Fearn Balintore and Hilton Community Collage

Chapter 18 - Folklore

Folklore is the study of ancient beliefs and customs which have survived till modern times, and many of the folk customs in the Seaboard villages are found in fishing communities all round Britain and abroad.

In the good old days belief in fairies was .common, but there are still people who declare that they have seen the little people in various places and in various forms. Some of them appeared as young girls, skipping and dancing in coloured finery till they disappeared into a gully near Wester Rarichie; others were seen near the Well of Health and some are also said to dance round the fairy ring at Hilton. One lot were the size of whisky bottles and carried green umbrellas - and may perhaps be attributable to the contents of the bottles!

Legend has it that there is a pot of gold buried under the well below Cadboll. People often dig for it in spite of the fact that whoever finds it will die within three days.

There is a saying, 'A hairy man's a happy man, a hairy wife's a witch'. Witches were said to appear as hares and could always be shot with a silver sixpence, and an old lady remembers that when her great-grandfather shot a hare in the eye, the woman suspected of being a witch had to stay in bed for several months afterwards with a bad eye. Some people had the power of second sight and could foretell death by seeing phantom funerals.

Customs associated with fishing were legion. It was unlucky to mention certain words such as salmon, rabbit, hare and pig or to refer to a minister while at sea. No-one liked to take a minister out in a boat or to meet one on the way to sea - the antidote was to step off the road and stay off it all the way to the boat. It is a strange fact that even in deeply religious seafaring communities there is an ancient and almost universal dislike of meeting a clergyman on the way to the boats or near to them.  [26]  A fisherman would neither sing nor whistle at sea as either would call up the wind, but they could whistle for wind if becalmed and might even stick a knife in the mast to call it up. No-one has heard of wise women knotting cords to bring wind although this was done in Portmahomack.  [26]   Rather than say the word 'Salmon' fishermen said 'pink fish' or 'red one', and salmon fishers said 'twelve and one' rather than 'thirteen'.

Fishermen never liked to meet women on the way to the boats as this meant that they would have no luck, but there were certain women, and men too, who were considered so very unlucky that the fishermen turned back for the day if they met them. It was worst of all to meet such people on a Monday, but it was essential to speak to them and preferably to be the first to speak.

Fishermen did' not like to see dead objects near anything to do with fishing, such as crates of rabbits at the station when sending off salmon, nor did they like to see cripples nor people with flat feet.  Luck was a precious commodity and everyone took precautions against giving their luck away. They never liked to give away anything at all on a Monday lest their luck went too. Generally speaking, on land it was better to give rather than to lend, but this did not apply at sea. Sometimes a crew which had caught little might ask for something from a crew which had done well in order to get their luck, but if they asked for a fill of tobacco, for instance, they would be lent a pipe instead which had to be returned, bringing the luck back with it. It was unlucky to give a light, and especially so on a Monday morning, so if anyone found themselves in the position of having to give a match they first of all broke the end of it. Fishing luck might be induced by pouring water back and forth from tub to tub. If someone came in during the setting up of a line it was usual to ask them to add a few hooks and to wish luck to the line, and when baiting it was lucky to spit on the bait. But if 'certain people' came in during baiting the end of the line was put in the fire to ward off their evil effect.  Old people used to say that it was unlucky to save anyone from drowning as the sea must have its victims, but nevertheless they did save them. People spat on new boots - in fact, they spat on everything, and they liked to put a coin into a new purse and in the pocket of a new pair of trousers as hansel, an inaugural gift.

Friday then as now was considered unlucky and no-one started a new job that day. No-one liked to see the new moon through glass, but when seeing it they liked to turn something in their pockets, preferably money. Others still bow to the new moon, for the good reason that their parents and grandparents always did so. It was unlucky to sleep with the moon on one's face, to give a sharp instrument lest it cut friendship, to sing before breakfast, to sew on buttons on Sunday and of course to fish on Sunday.

Horseshoes are everywhere regarded as lucky and in the villages they were too. They might be outside the door or nailed to a mast or to the bow of a coble. Buckie shells were often kept on the hearth or on the mantelpiece. Bread and fish bones were never burned but the saying, 'Keep hair, keep care' meant that hair was always burned. Rowan trees had a place in people's beliefs. They kept evil from any house near which they grew so everyone liked to have a rowan in sight of the door. One old lady remembers a branch of rowan being pushed through the sneck of the door at either Hallowe'en or the New Year. But elder trees were another matter - no-one dared fall
asleep under them lest they never re-awaken.

A lump of coal was considered lucky if carried into a house by a first-footer at New Year, and might be given in a bucket as a wedding present. It was usual to leave a fire burning and the house clean for people coming into a house after one left it, but it was unlucky to
carry salt from one house to another, or to borrow it.

Boats were always turned clockwise and many people like to have their ornaments, such as jugs and teapots, pointing to the right. Stirring clockwise is usual too and some people like to put on the right sock and shoe first.

Gulls are considered lucky because they clean up the shore and because, as the 'Ocean Eagle', they show that land is near. No-one would kill a gull though the children used to catch them with baited hooks and keep them. No-one sailed in a boat if they saw a rat leaving it, nor would they kill a rat in case it happened to be off their own boat. People liked to see geese flying north, presumably because it indicated that spring was at hand, but it was unlucky to hear the first cuckoo of the year on an empty stomach or if it cuckooed less than five times.

People used to drop pennies into a little hollow just west of Ross Crescent, Balintore, which was always thought to be somewhat eerie - a form of propitiation.

Colour has always had a place in folklore and it has been traditional to paint salmon boats blue, although Patersons' confound this by painting theirs grey! Fishing boats were usually bright blue, white and black, and very occasionally green, though green is generally not considered to be a lucky colour.

One man living this century maintained firmly, in spite of much scoffing, that he had seen a mermaid. Various phenomena were believed to indicate the weather - the Merry Dancers (Aurora Borealis) meant wind, and a ring round the moon meant that a gale would soon blow up from the direction where the ring was broken. A 'cock-eyed moon', one with a greenish-yellow halo, was a sure sign of stormy weather.

The customs, beliefs and cures in this chapter and those on Home Medicine and Customs have all been perpetuated by folk memory although the reasons for them have been forgotten long ago. The various uses of fire, water, metal, salt, right-hand turns, spitting and so on were all based on ancient reasons which make them much more understandable.

For instance, when people progressed from using stone and wooden tools to using metal, they naturally thought that metals were very powerful and wonderful substances, and hence they believed that they could produce many miracles if properly magnetized. [26]  Metals  were used in several cures like 'silvered water'. Iron appears in the phrase 'Cold Iron' used to ward off evil and also in the horse-shoe, which was doubly effective as it combined iron and the shape of the crescent moon.  [26]   Naturally the moon which gave light at night was as wonderful as the sun to early man. Saliva was the very centre of soul power and the essence of oneself [26] and therefore gave powerful

Salt was a highly valued commodity with a saving and preserving quality and blessed salt has been used for liturgical purposes from very early times to keep away evil spirits. [26]  Fire is a religious symbol, enlightening and warming humanity, with the power to purge air, earth and sea of unclean and hostile influences. [26] Throwing of coins was a form of propitiation and the offering of bread, cheese and whisky was quasi-sacramental. [26]  Where there was a spring or a well with water bubbling forth there was life, and where there was life there was a spirit28 and thus running water was venerated because of the impression of power within it. [24] So strong was this veneration that early Christian missionaries dedicated special wells to saints [24] and perhaps St. Cormac's well was one such. The right-hand turn, the sunwise movement, is the good way; the contrary movement is the way of evil.  [28]

Continue in Chapter 19
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