9 charms, spells and cures used by Highland witches

There were witches that could do only harm, but others who worked their spells and charms only to help.

Wise women were common in the Highlands and Islands with their spells, charms and cures said to alleviate a range of ailments and woes with little harm done to those on the receiving end. PIC: Thomas Ulrich/Pixabay/Creative Commons.

While those involved in black witchcraft conjured storms and drowned people, there were also 'white witches' who cured disease, granted luck and kept danger at bay.

John Gregorson Campbell, in his 19th Century text The Gaelic Otherworld, looks at the rhymes and charms deployed by those who claimed to cure woes and sickness and create a reversal in fortunes.

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These 'wise' women and men could be found in most communities with it claimed their powers were granted for goodness and to counteract the powers of evil, Campbell wrote.

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Here were look at nine different charms and spells used in the Highlands and Islands, as recorded by Campbell.

1. A cure for sickness

The 'knowledge' was a charm for the cure of sickness in man or beast. A rhyme would be muttered over the poorly person or animal as well as the water it was due to drink or be sprinkled with.

The issues it would cure are thought to have been fairly minor with the 'knowledge' used for bruises, toothache and sprains, for example.

The person being cured was not allowed to speak to anyone but the 'wise person' until they reached home after the knowledge had been administered.

Those who sought out the service of the witch had to go to their bed before sundown and no spinning or reading was allowed.

The charm was thought to be more effective if they did not eat meat that day.

According to Highland belief, an evil eye was one consumed by a discontented and unhappy mind full of envy, covetousness and other mean feelings.

It was believed important not to create situations where an evil eye could take advantage of.

Cows would not be sent out with full udders, for example, or peddlars would not go out with a full load until night time in case it was crossed by the malevolence.

Targets of the evil eye could be struck with mysterious ailments and even death.

A wise woman could check if someone had been struck by an evil eye by filling a bowl with water and putting a sixpence in it. If the coin stuck to the bottom, the evil eye had been at work and a standard remedy was brought about.

The wise woman took a bowl of water, muttered over it and started to ferociously yawn in a bid to transfer the illness or woe from the sufferer.

The paws of a cat were dipped in the water to help 'hunt' the malady and with a red thread also dipped in the dish and tied around the sufferer's neck.

3. A charm against danger

The 'suen' or 'sian' - or sain in Scots - was used to protect man and beast from particular dangers, such as being taken away by an enemy, being hurt during battle or drowning.

A mixture of rhymes were used alongside strings of various colours to evoke the cure. The curing words were said over the heads of cows or infants, with the strings put around their necks for the night. Sometimes, a mother would stitch the strings into the clothes of a child.

4. A charm to keep a cow safe

A stone would be tied into the tail of a cow and 'mystic words' uttered, with the verse beginning "I set the watch tonight/Against the horns of a he-goat (the devil)."

5. A cure for warts

These were cured by putting in a bag as many knots or joints of straw or grass as there were warts to be banished, and leaving them on the public road. The first person who lifted the bag got the warts in the future.

Pigs blood could also be applied to the warts and rubbed off with a cloth, which was then left on a road. The warts were transferred to the first person to pick up the cloth.

6. A cure for a stye on an eye

One end of a stick was in the fire until it burned and then pointed at the poor eye. It would then be quickly moved around in a circle while reciting "A stye one, a stye two, a stye three...." The charm would be said up to the number nine with the line added "take yourself off, stye".

Some would rub the stye with a piece of gold.

7. A cure for toothache

A dead man's finger or a coffin nail would be put in the mouth of the sufferer, according to accounts, with those in pain ideally retrieving these items from the graveyard. However, it is believed this aspect of the charm was rarely carried out.

8. A cure for poor mental health

It was said the following cure should only be tried on a Thursday. A person took the sufferer behind him on a grey horse and gallop at the horse's fastest pace three times round a boundary mark before riding to an immovable stone. Here, the sufferer would be force to speak to the stone - with the cure then said to be complete.

In the Hebrides, it is said the sufferer would be tied with a rope around the waist and then attached to a boat and pulled 'till he was nearly dead'.

9. A cure for consumption

At Crossapol on the Isle of Coll, those suffering from consumption, which is also known as TB, were made to go through the Hole Stone three times. Meat was taken by those afflicted and left on the stone. The bird who lifted the offering is said to have taken the disease with them.