The Toothache Stone and other tales of Islay lore

It is said to look like a giant molar tucked in the landscape of the Hebridean island of Islay.

Tuesday, 20th December 2016, 3:44 pm
Updated Thursday, 29th December 2016, 3:29 pm
Portnahaven, Islay. The island is said to have hold onto pagan beliefs well into modern times. PIC Ian Rutherford.

The Toothache Stone sits near Port Charlotte on Islay and forms part of the island’s rich folklore.

The stone is described as “not unlike a human molar” by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland with the rough boulder sitting in a small valley below the pump house at the back of the village.

Peggy Earl, in Tales of Islay, said the people of Port Charlotte visited the stone as an alternative to extraction of a rotten tooth with the remnants of the traditional ritual still seen today.

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The Toothache Stone, Port Charlotte, Islay. PIC Alistair Campbell/www.geograph.co.uk

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Earl wrote: “When they felt the first pangs, they made for they made for the Toothache Stone in the glen.

“Armed with nails and a hammer, they hammered the nails into the stone and at the end of their exertions the toothache had gone.”

A number of nails, both iron and copper, can still be seen hammered into the cracks of the stone.

The Toothache Stone, Port Charlotte, Islay. PIC Alistair Campbell/www.geograph.co.uk

Prominent stones on Islay “have a habit of attracting traditions, as they do moss,” according to new book Islay Voices, by Jenny Minto and Les Wilson, published this month by Birlinn Books.

Islay Voices details to rich effect the folklore of the island and the many strands of ancient belief that have permeated there.

One account, originally published by Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies in 1974, details a practical way to banish gathering fairies.

The technique is recorded in an account of a man said to have been surrounded by the spirit creatures as he walked home from a wedding at Port Askaig.

He had stopped to do the toilet when he was visited by the fairies with the man pouring his urine over the potentially malevolent beings.

The account said: “As soon as this was done, the fairies made off, crying after them that is was good for him that he had the learning to know what would put them away, for had it not been for what he had done, he would have been taken away from them.

“The recite, who professes to attach credibility to the story, adds that there is nothing in the world better than urine for protecting one, old or young, from fairies.”

Islay Voices details how the island “clung to elements of paganism right up till modern times” despite the influence of St Columba and Christianity on the island.

One custom still observed by some is the sunways ritual, with sailors never turning a boat against the sun.

According to Islay Voices, ancient sun worship preconditioned Celts to carry out rituals “deiseil”, or in a sunwise direction. To do the opposite – known as widdershins – was considered unlucky.

The pagan habit even extends to Christian monuments, including the 14th Century Kilchoman cross. Tradition dictates that a stone which sits at the bottom of the cross is to be turned sunwise while making a wish.