Wise women sweeping a persons head

What is Scottish Witchcraft (or not)? – the role of the wise women

by Scott

In a earlier post, I discussed the Cailleach and her associated role in Gaelic culture. She represents a power as vast and as wide as the Scottish landscape but a role that is also nurturing  and intimately fruitful as the role of the wise woman (or man) in Scottish folklore. Unlike scottish witchcraft as a catch all term we have phrases that cover a wide variety of roles so called witches used to do. The bean/fear fease (wise women/man) bean ghlúine (midwife) bean chaointe (keening women) and the death midwife are all roles that derive and inspire their performance from the Cailleach to their communities.  Other wise folk would be known as fiosaiche (male) ban-fhiosaiche (female) in Scotland, the majority of them seem to have been men and were a breed apart from healers, charmers and fortune tellers each with their own term. But one important distinction is only the wise woman or man drew on the power and relationship they had with the diaone sith. {1}

Wise women hut witches hut

Wise women in her rather shabby looking hut …

It is important to note here that I am not using the word Witch.  Witchcraft in Scotland was known as buidseach (male) or bana-bhuidseach (female) and only appears after the 16th century, about the time of the witch hunts. Amait was used before this and meant witch, then later referred to a “foolish women”. Those who would consider themselves buidseach would work and call on the spirits for self gain, self aggrandisement and work against their community, this is important to note. This wouldn’t be something a wise woman would do, go against their community, unless perhaps in war times as shown in the Irish and Scottish Tales where this approach would support her “Tuath” or family and community to be successful.  We can’t really be sure but I doubt the daoine sith would let harm come to those they had relationships with and the community they helped support. Action would have been needed in some form. They dealt with both sides I’m sure, but in support not hindrance of the greater good. The modern term Witch is so conflated with different religious overtures from neopaganism, Wicca to Luciferian and Hedgewitch practices that it helps to not use it when referring to folk practices at all.

A witch, from the perspective of Scottish folklore, has huge negative connotations made up from self-obsession and self-serving interests. Living off the success of her community and others hard work whilst not contributing is not something that someone of this time would aspire to do, Your community was important.  To be removed form your community woudl mean you woudl most likely perish. Though wise women and men might, and were, accused of witchcraft they never considered themselves to be witches or evil doers at the time of the trial.  Evidence can be found of this in the witch craft trials of Scotland where villages would petition the court to prevent the wise woman or man from being prosecuted ( Alexander Drummond’s trial is a famous example of this) . They were thought of very fondly by their communities. This would not be the case if that person was as self-serving as the tales lead us to believe witches are. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, Isobel Gowdie being one of them, but i think she referred to herself as a witch I’m happy to be corrected on this if folks have other info.

Wise women sweeping a persons head

Wise women sweeping away illness

So what is the role of the wise woman or man in Scotland? Their role would have been to help their communities and to combat malign influences. This help, more often than not, was given to the wise woman by the blessing of the daoine sith. They were specialists, other healers or charmers couldn’t match because they dealt with the world of the unseen. Wise woman and men had a relationship with the otherworld or world of the sidhe/sith that helped them in various tasks. Such as:

  • Locating the whereabouts of lost and stolen goods or animals
  • Diagnosing, explaining and prescribing for various physical ailments.
  • Diagnosing otherworld ailments, curses and effects and prescribing their cure.
  • Diagnoses of otherworld injuries and  curses and prescribing cures, while preventing a greater tragedy or infliction.
  • Fortelling death, or otherworld influence that ends in death.
  • Works on the area of otherworld abduction where folks have been taken by the otherworld and help them be returned.
  • Seership, Weather control and helping livestock would also be a part of this. (2)

In all the stories, their gift was given by the sidhe or the daoine sìth and passed down in tradition (3). Charmers and healers didn’t necessarily have this connection to the sith/sidhe and thus were limited in scope to what they dealt with. The wise woman or man was the true specialist. This is very different from the English cunning folk who were far more likely to emphasise their learning coming from exotic occult books and less emphasis on tradition, if any {4}.The role was carried out through the use of the “second sight” or “second hand sight”, a skill that is always granted by the sith/sidhe, not something that was learnt or inherited and rather famous in Scottish Folk Stories. Though it could run in families due to the association of the sith with a blood line (not because of genetics). There are stories of many Scottish Clans with their attendant sith and spirit helpers.

The gift of the fiosaiche (male) ban-fhiosaiche (female) – “knowing one” – wasn’t something that was paid for by those who received their help, the ability to help stems from their relationship with the sith, so this would have been improper. They would have accepted gifts in exchange, as their help was of great value, the value of which would depend on what the person seeing them could give.

You may have found wise women “chucking the cups” or other forms of divination being guided by the sith and their “second hand sight” or seeing the spectres of those about to die walking the corpse roads. The stories are full of tales such as this, and many folk wanted to be rid of this gift for these very reasons, seeing your friends as corpses is not a pleasant experience. They would have also employed fortune-telling, charms of protection, diverted the evil eye and other techniques and folk remedies and traditions involving everyday objects such as thread, stones, saining, water basins, coins, coal, different woods, herbs etc. This would be bespoke to the person who had come to see them and what form this help may take would be many and varied. It wouldn’t have involved a lot of the “ritual gear” you see today (see here for more info on folk magic vs witchcraft tools).

Other roles played by those in the community are the Keening women the bean chaointe. They would have keened or wailed at the wake of those who had passed away. This would perhaps be related to the work of the death midwife, which would help the person cross over to the other world, perhaps giving them herbs to pass on if the illness or wounds were too severe, (here we see a hint at the “left-hand path”. Perhaps some wise folk became feared because of this). This role would have been about washing the bodies of the dead, and caring for their physical body and their otherworld self as they crossed, watching over the wake and preventing their spirits becoming troubled and thus returning to trouble the living. It might be that comparisons can be drawn to the role of the “sin eater” in this regard and perhaps a topic for another post as this is an area of folk practice we don’t hear very much about.

Also the role of the midwife, the bean ghlúine, who would help new borns come into the world is the mirror image of the death midwife. Here they would have eased the journey of the new-born and mothers pain with herbs and employed folk magic, such as string, chord and knives, and call on the help of the sith in doing so. The sìth would also tell folks what they needed to do to help folks who came to them, again it doesn’t come out of an esoteric book but a reciprocal relationship that worked two ways.

Thomas The Rymer Famous Borders wise man Scottish witchcraft of wise woman?

Thomas The Rymer – Famous Borders wise man

There may have been rare occasions where perhaps a wise women or man would have been able to perform all these roles. I do not know, its more than likely different folk fulfilled different roles, but it demonstrates how important the role these figures had in their society and culture at the time. The wise man or woman is the hand on the rudder guiding us through life transitions and illnesses and helping us through all life’s challenges. Transitions of course, are traditionally liminal times in Gaelic culture and it’s no surprise that the wise person is to be found mediating them with the sith.

It must be remembered that it would be the community, and those within the community that regarded someone as a wise person and not just someone picking the title and wandering around calling themselves as such. In this way it would be community service and the opinion of community, if you will, that bestowed a person with this title. So if this is something you seek to emulate then perhaps your community is a good place to start and your community will of course include the unseen.

The focus on community here is important. The modern day folk of our cultures, especially in the west have a dualistic appreciation of things black/white, left/right or good/evil and perhaps more of an inclination to the cult of the individual than the importance of the community. The approach that the wise person would take wasn’t so much delineated by this dyadic thinking, some acts that folk think are bad could have good outcomes for the community or those they were helping. Some acts you think are good might have bad results for the community and other people. I don’t want to get into the philosophy and ethics so deeply here but the gifts that the wise woman or men have are neither good or bad they “just are”. It is their actions that determine the outcome. I imagine  these wise woman and men of old didn’t think in binary terms, in fact they were probably nonbinary in their approach to things again something we need to re-establish in the modern day. Things just are the way they are. It is the outcome, or resulting action, when examined through the lens of community that labels it bad or good. So here rather than the good/bad dichotomy that we hear and read about in the biblical sense we are looking at the effect one’s actions have on our society and community. You could in effect work with both hands as long as it wasn’t for selfish gain and for community good, if we go by the above examples. Being self-serving and using others is what made and still makes a “Bad Witch” in the Scottish sense. I think this is an interesting approach to understanding the implications of community on the role of modern wise folk and helps to shift the focus away from GOOD vs BAD unhealthy thinking.

 

The role of wise person in today’s society.

So where does this leave us today? Perhaps the role of the wise person in their community was one of community nurse/midwife/social worker/herbalist/seer/intuitive/community worker/counsellor/ pharmacist/medium. All of which are roles that are considered very different and separate from one another today, if at all related. Spirit Medium Social worker does sound like an awesome job title though!

I truly think working in your community and relationship with land and the sith is the first step to re-awakening this role. The wise person “archetype” is something we can draw upon if we are lucky to work with people and in contact with our local community and folk that need our help. Perhaps through realigning ourselves with our ancestors, the land and the spirits that inhabit it we might get a deeper understanding of how to help others. Perhaps we will be called to work with those most in need in our communities? Perhaps they will help us to see that without a community, always working for ourselves or in times of trouble we have very few people to rely on? Perhaps they will offer us a new perspective away from the constant ideals of capitalist individuation and a culture that celebrates the self toward a more helpful collective understanding? Who knows! But there is a role for the wise man and women in all of our lives, one based on the experience of real life and not shrouded solely in the realms of dark witchcraft with its bones and curses or the love and light brigade of candles, glitter and “blessed be’s” ….

To look at an example of a modern day Pellar or Cornish wise woman, you might want to check out Cassandra Latham Jones website.

id-etsy

References

  1. http://www.gaolnaofa.org/?s=witch
  2. Crualaoich (2008) The Book of the Cailleach:  Stories of the wise women healer.
  3. Davies, (2002) A Comparative Perspective on Scottish Cunning folk and Charmers.
  4. Sutherland (1987) Ravens and Black Rain: The story of Highland Second Sight.

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6 comments

Heather Awen 25th November 2016 - 9:27 am

This was really well researched and really informative. I’m grateful that you put this together. The understanding about if it helps the community is really the key factor with most cultures. In most indigenous cultures I’ve studied the word witch always means someone working for personal gain at the expense of the community. Putting it in terms with being in an individualistic capitalist society is really awesome. And the more someone focuses on the animism of their bioregion the concept of community changes . When you start to feel the ecosystem and understand how it is all connected and know that there are things not forage that year and other things that need to be foraged because they are invasive, and pruning properly an abandoned apple orchard, all of that connects with community. And offering herbal medicine to people who cannot afford to buy tinctures who are too sick or busy to make it themselves – I always had a lot of small dropper bottles for making extra for my friends who often would be homeless living under bridges or people on disability like me , it’s all part of the community. Being called to the community that is on the fringe, the forgotten ones which in many ways includes a lot of animism practices for me , really has been my main concern since I was a child. I feel really blessed that had the chance to contribute so much to communities where other people don’t care . Including psychic work for fundraisers and helping for free with spirit work just as much as being the person in my state that people contact went into panic about being diagnosed with MCS or all of the work with people in prison. Getting so sick and not being able to go outside or be around other humans was devastating and I had no idea how I would be able to keep contributing – and that is a human need. A need that a lot of people with chronic illnesses or disabilities don’t forget to fill because people think it will be too much effort to include us and they don’t understand how much we know about ourselves and how to make things work out-of-the-box and it’s sad that people often don’t care about listening to how people can contribute because the community is what suffers not just individuals.

One of the main focuses for the books in prison is about getting beyond the “user” mentality . Whether it is another human being, “magical plant” or a God, it’s about relationships that are respectful and take time to come closer and it’s not necessarily on our timetable . Human beings, spirits, nature – none of those are for using. The end of your essay is really clear about that and it’s also really hopeful. This was a lot of great information and I especially like how you explained the difference between being a witch and being accused of witchcraft. I didn’t know that communities could petition. Anyway, it’s filled with a lot of layers things to think about and I always appreciate that in writing.

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Claire Mullin 30th November 2017 - 4:36 pm

Another wonderfu article, but a couple of your Gaelic words need respelling. ‘Tuath’ rather than ‘tauth’ and ‘daoine’ rather than ”diaone’ . Easily done when you’re typing quickly.

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Cailleachs son 1st December 2017 - 8:41 pm

Thank you Claire for you words and the corrections. Gaelic isnt my first (or even third) language so any corrections from native or expert speakers etc are very much appreciated and prevent me from spreading dis information. Thanks for reading along despite the spellings errors.

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Elder Mountain Dreaming 5th March 2018 - 8:23 am

Excellent article, and one note, after 3,000 years of exclusions and corruptions of wise women grandmothers and her shamanic cultures, her stories and accomplishments, you focused way to much on added men to this article. The word woman is already “inclusive” of the word man, but not the other way around. Do not fear your power as a woman when writing about the Cailleach. for they were not afraid of theirs.

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Cailleachs son 6th March 2018 - 2:11 pm

The situation in Scotland is there were both wise men and wise woman. It doesn’t do anyone any favours to look at this area of life as the province of solely women as we find in a lot of places. The idea as a man as a healer and helper is a useful and powerful idea in this age of toxic masculinity.

We also have to be very very very careful when you associate “shamanic” with activities of the Bean or fear feasa, Taibshears, Elleree’s, two sighted (the list goes on) of Scotland. Shamanic is a term for a certain culture in and of itself. We have our own words in Scotland to describe the working of this group of people. It’s not witchcraft per se, it’s also not shamanism either. The role of the bean or fear feast was something open to the people of Scotland regardless of what their apparent sex might be. I realise this is a feminist point of reclaiming but I feel that maybe has its place in another post.

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Salina Thien 5th October 2018 - 3:51 am

Hello. I just found out that I am a McNiven my great-grandmother came over from Scotland as a teenager. I feel a strong connection to Scotland and also to my spiritual beliefs. I’m learning so much and if anybody with hereditary lines in Scotland would like to get ahold of me, that would be lovely! I would love to have somebody to talk to about what I’m experiencing and feeling. I’ve never liked the term witch. I’ve never resonated with the athame or casting circles. I’ve always resonated with helping and healing. I don’t know if somebody could speak to me that would be great thank you thank you thank you

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