The belief in an droch-shùil, the evil eye, and the charms protecting against it are perhaps the most enduring examples of Scottish folk magic, existing long after the once widespread beliefs in other aspects of magic and witchcraft had faded. Its roots lie in one of the most basic human emotions that is just as pervasive in today’s social media-driven world as it was in the simpler lives of farming folk hundreds of years ago: envy.
Long, long ago, in the lands to the north, a mither and her son sat together in front of the hearth as the gloaming fell and the hoar frost paled the land outside. The steam from mugs of buttered brose rose and mingled with the steam from the pulley above the fire, heavy with socks and mitts and ganseys, the air so thick with damp and stoor you could chew it.
Mither took up her spindle and her basket of wool fluff like a dun cloud and began to twist the fibres between her fingers. As she teased out and spun her yarn longer and longer, she spun a story along with it, as she so often did.
If every Frenchwoman is born with a wooden spoon in her hand, every Scotswoman is born with a rolling pin under her arm, for it is certain that she has developed a remarkable technique in baking bannocks, scones and oatcakes.
F. Marian McNeill, The Scots Kitchen (1929)
Once a firm favourite of the Scottish fireside, the bannock is a ubiquitous feature of the Scottish folktale, often offered as sustenance to a hungry stranger, left outside a door as a gift for the fairies, or given in payment for a hard day’s work. This humble fare has sustained Scotland for centuries and is ingrained in the country’s folklore and traditions.
In Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, Donald Alexander McKenzie hails the Cailleach as the mother of all gods and goddesses in Scotland, and Scottish folk tale collector J.G MacKay refers to her as the most tremendous figure in Gaelic myth today. Although her name can be found throughout Scotland in folklore, customs, ancient monuments and the natural landscape, the Cailleach is one of the lesser-known figures of Celtic mythology and is often overlooked. Her true origins have been lost over time. She is vastly ancient and predates even the Celtic mythology of which she has become a part. One Highland folk tale states that she existed ‘from the long eternity of the world’.
With over 90,000 species inhabiting Scotland’s land, seas, and skies, there would have been no shortage of choice when it came to choosing the country’s national animal back in the day: highland cattle, the cheeky Scottish terrier, or the red squirrel, not to mention the majestic golden eagle or awe-inspiring red deer stag. The intelligent and fiercely loyal wolf was still roaming Scotland until the 18th century so they might have been likely candidates too, but the powers that be decided to think outside the box and go for something altogether different.
The elder tree is a familiar sight in the Scottish hedgerow, with its flat-topped clusters of delicate cream flowers in late spring, followed by bunches of purple-black berries in autumn. It has perhaps the greatest number of practical uses of any plant, and a wealth of folklore and superstition surrounds it.
The bramble, as the common blackberry is known in Scotland, is a hedgerow stalwart. I’m sure many Scots of my generation will remember family days out to pick brambles on a late summer’s day, fingertips dyed crimson and wrists and ankles bearing at least one deep scratch, no matter how careful you’d been. The custom of bramble picking goes back thousands of years, and this humble plant, bane of gardeners everywhere, is steeped in folklore.
The Picts inhabited the east of Scotland, north of the Firth of Forth, from around the 4th to the 9th century. They left no written records so we know very little about their culture. Archaeology continues to gradually uncover more information about how the Picts lived but one thing that we already know for certain is that they were master craftsmen, and they’re perhaps best remembered today as skilled stonemasons. Three hundred and fifty Pictish stones have been found across Scotland, and their function remains a matter of debate.