BIRTH AND CHILDHOOD.
WHEN writing of fairies I noticed,—but as it is connected with birth, I may here mention it again,—a practice common in some localities of placing in the bed where lay an expectant mother, a piece of cold iron to scare the
fairies, and prevent them from spiriting away mother and child to elfland. An instance of this spiriting away at
the time of child-bearing is said to have occurred in Arran within these fifty years. It is given by a correspondent in Long Ago:—"There was a woman near "Pladda, newly delivered, who was carried away, and on"
a certain night her wraith stood before her husband
"telling him that the yearly riding was at hand, and that
"she, with all the rout, should ride by his house at such
''an hour, on such a night; that he must await her coming,
"and throw over her her wedding gown, and so she
"should be rescued from her tyrants. With that she
"vanished. And the time came, with the jingling of
"bridles and the tramping of horses outside the cottage;
"but this man, feeble-hearted, had summoned his neigh
"hours to bear him company, who held him, and would
"not suffer him to go out. So there arose a bitter cry
"and a great clamour, and then all was still; but in the
"morning, roof and wall were dashed with blood, and the
"sorrowful wife was no more seen upon earth. This
"says the writer,
"is not a tale from an old ballad, it
"is the narrative of what was told not fifty years ago."
Immediately after birth, the newly-born child was bathed in salted water, and made to taste of it three times. This, by some, was considered a specific against the influence of the evil eye; but doctors differ, and so among other people and in other localities different specifics were employed. I quote the following from Ross' Helenore:—
"Gryte was the care and tut'ry that was ha'en,
Baith night and day about the bonny weeane:
The jizzen-bed, wi' rantry leaves was sain'd,
And sic like things as the auld grannies kend;
Jean's paps wi' saut and water washen clean.
Reed that her milk gat wrang, fan it was green;
Neist the first hippen to the green was flung,
And there at seelfu' words, baith said and sung:
A clear brunt coal wi' the het tangs was ta'en,
Frae out the ingle-mids fu' clear and clean.
And throu' the cosey-belly letten fa'.
For fear the weeane should be ta'en awa'."
Before baptism the child was more liable to be influenced by the evil eye than after that ceremony had been performed, consequently before that rite had been administered the greatest precautions were taken, the baby during this time being kept as much as possible in the room in which it was born, and only when absolutely necessary, carried out of it, and then under the careful guardianship of a relative, or of the mid-wife, who was professionally skilled in all the requisites of safety. Baptism was therefore administered as early as possible after birth. Another reason for the speedy administration of this rite was that, should
the baby die before being baptised, its future was not doubtful. Often on calm nights, those who had ears to
hear heard the wailing of the spirits of unchristened bairns among the trees and dells. I have known of an instance in which the baby was born on a Saturday, and carried two miles to church next day, rather than risk a week's delay. It was rare for working people to bring the minister to the house. Another superstitious notion in connection with baptism was that until that rite was performed, it was unlucky to name the child by any name. When, before the child had been christened, any one asked the name of the baby, the answer generally was, "It has not been out yet." Let it be remembered that these notions were entertained by people who were not Romanists, but Protestants, and therefore did not profess to believe in the saving efficacy of baptism,—who could answer every question in the Shorter Catechism, and repeat the Creed, and Ten Commandments, to the satisfaction of elder and minister. But all this verbal acquaintance with dogma was powerless to eradicate, even, we may venture to say, from the minds of elder and minister, the deeply-rooted fibres of ancient superstition, which had been long crystallised in the Roman Catholic Church, and could not be easily forgot in that of the Protestant.
When a child was taken from its mother and carried outside the bedroom for the first time after its birth, it was lucky to take it up stairs, and unlucky to take it down stairs. If there were no stairs in the house, the person who carried it generally ascended three steps of a ladder or temporary erection, and this, it was supposed, would bring prosperity to the child.
A child born with a caul—a thin membrane covering the head of some children at birth—would, if spared, prove a notable person. The carrying of a caul on board ship was believed to prevent shipwreck, and masters of vessels paid a high price for them. I have seen an advertisement for such in a local paper.
When baby was being carried to church to be baptised, it was of importance that the woman appointed to this post should be known to be lucky. Then she took with her a parcel of bread and cheese, which she gave to the first person she met. This represented a gift from the baby—a very ancient custom. Again, it was of importance that the person who received this gift should be lucky—should have lucky marks upon their person. Forecasts were made from such facts as the following concerning the recipient of the gift:—Was this person male or female, deformed, disfigured, plain-soled, etc.
If the party accepted the gift willingly, tasted it, and returned a few steps with the baptismal party, this was a good sign; if they asked to look at the baby, and blessed it, this was still more favourable: but should this person refuse the gift, nor taste it, nor turn back, this was tantamount to wishing evil to the child, and should any serious calamity befall the child, even years after, it was connected with this circumstance, and the party who had refused the baptismal gift was blamed for the evil which had befallen the child. It was also a common belief that if, as was frequently the case, there were several babies, male and female, awaiting baptism together, and the males were baptised before the females, all was well; but if, by mistake, a female should be christened before a male, the characters of the pair
would be reversed—the female would grow up with a masculine character, and would have a beard, whereas the male would display a feminine disposition and be beardless. I have known where such a mistake has produced real anxiety and regret in the minds of the parents. We have seen that it was not until after baptism that the child was allowed out of the room in which it was born, except under the skillful guardianship of a relative or the midwife; but, further than this, it was not considered safe or proper to carry it into any neighbour's house until the mother took it herself, and this it was unlucky even for her to do until she had been to church.
Indeed, few mothers would enter any house until they had been to the house of God. After this had been
accomplished, however, she visited with the baby freely.
In visiting any house with baby for the first time, it was incumbent on the person whom they were visiting to put a little salt or sugar into baby's mouth, and wish it well: the omission of this was regarded as a very unlucky omen for the baby. Here we may note the survival of a very ancient symbolic practice in this gift of salt. Salt was symbolical of favour or good will, and covenants of friendship in very early times were ratified with this gift; sugar, as in this instance, is no doubt a modern substitute for salt. Among Jews, Greeks, and Romans, as well as among less civilized nations, salt was used in their sacrifices as emblematic of fidelity, and for some reason or other it also came to be regarded as a charm against evil fascinations. By Roman Catholics in the middle ages, salt was used to protect children from evil influences before they had received the sacrament of baptism. This practice is referred to in many of the old
" nurse to pray for me or mine; good Jupiter, be sure to
"refuse her, though she may have put on white for the
The Romans used to hang red coral round the necks of their children to save them from falling-sickness, sorcery, charms, and poison. In this country coral beads were hung round the necks of babies, and are still used in country districts to protect them from an evil eye. Coral bells are used at present. The practice was originated by the Roman Catholics to frighten away evil spirits.
I have quite a vivid remembrance of being myself believed to be the unhappy victim of an evil eye. I had taken what was called a dwining, which baffled all ordinary experience; and, therefore, it was surmised that I had got "a blink of an ill e'e." To remove this evil influence, I was subjected to the following operation, which was prescribed and superintended by a neighbour " skilly " in such matters :—A sixpence was borrowed from a neighbour, a good fire was kept burning in the grate, the door was locked, and I was placed upon a chair in front of the fire. The operator, an old woman, took a tablespoon and filled it with water. With the sixpence she then lifted as much salt as it could carry, and both were put into the water in the spoon. The water was then stirred with the forefinger till the salt was dissolved. Then the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands were bathed with this solution thrice, and after these bathings I was made to taste the solution three times. The operator then drew her wet forefinger across my brow,—called scoring aboon the breath. The remaining contents of the spoon she then cast right over
the fire, into the hinder part of the fire, saying as she did so, " Guidpreservefrae a! skaith.'' These were the first words permitted to be spoken during the operation. I was
then put in bed, and, in attestation of the efficacy of the charm, recovered. To my knowledge this operation has been performed within these 40 years, and probably in many outlying country places it is still practised. The origin of this superstition is probably to be found in ancient fire worship. The great blazing fire was evidently an important element in the transaction; nor was this a solitary instance in which regard was paid to fire. I remember being taught that it was unlucky to spit into the fire, some evil being likely shortly after to befall those who did so. Crumbs left upon the table after a meal were carefully gathered and put into the fire. The cuttings from the nails and hair were also put into the fire. These freaks certainly look like survivals of fire worship.
The influence of those possessing the evil eye was not confined to children, but might affect adults, and also goods and cattle. But for the bane there was provided the antidote. One effective method of checking the evil influence was by scoring aboon the breath. In my case, as I was the victim, scoring with a wet finger was sufficient; but the suspected possessor of the evil eye was more roughly treated, scoring in this case being effected with some sharp instrument so as to draw blood. I have never seen this done, but some fifty years ago an instance occurred in my native village. A child belonging to a poor woman in this village was taken ill and had convulsive fits, which were thought to be due to the influence of the evil eye. An old woman in the
neighbourhood, whose temper was not of the sweetest, was suspected. She was first of all invited to come and see the child in the hope that sympathy might change the influence she was supposed to be exerting; but as the old woman appeared quite callous to the sufferings of the child, the mother, as the old woman was leaving the house, scratched her with her nails across the brow, and drew blood. This circumstance raised quite a sensation in the village. Whether the child recovered after this operation I do not remember. Many other instances of the existence of this superstitious practice in Scotland within the present century might be presented, but I content myself with quoting one which was related in a letter to the Glasgow Weekly Herald, under the signature F. A.:
—" I knew of one case of the kind in Wigtownshire, in
"the south of Scotland, about the year 1825, as near as
"I can mind. I knew all parties very well A farmer
"had some cattle which died, and there was an old
"woman living about a mile from the farm who was
"counted no very canny. She was heard to say that
"there would be mair o' them wad gang the same way.
"So one day, soon after, as the old woman was passing
"the farmhouse, one of the sons took hold of her and
"got her head under his arm, and cut her across the
"forehead. By the way, the proper thing to be cut with
"is a nail out of a horse-shoe. He was prosecuted and
"got imprisonment for it."
This style of antidote against the influence of an evil eye was common in England within the century, as the
following, which is also taken from a letter which appeared in the same journal, seems to show:—"Drawing blood from "above the mouth of the person suspected is the
"favourite antidote in the neighbourhood of Bum
"ley; and in the district of Craven, a few miles
"within the borders of Yorkshire, a person who was ill
"disposed towards his neighbours is believed to have
"slain a pear-tree which grew opposite his house by
"directing towards it 'the first morning glances' of his
"evil eye. Spitting three times in the person's face
" turning a live coal on the fire; and exclaiming, 'The
"Lord be with us,'are other means of averting its in" fluence."
We must not, however, pursue this digression further, but return to our proper subject. It was not necessary that
the person possessed of the evil eye, and desirous of inflicting evil upon a child, should see the child. All that was necessary was that the person with the evil eye should get possession of something which had belonged to the child, such as a fragment of clothing, a toy, hair, or nail parings. I may note here that it was not considered lucky to pare the nails of a child under one year old, and when the operation was performed the mother was careful to collect every scrap of the cutting, and burn them. It was considered a great offence for any person, other than the mother or near relation, in whom every confidence could be placed, to cut a baby's nails; if some forward officious person should do this, and baby afterwards be taken ill, this would give rise to grave suspicions of evil influence being at work. The same remarks apply to the cutting of a baby's hair. I have seen the door locked during hair-cutting, and the floor swept afterwards, and the sweepings burned, lest perchance any hairs might remain, and be picked up by an enemy. Dr. Livingstone, in his book on the Zambesi, mentions the
existence of a similar practice among some African tribes. " They carefully collect and afterwards burn or bury the hair, lest any of it fall into the hands of a witch.'' Mr. Munter mentions that the same practice is common amongst the Patagonians, and the practice extends to adults. He says that after bathing, which they do every morning, "the men's hair is dressed by their wives, "daughters, or sweethearts, who take the greatest care to "burn the hairs that may be brushed out, as they fully "believe that spells may be wrought by evil-intentioned "persons who can obtain a piece of their hair. From the "same idea, after cutting their nails the parings are care" fully committed to the flames."
Besides this danger—this blighting influence of the evil eye which environed the years of childhood—there was
also this other danger, already mentioned, that of being spirited away by fairies. The danger from this source was greater when the baby was pretty, and what fond mother did not consider her baby pretty ? Early in the century, a labourer's wife living a few miles west of Glasgow, became the mother of a very pretty baby. All who saw it were charmed with its beauty, and it was as good as it was bonnie. The neighbours often urged on the mother the necessity of carefulness, and advised her to adopt such methods as were, to their minds, well-attested safeguards for the preservation of children from fairy influence and an evil eye. She was instructed never to leave the child without placing near it an open Bible. One unhappy day the mother went out for a short time, leaving the baby in its cradle, but she forgot or neglected to place the open Bible near the child as directed. When she returned baby was crying, and could by no means be
quieted, and the mother observed several blue marks upon its person, as if it had been pinched. From that day it became a perfect plague; no amount of food or drink would satisfy it, and yet withal it became lean. The girn, my informant said, was never out its face, and it yammered on night and day. One day an old highland woman having seen the child, and inspected it carefully, affirmed that it was a fairy child. She went the length of offering to put the matter to the test, and this is how she tested it. She put the poker in the fire, and hung a pot over the fire wherein were put certain ingredients, an incantation being said as each new ingredient was stirred into the pot. The child was quiet during these operations, and watched like a grown person all that was being done, even rising upon its elbow to look. When the operations were completed, the old woman took the poker out of the fire, and carrying it red hot over to the cradle, was about to burn the sign of the cross on the baby's brow, when the child sprung suddenly up, knocked the old woman down and disappeared up the lum (chimney,) filling the house with smoke, and leaving behind it a strong smell of brimstone. When the smoke cleared away, the true baby was found in the cradle sleeping as if it never had been taken away. Another case was related to me as having occurred in the same neighbourhood, but in this instance the theft was not discovered until after the death of the child. The surreptitious or false baby, having apparently died, was buried; but suspicion having been raised, the grave was opened and the coffin examined, when there was found in it, not a corpse, but a wooden figure. The late Mr. Rust, in his Druidism Exhumed, states that this superstition is common in the
North of Scotland, and adds that it is also believed that if the theft be discovered before the apparent death of the changling, there are means whereby the fairies may be propitiated and induced to restore the real baby. One of these methods is the following:—The parents or friends of the stolen baby must take the fairy child to some known haunt of the fairies, generally some spot where peculiar soughing sounds are heard, where there are remains of some ancient cairn or stone circle, or some green mound or shady dell, and lay the child down there, repeating certain incantations. They must also place beside it a quantity of bread, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, and flesh of fowl, then retire to a distance and wait for an hour or two, or until after midnight. If on going back to where the child was laid they find that the offerings have disappeared, it is held as evidence that the fairies have been satisfied, and that the human child is returned. The baby is then carried home, and great rejoicing made. Mr. Rust states that he knew a woman who, when a baby, had been stolen away, but was returned by this means.