Why did superstitious Scots hide children's shoes in chimneys?

A childs leather shoe found by workmen in the roof of 5  7 Bristo Place, Edinburgh, during conversion work for the National Museums of Scotland. It dates from around 1810. PIC: NMS.
A childs leather shoe found by workmen in the roof of 5 7 Bristo Place, Edinburgh, during conversion work for the National Museums of Scotland. It dates from around 1810. PIC: NMS.
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Hiding a shoe within the house has been a superstitious practice for centuries, but why?

Here, Molly Lambourne, curatorial volunteer in the Art and Design Department at National Museum of Scotland, looks at the odd custom that was observed throughout Scotland.

Three concealed shoes from the National Museum of Scotlands collection. PIC: NMS.

Three concealed shoes from the National Museum of Scotlands collection. PIC: NMS.

Shoes have been discovered in all manner of unusual places within buildings (largely in chimney breasts, within walls, under window sills, over door lintels, behind wainscotting or beneath floorboards), and found in a huge variety of properties.

READ MORE: 13 old superstitions from the Highlands and Islands

In most cases the shoes are children’s, sitting alone without a pair, and completely worn out. Although finding an odd shoe in a seemingly odd place in your house may appear completely accidental, the sheer number of cases indicates it must be a superstitious ritual.

The National Museum of Scotland houses several concealed shoes within the collection, one of these dates from around 1810 and was found by workmen in the roof of 5-7 Bristo Place during construction work developing the offices for the museum itself.

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The rationale behind this bizarre tradition remains contested and several theories have developed attempting to ascertain why. One explanation, especially in cases where the shoe had been hidden above a doorway or within a chimney breast, was perhaps an intentional method to prevent evil spirits from entering the home.

A well worn shoe carries the imprint of human character as the leather moulds to the wearer’s foot. Leading to notions that a person’s spiritual presence resides in the shoe; acting as a protective device against witchcraft.

Alternative explanations include an attempt to bestow fertility upon female members of the household, providing luck and good fortune, or perhaps due to the sheer number of children’s shoes – a memorial ritual in grieving the loss of a child.

The records also retain conversational letters to and from the previous curator Naomi Tarrant and many of Edinburgh’s residents, enthusiastically responding to her call for more information. Back in 1986, The Sunday post published an article on Naomi’s research entitled: ‘​If You Find An Old Shoe In The House’, encouraging those who themselves had found a shoe in their house to contact the museum.

While there are examples found across all economic backgrounds, it is integral to note how the majority of concealed relics are uncovered from working-class communities.

Historically, shoes were expensive; built to last, and certainly for the poor, the most expensive part of one’s outfit.

Very few examples of working-class clothing survive, so these shoes give us an important glimpse into an area of dress often difficult to study through first-hand sources. Due to their relative value, it was common practice to continually repair the shoe’s leather to ensure longevity. Interestingly, many of the concealed shoes within the museum’s collection also display instances of hand repair.

The museum still holds many handwritten correspondences between curator Naomi Tarrant and keeper of the Boot and Shoe Collection at the Northampton Museum, June Swan, as they discussed their research and tried to decipher the reasoning behind the tradition:

“I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s the last remnants of the superstitions about burying children in foundations, but I can’t see how we’ll ever prove it," Ms Swan wrote in November 1986.

We may never know the truth behind these curiosities. I am certainly intrigued to see what other theories and relics emerge over time.

So, if you find an old shoe in the house, please put a comment below or get in touch at webmaster@nms.ac.uk and mark for my attention.

This story first appeared on the National Museums Scotland blog