13 old superstitions from the Highlands and Islands

Sunrise over the west Highlands, where superstitions underpinned everyday life for hundreds of years. PIC: J McSporran/Flickr/Creative Commons.
Sunrise over the west Highlands, where superstitions underpinned everyday life for hundreds of years. PIC: J McSporran/Flickr/Creative Commons.
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From not combing your hair at night to cat claws laid in the foundations of houses, superstitions long underpinned everyday life in the Highlands and Islands as people sought safety from harm as well as a dose of good fortune.

Here were look at 13 superstitions, as recorded in the classic 19th Century text The Gaelic Otherworld, by John Gregorson Campbell.

1. The Right-Hand Turn

This was the most important of all the observances, according to Gregorson. It was believed all thing should be done in a left to right motion to correspond with the course of the sun. Screws would be turned only in this direction, coffins would be turned around the grave in this manner and boats turned to sea from left to right. Drams would also be served in this way. The Gaelic word for this custom is deiseal.

2. Getting up in the morning

It was considered unlucky to get out of bed on the left hand side. If someone had a bad day, or if something unfortunate happened, it was said ‘I did not rise on my right hand today’. Also, washing water was not usually shared. To do so would risk a quarrel between those who used it. According to Gregorson, the first person should spit in the water to prevent it being passed on.

3. Clothes

When a person put on a new suit, it was customary to wish him luck. It was considered unlucky, however, if a woman was the first to make the gesture.

4. Houses

It was customary to put a cat’s claw, a man’s nail and a cow’s hoof below the foundation of every house, Gregorson wrote. A piece of silver was placed under the door post. Those moving into the house, or onto the land, would burn some straw after arriving. This was called a possession wisp, or a sop seilbhe.

5. Baking

The last piece of meal remaining from baking a batch of oatmeal cakes was not be thrown away or put back in the tin. Instead it kneaded into a little bannock - called the bonnach fallaid - and given to a child of the house. Housewives placed particular importance on this practice as it was believed the baking came out well as a result.

6. Lucky cheese

When leaving the summer pastures on Lammas Day, August 1, to take cattle back to the strath, a small cheese of curds was made from that day’s milk for luck and goodwill.

7. Fire

No fire materials were shared by householders on the first day of every quarter of the year - New Year’s Day, St Bride’s Day, Beltane and Lammas. It was believed that by doing so the health of the herd would be weakened. If fire materials were given, then a piece of burning peat was thrown into a tub of water to keep the visitor to the house from doing harm, Gregorson wrote.

8. Thunder

During a thunder storm, a poker and tongs would be placed in the fire to protect the house from danger.

9. Salt

“The stealer of salt and the stealer of seeds/two thieves that get no rest.” A high value was generally placed on salt and if it was loaned out of the house, it had to be returned as quickly as possible. Gregorson wrote that if the borrower died before returning the salt, his ghost will revisit the earth. Oatmeal taken out of the house in the evening was sprinkled with salt to prevent the fairies getting the benefit.

10. Combing hair

Hair was not combed at night and, if it was, every hair that came out was put in the fire. Gregorson also wrote that no sister should comb her hair at night if her brother was at sea.

11. Sea language

The sea was awash with superstition, and many fishing communities still retain a strong sense of custom and belief to protect them from harm and ensure safe passage on the water. Gregorson wrote of east coast fisherman venturing to Tiree who would not speak in their boat of a minister or a rat. Everywhere it was deemed unlucky among seafaring men to whistle in case it conjured a storm.

12. Big Porridge Day

In the Western Isles, a large dish of porridge made with butter and other good ingredients was tipped into the sea in the belief it would draw valuable seaweed ashore. The Big Porridge Day was held in late Spring or on the Thursday before Easter. Then, it was known as Shore Thursday or Maundy Thursday. The ritual would be at its most effective if carried out on a stormy night.

13. The Saining Straw

A wisp of straw - or sop seile in Gaelic - was used to deposit drops of water that had come into contact with silver or gold, such as a wedding ring, around the house. The ritual was thought to protect the house and its occupants from the evil eye. In Spring, horses, harnesses and ploughs received a similar treatment before being sent out to the field.

-The Gaelic Otherworld, by John Gregorson Campbell has been republished by Birlinn Books.