Old Customs And Superstitions
( Originally Published 1920 )
A bloodcurdling tale, the devil in a hurry - " Thrice the torchie, thrice the saltie " - Birds of ill omen - An old woman and her ballads - Bee superstitions - Poor Wat and the traveller - First footing and Hogmanay - The wise woman - The ghost and the gamekeeper.
THE world has changed so much during the last half-century that it may be interesting to recall what one remembers of old Northumberland. But I must premise that it is purely a matter of personal recollection, not of reading and collocation, so that no one need expect an account that pretends to be exhaustive. It is more an attempt to indicate an atmosphere than to make any elaborate study.
Before the hustling and busy times began there were many idle ne'er-do-wells in the typical village, objectionable from one point of view, but good-natured and amusing in their lazy paganism. There was one such at Belford, who was known far and wide because he was an itinerant barber who visited the farmhouses, shaved the good man before fairs and markets, and cut the hair of the boys by clapping a basin on their heads and clipping round it. At the time, there was a clique of godless young farmers who in the current phrase feared neither god nor devil, and performed pranks that congealed the blood of the righteous. About one of these, awful whispers went round. In a drunken ploy they had done a deed of blasphemy and sacrilege so wicked that pious lips would not describe it. Only very recently the secret was told me by one of their contemporaries, then approaching his own end. It was a bloodcurdling tale of a mock sacrament and an old horse that need not now be more fully described. One of the perpetrators took so ill that a fatal end was inevitable. Watty, in accordance with an old custom, was sent to shave the dying man, and what happened was given in his own words. He had performed the first part of the operation, and was about to lather for the second when a dreadful voice from the other side of the bed exclaimed : "That'll do, Watty, I'll just take him as he is." Whereupon the sick man turned to the wall and passed away, and the affrighted barber, without waiting to collect his instruments, fled in terror.
In the rites pertaining to the dead, solemnity and mirth were grotesquely mingled. I think that curious and beautiful legacy from Elizabethan times, the Lykewake Dirge, which seems to have been in use from Yorkshire right up to the Low-lands of Scotland, is a homely rendering of medieval beliefs about death. Its haunting burden reminds one of an owl's melancholy to–hoo on a winter night.
This ae night, this ae night
An eminent authority on dialect words holds that " slet " means the hearth or the home, but that it is a rendering of "salt " is far more probable. Among the things waved over the corpse, " thrice the torchie, thrice the saltie " came first, and in Northumberland, as in South Scotland, a plate of salt was placed on the breast of the body. Only in a district of moor and fell could such a journey of the departed soul be conceived. It is as elemental and primitive as the picture of lost souls being carried to hell in the ancient painted glass windows :
When thou from hence away art past
That the funeral guests had to travel over such wild country probably accounts for the custom that they were to be provided with plenty of good meat and good drink. Cards and other games were also played, but here I write of the tradition of the elders. These customs had been greatly modified in my young days.
Forebodings of death were innumerable. One of my earliest . recollections is that of hearing one grizzled rustic say to another : " I told the wife his end was near when I saw the corbies (carrion crow) settle on the roof." Crows, ravens and magpies, especially the last, were reckoned birds of ill omen. So was the bat, which was a bird, in the rustic mind, as sure as a whale was a fish. There was a beetle which they called a coffin-breaker, whose very appearance caused old men and women to shudder. Anyone killing it was sure to be the next victim. Once I committed that crime and thereby threw into gloom the old woman in whose charge I was at the time. Poor body, she could he easily forgiven her superstition, for she could neither read nor write, had never been inside a church or a school door, and her only learning came from the Scottish ballads she had picked up. I seem to hear her now crooning, or, as she would have said, " raiming over "
Bonnie Mary to the ewe-bucht has gone
Or the most melancholy of them, " Lord Ronald," with its piteous refrain :
Mother make my bed soon for I'm weary huntin
Bees were intimately associated with the fortunes of their owners, as in other parts of rural England. They used to be kept in straw skeps before the invention of the modern box hive, and two honey harvests were obtained, one from the lowland flowers, of which wild white clover yielded the best, and another from the heather. To obtain the latter the hives were carted to the hills, an operation that had to be performed by night so that the little creatures could be fastened up after finishing the day. Also it was cooler. The bees were treated as little family friends. Ill luck was sure to follow if they were not informed of any death or birth. When they swarmed, a kind of savage music was made with the tongs and the frying-pan or girdle to charm them into settling close at hand.
Among wild animals the hare was considered the best augur. if you were going a journey, and met poor Wat come lopping along the dusty road, you had to observe whether on seeing you he took to the right or the left. If the latter, the traveller would turn home and eat a meal before adventuring forth again. Otherwise he would be challenging misfortune.
Of days, the first of the year was most pregnant with fate. It was and still is important that the first foot, that is the first person crossing the threshold, should not come empty-handed. Many made Hogmanay the jolliest as it was the last day of the year, by setting out when the clock struck twelve with a piece of cake and a flask of whisky to ensure good luck to their friends by arriving before any chance, unwary caller brought calamity on the household. The Northumbrian peasant is as a rule simple and abstemious in his habits, but he used to let himself go in the dark days of Yule.
The utmost faith was felt in "the wise woman," a kind of white witch, who could unravel a present mystery or unfold the future. I remember the case of a poor man who lived by carting coals and lime, having his stable burnt down and with it his three horses, which were his means of livelihood, travelling twenty miles on foot to ask a wise woman who was the culprit. She indicated that a trade rival, who was a horse-coper and widely known by his nickname of " Was," had done the deed, and he was ultimately convicted and punished ; but whether she was aided by supernatural power, or only made a shrewd guess, " let the learned decide when they convene " ! The yokel had no doubts. He was no fanatic about church doctrine, but his faith in ghosts and witches was implicit ! It was considered impious not to believe in the old Lady Delaval, who " walked " at Ford Castle for half a century after her death. He would in proof tell the story of a reckless gamekeeper who volunteered to sleep in the haunted chamber with nothing at his bedside save his hobnailed boots. Presently the ghost appears and glides towards him. " I ken your tricks," he exclaimed bravely, though one suspects there might have been a quaver in his voice, and as she continued her silent advance," Take that, then," he cries, heaving a heavy boot at her. " But believe me or believe me not," concluded the narrator of this tale, " the shoe went clean through her and he up and ran for it. His hair stood on end and neither oil nor watter could gar it gan doon again."
There used to be few country ways which had not a spot to be avoided after dark. At such-and-such a cut through a plantation there was a risk of meeting the spirit of someone revisiting the scene where, by his own hand or that of another, he had been forced to quit this mortal frame.
National schools, cheap reading, and cheap travel have not altogether rooted out these old superstitions. They lurk still in the more remote villages and farms. I do not know that they were more absurd than some of the notions by which they have been succeeded. I know a village blacksmith who ekes out his earnings by taking and selling spirit photographs.