Wednesday, March 23, 2016


Travels to Terra Incognitia: The Scottish Highlands and Hebrides in Early Modern Traveller’s Accounts c. 1600 to 1800

Martin Rackwitz
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pages 502-504.

"Other superstitious rites also had their origins in the time of pre-Christian sun-worship. Travellers, for example, unanimously agreed that the Highlanders paid great attention to the clockwise performance of certain tasks. Martin Martin, for example, reported that the locals and strangers always left the ‘Loch Siant Well’ on the Isle of Skye in the same direction.  They walked three times around the well sunways (i.e. clockwise) from east to west after drinking from its water, which was believed to cure diseases such as stitches, headaches, stones and consumption [222].

    Loch Siant Well on the Isle of Skye

"The tenant on the tiny island of Fladday (Eilean Fladday) in the Sound of Raasay always made a tour sunways round the island before going to sea in his boat [223]. Upon their arrival on the neighbouring island of Oronsay, the natives of Colonsay were accustomed to circle the church clockwise before entering upon any kind of business. The natives of Eigg were accustomed to walk clockwise round a heap of stones on their island that was called ‘Martin Deiseal’ and was consecrated to the saint of that name [224]. Martin was rowed several times from one island to another, and on every occasion the oarsmen insisted on a clockwise passage, even though Martin had forbidden them to do so. Despite the clockwise turn, the boat was repeatedly forced to return because of contrary winds. On embarking on a journey from Jura to Colonsay, he forbade his oarsmen to make such a turn. The boat arrived safely at its destination in spite of the superstitious oarsmen’s disbelief in the possibility of travelling without a clockwise turn [225].

"This superstition proved to be particularly hard to suppress, and there are numerous examples of it until the end of the eighteenth century. The Reverend Mr. Shaw, minister of Elgin, informed Pennant that in the shire of Moray, the herdsmen danced at Beltane three times clockwise round the fire. At marriages and baptisms they made a procession around the church, following the course of the sun [226]. The Reverend Mr. James Robertson, minister of Callander, reported in 1791 that the Highlanders considered it the ‘lucky way’ to perform tasks from east to west, following the course of the sun. The opposite way was considered ‘unlucky’. Therefore, when Highlanders bathed in or drank out of a consecrated fountain, they always approached it clockwise from east to west, going along the southern side. They approached graves in the same manner, and when the glass went round in company, it also imitated the course of the sun [227]."


[222] Martin Martin, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, Circa 1695, p. 140.

[223] Martin Martin, Description, p. 167. Martin claimed that the birds made the same clockwise tour around the island before arriving in March and leaving in August.

[224] Martin Martin, Description, pp. 247-248, p. 277.

[225] Martin Martin, Description, p. 119. In Gaelic the right-hand turns, imitating the course of the sun, were called ‘Deiseal’.

[226] Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Scotland 1769, p. 291.

[227] The Statistical Account of Scotland (OSA), vol. xii, p. 184. In parts of 19th-century rural England the coffin was also carried clockwise round the churchyard. Throughout England leftward or anti-clockwise circling was linked to bad luck and witchcraft. See J. Simpsons and S. Roud (eds.), A Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford 2000), pp. 295, 211-212.

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