When the Spirit Moves You – Moving House and Animism in Scottish Folklore

by Scott

They say moving house is one of the most stressful things. It’s right up there with death and divorce. Having moved to a new house over the Bealtainn weekend I can agree. Though luckily no one got killed and we are still married.

It’s been a maze of solicitors, paper work, travel, packing and unpacking boxes and general DIY until my body ached too much and I had to sleep, stressed pets, stressed people and so many plants to move …

I spare you the rest of the gory details. We made it through. All in one piece. Now it’s the “where did I put that thing” routine inhabiting my everyday …

Between all the stress I got to thinking about what moving was like for our ancestors. I think people didn’t move very often. Except when married or someone died. Unlike today. Some of the Farmers family would also move to the Sheilings in the summer at Bealtainn to feed cattle and other livestock in the Munros all over Scotland and return at Samhuinn. Other than that, I don’t think folk moved very often. Well, until the horrendous clearances and the encroach of the industrial revolution.

People built houses. The folklore around this is fascinating. It helps us see the complete picture of buildings with their own spirit. How spirits link to architecture and a solid link between home, families, ancestors, land and spirit. Our ancestors lived a truly animistic, spirit filled, and haunted life in a haunted universe. Their home life was no exception.

A Haunted Life

The interrelationship between people and the land is as old as our race. We have navigated as hunter gathers between different places along the way negotiating with the spirits we may have met. When we started building houses and adopting a farming way of life we needed to look at appeasing the spirits of the land who lived there. We were in effect moving into a place and needed to live peacefully with the other spirits who already dwelt there (I don’t think this as conquering it’s all about community and working in partnership). We had to encourage them to be peaceful and stay happy –  to help protect farm and family alike. This is the origin of the household spirits and what the lore which remains seeks to address. Though sometimes hidden in story and folktale.

Humans could be lead to the spot of a new dwelling by following the omens presented to them. It would be like trusting to fate/spirits to find your perfect place to live. Such as a flight of birds related to your tutelary spirit, entrusting the waves of the sea to wash ashore a representation of your tutelary spirt/altar or other omen led quest. (You can see examples of this happening in the Vatnsdela Saga, Laxdeala Saga, the book of settlements and the Vita S.Carantoci (The life of Saint Carantoc) to name just a few. (Found in Demons and Spirits of the Land by Claude Lecoutex). Once they had found land to be settled it needed to be “moved into” and there were various ways to do this.

A snake in the house

The spirit of the land was said to be at times represented as a snake or a horned serpent. It was good luck to find a snake living on your property as this represented the spirit who resides there and links the spirits of the land to serpent lore and tales. Like the Scottish Borders tale of how Micheal Scot received his powers from eating a white snake, it’s too lengthy to explore in great detail here. It was also possible for the spirit of the household to take on the form or shift into the shape of other creatures who might live there. We see this reflected in the folklore of the brùnaidh we will discuss later.

Boundaries

It feels that humans through time have felt it important to make their mark on where they live. When a new plot of land was taken over it was important to set up boundaries. This was not only important to help “sanctify” a place but also to show your neighbours where you lived. We find this in the boundary stones and markers of things. A good example of this I think is the Harry Burn. If you manged to make it passed the Burn you could no longer be persued by those whose area you were running from (these however are my own thoughts on the matter but you will see many a Harry Burn on Scottish Maps and its always puzzled me about why). It also creates “a there – not there” dichotomy. Along with this creates a liminal space – a space between there and not there where spirits can ingress such as thresholds like doors, windows, keyholes and chimneys.

The lore mentions land could be claimed by circumambulating it, that is by moving around it in a deosil or sunwise direction. If you wanted to claim the land you could walk around it with fire brands. It also gives importance to the idea of a center space. We see this in the fire brands of Bealtainn and Samhuinn in Scotland. Torches known in the highlands as “Sowmacks” were lit by householders. These torches were made of bog wood spilt and tied with straw ropes to be carried about the property at sky-set (dusk) some up to 7 feet tall, depending on the strength of the carrier on Samhuinn night. Once they had made the rounds of the fields in a sunwise direction the torches would be hurled into the bonfires on the hills. This was a way of keeping the lands safe from ingress of malignant forces such as witches and the sidhe. The same practice was used in the house.

One rhyme used when throwing the torches on the fire went as follows:

“Brave bonfire, burn a’, Keep the fairies a’ awa.”

Other ways of declaring your boundary or land would be by firing a burning arrow over the land, ( from the center)  standing on a tree stump and throwing an axe (where it lands is the boundary of your land – we see this method repeated in acts of Necromantic folk magic I’ve discussed before.), throwing a spear or else riding the boundaries of your land on horseback, ploughing the boundary among many other practices. By marking the boundaries like this we set up the bonds of the agreement to cohabit this land. Re-entering into these folk pacts with spirits who cohabit with you. This is a subtle difference but an important one. It’s not so much about worshipping a “deity” in so much as it’s about re-establishing your contract of cohabitation with the spirits of home and hearth and with the community where you live. This is a two-way bargain.

Riding of the Marches

The practice of riding the boundaries has also been reintroduced to Scotland through the Riding of the Marches (Marches is an old word meaning borders and March streams are used extensively in Scottish Folk Magic as they are liminal streams representing two boundaries coming together, much like the River Tweed is the border between England and Scotland). The riding of the Marches is found mostly in the Lowlands of Scotland, famous for its border fighting and general unease. It’s now a flourishing annual tradition introduced after the end of the world war replete with pomp and ceremony galore.

Spirit Pacts of Hearth and Home

The names of the spirits who come to live in the house are many and varied and are found all over the world and in almost every culture. They come with a variety of names. – In Europe we have a brownie in lowland scots also known as a brùnaidhùruisg, or gruagach in Scottish Gaelic (though the latter two are more related to the water and land respectively than the household), in England they are called Hobs, Norway Nisse, Sweden Tomte, Finland Tonttuand in Slavic folklore they are known as the Domovoi to name but a few. It is under these names we come to know the lore of our household spirits and what is required of us to keep good relationships with them.

The exercise of living with the land requires cohabitation. Here we see the operation of pacts or agreements.  Sometimes these agreements were arranged with a sacrifice. There are two different ideas about this. The idea of foundation sacrifice is an old one and we often hear tales of foundations sacrifices (such as the young child supposedly built into tower bridge in London). Some argue this sacrifice is required to allow the building to be erected. Others view this as giving the Spirits of the land their due price for changing it from a wild place to one that will allow agriculture to flourish. There is talk of the first living thing to cross the threshold of a new house dying and the spirit of the house (or graveyard for that matter) will take it as payment and use its form from then on out echoing these other ideas.

As we move into more modern times other things were used. Instead of people, animals were used. They were left to cross the threshold as the first visitor and then promptly killed or buried alive in the walls. Later blood was used in place of animals, and then wine. Sometimes even the measurement of a person’s shadow was used and placed under the foundations of a house. This makes sense if we see this as a symbolic use of a person’s shadow as their “alter ego” or double. It’s been suggested the spirit of the elder of the family or the first person to die in the family home becomes the protective spirit of place. This is more poignant when you think whole families and lineages would have lived and died in the same place for a long time buried in nearby barrow or cairn and feeds into the lore we have around the Sith/Sidhe and the dead.

We often see stones and trees outside the property being used as sites to offer to the spirits of a place. A famous Scottish example is seen in offerings to the Gruagach. In Old Scottish Customs, E.J. Guthrie (1895, repr.1994) introduces the Gruagach: “Some time ago the natives of some of the Western Islands firmly believed in the existence of the gruagach, a female spectre of the class of brownies, to whom the dairy-maids made frequent libations of milk. The gruagach was said to be an innocent being who frolicked or gambolled among the pens and folds. She was armed solely with a pliable rod, with which she switched any who would annoy her either by using bad language or depriving her of her share of the dairy produce. Even so late as 1770 the dairymaids who attended a herd of cattle in the Island of Trodda [off Skye], were in the habit of placing daily a quantity of milk on a hollow stone for the gruagach. Should they ever neglect this duty they were sure to feel the weight of the brownie’s rod on the following day”.

Others have viewed the Guragach as male and offered milk for them in a knocking stone ( the idea of a knocking stone has very interesting connotations). This knocking stone is also found in another tale by Evans-Wentz in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1911) “The fairy queen who watches over cows is called Gruagach in the islands, and she is often seen. In pouring libations to her and her fairies, various kinds of stones, usually with hollows in them, are used. In many parts of the Highlands, where the same deity is known, the stone into which women poured the libation is called Leac na Gruagaich, ‘Flag-stone of the Gruagach’. If the libation was omitted in the evening, the best cow in the fold would be found dead in the morning”. It has been suggested the stones referred to might be the old ring and cup marked stones found all over Scotland, but this is hotly debated.

A Brùnaidh required certain things from their human co-inhabitants. They must be left food and were fond of porridge, butter, honey and cream. They were also said to live in holes or cracks in the house. A well know source for Brùnaidh lore is John Brand (a minister, whose Christian influence you will see clearly in his quote below) wrote in 1703:

Not above forty or fifty years ago, every family had a brownie, or evil spirit, so called, which served them, to which they gave a sacrifice for his service; as when they churned their milk, they took a part thereof, and sprinkled every corner of the house with it, for Brownie’s use; likewise, when they brewed, they had a stone which they called “Brownie’s stane“, wherein there was a little hole into which they poured some wort for a sacrifice to Brownie. They also had some stacks of corn, which they called Brownie’s Stacks, which, though they were not bound with straw ropes, or in any way fenced as other stacks used to be, yet the greatest storm of wind was not able to blow away straw off them.”

This is really important to note. Every corner of the house are the four corners. We see this repeated in the folklore about moving to a new house. It’s said when you move into a new house you need to place a coin under the floor in the corners of your new house to “pay the Brùnaidh” but be sure you don’t thank them for their work or offer it as a gift. To do so will cause them to leave. As we have seen this makes sense. It’s not a gift, it’s part of a pact, a cohabitation contract we have discussed above. Other folklore suggests you should sit in respectful silence around the kitchen table before you travel anywhere to pay respects to the “house spirit”. It’s also important to note the links between the Gruagach stone and the Brownie Stane and the similar offerings left.

What did the house spirits do?

There is a lot of lore about house spirits being helpful but also hinderances. They would make sure the house was tidy before guests arrived, however, if dogs were found in the house they would sometimes be murdered by an angry Brùnaidh. If water stoops were found to be full they would knock them over, some also disliked having cutlery out. I think this is more the case if you left out cutlery they would “borrow” it to make use as a tool. Some had particular dislike for certain Scottish Clans (For example, the Brùnaidh of the Macdonald clan hated the Campbells, for obvious reasons). Some could take the shape of different animals and birds and snakes living on the property. Here we see a direct link to the older belief in the indwelling land spirit.

If the Brùnaidh was really offended it was known to smother people in their sleep, hurt livestock and pets and sometimes resort to “poltergeist like activity”. From what I’ve written so far, it beggars the question, why would anyone want a house spirit?

The Brùnaidh is able to offer a family omens of the future and for this working with one is worth its weight in gold. Assuming good relations were kept, and the household didn’t fall into slovenly behaviour, the Brùnaidh would not only protect the family but show the future. Through signs such as singing or dancing or jovial behaviour they will signal good times and good fortune ahead. Similarly, if you feel the warm touch of the Brùnaidh’s hand. The sound of a strumming comb is the sign of a coming marriage. A Brùnaidh will signify hard times ahead by the touch of his cold hand, the wailing or the blowing out of candles signifies a death (usually the head of the household). Through this reciprocal “folk pact” we can see a mutual beneficial relationship is created. The folks of the residency are made aware of things they could never know otherwise.

Moving with your house spirit or getting a new one

When I say moving with the house spirit I don’t mean just the whisky! In Scottish folklore it’s important the luck of the family was maintained. This “family luck” was represented in the spirit known as the Brùnaidh. Bringing your Brùnaidh with you could be as simple as asking your spirit to come along. Especially if you have kept up good relations with it whilst domicile there. We already explored the expectation and requirements needed to keep up this relationship.

In other lore from Russia it was important to enter the house (after a cat or chicken had entered first) carrying bread, salt and an Icon and it was important to do this on the new moon. You were to put the piece of bread under the stove for the house spirit. In some place the lady of the house would run barefoot around the house three times before dawn and pronounce this spell:

“I place an iron fence around this home. Let no wild beast jump over the fence, nor serpent crawl over it, nor evil person set foot over it and may the grandfather woodsprite not look over it

Other rituals were designed to bring the old house spirit with them. The owner must go to the new house and leave a whole loaf with salt on it and a cup of milk. Then go to the old house at night, and standing in nothing but their shirt say, “I bow to you, father landlord and ask you to come to stay with us in our new dwelling, we have a warm corner for you there and a meal”Curiously enough there are traditions of putting salt under the hearth when folk move in the UK but I think the links to the resident spirit are missing. The phrase “father landlord” is also quite telling.

I’ve listed these Russian practices here as it combines a selection of the folk lore we have already discussed and seems to stem from the same root tradition. It also adds further evidence to the processes we are discussing and though comes from another culture and community the links are uncanny.

(Edit. Since writing this article a reader on the Isle of Lewis has let me know that there is a tradition in existence on the Isle of Lewis “On Lewis we bring bread, salt, peat and something to drink into the house, to leave overnight before moving in the next day. Where this wasn’t possible, these items were brought in first, placed on a hearth, and left for a day and a night. It’s a tradition I’ve carried out in every place I’ve ever lived, near and far from home!” This is interesting and has similarities to the Hogmanay celebration where people bring in coal, whisky and food.)

The house spirit lived in a hole or crack in the house some suggest moving it into a spirit box by placing some local soil from the four corners of the old house into the box, leaving it outside the spirits house and then bringing this box with you once they have moved into the box. You could use a similar incantation to the one above. You can then place the soil from the box into a new space in the new home where the house spirit will inhabit.  Hopefully.

What happens if you don’t happen to have a house spirit? Or you’ve annoyed one so much that it left.? Well your luck and that of your family would leave with the spirit and you would be left to your ruin. Harsh. However, there is folk magic lore from Scandinavia that demonstrates how you might go about getting a new one. That is if you have the gift required to carry out the folk magic.

You could petition the spirit of a dead person to replace the house spirit (known as a Tomte in Swedish). You should go to a cemetery on a Thursday night. In a grave where an old man lays one should dig and get some if the coffin nails. The nails are driven into the church altar that night and he will come. This suggests you are using the spirit of the old man in the grave to enlist him to become your new house spirit.

Alternatively, you could walk around a church to get a Tomte. On Christmas eve night walk three times counter-clockwise around the church. Then you will meet a man in black and from him you should ask for a Tomte. The same can be done on a cemetery. (If you want to read more of these kinds of practices please check out trolldom by Johannes Bjorn Gardback)

Protection for your home

So, you have your protective spirit and you have worked on your relationship for a while you might think why do I need protective devices in my house? Well better to be safe than sorry and our ancestors were anything but complacent. There are points of contact between the “in here” and the “out there” across the boundary you have created that allows spirits in ingress if not managed carefully. These are the liminal spaces of folk tales.

Protective house amulets are ages old and can consist of many things. The most common found in Scotland is a Rowan tree and red thread cross hung in windows. Others might be Woodbine (Honeysuckle) or Juniper branches left in the windows, like you would find at Bealtainn. Others consist of horse shoes hung from lintels over doorways, pitch crosses daubed over windows to prevent lightning, amulets constructed to be positioned over windows and doors and designs with protective significance carved into shutters and painted on doorsteps.

One of the lesser known traditions was the painting of intricate patterns on doorsteps in Scotland. This was said to be done using pipe-clay or the juice of elder leaves. L. H. Hayward (Folklore Vol 49, 1938, pp. 236-7),

“Until the end of the nineteenth century every Shrop­shire farm-house and cottage had its doorstep and hearth­ stone decorated with queer patterns made from the pigment produced by squeezing a bunch of elder leaves (or more rarely of dock leaves). One still occasionally sees these patterns ” laid ” on the stones.”

This article in turn refers to Tangled Threads and Mazes by M.M. Banks (Folklore Vol 46, 1935, pp 78-80) and provides examples from Scotland:

 “Home and Country, the magazine of the Scottish Women’s Rural Institutes, has published a series of illustrations reproducing designs traced in pipeclay on thresholds and on floors of houses, dairies and byres in Scotland. They are believed to be of great antiquity: one correspondent tells of an old lady in Galloway who said her granny explained the tracing by the couplet:

“Tangled threid and rowan seed

Gar the witches lose (or lowse) their speed.”

Who knew I would turn to Home and country to find links to lore! Readers might recognise this rhyme, it’s usually represented as Rowan tree and red thread, rather than tangled threads. However, some of the patterns were drawn down and I’ve included a few of them below out of interest.

Doorstep patterns in Scotland

Doorstep patterns in Scotland

Some of the other designs have pictures of thistles of other like-minded patterns drawn onto them. I’m guessing that the Thistle was seen as protective and kept away evil due to its “spikey” nature.

Conclusion

This is by no means an exhaustive piece about information about these practices and the background they stem from. I do hope it enables those of like minds to explore these traditions today. In very crass terms, and I apologise in advance for this analogy, it can be viewed as a form of “Scottish Feng-Shui”. Though nothing at all to do with energy. These practices were followed to keep the household in order and in harmony with the land and the wider community and the spirits and humans that lived together.

They can also be adapted by folks in Scotland today when moving house or moving into a new home. The importance of right order and being in community with the land you are living on is very important.

We can leave offerings on an offering stone in our gardens or at the four corners of our house for the spirits who indwell where we live to create a beneficial environment. It’s clear they like sweet things like butter, honey and cream (this suggests Scottish tablet or fudge) but also beer and porridge and it seems they also like a portion of your harvest. We can offer places for spirits to indwell and create a beneficial environment for all who fall under its auspices. It also points to the need for continuity of these exercises least the spirit gets angered and leaves (it is after all a two way street).

These practices show the importance of being in relationship with the human and non-human community and land we live on and what happens if we are not (we lose our luck). It also demonstrates the scared character of land, describing the hearth, the four corners of our house and a designated space in the back garden or area outside given to the spirits who indwell there as very important.

The importance of liminal spaces is also demonstrated. This links into the wider lore of Scottish communities and practices on the quarter days which were themselves very liminal times and suggests these are times to renew the pacts of cohabitation we have with the land. In a way it links the microcosm of the household to the macrocosm of community.

I hope this writing has given you examples of how you might start to encourage these kinds of practices and relationships in your own life. If you try any of them out, please do let me know how you get on.

Further Reading

Brand, J. (1703) “A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland-Firth, and Caithness; wherein, after a short journal of the author’s voyage thither, these northern places are first more generally described, then a particular view is given of the several isles thereto belonging; together with an account of what is most rare and remarkable therein, with the author’s observations thereupon.”

Wentz, E., (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.

Gardback. B.J., (2015) trolldom: Spells and Methods of the Norse Folk Magic Tradition.

Guthrie, E.J., (1895, repr.1994) Old Scottish Customs.

Lecoutex, C., (1995) Demons and Spirits of the Land.

M.M. Banks., (1935) (Folklore Vol 46, pp 78-80) Tangled Mazes.

Ryan, W.F., (1999) The Bathhouse at Midnight.

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2 comments

nofixedstars 21st May 2018 - 10:28 pm

i am beyond fascinated to read of magical/ritual doorstep pattern making in scotland… it’s a common practice in india, where it is done using rice flour or coloured powders. and i was wondering if you’ve run across a belief that having a spoon carved of holly wood by a male ancestor or living family member will protect the house? (happily, i have such a spoon…)

truly, moving house is one of the most stressful things there is… best wishes to you for happiness in your new home!

Reply
Scott 22nd May 2018 - 8:30 am

Thank you so much for your kind comment. Yes, it was stressful but we survived!I haven’t run across the belief of a carved spoon before but i will keep an eye out for it. Interestingly the paper goes on to talk about why the people put the patterns on the doorsteps or on the floor of the barn/dairy etc. One story links it to King Canute, who tipped sand from his shoe as a bridal party passed and now in Knutsford every time there is a wedding a similar pattern is drawn on the floor outside the brides house. Other figures were drawn over kitchen floors like looping figures of 8 in limestone or chalk.

Interestingly in 1934 mr John Laylard read a paper and describes these patterns drawn in the Deccan (which is in southern India) were dedicated to Lord Ganesh, lord of obstacles and believed to protect the house from evil spirits or to attract the attention of Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity. However, no link in the pattern is given between the two countries by any means. No explanation to their root cause is given for Scotland except linking it to the myth of King Canute and the sand. There is also mention of tangled threads being placed over the top of Holy wells to prevent spirits from entering the well… but thats a whole other story ….

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