Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Witch's Cursing Bone

It was a familiar voice on the car radio. But until he started talking about ancestry I hadn't recognised Bruce Durie, genealogist, broadcaster and chairman of the Ancestral Tourism Steering Group on which I sit. When he moved on to the cursing bone of Katherine McNure of Glen Shira, I stopped the car to listen.

The 'bone' in question is now in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. Further illumination is given by this 'Extract from the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Vol.78 (1943-1944) pg141:

Witch’s Cursing-bone consisting of the marrow bone of a deer or sheep, stained deep brown by peat, and fixed through a diamond-shaped pice of bog oak. It was formerly the property of a reputed witch living at the head of Glen Shira, Argyll. According to the local tradition,“When the “witch” wanted to “ill will” one of her neighbours, she went out with her bone between sunset and cock-crow and made for the neighbour's croft. She did not go to the dwelling-house, however, but to the hen house and seized the hen that sat next to the rooster (his favourite), thrawed its neck, and poured its blood through the cursing bone, uttering her curses the while.

I am reminded of Isobel Gowdie, from Auldearn, just two miles from here in Nairn, who gave a full and detailed  confession of the doings of her coven at her trial in 1662. I have read the full transcript and she seems really quite proud of her doings -  even giving the magic spell by which a witch can turn herself into a hare, then back to a witch.

But soon (25 Jan) it is Burns Night and I finish with my favourite witch: 'Nannie' famous for her 'cutty sark', short skirt, in Robert Burns' epic tale, Tam o' Shanter.

Satan is blowing the pipes, the witches are dancing, Tom is captivated, his horse Maggie terrified...

'Even Satan glowr'd, and fidg'd fu' fain
And hotch'd and blew wi' might and main
Till first ae caper, syne anither
Tam tint his reason a' thegither
And roars out, "Weel done, Cutty-sark!"
And in an instant all was dark
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied
When out the hellish legion sallied.'

The new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum opened today, 22 January 2011.

I look forward to visiting on Monday and will report back.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

David Hume and Thomas Aikenhead

A man in a toga, 1.5 times life size, sits at the junction of Edinburgh's Royal Mile and George IV Bridge, more interested in his tablet than in St Giles Cathedral opposite - 'the mother church of presbyterianism'.

The man is David Hume, philosopher, historian, civil servant, founding father of the enlightement and one of the most influential Scots of the last millennium. Small wonder that he has no interest in St Giles, for Hume was an aetheist.

On 23 April this year, to mark the 300th anniversary of Hume's birth, a colourful parade will leave the Scottish Parliament and march up the Royal Mile to this statue.  The celebration will start by re-enacting the notorious 1696 trial of an Edinburgh student, Thomas Aikenhead, the last person in Britain to be hung for blasphemy. Aikenhead's story will be familiar to readers of Arthur Herman's book, 'How The Scots Invented the Modern World', since a discussion of the case forms the Prologue.

The parade will pass the Old Tron Kirk, a little further down the High Street where the 18 year old Aikenhead made a poor joke about the weather, 'I wish right now I were in the place Ezra called hell to warm myself there'. This flippant attitude to the Bible was the lad's undoing. You might call it a fatwa called by Scotland's Lord Advocate and chief law officer, James Stewart, to discourage others from treating the Bible with disrespect. Years later, Hume was utterly apalled.

I am not an aetheist but I may be there on 23 April to celebrate Hume's extraordinary pioneering thinking.

Hope the weather isn't hellish.