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Scottish Folk Magic and the Dead (part one) Funerary customs and death related lore

Open lock, end strife. Come death, and pass life Scottish folk charm to urge death.

On the beerial lift all the animals were loosed from the farm gates and driven along. It was not uncommon to see a funeral followed by baying cattle and was a mark of awe and reverence for the departed. Some funerals also had their own professional keeners that Ive already mentioned.

The funeral procession would occur in Scotland after the dead body was dressed in funerary clothes and then placed in the coffin. This part of the process was referred to as the kitsan. This could happen up to 8 days or more since the body had been laid out for the vigil. Sometimes part of the shroud or winding sheet was taken with a lock of the dead persons hair prior to the kitsan. This was then made into a napkin worn on communion Sunday or at other kitsans.24Personally, I find this a beautiful piece of folk practice and wish wed reinstate it, a memento mori of the most intimate kind and a link to our passed ancestry.

Interestingly in folk myth anbhean si(anglicised to banshee) originated from the death of a professional mourner, known as a keener or crier. Keeners were employed at funerals and wakes to mourn for the dead by moaning, chanting, crying etc. One account of this process is found in Patricia Lysaghts writing:

Envisage sitting over a dead body, lit only by two flickering candles through the night. Imagine the smell of putrid gas. An odd fart or burp indicating more gas escaping from the bloating corpse. Each gurgle and noise shifting its mass a little, almost like the body was still alive and moving. This was the situation with the vigil for the departed. The body was watched over up to 8 days, known as the dead days and things were far from sanitary.

Great importance was attached to the proper observances around death. The first task a newlywed had was making her own winding sheet or shroud, for example. If she died without a shroud it would mean the death rites couldnt be followed properly. The dead would find no rest. Restless dead werent a good idea as they would bring hardship, disease, madness and other havoc to farm and family.

The Vikings believed the dead would return, not in spirt, but in person. Its important to highlight the difference as there are examples Id like to link to in the Scottish Death Customs of this happening at the wake. It will make more sense later if we emphasise this now.

A term used by the Vikings to describe someone who had a look of death about them expressed in the wordfeigrdestined to die soon and even animals could bear this sign. What this looked like I have no record of. Interestingly,feigrlinks to the middle English wordfeythrough etymology. The word fey is word used to describe fairies (or the sidhe) but also means the dead or doomed to die. Coincidence, I think not.

Once the corpse has been washed and laid out in its shroud, one of the oldest women must light a candle and wave it three times around the corpse.18Then she must measure three handfuls of common salt into an earthen ware plate and lay it on the breast of the corpse. Lastly, she arranges three toomor empty dishes on the hearth, as near as possible to the fire. All the attendants going out of the room return to it backwards repeating the Rhyme of Saining:

There are lots of cases found in Grimm  of the similar beliefs of our Norse and Viking ancestors13. Death comes for you when your shadow is headless on Christmas eve, a candle goes out by itself in a house, or a board used to carry a dead man falls over.

An example of a bad death cross culturally and temporally is the fear of suicides.  Ill focus on two different cultures that have affected Scottish belief, the Romans and the Vikings (Norse and Anglo-Saxon), and attempt to weave their influence into Scottish folklore.

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The candle for saining in this ritual should be obtained from a seer orElleree20or from a person with schloof(flat feet), ringlit eyed (With a great part of white in their eyes) orlang-lipit(thick projecting lips). These are all signs of being touched by the Sidhe/unlucky. However, dealing with death these persons were considered to be the luckiest. Here is another link between the dead and the Sidhe.

The idea no suicide should get a blessed burial is a common Christian belief. These dead would be unshriven or restless with no absolution.  We have other stranger Scottish examples. Bodies of suicides were buried at the meeting of four cross roads, or at some other unfrequented spot resonant to our Roman ancestors practices. Through the suicides body a stake was forced.10. The Stake through the body was to stop the restless dead from rising physically from the grave. This was a Norse and Anglo-Saxon belief too. You can read more about this in the MS from Revd Walter Gregor, 1874.

Return of the dead, its corruption and putrification is a common unifying anxiety. Disease, evil, madness, revenge, curses, blighted crops and destroyed livelihoods are associated with them in many societies both modern and historic. On the reverse, the dead are associated with tutelary spirits, genii loci and deity. For example, a Gaelic exemplar of ancestor turned deity is the tale of Donn. The first of the Milesians to die in Ireland and become Lord of the Dead. His Red Riders and a boat ferrying the dead to his house ,Teach Duinn, at Samhuinn, an appropriate entourage. Other ancestors becamegenii locorum. Their tales, long forgotten, can be found buried in the Scottish landscape. Hidden in names of towns, rivers, munros and glens.

The cross roads are still a place in Scottish folklore where roads to the otherworld are said to be open. The influence from Rome could well be the mechanism and reason. We see later reference to you shall make no binding, nor incantations upon bread, the herbs you would hide in the trees by crossing of two or three paths (see theCapitula sub Carolo Magno, 744AD). Though not specific to Scotland it does testify to European wide belief that still existed in 744AD.8. Today, folk erect niches with Saints, many crosses or other apotropaic devices at cross roads. Its an interesting hypothetical survival of belief from antiquity to today.

Some suggest beans were relevant to the Celts in the same way. Archaeology has found a few pots filled with broad beans in Celtic age burial mounds that might be related to funerary rights. It is unclear and still only a hypothesis.

In Denmark, it was forbidden to bury the dead in the clothes of the living. As the clothes rot the person who the clothes belonged to would waste away. You must not weep over a dead person or worse still allow tears to fall on them. To do so would cause the dead to be restless. If someone wasnt dying very easily it was common to unlock the door. As they unlocked the latch they would say:Open lock, end strife, come death and pass life.

Broad bean flowers note the black inner colour

There were stones along the path calledRestin stanes orsmall cairns built where the body was rested.  If the Churchyard was a while away, (for rural communities it could have been a fair distance), or even if not, whisky would be drunk along the procession and at rest stops. The state of the funeral procession could be a pretty drunken mess from all the formal and informal drinking. Old scores were sometimes brought to light during the walk to the kirk. Broken faces and noses were not uncommon from fighting. Some processions so drunken and rowdy they managed to lose the departed in the snow on the way to the kirk. No one noticed till they went to inter the body. You can read a lot more about this in Death and Burial in Dumfries and Galloway, 1911.

If ye want that soul to dee[dee would be die]

There is a belief that death follows us, signs and portents are presented to us and death will rarely surprise if we know what to look for. Clans and families have a tutelary spirit that would have its own unique death signs and portends. The Most famous example of this is the keening ofan bhean si(the fairy women). She would alert people (usually only those whose surname began with Mac or O) death was coming. Other tutlery spirits might manifest differently with various signs from sounds, like dogs barking or bulls roaring, to lights and animals.

Theres a copy of a keening song recorded below.

Our ancestors divided the dead into different distinctions. We will focus on two of these the restless and the peaceful dead. The intervention of people through folk rites and/or fate moved the departed between these categories. For example, those who hadnt received the right funerary rights, who were murdered or through acts of suicide would become the restless dead.

Once at the kirk, the body might be rested at the Lychgate. Once rested the coffin would be taken round the kirk yard in a sun wise deosilturn to their interment. Once the green turf was covering the coffin there would be another dram of whisky and folks would return home to the final part of the funerary party. Sometimes referred to as the Dyruge or dirge.

Folk believe nothing will grow over a suicides grave. Any pregnant woman who walks over it will lose her baby. Similar in the action of the sidhe fairy blasting people or folks walking over far gortach(Hungry Grass). Hungry Grass was believed to be either caused by the faeries planting it or an unshriven restless corpse was buried in the vicinity of it11

There would be a plate over the stomach of the deceased with a mound of earth in it or on occasion a small green piece of turf or salt. This was said to prevent the swelling of the stomach from gasses. This turf cutting activity occurs at other times the passing over of farm property. In gallic this earth was known asFad-seilbh, possession sod, infeftment; the sod or handful of earth given by the seller to the buyer of land. Saxon prayers to farmland and at the Riding of the Marches also featured earth. The ridings came later, though they are all undertakings based around liminality). I think the presence of the turf has a greater significance. One I can only guess at. The importance of the earth from the farm or land they worked would have been very important once people were no longer buried at the family funeral plot on the farm grounds. Maybe this was a way of keeping them in contact with it, but why?

Thrice the dishes toom for loftie[loftie is praise I think so this would be three times the dishes empty for praise)

These decapitated, asphyxiated, burnt and drowned were still alive. How is this so? The state of the dead demonstrates they didnt die well. To the Scotsman and Irish man the dead would have been carried off body and soul by the sidhe. Phrases like not one in twenty dies a true death, they all pass into another life and when a man dies, he does not die at all, but the daoine maithe take him away show a belief of the dead being taken elsewhere. A different kind of death as we understand today.

In similar fashion our Germanic ancestors would lay the departed out on a plank or stones. Close the mouth and eyes and clog the nostrils and anus with wax. The eyes were closed to protect those gathered from the evil eye. The blocking of the bodies holes was to stop the spirit and other body fluids from getting out. They were fitted with shoes calledHelskorthe shoes of hel to help them more easily move to the next life. These shoes are mentioned in the song the Lykewake Dirge. They are made reference to ashosenandshoon.17

Archaeological finds of feasting occurring at the grave sites of Anglo-saxon burials suggest celebrations at the graves took place before kirk interference. The backfill on top of the corpse is filled with pottery, bone shards and other such festival related items. These celebrations took place before the Kirk stopped these activities demonstrated from the dating on the grave sites. It is clear from the evidence feasting at or near the grave whilst the body was still fresh occurred often. More feasting should have taken place on the third, seventh and thirtieth day after the death of the person.

An it shall have a fair fair shrive.(Shrive is penance, so an easy penance)

This vigil could be known as a sitting while the sun is above the horizon and a lykewake after dark. Lykewake has it etymology in Germanic languages. Lyke meaning corpse and wake meaning to watch.23A relative and a stranger must watch over the body. They could be relieved when they became too tired by another pair.

she (the banshee) was one of thoul criers. She didnt say who she was, but it was always given down be people then, that the banshee belonged to the criers. Anyone that was at that in times gone by, it was left thet theyd be crying I suppose when theyd be dead. But they were called the banshees, everyone of them yed hear crying.

Thou shalt go under me to the burial place,

This rite is called a Dishaloof. Sometimes (as is named in the verses), a sieve is placed between the dishes. She who is fortunate enough to place her hand in it is meant to do the most for the soul. Giving it a fair shrive. If all miss the sieve it augurs bad for the soul.19

A coffin, or a bier, or the spokes on which it was carried, was treated with especial reverence if made of the mountain ash.

An example that helps us grasp this idea of the liminal dead who are still alive is the poem entitledSir Orfeo. In the poem Sir Orfeo travels to rescue his wife who has been taken by the king of the fairies. After going mad in the wilderness he sees her travel past in a fairy host and rushes after her. He finds himself in a new land. The otherworld3. Whilst there, Sir Orfeo notices the castle walls and impressive vaulted roof are made of the still living dead, most of them maimed and suffering.

Migration, exploration and invasion. Cultural interplay has provided Scotland a rich diversity and depth of folklore. Before the influence of the kirk and the deads exile to formalised graveyards the Picts, Celts, Norse, Roman, Viking, Anglo, Saxon and others left deep-rooted beliefs. These philosophies shaped a unique form of folklore relating to the dead born from this melting pot.

The coffin was covered with a mort cloth (or plaid if the family were too poor).25The chairs were overturned once the coffin lifted off them and left there. These were only righted after sunset and after having been washed. If these chairs werent over turned the spirit might return to them. This would show proper procedure was broken and caused the dead to be restless.

The morning that Thorod and his men went out westaway from Ness, they were all lost off Enni; the ship and the fish drave ashore there under Enni, but the corpses were not found. But when this news was known at Frodiswater, Kiartan and Thurid bade their neighbours to the arvale, and their Yule ale was taken and used for the arvale. But the first evening whenas men were at the feast, and were come to their seats, in came goodman Thorod and his fellows into the hall, all of them dripping wet.

The body would be washed, dressed and cleaned. If the bed they died on had fowl feathers they would be placed on the floor.16The body was laid out on astrykin beuird a wooden board sometimes shaped like a coffin base. The wright of the village usually brought this board and the body wasstrykit,or laid on it, and covered in their winding sheet.

There were many of these dead wondering about. The father of the house who acted as priest for the family (pater familias) had to take steps to ward off the dead at the Lemuralia festival for instance. Throwing beans and striking a brass bowl was one way he could combat this incursion.4.

Nowhere, even in modern times, do religious ritual and custom retain a stronger hold on the majority of mankind than at the crisis of death and burial.

These three times three ye must wave round

In other western counties, the dishes are set upon a bunker close to the deathbed and whilst the attendants sit with their hands in the dishes they spae. That is, they tell fortunes, sing songs or repeat rhymes. In the middle of which the corpse has been said to rise frowning and place its cold hand in one of the dishes. Presaging death to her whose hand was in that dish. This reflects on the traditions of the dead being animate post death. The connection of the dead toSpeaing(fortune telling) is interesting one.

Thrice the torchie, thrice the saltie[torchie = candle, saltie = salt]

L. Stomma explored the restless dead who trouble the living. He noted they died at liminal times. Such as still-borns, women in labour etc. The astute among you will know Scottish folk-lore focuses primarily on liminality. It was at these liminal times folk were most worried about the interference of thedaoine maithe the good folk or the sidhe/sith. Its no coincidence death is bound up in these times too.

Folk rites accompanying the laying out of a body have been preserved in various folklore records and followed a similar order. At the moment of death all windows were shunted open and iron was placed in any food stuffs, butter, cheese, whisky etc. least death infect them and remove the toradh (fortune) from them. Iron is the same protective measure used to prevent the sidhe. All the mirrors covered with white linen and all the clocks were stopped. The kirk said this demonstrated earthly vanity had no place for the dead and time was of no importance.14. The bees must also be told about a death in the household. And sometimes the hives were turned away from the later procession with a veil over them.15

Records exist of corpse saining and Scottish folk magic blessing in the manuscripts. This example comes from lowland Scotland so may not pertain to the rest of Scotland. I offer this folk rite to preserve it but also to encourage you with its simplicity. It demonstrates how communities managed their own deaths with no ecclesiastic present.

My face shall be put toward Dundealgan,

The Romans viewed the dead as impure and dangerous. They offered to them to keep the dead in their good graces or prevent them carrying out misdeeds. In Rome, they called the restless deadlarvae. The dead could cause misfortune, madness and disease. Madness was sometimes known as being possessed by a larva(the wordlarvaetusused). These restless dead were the spirits of criminals, people who died in a strange and peculiar fashion, those who had died violently (except military), prematurely like suicide or had no tomb or place of rest, like those who had died at sea. The dead, such as suicide or criminals, were never entered into the houses of the dead and left to rot in a field outside the city, murder victims were buried where they fell or at cross roads. The dead who died without the constraining funerary rituals were destined to wonder restless and becomelarvae.

In other folk belief the sound of bells in their ears, known as the deid bellwas a sure sign of a coming death. There could be the sound of knocking, in sets of three strikes no human hand made12. Objects to be used at the funeral might be seen moving around the house or people would see lights, known as deid cannels following the future path of the funeral. Seeing a persons double, known in Gaelic as ataibhse, was a sure omen of death to befall that person. Seeing thetaibhsewas a particular gift to those with second sight, ortaibhsear.Others so gifted (or cursed) might see a grey mist about the head round a person soon to die, have a seizure inducing pre-vision of the funeral or would see them wrapped in their winding sheet. Other signs of death were linked to bird omens. Owls (cailleach-oidhche the old lady of night scots Gaelic) calling from outside your window or above your head a clear sign death was fast approaching. You can read more about this in Scottish Death Superstitions, Napier, 1879.

where they protected the departed on their journey to purgatory. The corpse was later taken out via a window or freshly made hole in the wall which was sealed up after. This was to confuse the stupefied dead from finding their way back.

The way we conceive of the dead today is not the same way as our ancestors. The dead were moving, roving things that could eat, fight and fuck. Thinking changed. The living dead were reduced to appearances in dreams, phantasms and at times demons by an active Kirk. In Scotland, the repository for this lore became the Sidhe, thedaoine maithe (good folk).  The burial mounds of our ancestors  Sidhe mounds. Fairy faith a repository for all things that couldnt be taken into Christianitys increasing ideological expansion2

Things do not always go as planned on these occasions. Tales speak of the dead sitting up frowning, an unseen hand previously having moved the earth clod or dish of salt to the bedstead. Something had been omitted from the Saining, or otherwise, and the corpse was not happy. To help with the monotony, (and maybe fear), merriment, dancing, jokes, singing and games accompanies the Lykewake in Scotland. Those who were closet to the deceased would give food, drink, tobacco and snuff as required. This meant funerals and vigils could be expensive. Guests could and would get very drunk. Card games ensued.  At times the coffin was used as the card table. It was not uncommon for the dead body to join in the games. A folk story suggests on one occasion, whilst a drunken game of hide and go seek was taking place. Some young men took the body out of the coffin and one of them hid in its place. When he was finally found he was quite dead and the body originally there couldnt be found.

They would also turn pots upside down and open windows for similar reasons. This was to help the persons have an easy death and similar practices are found at births. There is a belief death only occurs at low tide and births at high tide. The water needed to be all the way out for someone to pass and all the way in for someone to be born. If you made it past low tide you would not go until the next.

Mosstroopers21led folklorists of the time to believe the saining candle should be made from the fat of a slaughtered enemy or at least from a murdered man. The candle must burn all through the night, on a table with a white table cloth covering it and for as long as the body remains in the house. The small round table the candles rest on may in no account be used for anything else.22Other folk beliefs refer to them as Yule Candles. These special candles for watching the dead were the remains of especially large candles burned at Yule and extinguished at the close of the day. What was left of the candle was left preserved and locked away to be burned at the owners own wauking (wake). A nice link to the Yule festival and the dead and I think a more likely source of the candle than our Mosstroppers murderer.

introduced a series of writingexploring the role of the oft neglected dead in Scottish folk magic. If you havent read it I suggest you have awee read.It sets the tone of the rest of the series. Due to the amount of lore and other related bits of information this article is quite dense. A fuller exploration of the subject of funerary customs, death and folklore requires more writing than I feel Im capable of in a web format. (and maybe more than youd like to read- It needs chapters). To keep the flow a little easier I havent referenced academically but written the odd note here and there which youll find when you click on  1. I also  have highlighted relevant reading as Ive gone along and happy to discuss sources if youre interested.

Our Viking ancestors marked the vigil of the corpse in a similar fashion.  Notes of vigils being accompanied by singing and dancing are recorded by Burchard of Worms. Jan de Vries, in Germanic Religion, Vol 2 mentions the Council of Arles (524Ad) who put it this way: the laity who keep vigil over a dead person should do so with fear and trembling, and with respect. May no one risk singing diabolical songs, spinning or dancing as the pagans are wont to do under the devils influence. The inclusion of spinning being carried out at the vigil of a dead person is interesting.

The Norse and Anglo-Saxons believed the dead were said to wander around more at Jol (yule) but could do so at any time in the year. One mention in the Eyrbyggja Saga (chapter 54 The death of Third Scat-Catcher) supports this:

It wasnt unusual for everyone to be pretty drunk from the time the kitsan took place to when the corpse was ready to go. Fin the beerial wiz ready t lift, i.e. ready to go, two chairs were placed in front of the door. The spokes, the rods used to carry the coffin, adjusted under it (there were usually 8 spokes for an adult).

In Scottish funerary customs, after the funeral, bread and water were placed in the house where the dead person was held for the wake. This was in the belief the spirit of the dead would return to eat. If these offerings werent left for the dead, they wouldnt rest. I find these two practices echo one another in intent though maybe not size.

Following in Sir Orfeos footsteps. We will explore a particular fear of a bad death, focussing on salient points to help us understand some of the current Scottish folk and funerary customs discussed later.

S deantar dhomh-sa carbad grinn.Thou rowan tree before the door,

Some of the Lore states only men went to the ceremony and the women would stay at the house service. However, we have records of the first lifting of the Coffin being done by woman first then passed to men and pictures of women in wake processions.26. The body wasnt taken through a field least it turned the field fallow. A similar power prescribed to the sidhe as already discussed above in hungry Grass. The funeral procession on no account took byways, but moved along the Kirk road. The road which the deceased had walked to gods house must be the road he took in death. Our Germanic ancestors had a very similar custom of treading the path to helland its mentioned in the Poetic Edda.27

A struggle ensued trying to stop the suicide being buried in the churchyard. Many apparently rolled into the dust this day. Eventually the party carrying the departed suicide were kept out. The body buried close beneath the church wall. The lid was lifted before it was buried.Vitriol9poured over it, dissolving the body. The smell made the crowd gag. The vitriol was used to stop the body being lifted during the coming night and returned to where their family lived. It was feared the departed would be placed against the front door to fall at the feet of the first person from their family to open it in the morning.

Its important every watcher at the Vigil should touch the corpse with their hand. Said to keep them from dreaming of the departed. The kind caress and accompanying loving words would show they meant the deceased no harm. It also had another purpose. Our Viking ancestors were very worried about the dead coming back to revenge their murder. A corpse was said to bleed from its wounds when touched by its murderer. We see this repeated in King James I book, Demonology, In a secret murder if the dead carkasse be at any time thereafter handled by the murderer it will gush out of blood as if the blood were crying to Heaven for revenge.

The bean throwing is interesting. Why would someone throw beans at the dead? Beans were associated with spirits in Roman times. The spirits of the dead were said to travel up the hollow stems of broad bean, eventually maturing to a full bean. Each bean represented a spirit of a dead person. When a person ate the beans, they would release the spirt of the dead through their wind5. Farting was a sign the dead were escaping. Being quite gassy myself I chuckle at this idea that Im full of spirits, but this was no frivolous concern to the Romans. Pythagoras died being trapped in a bean field afraid to step on the dead the plants represented to him as his murderers pursued him. Beans then came protective because people would leave beans for the dead as these represented other spirits they could take instead of their own.6.

The fear of the departed suicide is present in Scotland a long time after Rome. Even around 1824. The tale goes In Banff-shire a huge fight took place to prevent the burial of a suicide in the kirk yard. The strong men of the parish got word of the burial going to take place. Heading up before dawn and carrying strong sticks as weapons. They set up their place along the church wall and the strongest blocked the gates. Eventually, the suicides coffin surrounded by a drunk and similar angry crowd armed with sharpened spades arrived and the expected happened.

The Romans were powerless to stop the restless dead entering their homes on the unlucky days of the Lemuralia festival (the 9th, 11thand 13thof May) where spirits of the doorways conspired to let them enter. Another festival honouring the dead was the Roman Laralia festival. This was held at cross roads in Midwinter (the same as ourJol/Yuletime) in honour of thelares compitales(the larva of the cross roads, hence the name Laralia). This feast of the cross roads was marked by thePater Familiasand not an official ecclesiastic. I think this is an important distinction. The pater familias hung wooden dolls (maniea) or bark masks (oscilla) from trees at crossroads. These represent fetishes the restless dead were meant to take instead of the real family member. Interestingly, Scotland has the Sidhe aboard atBealltainn. The dates are very similar to the Lemuralia festival. La Bealltainn,Samhuinnand Yule are associated with the dead and the good folk/Sidhe.7.

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