Witchcraft,Aberdeen Cures,Folklore Cures,Auld Remedies,Clootie Wells,Highland Dyes,Dyers Woad, Lichen Dyes

Icons-1] [Icons-2] [Icons-3] [Icons-4] [Icons-5] [Icons-6] [Icons-7] [Icons-8] [Icons-9] [Icons-10] [Icons-11] [Icons-12]


The invention of printing and the publication of the scriptures in vernacular tongues led to a misinterpretation of a Hebrew passage in the Book of Exodus dealing with the punishment of demons, witches or sorcerers. The consequences were felt from Sutherland to Galloway.

The first public statute in Scotland against witchcraft was passed in June 1563, by the 9th Parliament of Mary, Queen of Scots. In this Act it was ordained, “that na maner of person nor persons of quat-sum-ever estaite, degree, or condition they be of, take upon hand in onie times hereafter, to use onie maner of witchcraft, sorcerie, or necromancie, under the paine of death, alsweil to be execute against the user, abuser, as the seeker of the response or consultation.”

It was believed that witches had a devil's mark on them which "is sometimes like a blew spot, or a little tet, or red spots like flea-biting , sometimes the flesh is sunk in and hollow, and this is put in secret places, as among the hair of the head or eyebrows, within the lips, under the armpits, etc." Another minister described the mark "as a small mole, horny and brown-coloured", and "when a large brass pin was thrust (through it) till it was bowed (bent), the witches, both men and women, neither felt a pain nor did it bleed." Subsequently, the ecclesiastical zeal to persecute witches led to a new profession of witch-finders known as "prickers".

A swimming test was somewhat less common, but suspects were wrapped in a sheet with the thumbs and big toes fastened together before being thrown into a "witch pool". If the body floated in the baptismal water, the accused was held to be rejected and, therefore, declared to be guilty. Those who sank were pronounced innocent, but were allowed to drown.

When confessions were deemed to be essential. The victim was fastened by iron hoops to the wall of a dungeon while various instruments of torture were applied. These included the thumb-screw (pilnieivinks), pincers (turcas) for wrenching off fingernails, bone crushers (caspieclaws), leg frames (the boot), harrows, fire-tongs, and the witch bridle (a four-pronged bit inserted into the mouth, secured by a padlock at the back of the neck and having a ring fastened to a wall). Needles were commonly added to the array of tools.

On the 24th of June, 1735, the penal statutes against witchcraft were abolished. From the year 1479, when the first capital sentence against witchcraft was carried out until the end of the 17th century, about 30,000 individuals were executed in Great Britain. A fourth of that number perished in Scotland on charges of sorcery.


The most cursory examination of medical folklore reveals an infinite variety of means and modes of cure, many no doubt of great antiquity. Some survive by word of mouth and some were actually written in old church session records. Here are a few from Aberdeen in 1588:

Guid for Swelling:- Tak plaister maid of wormewood with fresche butter or hoggis creische instead of butter, and press thame togidder and la the same to the soir.

Remeid for the Ringworme:- Tak the frothe of quheit saip and straik on the soir.

For ane hoillit tuithe:- Tak alme pepper and ginger and birne thame togidder be they becum lyik wax and put the same in the hoill of the tuith.

For Cauld:- Tak garleik and het milk and seith thame togidder and drink it in the marnynge twa or thre dayes.


Of the vast mass of folklore, and especially of that relating to medicine, it is obvious that an essential part is the observation of actions and results. Many old cures die out for lack of support in the popular mind, while logic and empirical evidence account for most radical and abrupt changes in methods used by the medical practitioners.

For examples of this more rational group, consider a few recommended remedies for whooping-cough. Some suggested that a child should be taken by ferry to the other side of a lake. Others noted that a youngster was cured after the family moved to another property to live. Still others believed that the symptoms were relieved when the patient was taken to a house where the master and mistress possessed the same surname. All of these procedures involved a change of air, which had in such cases no doubt been found beneficial.

On the same general principal, Colt's-foot was used for asthma, warts were washed in pig's blood, and a person with congestion or weak lungs was prescribed a preparation of twenty-four different herbs that took several weeks to collect. Undoubtedly, time was a factor in ensuring that the cure was most advantageous.


A sugar pill or placebo may work wonders if the patient believes that it will. The following is a sketch of an interesting brass mortar of Dutch origin which was purchased around 1892 in an old metal store by a man from Kinross, Scotland. The dimensions of the mortar are --- height about six inches, diameter three and one-half inches, its weight two and one-half pounds, and its liquid capacity is 10 ounces.


The handles are formed to represent dolphins, and the design is very ornate. An inscription running around the top translates as "Love God Above All". This seems to indicate that the vessel was used by a doctor or compounder of drugs, since prescriptions in olden times were usually prefixed by a devotional invocation. Faith can work miracles.


Superstition and ancient tradition often won out when other methods failed. Two highly popular practices involved Clootie Wells and Wishing Wells.

Clootie Wells:- Though numerous in previous centuries, there are only two clootie wells in Scotland and both are located on the Black Isle. One lies in a forested area near Munlochy, and the other is at the south side of the road at Avoch. Visitors will be treated to the odd spectacle of bits of cloth and clothing hanging off trees and bushes near the "well". Pilgrims far back in pre-Christian times would come, perform a ceremony that involved circling the well sunwise three times before splashing some of its water on the ground and making a prayer. They would then tie a piece of cloth or "cloot" that had been in contact with the ill person to a nearby tree. As the cloot rotted away, the illness would depart the sick person. An alternative tradition suggests that sick children would be left here overnight to be healed. Presumably any with the strength or spirit to survive what would have been an exceedingly creepy ordeal were pretty likely to recover anyway.

Wish Wells:- An elderly lady from Aberdeenshire described a 'wish well' as a hollow containing a little water in a stone, which could be tested by putting a pin in and expressing a wish; if the pin was later found white and not discoloured, the spot was truly a wish well. Traditions with wishing wells predate the Roman invasion of Britain and continue to the present day. Descriptions include kissing a stone beneath the surface of the water to have one's desire granted, silently breathing a wish over the surface of the water, or performing a secret ritual with prayer at the well to achieve wealth, good fortune, a successful marriage, a bounteous harvest or a successful hunt. Visitors to wishing wells, whether kings or paupers, commonly dropped into the water a coin, pin, or pebble, thus keeping up, usually without being aware of the fact, the custom of offering a gift to the genius loci, the spirit dwelling therein.


Throughout the Highlands, until the beginning of the 19th century AD, the preparation of wool for weaving, and also the dyeing of it, was a matter allowing much scope for ingenuity and inventiveness.

However, early/original tartan colours were not the clear, intense ones so often associated with them today. Many, bleached with age, reverted to an almost undyed state, and techniques for fixing the colours to the fabric needed to be developed in certain instances.

Mary Etta MacDonald described the dyestuffs of the early Scottish weavers in an unpublished manuscript. Her research showed that the Highland dyer was able to produce most colors satisfactorily from the plants available in her own glen.

Dark green was produced from heather which was pulled before flowering, but plants growing in shady glens proved the best and, even then, a bit of alum was required to make the colour fast. Dulse, a sea weed, provided a suitable brown. The root of an iris gave a black or grey, as did Alder bark treated with iron sulphate. Whin bark (furze) or common broom were used to produce lively greens. Bright yellows came from the bog myrtle, while faded yellows came from the ash or poplar or elm roots, and a dirty yellow came from ordinary soot from a hearth. The list goes on: dandelion (magenta), current bushes plus salt (brown), sundew (purple), rue plant (fine red), teasel (yellow), bracken fern root (yellow), St. John’s Wort (yellow), poisonous ripe privet berries with salt (scarlet red), and huckleberry (various colours).


Some sources claim that the most difficult colors to obtain from native dyestuffs were blue and red. However, these two colors were both used at an early date. Isatis tinctoria, commonly called dyer's woad, was allegedly used as a body paint by the ancient Picts (Picti, meaning "painted ones" in Latin) as well as the Britons prior to the Roman invasion.

Woad was one of the three staples of the European dyeing industry, along with weld (yellow) and madder (red). Chaucer mentions their use by the dyer ("litestere") in his poem The Former Age:

No mader, welde, or wood no litestere.
Ne knew; the flees was of his former hewe

The leaves of the woad were stripped from the stems when the fully-grown plant was ready for harvest. Only the leaves would be macerated and crushed, and left to ferment in urine (ammonia). The dye was extracted from the resulting foul stench by a complex process in which the blue particles were precipitated. The dark substance which settled to the bottom was collected and dried to a powder which could be easily stored for future use.

The process of dyeing with vegetable home dyes was to wash the thread thoroughly in urine, which was called "fual" in Gaelic, and was kept for a lengthy period for this purpose. Then the thread was rinsed and washed in pure water before tossing it into a pot of dye that was kept boiling over a fire. Every now and then the thread was lifted from the pot on the point of a stick to check its progress. The process of plunging the thread back again was repeated until it was properly dyed. Thread treated with woad for its blue quality was washed in sea water; any other colour batch was rinsed in rain water. The yarn was finally hung out to dry and, when dry and fully oxidized, was gathered into balls or clews. It was then ready for the weaver's loom.


You may be surprised to learn that one of the oldest catalysts in dye production was urine (for the ammonia). Supply was probably no great problem in a country which loved its fermented beverages.

The lichen Lencanara tartarea yielded red when steeped with urine for three weeks. [However, the most common native red was from the roots of ladies' bedstraw (Galuim' verum) mordanted or set with alum, but it was not as brilliant as madder red.]

Lichens were much used by Highlanders and were substantive dyes (not usually requiring a mordant or binding agent). A late 16th century writer described the use of "scurf" or lichen in the Western Isles: "This scurf dyes a pretty crimson color; first well dried, and then ground to powder. after which it is steeped in urine, ...and in three weeks it is ready to boil with the yarn that is to be dyed." This ammonia extraction method is usually combined with exposure to sunlight and fixing the dyes on fabrics to intensify the stain in the case of blue, purple or pink colours; it is wise to read about the various techniques for the best results.

The best purple was from cudbear, a preparation of two lichens fermented with fual and potash. Lichens were also a source for yellows, and the richest and fastest browns also came from lichens. One species is still used to dye some Harris tweeds in the Outer Hebrides. A variety of lichens continues to be used by the peasantry in limestone districts such as found on the Shetland Islands.Those venturing onto the high ground of the Cairngorm plateau will find themselves in a lichen-dominated wilderness, although certain species of the snow-bed lichen have apparently disappeared due global warming. Some parts of the Celtic rain forest, their trees 'dripping' with lichens, are so remote they are still not fully explored for lichens, but you do not have to know the names of the lichens to know that you are somewhere special. The importance of some habitats has only been recognized in recent years. It was not until the late 1970s that Brian Coppins of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh realized that the twigs of Atlantic hazelwoods supported a distinctive lichen flora. One species discovered and named by him and Peter James of the Natural History Museum was the white-script lichen - probably endemic to Scotland.

Lichens colour the landscape, especially where the air is 'pure as wine', but look closely at bark, wood and rock and you will see just how beautiful their intricate structures can be. Their fruit bodies, through which reproductive spores are produced, differ on the various species, some being like miniature jam tarts, others tiny volcanoes and, perhaps most fascinating of all - the 'writing' lichens - so called because of their resemblance to hieroglyphics.

Return to the "Tales".

© Ross-ter Website