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Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland

John Gregorson Campbell

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Tags: Folklore » Paranormal and Mysteries

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Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland; Tales and Traditions collected entirely from oral sources, was first published in 1902. Chapters include: White Witchcraft; Black Witchcraft; Death Warnings; Second Sight; Hobgoblins; and, The Celtic Year.

This book has 139 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1902.

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Excerpt from Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland

Witchcraft introduces us to a class of popular superstitions entirely different from those connected with Fairies. Fairies, water-horses, and kindred supernatural beings were distinct from the Evil Spirits that gave to witches their unhallowed powers. They could not be compelled or conjured by mortals to appear when wanted, or enter into contracts of service. The Powers of Darkness, on the other hand, were always at the service of their votaries, and, by means of charms and incantations known to the initiated, were made to lend their aid in any scheme of malevolence.

A belief in magic widely, almost universally, prevails among the tribes of mankind, and the witchcraft of the Christian era, while it undoubtedly gained strength and character from mistaken interpretations of Scripture, owes many characteristics to the delusions of Pagan times.

The Highland witches have of course many points in common with their sisters of the south, but comparatively there is little repulsive or horrible in their character. Tales regarding them make no mention of incubus and succubus, midnight meetings and dances with the devil, dead men’s fingers, and more of the horrible and awful, the ravings of poor women driven crazy by persecution and torture. Neither is there mention of their riding through the air on broomsticks, nor, like the witch of Endor, raising the dead. Their art was forbidden, and their powers came from the devil; but it does not appear under what paction, or that there was any paction, under which this power was to be got. It was in the name of the devil, and against the name of the Trinity, they set about their cantrips, but a knowledge of the necessary charms, and the courage to use them, seem to have been all that was requisite. Those having the reputation of being witches were (and are, for a few still survive) usually old women, destitute of friends and means of support, and naturally ready to eke out a miserable livelihood by working on the fears or the simplicity of their more prosperous neighbours.

There are instances in which a farmer has bribed a witch by yearly presents not to do harm to his cattle; and we must remember that in days of scarcity and famine, poverty with icy hand and slow-consuming age will make people resort to shifts of which they would never dream when food was abundant. In most cases, the reputed witch was merely a superstitious and perhaps ill-favoured old woman, possessing a knowledge of rhymes and charms for the healing of disease in man and beast, and taking pains to sain her own cattle, if she had any, from harm. Sometimes she was also dishonest, desirous of being looked upon with awe, and taking advantage of nightfall to steal milk from her neighbours’ byres and corn from their stackyards. Her powers of witchcraft satisfactorily accounted to the popular mind for her butter and cheese—even if she had no cows—being abundant when the stores of others failed. In dark uncultured times a claim to influence over the unseen powers of nature, and to intercourse with spirits, had only to be made to be allowed, and the mere pretension too readily invests the claimant with awe to make it safe for any one to denounce the imposture. Many believed in the efficacy of the arts they practised, and in their own possession of the power with which the credulity of mankind was willing to accredit them. Unusual natural events and phenomena can easily be turned into proofs of a witch’s claim; imposture readily leads to delusion, and hence among the poor and uneducated it is no wonder to find witchcraft practised and believed in.

The power of witches was always at the disposal of those who were willing to pay for it, and the fact that the rewards of witchcraft did not sometimes exceed a pound of tobacco, alone shows how much the urgencies of want had to do with the pretence to supernatural powers. Unless payment was given the witch could do nothing; her spells were then of no avail. To explain the anomaly that witches possessed such tremendous powers and yet remained always in indigent circumstances, it was said the poor wretches could not benefit themselves; their power, as might be expected, considering the source from which it was derived, was only one of mischief and doing harm to others. Much of the superstition is at variance with this popular explanation, as, for instance, the taking of milk from the neighbours’ cows and the substance from their butter and cheese, but contradictions and absurdities never stand in the way of credulity and superstitious fears.

The Gaelic name ‘Buidseach’ is identical in meaning with the English ‘witch,’ a word it also somewhat resembles in form. The term ‘Bao’ is sometimes translated wizard, but is properly only a careless conversational form of Baobh, a wild furious woman, a wicked mischievous female, who scolds and storms and curses, caring neither what she says nor what she does, praying the houses may be razed (làrach lom) and the property destroyed (sgrios an codach) of those who have offended her. This is a word used in proverbs. “A raging woman obtains her imprecation, but her soul obtains no mercy.” Baoth, weak, foolish, is often confounded with it. M’Intosh makes the expression ‘maca bao,’ ‘a wizard’s son’ instead of macan baoth, a weak or little child. “Pity of her who is the mother of a helpless child, when May-day falls on a Thursday,” i.e. owing to the infant mortality of the season.

A common answer to the question, What could witches do? is What could they not do? The classes of actions, however, ascribed to them are not numerous. They could take the milk from their neighbours’ cattle, bring fish to their own coasts, make fishermen successful, go to sea for fish themselves and bring home creelfuls, raise storms, sink ships, drown those who offended them; give strings to sailors with knots on them, the unloosening of which raised the wind; they could go to wine-cellars in London or Ireland, and drink wine till morning; fly through the air with magic quickness, and cross the seas in the most unlikely vessels, sieves, eggshells, or dry cowsherds; produce a wasting disease in an enemy, waylay and endanger the belated traveller, and by their cursed tricks keep a child in its mother’s womb past its proper time; suck cows, and assume various shapes. They could benefit, or at least ward away evil from a favourite, but their power of doing so seems to have been much feebler than their powers of mischief.

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