy bush), at stable doors to protect the humans and animals within. Inside saddles and harness had to hang on birch hooks as witches apparently hated birch. Horses were, in past times, revered by man but also feared because, it was believed, a horse could really be a water kelpie disguised as a horse and he'd and make off with you into the deepest, darkest pool in which you'd drown.

The Guidman's CraftThe Guidman's Fauld

In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries it was very often the case that a parcel of land on a croft was left un-ploughed and untended. These were often called the "Black Faulie" or the "Devil's Faulie" or the "Guidman's Fold" and were effectively 'dedicated' to the Devil or other evil spirits to ward off, or prevent disease, in the croft's cattle or other stock. Indeed the Presbytery of Strathbogie was noted for its 'Halie Man's Rigs' and Sir William Gordon of Rhynie admitted to the Kirk Sessions that part of his land had been set aside for just this purpose. In July 1631 the Presbytery ordered that 'the land at Turtere (Turtory), Rothiemay, dedicated to the Goodman' be ploughed, manured and planted. And yet still sixty years later, in 1691, a Mr Clark in Rothiemay was delated (impeached) by the Kirk for giving a piece of his land as "Helly Man's Lye." A witness, at the time, stated that the reason Mr Clark had done this was because his predecessor on the farm had had 'thirteen head of cattle that died and a horse'. (Horses were precious to the farmer and valuable to the Exchequer - Horse Tax was paid in Rothiemay in 1797.)

The Guidman's Fauld was normally circular to prevent the Devil from having a corner or hiding place from which he could emerge and attack the unsuspecting passer-by. Those that remain tend to be stoney patches; the canny farmers made sure that the Devil did not get the best land.

Witches and Elves

During the 18th century the belief in, and fear of, the witches and warlocks of Moray prevailed widely over the north. 'Balefires' were lit on 'Roode'en' in May in the parishes of Rothiemay, Keith, Grange, Cairnie, and Boharm. These echoed those earlier Beltaine fires. In the country lying to the east of these the bale-fires were lighted just on Halloween, harking back to those Celtic Samain fires.
When cattle died suddenly of any disease they were said to be 'shot-a-deed' (shot dead) by elves with an 'elf head' or flint arrow head. Dr. John Cruickshank (1787-1885) relates having seen an intelligent farmer and his friends searching to find the part of the body of the leading plough ox, which had suddenly died, into which the elf-arrow was believed to have passed. The belief in witches is also evidenced by the following circumstance: a party of men were bringing home a new millstone by rolling it along the ground. They were aided in moving the stone by means of a long pole inserted into the hole of the mill stone, to which horses were attached to aid in rolling it. Suddenly they came upon a few sheep, which frightened the horses, causing them to halt. As the horses refused to proceed, the men decided that it was a case of bewitchment, and that the owner of the sheep must be in some way propitiated. Indeed, it was a work of no ordinary difficulty to transport a millstone from the sandstone quarries of Pennan, in the parish of Gamrie, but it had to be done. As certain ceremonies had always to be observed against the evil designs of witches who were believed to be inclined to interfere with transport, the whole endeavour took some time.

Equally witches, who may have been the old woman living nearby who maybe acted oddly or was a bit of a recluse, had charms they could use for good. They might find stolen goods, or cure illness in man or his beasts, but if she took against you she could make your family ail, your cattle die, your horse 'drap don deied', your corn wither - or other awful things happen to you and yours. So appeasing her - and elves, faeries and anything else you feared was the best idea. Not annoying her or the other 'spirits' was imperative, granting any favour she asked, giving her anything she wanted - anything at all to make sure she'd leave you alone. There must have been some elderly ladies who, maybe being very poor and without food, proper shelter or help on their croft or garden, thought they were onto a good thing and fostered the superstition for their own, very simple human, ends.

Obviously, for the writer of this verse, witches were the top of the food chain, as we say now:

"Gin ye ca' me imp or elf
I rede ye look well to yourself.
Gin ye ca' me fairy
I'll work ye muckle tarrie.*
Gin guid neibour ye ca' me
The guid neibour I will be,
But gin ye ca' me seelie wicht
I'll be your friend bauth day and nicht."


From 'Popular Rhymes' by Robert Chambers, published in Edinburgh in 1841.

Faeries or elves had their good side too. There's a tale from Buchan that explains:

'A fairy in Buchan borrowed a hathish o' meal from a poor woman who had little to spare. It was duly repaid, and when, owing to a long snowstorm, there was a dearth in the land, the meal in the girnal never grew less. It was like the oil in the Widow's Cruse'.

(1 Kings 17: 8-16)

Faeries, witches, good folk, evil spirits, old superstitions, folk lore, ancient customs - call them what you will - but nowadays you won't have to spend three days in sackcloth.

  • "Primitive Beliefs in the North East of Scotland" by J M McPherson BD, Published in 1929.
  • "Domestic Annals of Scotland" by Robert Chambers Published in 1858.
  • "Popular Rhymes" by Robert Chambers Published in 1841.
  • "Aberdeen Press & Journal"
  • Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland by Edward Burt, Published in 1818.
  • Lamb Morison family papers ©DC-S