[From A Second Manx Scrapbook]



2. The Ways of the Manx Witches.

The terminology of Manx witchcraft has been so fully dealt with by Roeder in his Manx Notes and Queries that I may now pass on to describe the sisterhood and its doings, which differ little from those elsewhere. In the Isle of Man a witch is a woman, usually elderly, not necessarily unmarried, who affects her fellow-creatures, both directly and through their possessions, by means of spells and charms. To this end she employs certain herbs and other substances as vehicles of her desires ; or she simply concentrates her will in a fixed gaze, in muttered words, or in a silent wish. She is able to change her shape to that of some animal or bird, frequently a hare, and may then be shot with a silver bullet or caught in a snare, after which misadventure she resumes her human form, suffering from the effects. Though there have been white witches (mostly male), the atmosphere surrounding the word buitch 1 is one of malevolence, and when the buitch performs a cure she is, in most cases, only undoing harm which she, or a rival, has previously inflicted-undoing it, sometimes, By similar methods.

In modern times, if not always, Manx witches have worked individually, ploughing each her lonely furrow, and sowing trouble for her neighbours to reap ; each for herself and the Devil take the foremost. Herein, and in most other ways, they resemble a host of old women in the rest of Britain and all the Irish witches ; for the assemblers at sabbats in Ireland were women of Plantation or English and Scottish extraction, as their names in the trials show. 2 Since in Scotland the gregarious type of witchcraft common to the Continental countries, and in a lesser degree to England, flourished only in the Lowlands, it seems a fair inference that witches in Gaelic-speaking lands resembled their compatriots and confréres, the Gaelic druids, in working single-handed and in a comparatively small way, even opposing when necessary their fellow-workers in the same field, as well as the fairies. The difference between the Gaelic witches and those of England, Lowland Scotland, and most of the Continent thus finds a parallel in the difference between the Irish druids and those of South Britain and Gaul.3

The Manx witches, then, were-to some extent still are-workers of charms and spells and petty magic, operators with the dead hand or hand of glory and with the dëbris of graves, stickers of pins in, or dissolvers of, images of wax or clay, vendors and manipulators of magic herbs, casters of the evil eye on men, women and children, livestock, crops and dairy-stuff, skimmers of the dew and soil off their neighbours' lands or ceremonial tramplers thereonnot to specify a number of less typical ways of doing mischief.

In the same vein of inspiration from an infernal source, but used with a contrary effect, they could promote fertility in women and animals; increase the yields of crops, milk and butter, or transfer them to themselves or a client ; and fill the nets with fish. They supplied favourable winds 4 and protective amulets to seafarers, love charms and potions to both women and men, caused beneficial rains by their operations at wells, streams, and standing - stones, brought about cures by means of words written or spoken, by herbs, by pebbles, and by " fasting spittle."

These were, at least, some of their pretensions. They were prepared also to show or foretell future events to the laity ; but such inquiries were, and still are, more often carried out personally by the parties interested, by means of traditional formulas, and, usually, on certain days of the year. Some of these faishags have been described in Chapter IV.

It is scarcely necessary to add that a reputation for uncanny powers was very easily earned. In 1730 an inquiry was held by Bishop Wilson on the head of an allegation by Patrick Corlet that " he saw Bahee, the wife of John Kaighen, of Skeristal, on May Day early in the morning, in the fields and about the houses of her neighbours, in a suspicious manner, as if she were practising charms or sorcery, from which was conceived an evil opinion in that neighbourhood, which soon grew into a common fame thro' the Parish of her being guilty of Sorcery." No evidence was forthcoming. Bahee denied everything, and the Bishop acquitted her and made Patrick beg her pardon on his knees in Court.5

The protective measures taken against Manx witches have been almost as numerous as their methods of doing harm. Counter-spells were, I think, not much used, beyond " saying a good word "-a short prayer, that is, or a pious invocation-and keeping a Bible in a conspicuous place. Recourse was had rather to material objects, such as holed stones hung by the bed, the croph-bollan carried on the person, and home-made crosses of various substances, pre - eminently the kieran or mountain-ash, fastened up inside the house. Witchcraft, in its widest sense, was also repelled by encouraging certain plants, notably the house-leek, to grow outside the buildings, as near the doors as possible ; by the purification of places by fire ;6 by the nailing-up of horse-shoes on doors ; by the killing of a black cock and carrying it bleeding about the farm ; by the wearing of amulets supplied or prescribed by another witch, a " wise man " or a " fairy doctor " ; by carrying a small quantity of salt or ashes in the pocket ; by dabbing a spot of soot with the tip of the forefinger on a baby's arm or a cow's udder.

Drawing blood from a witch was a more aggressive remedy against her machinations;7 this cure may account for some of the many trifling "fines for drawing blood " entered at the end of the first Manorial Roll, or rent-roll for each parish, in which women were often sufferers at the hands of men and other women. Some also of the " blood-wipers " - i.e. blood-wites or compensations-noticeable in the records of courts held by the Bishops may be due to the same cause. A silver bullet was notoriously useful when the witch was seen in animal form. Dust taken from her (human) footprint or her threshold where her feet might reasonably be supposed to have recently trodden was applied to a bewitched animal. Intervolving patterns were scribbled in chalk or whiting about the doorstep after it had been washed, that the witch might be hypnotized by trying to trace them with her evil eyes. 8 Certain gestures were made and certain attitudes assumed in the witch's presence. Salt was sprinkled in, on, or around everything which was exposed to danger, particularly if it was given out of the house. Salt was also put into the churn when overlooking was suspected; or a piece of iron or a live ember was placed underneath. Spitting has always been accounted a mild prophylactic against witching in general ; " if it does no good it can do no harm," I have been told-a point on which opinions may differ. Years ago I used to be told that honeysuckle was powerful against witches, but that does not seem to be admitted now.

Detection, in doubtful cases, is said to have adopted the time-honoured method of ducking the suspect in a pool or marsh. The guilty floated, the innocent sank. Were the witches lighter and more buoyant than the laity because they had parted with their souls to the Devil ?


1 Buitch (Sc. Gaelic buidseacht) has supplanted the other, perhaps older, term ben-obbee, which may be rendered with strict literalness as " woman-of-the-doings," a definition whose ambiguity bears out the truism that any distinction between black and white in witchcraft, and perhaps in supernatural affairs generally, does not strike deep. Both kinds spring from a single source, the current from which can be coloured at will.

2 See Irish Witchcraft and Demonology, The Trial of Dame Alice Kyteler, etc.

3 This is the generally accepted opinion regarding the druids of the Gaelic-speaking countries, but it should be remarked that Professor W. J. Vv atson thinks " there is strong presumptive evidence that the Irish and Scottish druids formed an organized corporation." If so, it did not restrain them from antagonizing each other on behalf of their respective patrons. This is illustrated in detail in Irish romances.

4 This is the subject of what I take to be one of the earliest scraps of Manx folk-lore which have been recorded as such. It has been frequently quoted from Higden's 15th-century Polychronicon, lib. i., cap. xliv.

5 These Kaighens, by the way (though Bahee was probably not of their blood), were supposed to have owned a mermaid in the direct line of their descent, like the Hennessys of Ballinskelligs, Kerry, the Flaherties of Ballyferriter in the same county, and other better-known instances.

6 See Appendix I.

7 Conversely, but perhaps not unrelatedly, drawing blood from a woman was, in other countries, a rite in her initiation into witchcraft. In Northamptonshire, a woman bitten or scratched by a witch immediately became one herself. (Sternberg, Dialect and Folk-lore of Northants, (1851), page 147.)

8 These scribbles are the humble descendants of the interlaced patterns seen on Norse crosses, gravestones, swords, etc., and also found in countries bordering on the Mediterranean. A plaited-strapwork pattern, in relief, can be viewed on a midMinoan vase of circa 1900 B.C. in the Ashmolean Museum.

§3. Witchcraft in Manx Literature.

The Manx witches have not—in recent times and in still-living tradition, at any rate—been exponents of an organized pagan religion or diabolic ritual ; they have not gathered at agreed places to dance around and pay allegiance to a personal Devil and receive his instructions ; but within their limits, and diminished in numbers and power, they continue to function on the same lines as in past centuries. In England, likewise, this individualistic policy has outlasted the collectivism of the sufferers by fire, water and the gallows in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

It need not surprise us, therefore, that to enjoy in the 18th century the benefits of a partnership with Satan a native of the Island was obliged, or found it more convenient, to go abroad. Bishop Wilson, whose writings evince a keen interest and a lively faith in the supernatural in general and witchcraft in particular,1 has left us details of a compact which was entered into by a Manxman with the Devil of East Ulster, who is presumably the same Devil as elsewhere, though perhaps a trifle more influential. The particulars are taken from " The Pocketbook of Bishop Wilson," extracts from which were published in The Manx Note-Book, No. 6. As this brief-lived periodical is not widely known or easily obtainable, and the sixth number is especially hard to come by, it will be convenient to reproduce here the passages in question.

" 1721, April 18.—Mr. Walker brought me two papers sent him by the Vicar of St. German. The first dated November 29th, 1720, the second December 12th, 1720. The substance—that John Curlitt, of Murlough, in the County of Down, in the parish of Kilmogh, did give himself body and soul to Satan the Devil, who is called Lucifer, after the term of 9 years, on condition that he wd. give him as much money during the time as he should please: on performance of which he did bind himself, &c. to the performance of the bargain-and promises to fight under his banner during ye said term, wch. if he do desert he leaveth himself to Satan's pleasure, and promises at the end of 9 years to go to himself.

1st paper—signed (with blood) sealed and delivered to the Devil. John Curlet.

2nd paper—signed (wt. blood) sealed and delivered in the presence of Jony Curlet and her family. John Curlet.

I sent for ye man and showed him ye papers wch. were found in his lodgings at Peel. Before he would read ym. he said they were none of his writing (though his hand was well-known) and very obstinately rejected all pains I took to get him out of the snare of ye Devil.

N.B. In one of ye papers (wch. I have by me) he had writ " In," but there stopt—the word not being proper for such a bargain.2

This man fled from Ireland on acct. of ye smuggling trade, and this place being too hot for him on ye acct. of this act, he took boat upon wch. the most dreadful storm arose, as soon as he was out of ye harbour—so yt he was given over for lost, but God is patient, and he is I hear yet alive.

N.B. I wrote to him in June, 1729, to put him in mind, &c."

In the latter half of 1729, therefore, John Curlet had both the Bishop and the Devil after his soul, but there is no record of the result.

It is easy to guess that " the Devil " in such compacts is standing in the shoes of a pagan deity when we recall the promise of a Norse king to give his life to Odin after ten years if the god would grant him victory over his foes. Here the Celt prefers money to glory.

This signing of articles to sail under the black flag is not typical of Manx witch and wizard lore. The Black Mass, as it was termed by a Manxman who described it in my hearing, certainly did appear to embody a vow of renunciation of Christianity and adherence to the Devil; but I have not met with a specific instance of its celebration in the Isle of Man. The formula used was little more than a mechanical reversal of orthodox forms of prayer and ritual, excepting that (so far as I could make out and recall afterwards, for the circumstances prevented my taking a written note at the time) it was performed wholly or in part in the bed of a stream ; until the water should flow backwards the terms of the vow were to hold good.

There are, however, some slight but cumulative bits of evidence which seem to suggest that the forerunners of the modern Manx witches were of the communal sort, that they flocked by air or otherwise to meet each other and a Satanic principal in conference, and to make merry after their kind. As witchcraft has for centuries exerted the strongest influence of all forms of superstition upon the lives of the people, and as this question of its collective character bears on its racial affinities, the pros and cons may be briefly stated.

To begin with the cons. Though place-names indicative of the former presence of the fairies are not unknown, there is none which implies a gathering-place of witches. None, I believe, of the Island's early social historians makes any allusion to sabbats ; in the case of Waldron especially the absence of everything relating to witches and their spells and charms is surprising, for the supernatural at large was his chief interest as a writer, and the Island must then have been a seething cauldron of that particular brew. Train confines himself to mentioning individual practices, and is silent on the subject of assemblies. The same is true of these writers' predecessors and successors, including Roeder and A. W. Moore. With the exception of the song " Berrey Dhone " the ballads printed by Moore contain no allusion to any kind of witchcraft. Moore has indeed reported in some detail an account of a young girl's initiation into the craft,3 but the ceremony was conducted by her mother alone ; it was the passing on of the elder woman's personal accomplishments, not an official admittance into a corporation of witches. Moore has also a version of the story of the witch of Slieu Whallian which credits her with the power of flying by the aid of three pewter plates which had never been in use ; two were to be employed as wings and the third as a tail. Her intention, however, was to escape from punishment, not to travel to a sabbat. 4

On the other hand, the evidence which points to organization and collective action among the Manx witches is only inferential, outside the covers of Kennish's volume of poems, to which I shall return.

Thus, an anecdote in the diary of Archdeacon Philpot implies that the witches of his time went about in companies at nightfall. They were believed to be unable to cross running water till nine o'clock struck, and equally unable to fly over it, seemingly, for they were held up at the bridges awaiting that hour.5

Again, among the disjecta membra of Berrey Dhone's doings in Maughold she is said to have been in the habit of sending the lesser witches, her subordinates, before her to open the side of Barrule, at some spot now forgotten, that she might enter the hill. This scrap of tradition clearly implies a belief that they were an organized body, and it may perhaps be inferred that they assembled habitually in the neighbourhood of North Barrule. Berrey's traditional title of " Queen of the Witches " or " Queen of the Maughold Witches " further suggests organization.

On page 264 of A Manx Scrapbook I have noted a feminine practice of dancing in procession round Cronk Sumark in Lezayre, for the purpose of getting husbands. On this subject a friend sends me the following note : "From rumours reported by my grandmother I gather that the ' Old Maids ' did not always expect a human husband in return for their efforts. The dance round the hill was-at any rate in some cases-regarded as the first step towards becoming a witch, and the 'husband' was the Devil according to some reports, and the Grey Man himself according to others. I think there was also the more innocent form of the practice which you mention, and probably the other is forgotten, or buried in the limbo of things which are better left unmentioned. There seems to be a queer mixture of good and bad tradition attaching to this hill. . . ." An enclosure on the skirt of Cronk Sumark is called the Old Maids' Walk, but one would expect this name, if it is correctly rendered (the same Manx word is used for both old maid and nun) to belong to their path or track round the hill. Perhaps this is a small section of it where the name has remained.6

In the Chronicon Manniæ a circumstantial account is inserted at the year 1158 of the threatened plundering of Kirk Maughold by a follower of Somerled, whose troops were then encamped at Ramsey. (Why the church was being used as a safe-deposit is made clear by the previous entry, which states that Somerled had been devastating the Island.) Saint Maughold, who had then been dead for about five and a half centuries, appeared in a shining white toga to the intending robber on the eve of the day for which he had planned his deed, and after upbraiding him stabbed him thrice with his pastoral staff, so that he died early the following morning. Somerled and his adherents sailed away on the next tide, overawed by what the chronicler calls a miracle. The " miracle " is obviously capable of a matter-of-fact explanation ; otherwise this able-bodied spectre's behaviour would strongly resemble the doings of ghosts in the Icelandic sagas and Norse folk-tales. But the point I wish to suggest, without any desire to insist upon it, is that certain Maughold women, in their resolve to evoke the spirit of their saint to avert the sacrilege, made use of the ritual of co-operative witchcraft. Upon a rumour of the enemy's advance, " Sexus infirmior dissolutis crinibus ejulantes diseurrebant circa parietes ecclesiæ magnis vocibus clamantes 'Ubi es modo Machute . . . ? ' " " The weaker sex, with their hair unloosed, ran keening around the walls of the church, crying in loud voices, 'Where art thou now, O Maughold ? ' " etc. They continued to invoke him in passionate terms to arise from his tomb and defend both them and his own honour. The women, no doubt, intended simply the Christian practice of calling upon a saint for aid, and the exact words of the invocation are, perhaps, the writer's own ; nevertheless, the running round-sometimes dancing round or going on bare knees-in a circle in the course of magical operations, is a rite too familiar to need emphasizing, while crinibus dissolutis is an invariable characteristic of witches engaged in necromancy. The loosening of the hair was in itself regarded as an essential part of a conjuration.7

All these hints of the former existence of an underlying system do not suffice to prove that Manx witches were organized and convened, or that they entered into compacts with the Devil. It is in Kennish's poems 8 that we find what seems, on the face of it, to be positive and substantial evidence of the kind required. On page 49 et seq. he says that the witches flew in the shape of crows 9 at midnight on Old May Eve, to renew their allegiance to

" Beelzebub and his infernal crew,
To vent their spite upon the human race,
In some sequester'd, goblin-haunted place,
Where the Satanic council would appear
To give instructions for th' ensuing year,
And issue mandates of their dark intrigue
To those old witches serving in their league.",10

By Old Nick and his " suite " a Maughold witch named Old Kate was given discretion to

"initiate those upon probation,
And give each hag her proper station."

On one occasion it was her duty to appoint the learners to their respective posts for a combined effort, the object of which is not stated. On her own account Kate made dogfish tear nets, storms snap off masts and wreck boats ; but in the end she was shot in Glen Rushen with ammunition of solid silver while flying around the locality to make sure she was not being spied upon, before beginning to work her spells. Another witch, Kate's cousin, sold herself to the Devil by standing before " his council " and writing her Christian name and her lineage (doubtless in her own blood as was customary) and renouncing " Providence " in his favour.

It is noticeable that, according to Kennish, the witches were granted only one audience with Satan annually, namely, on May Eve, and he says nothing of orgies or dancing. His thrice-repeated mention of a council under the Devil's presidency, composed apparently not of the witches but of his subordinate devils, is unusual among records and legends of such matters; I am not sufficiently versed in the subject to say that it is unique. In a footnote to a passage concerning Old Kate's " candidates " Kennish says they were "those witches alluded to as being on probation, ere they were allowed to take high degrees in witchcraft." Kate evidently had charge of the local coven in South Maughold, even if she did not control a wider diocese, and was thus a successor of the celebrated Berrey Dhone. It is curious, by the way, that Kennish, who was born and bred in Berrey's own neighbourhood, has nothing to say about her. Perhaps she stood too far above the ranks of the ordinary human witches whose ways he was describing.

Though these traditions roughly sketched by the bard of Maughold may be taken as authentically Manx, it is possible that they were grafted from the Southern Scottish or the English growth upon an earlier stock of beliefs which were more typically Celtic. They may even have come in with the Scandinavian conquerors ; but the nocturnal gatherings, at the least, seem to belong rather to North Germany and Eastern Scandinavia, with which Man is supposed to have had little or no intercourse, her older runic inscriptions excepted. Folk-lore, however, creeps like oil, independently of racial contacts. Broadly speaking, men raise the Devil at home, women go out to meet him. This in a folk-lore sense, of course. But I do not gather from the general literature of the subject that it was only at the sabbats, with their concomitant revels, that women were granted the power of casting spells and working cures. It might conceivably be acquired in private, either from a diabolic source or from an older adept. This last has certainly been the usual method in the Isle of Man, but it may have replaced the Devil's personal instruction in which Bishop Wilson believed. In either case, it follows that Man, though enjoying its full share of female spell-binders, may never have possessed, as did Scotland, a Blocksberg of its own, or have been the scene of a Walpurgis Night, except possibly in imported and localized stories which soon perished in an uncongenial soil. Manx witches may never have ridden with Diana or danced round a throned Devil. If they did not, we should be able, by going far enough back, to dissociate completely the arts of buitcheragh from the nocturnal gatherings, and to see in them two originally independent conceptions which have, in most countries, become confused-confused both in traditions current among the people at large and in the confessions of witches under pressure of examination and fear of punishment. The testimony of the witches on this head is further discounted by their sex and small mental capacity, and by the leading nature of the questionnaires.

The minor devilries that make up most of the practice of the Manx witches are very like those of their sisters all over the world ; of the already printed specimens a moderate number will therefore suffice. The next batch we shall glance at, after those in Kennish, has a more recent literary source. Thomas Edward Brown, that unique medley of pantheist, decalogical moralist, classical scholar, rhapsodist, sentimentalist, humorist and mystic, a bundle of inconsistencies tied with the golden string of genius, whose poetic fire lit up his qualities in turn but never fused their unlikeness in a supreme achievement, was in his art as glowingly positive as the sun ; a darkness of a nether world was to him an unreal dream, an idle tale of the faithless. His interest lay in normal human passions, and by this much he comes short of showing a complete picture of the Manx country-folk. What he had to say of witchcraft he gathered into one narrative poem, " The Manx Witch," charged with the spirit of human malevolence, not with a sense of supernatural powers. Outside this, he tells us almost nothing of the Island's superstitions. For him the efficacy of a spell is wholly derived from the sufferer's awareness of it. Pa'zon Gale's view of the matter is Parson Brown's view. People were possessed by devils in the Old Testament, right enough, but Christ sent them about their business once for all. And witches ? Just a disease like other diseases.

" Wutches ! They're tuk and done away with Altogether."

What people now call witches are

" Most of them wake in their intelleck ;
But others wicked ; and the faymale seek
In general, (the Pa'zon said),
Aye, wrong in the head, wrong in the head.
But mischievous enough was a wutch
Sartinly-and special for such
That believed in the lek.
But believe them not,
And where's their power ? it's gone like a shot.
It's you that gives them the power, he says,
By believing in all this wickedness."

Nevertheless, through the mouths of his characters he gives us some vivid descriptions of the ways of the witches, and in spite of his skepticism there is a passage where the atmosphere of passions merely human is suffused with a thicker darkness.

" This strong wutchin' is hard to clane
Urrov things ; it gets in the grain,
The very subjecs,11 lek no bleachin' 'll fly it,
Nor nothin' else won't purify it.
It's all about in the fields and the bushes,
You'd think you could see it among the rushes,
Creepin', crawlin', like a blue mist,
Like the breath of some spir't.

I'm feeling it, what ? .
All round me, he says; it's cowld and it's hot,
And it's stickin' all over, like these webs, he says,
That's spun in the air."


"Misthriss Banks could do the jeel 12
She was braggin' she could, and she'd take and kneel
On her bended knees, and she'd cuss-the baste !
Cuss the very skin off your face
But low, very low
A surt of a spittin'."

" She'd dart in her ear
Most despard cusses, navar fear,
And tellin' the charms she had on Jack
She could turn ev'ry bit of his body black
She could make him hate her-poor Nessy Brew !
Nothin' she couldn' and wouldn' do ! "

And Harry (from Dalby) is

" middlin' freckened she'd come
In some shape or other, like a corpse, by gum!
Or a modda-doo, goin' baw-wawin',
Or a tarroo-ushtey, or a muck-awin.
but the aunt [began] to rowl
Her eyes like wheels, and her body stretched
To the full of her height, and tuk and retched
All over the child, till she fell right down,
Like stiff, like dead.
and stooped lek to cover her,
And sthroogin' her theer, and breathin' over her
The witches breath, and hummin' charms
In her ear."

There are witches so case-hardened that they don't care even for a silver bullet, they are able to turn it aside. This feat was achieved by Misthriss Banks in the shape of a hare when Tom Baynes and Harry went hunting her. In " Job the White " (who was Mrs. Banks's son) Tom says of witches in general,

" Well, of course the boss
Is the Divil himself,"

and of Mrs. Banks in particular,

" the Divil was hers
Sure enough, and drilled with spurs
Of hell-fire ; and she hadn't no shame,
And up to every divil's game,
And had a way to 'tract ye though,
'Deed she had-as our as a crow, and well-spoken enough
When she liked."


1 A Pastoral Letter on the subject is cited in Stowell's Life of Bishop Wilson. After denouncing the fraudulent practices of the charmers, Wilson requests his clergy to represent to their flocks " the sin and the consequences of seeking to those wicked deceivers : That you make them sensible that all charms, let the words be good or bad, intelligible or meer jargon, are of the devil, with whom there is a compact implied by the very practice That it is a forsaking of God," etc. " Let not your people fancy that these practices are rather foolish than wicked. God has not taught us to think so ; for Exodus, xxxiv., 26, is an instance, amongst others, of God's disapproving such charms, that prohibition being directed against a charm used by the heathen to procure plenty. Besides, these beginnings may, if not timely discouraged, end in downright witchcraft."

2 Presumably the incongruous words Curlet was about to write were, " In the name of God the Father," etc.

3Folk-lore, vol. v.

4 Manx Folk-lore, page 6.

5 Our Centenarian Grandfather, edited by A. G. Bradley, page 180. Was it a similar disability to the above that caused the Northumbrian witches, when the Devil was to meet them and hear of their successes in spell-binding, to draw their " compasse " or protective circle " nigh to a bridg end " ? (Denhani Tracts, ii., 307.) Less understandable is the permission to cross water at 9 p.m. The Venerable Archdeacon's anecdote, however, though highly coloured, was probably based on a tradition; for in the notes to Carmina Gadelica (page 273) it is said that nine in the evening is, in the Scottish Isles, the unluckiest hour of the twenty-four in which to be born.

6 Girls of the Northern Isles ran three times each way round any large embedded stone when the first moon of wintef became visible, repeating a rhyme, in order to get a husband. (Ork. and Shet. Old-lore Miscellany, July, 1912, page 124.)

7 So does Horace (.Satires, i., 8) describe Canidia and Sagana in the Esquiline cemetery, with high-girt garments and streaming locks, howling their conjurations of the spirits of the dead from whom they required an answer. " Witches carry magic in their hair; therefore we cut it off." (Grimm, Teut. Myth., page 1624.) Even when they were merely flying to their reunions it was allowed to stream behind them, as innumerable pictures testify.

8 Published in 1844, but many of them were written a good deal earlier.

9 The Norse flavour of this is shared by the witches (doiteagan) of Mull, who, legend says, fly in the form of ravens, croak maledictions over ships, and raise tempests to destroy them. (Norse Survivals in Celtic Belief, page 92.) Dalyell, Darker Superstitions of Scotland, page 241, finds the same practice in a 17th-century trial ; to wit, " fleing lyk crawis, ravens, or uther foulis, about the schip as use is with witches," when they wish to sink. her. " O Scotchman," says the oldest poem in Manx, " the ravens croak above thy head !"

10 On this night, Old May Eve, the Manxmen brought their horses, cows, and even sheep, into the farmyards to enjoy the protection of the bolugh and other golden-hued flowers which were strewn about the place, and of the kieran-crosses tied to their tails-to the cows' tails, at any rate. If the witches could contrive to be-spell the cattle on that night, the housewife would find difficulty in making butter and cheese throughout the year ; even the rennet which would afterwards be made from the calf then unborn would be useless because tainted with the witches' spells. On the same evening the furze and other bushes in the neighbourhood of the farm-buildings were set on fire with torches carried by the younger men.

11 Substance.

12 Damage.

4. Witchcraft in Manx Life.

'Deed she has, and 'deed she was ! It comes back to me, that caressing suavity, as a characteristic of the sisterhood. It is superficial, and never lulls one's uneasy sense of a deadly undercurrent belying the smooth surface. She may be ruddy or swarthy, beautiful or bearded, tall and slim or short and stuggagh, youngish, middle - aged or hag - like, well - to - do or blighted by extreme poverty, but she has a look. It is a look that runs in families, though the virus may sleep in individual members, or even through a whole generation.

The doings of one modern witch and another are like peas in a pod ; they differ in magnitude, not in kind. Partly because she has been dead for some halfdozen years I select from my memory Misthress X. In her lifetime she was reputed, not only in the glen where I knew her, but in her native district out of which she had been escorted by a band of pot-and-pan musicians, to possess the Eye or power of overlooking as well as the ability to work charms of a noxious nature. Whatever her gifts in that line may have amounted to, she undoubtedly possessed a virulently slanderous tongue. In short, she was a buitch, a typical Manx witch of the smaller sort, though no one definitely gave her that title in public. When the washing was hanging out to dry, and she passed, it was pretty sure to rain if she had none of her own out; or if churning was in progress the butter would be strangely reluctant. For its reluctance on one such occasion I can vouch personally, if not for the cause. A friend of mine came on her, near his gate, in the act of brushing road-dust into a little bottle in the direction of her own house. She looked, it was surprising to hear, slightly foolish when discovered. During a period of feud with another family, when she feared the head of it was about to outbid her for her cottage and its two or three fields (as in truth he meditated doing), she dogged him up the hill one morning when he was driving out his calves, and called down, or up, every kind of trouble upon his cattle, not without appropriate gesticulations. One of the calves thereupon tumbled into a ditch and broke its back, and some other equally fatal mishap, I forget just what, befell another a couple of days later. While on professedly friendly terms with him a year or two afterwards, she inspected (not by invitation) and commended some pigs he had just bought. Following on her visit one of them fell sick and died the same week. Pigs, truly, have a way of dying without what seems sufficient cause in their owner's eyes, but in this case C. had no doubt about the cause, rightly or wrongly. She scattered herbs and flowers across the road in front of a trap containing members of another family which had incurred her enmity, and the driver remarked to the occupants, " Some more of her buitcheragh, " but I did not hear of any definite result from this. Greater success attended her machinations against the same family on another occasion, when a married member came home on an afternoon's visit. Said this lady to me " As I was sitting in the trap starting for home I suddenly felt a peculiar sensation all over me, as though all my strength was leaving me and I was going to faint. Y., [a sister] who was sitting next to me, cried out, ' Whatever is the matter ? ' because I looked so strange. I lifted up my head with an effort and saw Mrs. X. staring at me with a fixed and evil expression in her eyes that I shall never forget, and I couldn't look away from her for what seemed a long time, though it could not really have been more than a few moments. The trap was going at a walking pace on account of the bad road. At last we passed out of her range, and I was able to answer, ' Oh, it's that dreadful Mrs. X. !' and I felt a sense of relief, though far from being myself." Up to then the narrator had been in her usual fair state of health for some time, but shortly afterwards-not more than a week or two at the most-she developed a pneumonia with complications which amounted to a dangerous illness; she was confined to bed for many weeks, and had not fully recovered six months later.

More tales could be told of this old woman with the unpleasant gifts, but their details are such that they might lead to her identification, and although she is now dead her descendants are justly respected. In tacit excuse for her own use of charms she averred that she suffered from the evil spells of her enemies, but on her death-bed she expressed to a neighbour, a friend of mine, whom she believed she had injured, deep regret for her misdeeds.

Even a simple curse, or a wish that misfortune may happen, if it is fired at its object with a sufficient force of will and faith behind it, can hit hard, without the instrumentality of any material substance, such as writing or herbs, puppets of rags or clay, or the bodily superfluities of the victim, in which to incorporate its malevolence. A Manxwoman once confessed to me that the only wish for harm she ever deliberately and formally uttered took almost immediate effect. A man to whom she had been in the habit of wishing God-speed when he departed on a voyage had seriously offended her, and she wished him a bad journey. He begged her to withdraw her words, but she refused. During the voyage he was prostrated by the first severe attack of the disease which eventually killed him.

The following anecdote is as typical as any of those previously given ; incidentally, it illustrates the savage grip of the peasants upon the land they live by. There was a feud of long standing between two families, the C.'s and the K.'s. By degrees the C.'s grew poor and were forced to sell some of their fields and partly support themselves by working for other people. Later-in the next generation, I think-one of the family who had saved up or inherited a little money tried to buy back one of their old fields, but the K.'s heard of his intention, and by means of some trick forestalled him. The C.'s were then living in a cottage close to the main road, and whenever any of the K.'s passed on their way to market, Mrs. C. stood at her door and put curses on them, to the specific effect that none of them should ever prosper or die in his or her own house. These predictions have, I am told, been fulfilled up to the present time ; the K, family has sunk into poverty, and all its representative members, at any rate, have died elsewhere than at home.

The possession of an Evil Eye is not confined to witches and wizards, or even to persons of a malevolent nature. One of the Island's loth-century bishops was firmly believed by the country-folks to have a glance which damaged their animals and produce. A lesser light of the Church brought a similar though milder reputation with him from a Northern parish to a Southern one not many years ago.

In Ballaugh Glen, about sixty-five years ago, a man's horse went sick and could not stand. The man made up his mind to find out who had overlooked it. He invited all his neighbours in turn to come and see what they could do for it. They all complied except Billy Killip, but none of them was any use. Billy was sent for again, wheedled, threatened ; but still he refused. " Come on now, man," said the farmer, " it'll do no harm if it does no good." So at last Billy came. He put his hand on the horse's bad leg, and it jumped to its feet, all right again. The farmer knew then who had done it, for the one that does it is the only one that can cure it. So an eye-witness of the affair tells me.

In Sulby Glen last year (1930) a woman put a hen to sit on a specially important clutch of eggs she had. Someone came and looked at them while the hen was away. The hen " took the corree " and would not sit again. This I hear from a man who knows the woman, the hen, the circumstances, and probably the " someone."

Anybody who cared to spend his time in collecting tales of the Eye could soon amass hundreds, mostly monotonously trivial but tending to merge into the larger schemes of witchcraft. The intentional use of a " bad eye " is, in fact, a species of buitcheragh.


Back index next

Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2004