Saturday, March 26, 2016

Sabbath Desecration: Rambling Recollections of My School & School Days – Part D

Article IV written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 14 October 1880 – Part D

Sabbath Desecration

“One wonders at people being so silly as to lend the least countenance to such a superstition, but that was not all that was questionable about this superstitious practice.”

“There was a great deal of Sabbath desecration connected with it. Being, as I have said, practiced on a Monday morning, the people generally arrived on the ground late on Sunday evening, when very unseemly conduct was carried on by the mixed multitude who assembled there from every quarter of the country. We hear of the curious scenes enacted at the so called Holy Wells in Ireland, and yet with all our boasted superior enlightenment we are, or were till recently, not one whit better than our Irish neighbours.” 

Holy Well in Ireland

A pattern was a religious festival held near some holy place for example a mountain, well or a lake after which, it was said, the pilgrims indulged in excess and debauchery.
The sense of ‘very unseemly conduct’ that Gunn refers to above is captured in this picture of a crowd at a Holy Well in Ireland.
Source: Holy Wells of Ireland

My Comments:

Sabbath Police?

Exodus chapter 20 verses 8-11

A Native of Badbea sounds a bit like the ‘Sabbath police’ but observation of a rest day was strictly kept by Highlands Christians, based on the fourth commandment.

The Shorter catechism (which the children learned in school) says:

What does the Fourth Commandment require?

 “The Fourth Commandment requireth the keeping holy to God such set times as he hath appointed in His Word; expressly one whole day in seven, to be a holy Sabbath to Himself” (Shorter Catechism, Ans. 58). 

Sabbath at Badbea

Alexander Gunn tells how the Sabbath was managed at Badbea:

'We were most religiously trained. On Saturday night there was strict preparation for the Sabbath. Everything that could be done that night, was done, so as to leave nothing to do on the Sabbath but the real works of necessity and mercy. The water barrel was filled up to the brim. The peat neuk was replenished, and the peats for Sunday's use were broken, ready to be laid on the fire. The hearth was cleared of superfluous ashes, the floor swept clean, and everything tidied up. The very potatoes were washed and put in the pot, ready to be hung on the crook. The day began and ended with family worship - not only on Sundays, but on week days as well.’

‘John Badbea's was situated in the centre of the village, and on Saturday night the house was put in order for the Sabbath, forms being set all round the kitchen for the adult portion of the audience, and an inner circle of seats made upon peats, for us juveniles. All attended these meetings except those required for household duties or for the herding of cattle." 

"The good man commenced the service by the singing of a Psalm; then a prayer. Methinks I see the tall figure of the good man as he stands, holding the top rail of his chair as he bends over it and pours out his soul in humble but fervent supplications to Him who is the hearer and answerer of prayer. The prayer over - and it was not unduly lengthened - a chapter was read and a few words of comment made upon it."  

"The chapter was translated from the English into Gaelic, as he could not read a Gaelic book except the Gaelic Psalm book. He then read a sermon, either Samuel Rutherford's or Boston's, translating all the while. The meeting lasted about two hours. There was also a meeting at night of about the same duration, when we had to repeat the Shorter Catechism."

Friday, March 25, 2016

Healings: Rambling Recollections of my School & School Days – Part C

Article IV written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 14 October 1880 – Part C

Healing Lochs

 “ A great deal of superstition existed in those days amongst the generality of people, such as belief in the healing virtue of certain lochs, to which sickly and delicate people were carried and plunged into the waters, when not unfrequently the cure was more than the disease.”

Loch Watten

Watten, St John's Dunnet and Loch mo-Naire

“The lochs of Watten and Dunnet, as well as Loch Manar in Sutherlandshire, were resorted to for this purpose. The healing and health-restoring qualities of those Bethesdas were exercised four times in the year – viz, on the first Monday of the “raith”, that is, the first Monday of the quarter. The first Mondays of May and August were considered the most suitable because the state of weather was then most favourable for invalids, who were conveyed to the ground during night and camped out, waiting for the first streak of sunrise, when the invalid was taken and plunged overhead three times in the cold water of the loch.”

Wildlife at St John’s Loch, Dunnet

Are these patient birds waiting for the next 
sunrise to plunge into the water? 
St John’s Loch, Dunnet

A piece of money - usually a halfpenny

“This operation was preceded by casting a piece of money into the waters as an offering to the gods. Considerable sums have been fished out of the water of these sacred lochs when the drought of summer dried up the waters.”

This is Lochan na h-Earba showing the effect of low water levels  - maybe 
a time to look for an old halfpenny? The coins are on the cheese well by the 
old drove road on Minchmoor so apparently some folks still offer money to 
the gods!

No cures!

“In no case that I ever knew or heard of was there a cure effected by these immersions but in many cases they did hasten the death of the patient.”

“One wonders at people being so silly as to lend the least countenance to such a superstition, but that was not all that was questionable about this superstitious practice.”

See next blog.

 My Comments:

The loch referred to as Manar has other spellings. It is called Loch mo-Naire most commonly.

Loch mo-Naire 

In a fun up-to-date investigation of the old superstitions, Ian Neal and his family visited Loch mo-Naire and posted their encounter with the magic qualities of the loch on-line. Find Ian’s story on:

Loch mo-Naire – Ian Neal’s photo – with permission
Loch mo-Naire

It has not been difficult to find other writings to back-up what A Native of Badbea has told us.

As recent as WWI - Gordon Wilson

 Loch Mo Naire

Named after an ancient Celtic goddess, this was probably a holy place in pre-Christian times, with the tradition surviving into the Christian era. The loch was famous all over the Highlands for its healing powers. For hundreds of years, until the first World War, sick and disabled people came to immerse themselves in the waters.

Another story about Loch Mo Naire

An early Strathnaver woman, who had the second sight and great healing powers, possessed a sacred stone. She was persecuted by the incoming Gordons (much hated by the locals). The chief pursued this woman with the intention of possessing either herself or the stone - or both! On fleeing to the loch, she threw the stone into the middle crying, "Mo-naire, Mo-naire," meaning "My shame. My shame," and thus escaped the Gordon's attentions. From that time, the loch has been attributed with great healing powers.                          Source: Early History of Strathnaver by Gordon Wilson

Loch mo-Naire – Ian Neal’s photo – with permission

Calder's classic  - History of Caithness

There were particular times for visiting it, viz., the first Monday of each quarter of the year. The summer quarter was on many accounts considered the best. The patient had to walk round the loch early in the morning; and if his strength did not permit him to do so, he was carried round it. The ceremony which he had to go through consisted in washing his face and hands in the lake, and throwing a piece of money, commonly a halfpenny, into it; and, if he would derive any permanent benefit to his health, it was absolutely necessary that he should be out of sight of it before sunrise. It is difficult to account for the origin of this superstition, for superstition it un­doubtedly was. The waters of the loch do not seem to possess any healing or medicinal qualities.

There is a loch in Strathnaver called Lochmonar, which the common people believed to possess the same wonderful healing qualities as the one at Dunnet; and what is curious enough, the ceremonies which the patients had to go through were the very same at both lochs. There is an old tradition (evidently a monkish invention) which says that on St Stephen’s day its basin was occupied by a pleasant meadow and that on St John’s day the meadow was covered with water. This story of its origin, so akin to the marvellous, would, among a simple and credulous people, very naturally heighten their belief in its supposed curative powers.

Loch Watten 

Another commentator:

“The Loch of Watten (N. – “Water”), 5 miles long by 1 ½ miles broad, is the largest lake in the country, and next to it in size are Lochs Calder, Shurrey, and More. There are no fewer than twenty-four lochs in the Parish of Halkirk, and a large number also in Latheron and Reay. St John’s Loch in Dunnet like Loch Ma Nathair in Strathnaver, enjoyed in olden times a reputation for its healing virtues. Invalids resorted to it in large numbers, especially at Midsummer (St John’s Day) plunging into its waters and going through certain ceremonies, which were expected to result in an effective cure.
Source: Caithness and  Sutherland  - Cambridge County Geographies,Scotland. Ed:W.Murison 

Loch Watten

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Witches: Rambling Recollections of my School & School Days – Part B

Article IV written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 14 October 1880 – Part B

Halloween by MacGeorge W 


"In my school days the belief in witches was as common as the belief in fairies, and many a time our hair was made to stand on end listening to wonderful and frightful witch-stories."

"An evil eye cast upon us would subject us to pain and trouble all our days, which would not be very long, should the spell not be mercifully broken." 

"The “freit” would be taken out of the milk of our cows, which rendered it unfit for use for man or beast and rings of ivy were bound about the bodies of the cows as an antidote against witch-craft."

My Comments:

Alexander Gunn talks in other articles about the devout Christian upbringing he had and the strict observance of the Bible teachings in his and other Badbea homes  – yet along side those beliefs, the ancient beliefs in magic and witchcraft persisted just as they did all over Scotland.

“Freit” is a superstitious observance, omen or idea.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Changeling: Rambling Recollections of my School & School Days – Part A

Article IV written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 14 October 1880 – Part A

The Scottish Fairy Book
By Elizabeth W. Grierson (1918)

Belief in Fairies

The belief in fairies was not confined to Badbea, or to the county of Caithness. It was a common belief in England and Ireland, as well as on the continent of Europe. 

Martin Luther and the Changeling

That great man Luther, who threw off the superstitions of the Romish Church, was a strong believer in fairies. He was convinced he had seen such a creature at Dessau, and was so satisfied that the unfortunate little boy (who appears to have been a cross child, with an unusually large appetite) was nothing human, that he urged upon the Elector of the Saxony to have the changeling thrown into the Moldau. The elector refused to agree to this proposal, but consented to have prayers offered in the churches for the removal of the demon. At the end of a year the poor child died.

Background "The legend of St. Stephen" by Martino di Bartolomeo.
The devil steals a baby and leaves a changeling behind. 
Early 15th century.

Scotch Fairies

Shakespeare had embodied the popular idea of fairies of his day in the “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In Ireland the belief in the existence of fairies is still devoutly held, and the peasants hasten the baptism of their infants from a dread that they may be changed previous to that ceremony. The Scotch fairies were sometimes industrious. Many a Scotch farm-house boasted a traditional “brownie” who did the whole work of several servants, in return for a bowl of cream while the family were asleep. For my part I never saw a fairy, or anyone who ever saw one. They seem to be much like the great sea-serpent, often spoken about but rarely seen.

My Comments:

This sequence of articles of A Native of Badbea is missing some items. Unfortunately I do not have Article II in this series.

Martin Luther

The reference to Martin Luther by Alexander Gunn is interesting in that the story of Luther and the changeling was said to have occurred in 1532, as follows:

Table Talks on Changelings. Martin Luther. The Story of the Changeling at Dessau
Eight years ago [in the year 1532] at Dessau, I, Dr. Martin Luther, saw and touched a changeling. It was twelve years old, and from its eyes and the fact that it had all of its senses, one could have thought that it was a real child. It did nothing but eat; in fact, it ate enough for any four peasants or threshers. It ate, shit, and pissed, and whenever someone touched it, it cried. When bad things happened in the house, it laughed and was happy; but when things went well, it cried. It had these two virtues.

I said to the Princes of Anhalt: "If I were the prince or the ruler here, I would throw this child into the water - into the Molda that flows by Dessau. I would dare commit homicidium on him!" But the Elector of Saxony, who was with me at Dessau, and the Princes of Anhalt did not want to follow my advice.

Therefore, I said: "Then you should have all Christians repeat the Lord's Prayer in church that God may exorcise the devil." They did this daily at Dessau, and the changeling child died in the following year....

When Luther was asked why he had made such a recommendation, he replied that he was firmly of the opinion that such a changeling child is merely a piece of flesh, a massa carnis, because it has no soul. For it is the Devil's power that he corrupts people who have reason and souls when he possesses them. The Devil sits in such changelings where their soul should have been!"
Source: Martin Luther, Werke, kritische Gesamtausgabe: Tischreden (Weimar: Böhlau, 1912-1921), v. 5, p. 9.

More about Changelings

"A changeling is a creature found in folklore and folk religion. A changeling child was believed to be a fairy child that had been left in place of a human child stolen by the fairies. The theme of the swapped child is common in medieval literature and reflects concern over infants thought to be afflicted with unexplained diseases, disorders, or developmental disabilities."
"It is typically described as being the offspring of a fairy, elf or other legendary creature that has been secretly left in the place of a human child. Sometimes the term is also used to refer to the child who was taken. The apparent changeling could also be a stock or fetch, an enchanted piece of wood that would soon appear to grow sick and die. The theme of the swapped child is common among medieval literature and reflects concern over infants thought to be afflicted with unexplained diseases, disorders, or developmental disabilities."


My favourite story of a Scottish Brownie is in Sir Gibbie the novel by George MacDonald (1824 – 1905). While in Sir Gibbie the Brownie is a real boy, the myths and superstitions around Brownies are woven cleverly into the story. I recommend the 1963 version edited by Elizabeth Yates . The original work of Sir Gibbie is available free on

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Fist of the Laird of Langwell - Rambling Recollections of my Schools and School Days – Part C

Article II written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 16 September 1880 – Part C

One of the interpretation panels on the track to Badbea. 
I have photoshopped this for brightness and sharpness as 
the actual cover on the panel is very cloudy and hard to 
get a good image.

A Native of Badbea continues:

"But the days of the school at Auchincraig were numbered. The eviction notices were issued, and it needed no strong body of police, or the presence of a magistrate, to execute the fist of the Laird of Langwell, such as we hear now taking place daily in another part of the kingdom. No such proceedings were necessary, and the hardship was as great in the one case as in the other, yes, more so, as the evictions in Ireland are the result of non payment of rent, but in the case of Auchincraig there was not a shilling of arrears against any of the thirteen families turned out and scattered to the four winds of heaven, their holdings laid waste, and turned into green fields to rear sheep and game for the laird. There was no appeal to Parliament of their behalf, nor one word of sympathy uttered to soothe and softened their hard fate."

"There were no statutory holidays in those days. We had to be as regular at school on the last day of the week as on Monday, only we got away a few hours earlier. The time was taken up in going over and revising the Shorter Catechism and Bible lesson. Neither were there regular vacations during the summer season. There were no trips to the country, or any of the many advantages enjoyed in the present day by all classes. The teacher had to stick to his post in summer as well as winter, only his numbers were considerably diminished, as many went to the herding and so many to the herring fishing with their summers, where they made a few shillings, the only chance they had of making a shilling the whole year." 

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?

A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever. 

There were 107 questions and answers in the Shorter Catechism 
the children had to learn by rote.

My Comments:

The first paragraph is interesting to me as it points to some errors on one of the interpretation panels on the track to Badbea. See above.


The timing of events on this panel cannot be correct. Sir John Sinclair, as shown on the panel, became the Laird of Langwell when he and his wife purchased Langwell in 1788. During his time Sir John did indeed clear tenants from settlements in Langwell, some of whom went to Badbea. Sir John did not evict from Badbea.

In 1813 Langwell was sold to James Horne who then became the Laird. He was a tough man and extracted more than his dues from his tenants. On the death of James Horne about 1830 his nephew Donald Horne became the Laird of Langwell. This is when things became really ugly for Langwell tenants. Donald Horne’s is the ‘fist’ referred to. Auchincraig (aka Achnacraig), a thriving fishing village was cleared and the school closed.

Alexander Gunn in his statement to the Crofter Commission, published in the Northern Ensign 15 Nov 1883 says:
“A few of those driven off were allowed to squat on bare hillsides [eg Badbea] along the sea coast, where they built themselves houses and cultivated small patches of ground, and where they eked out a miserable existence, but the greater number were driven off the estate altogether, to find shelter elsewhere.
About 1830 there was another batch evicted from Auchencraig, the Cairn, and other places, and latterly in 1845 the half of the people of Badbea were evicted, so that from first to last there were ninety-seven families evicted, all in good circumstances and not one of them owing a single farthing of rent.”

No Police Presence

The depiction of a police presence at the time of the Badbea evictions as shown on the panel is a myth. Alexander Gunn who was actually there when Auchincraig was evicted tells us, importantly, that the tenants went quietly and there was no police presence nor magistrate to execute the fist of the Laird of Langwell.

Cheviots not Blackface

A Cheviot ewe

A Scottish Blackface ewe

The sheep that were brought to Langwell were Cheviots not Scottish Blackface as shown on the panel. It seems to me extraordinary that the firm that was contracted to make these information panels could get something so wrong as to put Blackface sheep on the panel. The introduction of Cheviots was one of the key reasons for the evictions as they were found to survive the Highlands' conditions better than other breeds. There is no shortage of information and literature discussing the introduction of Cheviots into the north of Scotland. 

Houses primitive

The houses at Badbea were much more primitive than those depicted in the panel. Most houses did not have chimneys but had a peat fire in the middle of the floor in the butt end. The smoke escaped through a gap in the roof or out the door. There was one door for both animals and people. Inside the door a partition of flagstones separated the byre for the animals. Here is a photo of a Badbea cottage taken several decades after the time depicted that looks a bit like the houses on the panel but it was not typical of the early houses.


School Hours

The long hours the pupils had to attend school for six days a week were fairly common. The trip both to school and home at the end of the day must have been in the dark and hazardous in the winter when the days are short.