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Customs and Traditions, Myths and Legends

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Stirling Thompson:
Intesesting odd bits you might run across that you'd like to pass along? I'll start us off with two ancient, but apparently still practiced, traditions.

Wish Trees and Clootie Wells

A Wish Tree is an individual tree, usually distinguished by species, position or appearance, which is used as an object of wishes and offerings. Such trees are identified as possessing a special religious or spiritual value. By tradition, believers make votive offerings in order to gain from that nature spirit or goddess fulfillment of a wish.

One form of votive offering is the token offering of a coin. One such tree still stands near Ardmaddy House in Argyll, Scotland. The tree is a hawthorn, a species traditionally linked with fertility, as in 'May Blossom'. The trunk and branches are covered with hundreds of coins which have been driven through the bark and into the wood. The local tradition is that a wish will be granted for each of the coins so treated.

On the island of St Maol Rubha or St Maree, in Loch Maree, Gairloch in the Highlands is an oak Wish Tree made famous by a visit in 1877 by Queen Victoria and its inclusion in her published diaries. The tree, and others surrounding it, are festooned with hammered in coins. It is near the healing well of St Maree, to which votive offerings were made. Records show that bulls were sacrificed openly up until the 18th century.

Full article is here:

Clootie wells (also Cloutie or Cloughtie wells) are places of pilgrimage in Celtic areas. They are wells or springs, almost always with a tree growing beside them, where strips of cloth or rags have been left, usually tied to the branches of the tree as part of a healing ritual. In Scots nomenclature, a "clootie" or "cloot" is a strip of cloth or rag.

When used at the clootie wells in Scotland and Ireland, the pieces of cloth are generally dipped in the water of the holy well and then tied to a branch while a prayer of supplication is said to the spirit of the well - in modern times usually a saint, but in pre-Christian times a goddess or local nature spirit. This is most often done by those seeking healing, though some may do it simply to honour the spirit of the well. In either case, many see this as a probable continuation of the ancient Celtic practice of leaving votive offerings in wells or pits.

In Scotland, near the villages of North Kessock and Munlochy, 1 mile west of Munlochy on the A832, is a clootie well at an ancient spring dedicated to Saint Curidan (or Curitan), where rags are still hung on the surrounding bushes and trees. Here the well was once thought to have had the power to cure sick children who were left there overnight. Craigie Well at Avoch on the Black Isle has both offerings of coins and clooties. Rags, wool and human hair were also used as charms against sorcery, and as tokens of penance or fulfilment of a vow.

Full article is here:

Thanks Stu for that bit of Scottish history.  You have added so much of interest to this forum, thanks again.


Stirling Thompson:
Jock Tamson's Bairns
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"We're a' Jock Tamson's Bairns" (Lowland Scots for we're all John Thomson's children) is a popular saying in Scotland and the far north of England, and is known in other parts of the world. Nowadays, the phrase is often used to mean "we're all the same under the skin".

It has been suggested as a euphemism for God, so the saying could mean "we are all God's children". The expression "We're a' the bairns o' Adam", conveys exactly the same meaning, see Freedom Come-All-Ye a song written by Hamish Henderson. Scottish Gaelic also has the shorter saying "Clann MhicTamhais" (Thomson/MacTavish's children/clan). This is a common egalitarian sentiment in Scottish national identity, also evident in the popularity of the Robert Burns song A Man's A Man for A' That.

Although Jock Tamson's Bairns is used as a personification of the Scots nation, it is also used to refer to the human race in general.

It is also used when people think one of their number is showing off, or considers himself better than his peers: "Who does he think he is? We're all Jock Tamson's bairns." The downside of this egalitarianism is the traditional lack of acceptance of anyone from a small community who moves on and up, socially or professionally, even if they display no conceit. "Too good for us now, are ye?"

One explanation of this phrase (as recorded in the History of Duddingston Kirk) is that the Reverend John Thomson (Jock Tamson, Thamson), minister of Duddingston Kirk, Edinburgh, from 1805 to 1840, called the members of his congregation "ma bairns" (cognate with Geordie me bairns; English: 'my children') and this resulted in folk saying "we're a' Jock Tamson's bairns" which gave a sense of belonging to a select group.

"Jock Tamson" (John Thomson) would have also been a very common Scottish name, and would have been equivalent to such phrases as "John Doe", "John Smith", "Joe Bloggs" etc.

Stirling Thompson:
Horseman's Word
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Horseman's Word was a secret society operating amongst horse trainers, blacksmiths, ploughmen, and other horsemen in Scotland from the 18th century until as late as the 20th century. They taught horse whispering and other magic, and like the Toadmen of East Anglia, they were believed to have been taught to control horses by a secret word, as well as by use of scented substances, or by the use of a toad's pelvis bone.

The initiation rituals into the society incorporated a number of elements such as reading passages from the Bible backwards, and the secrets included Masonic-style oaths, gestures, passwords and handshakes. Like the similar societies of the Miller's Word and the Toadmen, they were believed to have practiced witchcraft.

The Horseman’s Word was a trade union formed in Northern Scotland in the late 18th century whose goal was to protect horse trainers and ploughmen, along with their trade knowledge, from the threat of an encroaching economic system in which the resources for production were becoming privately owned and wages and prices for goods and services were being taken out of the skilled laborers control and put into the hands of large farm owners. The formation of the Horseman’s Word also coincided with the draft horse becoming the primary working animal in the farming areas of Northern Scotland. As a result, the ability to raise and control these animals became a valued skill and people possessing this ability were in high demand. This created a desirable form of well paid and respectable work. The trade union, aside from protecting trade knowledge, wanted to ensure that the men engaged in this profession were efficiently trained and that the quality of their work was consistently good and that the remunerations for that work were appropriate.

After the candidate completed the initiation ceremony he was then given a word that was supposed to give him power over horses. So aside from being a secret society "The Horseman’s Word" was actually a spoken word. This secret word, which varied by location, was said to have magical and mystical qualities which would allow the keeper of the word to possess the ability by merely whispering it to bring horses under their complete control. Apart from gaining knowledge of the secret word more practical information and techniques about controlling and training horses was also passed on to members of the society. These methods were kept secret and done in such a way that the horseman maintained their reputation as having unique and even magical power over horses.

Until the initiation ceremony and induction into the society and the receiving of the word, the horseman who were not members of the society but potential candidates would have trouble with horses. This would often be caused by older ploughmen who were members of the society tampering with their horses. They would put things like tacks under the horse's collar to cause it to behave irrationally. This would be unknown to the potential candidate as the techniques for training and controlling the horses were not yet given to him. Most of these techniques were based on the horse's sharp sense of smell. Foul substances placed in front of the horse or on the animal itself would cause it to refuse to move forward. This technique is known as jading and is still used by horse trainers today. There were also pleasant smelling things that were used to make a horse move forward or calm down. If the substance was an oil it could be wiped on the trainer's forehead, they would then stand in front of the animal and the smell would draw it towards them. This practice was often used in taming unruly horses. There were also pleasant smelling and inviting materials, such as sweets, that the horseman could keep in their pocket in order to calm, attract, and subdue a crazed horse. Keeping these techniques secret, along with the myth that there was a word that only the horseman knew that gave them and them alone power over horses helped guarantee their reputation, prestige, job security, and pay. The same type of logic and protection of trade secrets can be seen among modern magicians who keep their tricks secret and only share them with other members of their trade.

Complete article is here:

Stirling Thompson:
Fairy Flag
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Fairy Flag (in Scottish Gaelic, An Bratach Sith) is a fragment of cloth owned by the Clan MacLeod and preserved at Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, where it is on display. The MacLeods consider it a magical artifact and family treasure.

Waving the Fairy Flag is said to provide salvation to the Clan MacLeod in the event of disaster, by summoning a fairy army. The flag has been waved twice, in the Middle Ages, but only one wave is left.

In the first waving, the MacLeods were greatly outnumbered in battle with the MacDonalds. At the exact point when the chief waved the Fairy Flag, the battle turned in favor of the MacLeods.

In the second waving, the clan's cattle were dying of pestilence. To avoid starvation, the chief summoned the fairy armies, who magically restored the cattle to health.

The 28th Chief, Dame Flora MacLeod of MacLeod, offered to wave the Fairy Flag over the cliffs of Dover should the Germans look victorious. MacLeod fighter pilots were known to have carried pictures of the flag with them, and it is said that not one was shot down. Dame Flora is also remembered for cutting off pieces of the flag for soldiers during this time.

Many legends exist on the origins of the fairy flag. In one such story, the chieftain's baby son was wrapped in the cloth by a fairy lady; in another, the chieftain took a fairy woman as a wife and she brought the cloth to the marriage, however she could only stay for seven years, after the seven years were gone she left, but she left the flag to protect her children; in a third, the banner was brought to Dunvegan by a MacLeod chieftain after years spent with the Sidhe.

A popular version of the legendary origin of the Fairy Flag is that there is truth in all of these stories: an early clan chieftan spent some time in the fairy realm. In his time there, he fell in love with the daughter of the fairy king, and they were married. Clan duty called, and he and his bride returned to the mortal realm. However, the fairy princess could only live in there for 7 years. Towards the end of this time, she gave birth to a baby boy, whom she tearfully left behind with the chief. Just before crossing over the fairy bridge back into her world, she begged that the baby never be left alone, as the sound of his crying would be too much for her to bear. That night, the clan had a feast, to distract the chief from his grief. As the MacLeods are famous for their piping and dancing, the nursemaid in charge of the baby snuck away from the nursery to join the party. When she was discovered, the chief immediately ran up to his son, only to find his fairy wife already there, singing the child back to sleep. When the chief entered the room, the fairy vanished, but left behind a blanket on their son, which became the Fairy Flag. The song she was singing is still sung within the clan, known either as the Dunvegan Lullaby or the Fairy Lullaby.

A long version of a second tale is available at the Fairy Flag page on However, true believers in the Fairy Flag legend may prefer this tale about Sir Reginald. When he had the Fairy Flag mounted in its current frame, he hired an expert from the V&A. The expert told him that the Fairy Flag was very likely the Land Ravager. Sir Reginald replied that, although he respected the expert's opinion, he himself knew that the flag had been given to his family by the fairies. The expert politely deferred to Sir Reginald's superior knowledge.

Complete article is here:


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