The presence of witches in Shetland folklore runs persistently deep. Though they are sometimes helpful they are as often not, the tragic consequences of the belief in these ‘devilish’ persons coming to a frenzied end late in the 17th century. This brief collection in no way intends to minimise the impact of such outlandish suspicions but is instead a break from the norm as befitting the season.
How Women could become Witches — Quoting Edmonston and Saxby, Black explains the lore surrounding the act of becoming a witch was quite simple. As is usual, the act takes place in sinister darkness.
When it is full moon and midnight the aspirant after unhallowed power goes alone to the seashore and lies down upon the beach below the flood-tide mark. She then puts her left hand under the soles of her feet and the right hand on the top of her head and repeats three times, ‘The muckle maister Deil tak' what's atween dis twa haunds.’ The devil then appears and clenches the bargain with shaking of hands. When this is done there is no retracting. The woman is his slave, and he gives her power on land and sea.
Witch Metamorphosis — Quoting Edmonston and Saxby again, Black shows the ‘familiar’ accompaniment wasn’t the only danger as witches could practice transmutation; becoming another creature altogether. In this example, the folklore explains something rather mundane and has a more charming ring to it akin to a children’s fairy tale.
I was told once of a witch who had taught her daughter some ‘tricks of the trade’, and the girl, proud of her knowledge, changed herself into a raven, according to the maternal directions. But in learning how to become a bird, the girl had forgotten to receive the instructions necessary for returning to mortal mould and would have remained a raven if her mother had not guessed somehow the state of the case. With great difficulty the witch contrived to restore her daughter's personal appearance, but not all her art could bring back the girl's natural voice. Croak she would, and croak she could, and all her descendants after her; and that was how the peculiar sound (called corbieing in Shetland) known as ‘a burr’ came.
Warding a Witch — Leaving fable aside, Spence writes about the steps that could be taken to fend off the curse of a witch and the superstitious actions that surrounded the initial fear. A cursory glance immediately shows us the superstition had its roots in the poor living standards and precariousness of the time where mortality – and the near precipice – were of intense worry.
About the middle of May the wives set their kirns, milk-spans, and raemikles (butter kits) in the well stripe to steep. The youngsters were employed to search for four-leaved smora (clover), the finding of which was considered extremely lucky, and anyone possessed of this holy plant was considered proof against the evil designs of witches.
Johnsmas [St John the Baptist's day, 24th June] was the season when witchcraft was most dreaded, and persons skilled in the black art deprived their neighbours of the profit of their milk and butter. Every housewife tried to keep her own, and used every precaution which seemed to her essential for this end.
Persons intent on witching a neighbour endeavoured to obtain the loan of some domestic utensil, especially about the time when a cow was expected to calve. But a wise woman would lend nothing at such a time, If a suspected person called, and even asked for a drink o' blaand, the guidwife would seize a lowin taand (live coal), and chase the uncanny visitor out the door, throwing the fire after her, while she exclaimed: ‘Twee-tee-see-dee, du ill-vaum'd trooker!’
But it was difficult to preserve one's self from scathe, as the profit was supposed to be taken by such simple means as stepping over a cow’s tether, plucking a handful of grass off the byre wall, or crossing a woman's path when on her way to milk the cows. Hence, in spite of every effort to prevent them, it often happened that witches carried out their dark designs at the expense of an artless neighbour.
Power of the Witch — Stout relates to us some of the awesome power the witch could wield. It was not enough to turn milk sour, spoil the harvest or even bring death to a household when they had power over nature itself. Frequently this is brewing up storms while the men are away fishing, a particularly stressful time for most. Note that many variations of the same tale can be found throughout Shetland.
A woman of the parish of Dunrossness was known to have a deadly enmity against a boat's crew that had set off to the haaf. The day was cloudless, but the woman was a witch, and storms were as easy for her to raise as to blow a kiss from the hand. She took a wooden basin, called a cap, and set it afloat in a tub of water; then, as if to disarm suspicion, went about her household work, chanting softly to herself an old Norse ditty. After she had sung a verse or two she sent her little child to look at the tub, and see whether the cap was whummilled (turned upside down) or no. The child said the water was stirring but the bowl was afloat. The woman went on singing a little louder, and presently sent the child again to see how matters stood. This time the child said there was a strange swell in the water, but the cap still floated. The woman then sang more loud and fierce, and again she sent. The child came back saying the waters were strangely troubled, and the cap was whummilled. Then she cried out, ‘The ton is done!’ and left off singing. On the same day came word that a fishing yawl had been lost in the Roust, and all on board drowned.
The Trial of a Witch — Whilst not all witches were women, Barbara and her daughter Ellen Tulloch the last to be executed in Scalloway around 1680, they were the majority accused and put to death. However, from Stout, we have the tale of a warlock who paid the ultimate price for having simply been an uncanny skill at his chosen craft. This is something troublingly seen throughout the period, covetousness the root of all evil. There are many transcripts of the witch trials held in Shetland, the references below an excellent place to start additional research.
The Knoll of Kibister, in the island of Bressay, now called Luggie's Knowe, testifies by its name to the skill and sorrowful fate of a well-known wizard of the seventeenth century. There on that steep hill used Luggie to live, and in the stormiest weather managed somehow always to have his bit of fresh fish: angling with the most perfect success, even when the boats could not come into the bay. When out at sea Luggie had nothing to do but cast out his lines to have as plentiful a dinner as he could desire. ‘He would out of Neptune's lowest kitchen, bring cleverly up fish well-boiled and roasted;’ but strange and mischancy as the art was, his companions got accustomed to it, ‘and would by a natural courage make a merry meal thereof, not doubting who was c
ook.’ But Luggie's cleverness proved fatal to him. Men were not even adept fishers in those days without danger, and jealousy and fear helped to swell the reputation of his natural skill into supernatural power: so he was tried for a sorcerer, and burnt at a stake at Scalloway.
The period of witch trials and execution came to a merciful end with the close of the 17th century but the folklore has persisted giving us a rich and at times, admittedly black, entertaining insight into fear and avarice during the failed harvests and storms during the Little Ice Age, demographic change and the mask of religious zeal.
George Fraser Black, County Folklore Volume III, 1903
John Spence, 'Shetland Folk-Lore', 1899
Sir Robert Stout, The Pamphlet Collection Volume 28, 1873