The mysteries of the witch’s ball

It looks like a giant Christmas tree bauble, but the witch’s ball is said to have qualities far more powerful than those of a pretty adornment.

The witch's ball held in the collection of Historic Environment Scotland was likely manufactured in the 20th Century. PIC: HES.

The witch’s ball has served many different purposes over the centuries and could often been found hanging in the windows of houses, particularly in Scotland’s fishing communities.

Chiara Montani, who works in collections and loans management at Historic Environment Scotland, said: “Objects of this kind are usually associated with dark magic and have been used for the protection of the household since the 17th century.

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“The superstition and general practice consists in hanging them next to the windows to ward off evil spirits.”

Their popularity as apotropaic objects - which supposedly have power to ward off evil influences or bad spirits - is still very much alive today.

Recent research on a witch’s ball in the HES collection found that the object was likely to have been made in the 20th Century.

Ms Montani, in a recent article for the Historic Environment Scotland blog, said the belief in the ball’s powers likely stemmed from the tradition of sailor’s wives hanging a glass float in their window in the hope that it would protect their husbands at sea.

She added that the connotation with witchcraft possibly derived from the witch trials of the late 17th Century.

Ms Montani said: “It was a practice to try suspected witches by binding their arms and legs and throwing them into water.

“If the woman floated, she was a witch. By resemblance, the hallow glass buoys attached to the edges of fishing nets to keep them afloat have been associated with witchcraft trials.

“Many maritime museums have witch’s balls in their collections. When strolling through fishermen villages it is still possible to see glass baubles hanging in cottages windows.”

Similar powers were believed to have been held by witch’s bottles. In the 17th Century, stoneware vessels were usually buried at the entrance of a house and filled with items such as iron pins or nails, human hair, bones, pieces of wood and urine.

“These ingredients acted as spells or counter-spells against witchcraft,” Ms Montani said.

In the early 18th century, watch balls became popular features in nurseries with the name later evolving into witch’s balls.

Ms Montani said: “These pretty toys were hung up in nurseries to catch a child’s eye. These were called ‘watch balls’ and were possibly intended for the protection of children from malevolent spirits.

“With time, their name was corrupted into witch ball. This caused immediate association of these toys with superstitions of witches and evil eye.

The witch’s ball in the HES collection originally belonged to two sisters, Jane and Louisa Macdonald, of Arbroath, who helped to establish a local history museum in the Abbot’s House at Arbroath Abbey.

Last December, experts at HES were able to establish the date of the object for the first time by analysing the glass.

Ms Montani said an “important breakthrough” was made in understanding the witch’s ball and its use.

Dr Maureen Young and Aurélie Turmel, who work within the HES science team, used a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to test the chemical composition of the object.

A peak in the presence of arsenic suggested the object may have dated to 1835-1870.

However, the high level of pigmentation additives such as chromium, iron and copper strongly points to the 20th century as possible date of production.

During the Victorian era, the ball may have been placed at the front of the house to see calling visitors or used in the dining room to help the service, Mr Montani said.

However, she added: “ Objects of this kind show superstitions of witches and evil eye were very much alive in the Victorian period. Witch’s balls had a steady market, being manufactured in many different sizes.

“As a 20th century object, this witch’s ball might have been simply used to decorate a house interior.

“But who knows what beliefs the owner might have held. Perhaps they still wanted protection from the evil eye.”

It is believed the witch’s ball held by HES was produced by Alloa Glassworks.