Scottish Death Superstitions by James Napier 1879
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It is not surprising that the solemn period of death should have been surrounded with many superstitious ideas,—with a great variety of omens and warnings, many of which, however, were only called to mind after the event. In the country, when any person was taken unwell, it was very soon known over the whole neighbourhood, and all sorts of remedies were recommended. Generally a doctor was not sent for until the patient was considered in a dangerous state, and then began the search for omens or warnings. If the patient recovered, these premonitions were forgotten, but if death ensued, then everything was remembered and rendered significant. Was a dog heard to howl and moan during the night, with his head in the direction of the house where the patient lay; was there heard in the silent watches of the night in the room occupied by the sick person, a tick, ticking as of a watch about the bed or furniture, these were sure signs of approaching death, and adult patients hearing these omens, often made sure that their end was near. Many pious people also improved the circumstance, pointing out that these omens were evidence of God's great mercy, inasmuch as He vouchsafed to give a timely warning in order that the dying persons might prepare for death, and make their peace with the great Judge. To have hinted, under such circumstances, that the ticking sounds were caused by a small wood moth tapping for its mate, would have subjected the hinter to the name of infidel or unbeliever in Scripture, as superstitious people always took shelter in Scripture.
Persons hearing a tingling sound in their ears, called the deid bells, expected news of the death of a friend or neighbour. A knock heard at the door of the patient's room, and on opening no person being found, was a sure warning of approaching death. If the same thing occurred where there was no patient, it was a sign that some relation at a distance had died. I was sitting once in the house of a newly married couple, when a loud knock was heard upon the floor under a chair, as if some one had struck the floor with a flat piece of wood. The young wife removed the chair, and seeing nothing, remarked with some alarm, "It is hasty news of a death." Next day she received word of the death of two of her brothers, soldiers in India, the deaths having occurred nearly a year before. There was no doubt in the mind of the young wife that the knock was a supernatural warning. The natural explanation probably was that the sound came from the chair, which being new, was liable to shrink at the joints for some time, and thus cause the sound heard. This cracking sound is quite common with new furniture.
If, again, some one were to catch a glimpse of a person whom they knew passing the door or window, and on looking outside were to find no such person there, this was a sign of the approaching death of the person seen. There were many instances quoted of the accuracy of this omen, instances generally of persons who, in good health at the time of their illusionary presence, died shortly after. Another form of this superstition was connected with those who were known to be seriously ill. Should the observer see what he felt convinced was the unwell person, say, walking along the street, and on looking round as the presence passed, see no person, this was a token of the death of the person whose spectre was seen. I knew of a person who, on going home from his work one evening, came suddenly upon an old man whom he knew to be bed-ridden, dressed as was formerly his wont, with knee breeches, blue coat, and red nightcap. Although he knew that the old man had for some time been confined to bed, so distinct was the illusion that he bid him "good night" in passing, but receiving no reply, looked behind and saw no one. Seized with fright, he ran home and told what he had seen. On the following morning it was known through the village that the old man was dead. And his death had taken place at the time when the young man had seen him on the previous evening. This was considered a remarkably clear instance of a person's wraith or spirit being seen at the time of death. However, the seeing of a person's wraith was not always an omen of death. There were certain rules observed in relation to wraiths, by which their meaning could be ascertained, but these rules differed in different localities. In my native village a wraith seen during morning, or before twelve noon, betokened that the person whose wraith was seen would be fortunate in life, or if unwell at the time, would recover; but when the wraith was seen in the afternoon or evening, this betokened evil or approaching death, and the time within which death would occur was considered to be within a year. This belief in wraiths goes back to a very early period of man's history. The ancient Persians and Jews believed that every person had a spirit or guardian angel attending him, and although generally invisible, it had the power of becoming visible, and separating itself for a time from the person it attended, and of appearing to other persons in the guise of the individual from whom it emanated. An excellent example of this superstitious belief is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. When Peter, who was believed to be in prison, knocked at the "door of the gate" of the house where the disciples were met, the young woman who went to open the door, on recognising Peter's voice, was overjoyed, and, instead of opening, ran into the house, and told the disciples Peter was at the door. Then they said "It is his angel" (wraith). Thus the whole company expressed their belief in attending angels. The belief in wraiths was prevalent throughout all Scotland. It is beautifully introduced in the song of "Auld Robin Gray." When the young wife narrates her meeting with her old sweetheart, she says, "I thought it was his wraith, I could not think it he," and the belief survives in some parts of the country to the present day.
If a dying person struggled hard and long, it was believed that the spirit was kept from departing by some magic spell. It was therefore customary, under these circumstances, for the attendants to open every lock in the house, that the spell might be broken, and the spirit let loose. J. Train refers to this superstition in his Mountain Muse, published 1814:—
"The chest unlocks to ward the power,
Of spells in Mungo's evil hour." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Mungo)
After death there came a new class of superstitious fears and practices. The clock was stopped, the looking-glass was covered with a cloth, and all domestic animals were removed from the house until after the funeral. These things were done, however, by many from old custom, and without their knowing the reason why such things were done. Originally the reason for the exclusion of dogs and cats arose from the belief that, if either of these animals should chance to leap over the corpse, and be afterwards permitted to live, the devil would gain power over the dead person.
When the corpse was laid out, a plate of salt was placed upon the breast, ostensibly to prevent the body swelling. Many did so in this belief, but its original purpose was to act as a charm against the devil to prevent him from disturbing the body. In some localities the plate of salt was supplemented with another filled with earth. A symbolical meaning was given for this; that the earth represented the corporeal body, the earthly house,—the salt the heavenly state of the soul. But there was an older superstition which gave another explanation for the plate of salt on the breast. There were persons calling themselves "sin eaters" who, when a person died, were sent for to come and eat the sins of the deceased. When they came, their modus operandi was to place a plate of salt and a plate of bread on the breast of the corpse, and repeat a series of incantations, after which they ate the contents of the plates, and so relieved the dead person of such sins as would have kept him hovering around his relations, haunting them with his imperfectly purified spirit, to their great annoyance, and without satisfaction to himself. This form of superstition has evidently a close relation to such forms of ancestor-worship as we know were practised by the ancients, and to which reference has already been made.
Until the funeral, it was the practice for some of the relations or friends to sit up all night, and watch the corpse. In my young days this duty was generally undertaken by youths, male and female friends, who volunteered their services; but these watchings were not accompanied by the unseemly revelries which were common in Scotland in earlier times, or as are still practised in Ireland. The company sitting up with the corpse generally numbered from two to six, although I have myself been one of ten. They went to the house about ten in the evening, and before the relations went to bed each received a glass of spirits; about midnight there was a refreshment of tea or ale and bread, and the same in the morning, when the relations of the deceased relieved the watchers. Although during these night sittings nothing unbefitting the solemnity of the occasion was done, the circumstances of the meeting gave opportunity for love-making. The first portion of the night was generally passed in reading,—some one reading aloud for the benefit of the company, afterwards they got to story-telling, the stories being generally of a ghostly description, producing such a weird feeling, that most of the company durst hardly look behind them for terror, and would start at the slightest noise. I have seen some so affected by this fear that they would not venture to the door alone if the morning was dark. These watchings of the dead were no doubt efficacious in perpetuating superstitious ideas.
The reasons given for watching the corpse differed in different localities. The practice is still observed, I believe, in some places; but probably now it is more the result of habit—a custom followed without any basis of definite belief, and merely as a mark of respect for the dead; but in former times, and within this century, it was firmly held that if the corpse were not watched, the devil would carry off the body, and many stories were current of such an awful result having happened. One such story was told me by a person who had received the story from a person who was present at the wake where the occurrence happened. I thus got it at second hand. The story ran as follows:—The corpse was laid out in a room, and the watchers had retired to another apartment to partake of refreshments, having shut the door of the room where the corpse lay. While they were eating there was heard a great noise, as of a struggle between two persons, proceeding from the room where the corpse lay. None of the party would venture into the room, and in this emergency they sent for the minister, who came, and, with the open Bible in his hand, entered the room and shut the door. The noise then ceased, and in about ten minutes he came out, lifted the tongs from the fireplace, and again re-entered the room. When he came out again, he brought out with the tongs a glove, which was seen to be bloody, and this he put into the fire. He refused, however, to tell either what he had seen or heard; but on the watchers returning to their post, the corpse lay as formerly, and as quiet and unruffled as if nothing had taken place, whereat they were all surprised.
From the death till the funeral it was customary for neighbours to call and see the corpse, and should any one see it and not touch it, that person would be haunted for several nights with fearful dreams. I have seen young children and even infants made to touch the face of the corpse, notwithstanding their terror and screams. If a child who had seen the corpse, but had not been compelled to touch it, had shortly afterwards awakened from a sleep crying, it would have been considered that its crying was caused by its having seen the ghost of the dead person.
If, when the funeral left the house, the company should go in a scattered, straggling manner, this was an omen that before long another funeral would leave the same house. If the company walked away quickly, it was also a bad omen. It was believed that the spirit of the last person buried in any graveyard had to keep watch lest any suicide or unbaptized child should be buried in the consecrated ground, so that, when two burials took place on the same day, there was a striving to be first at the churchyard. In some parts of the Highlands this superstition led to many unseemly scenes when funerals occurred on the same day.
Those attending the funeral who were not near neighbours or relations were given a quantity of bread and cakes to take home with them, but relations and near neighbours returned to the house, where their wives were collected, and were liberally treated to both meat and drink. This was termed the dredgy or dirgy, and to be present at this was considered a mark of respect to the departed. This custom may be the remnant of an ancient practice—in some sort a superstition—which existed in Greece, where the friends of the deceased, after the funeral, held a banquet, the fragments of which were afterwards carried to the tomb. Upon the death of a wealthy person, when the funeral had left the house, sums of money were divided among the poor. In Catholic times this was done that the poor might pray for the soul of the deceased. In the Danish Niebellungen song it is stated that, at the burial of the hero Seigfried, his wife caused upwards of thirty thousand merks of gold to be distributed among the poor for the welfare and repose of his soul. This custom became in this country and century in Protestant times an occasion for the gathering of beggars and sorners from all parts. At the funeral of George Oswald of Scotstoun, three miles from Glasgow, there were gathered several hundreds, who were each supplied with a silver coin and a drink of beer, and many were the blessings wished. A similar gathering occurred at the funeral of old Mr. Bogle of Gilmourhill, near Glasgow; but when announcement was made that nothing was to be given, there rose a fearful howl of execration and cursing both of dead and living from the mendacious crowd. The village of Partick in both these cases was placed under a species of black-mail for several days by beggars, who would hardly take any denial, and in many instances appropriated what was not their own. I am not aware that this custom is retained in any part of the country now.
As the funerals fifty years ago were mostly walking funerals, the coffin being carried between two spokes, the sort of weather during the funeral had its omens, for in these days the weather was believed to be greatly under the control of the devil, or rather it was considered that he was permitted to tamper with the weather. If the day was fine, this was naturally a good omen for the soul's welfare. I remember that the funeral of the only daughter of a worthy couple happened on a wet day, but just as the funeral was leaving the house the sun broke through and the day cleared, whereupon the mother, with evident delight, as she stood at the door, thanked God that Mary was getting a good blink. Stormy weather was a bad omen, being regarded as due to Satan's influence. Burns refers to this belief in his "Tam o' Shanter." When referring to the storm, he says:—
"Even a bairn might understand
The deil had business on his hand."
The following old rhyme mentions the most propitious sort of weather for the christening, marriage, and funeral:—
"West wind to the bairn when gaun for its name,
Gentle rain to the corpse carried to its lang hame,
A bonny blue sky to welcome the bride,
As she gangs to the kirk, wi' the sun on her side."
The wake in the Highlands during last century was a very common affair. Captain Burt, in his letters from Scotland, 1723, says that when a person dies the neighbours gather in the evening in the house where the dead lies, with bagpipe, and spend the evening in dancing—the nearest relative to the corpse leading off the dance. Whisky and other refreshments are provided, and this is continued every night until the funeral.
Pennant, in his tour through the Highlands, 1772, says that, at a death, the friends of the deceased meet with bagpipe or fiddle, when the nearest of kin leads off a melancholy ball, dancing and wailing at the same time, which continue till daybreak, and is continued nightly till the interment. This custom is to frighten off or protect the corpse from the attack of wild beasts, and evil spirits from carrying it away.
Another custom of olden times, and which was continued till the beginning of this century, was that of announcing the death of any person by sending a person with a bell—known as the "deidbell"—through the town or neighbourhood. The same was done to invite to the funeral. In all probability, the custom of ringing the bell had its origin in the church custom, being a call to offer prayers for the soul of the departed. Bell-ringing was also considered a means of keeping away evil spirits. Joseph Train, writing in 1814, refers to another practice common in some parts of Scotland. Whenever the corpse is taken from the house, the bed on which the deceased lay is taken from the house, and all the straw or heather of which it was composed is taken out and burned in a place where no beast can get at it, and in the morning the ashes are carefully examined, believing that the footprint of the next person of the family who will die will be seen. This practice of burning the contents of the bed is commendable for sanitary purposes.
A Tribute to my Beloved Dog, Teddy