Saining is the Scottish Folk magic act of purification. It’s similar to the idea of smudging but very different. Importantly it’s a cultural relevant practice and is one available for folks who work within the Scottish folk magic diaspora. There has been a lot of conversation around appropriation of certain practices across the world by westerners. A lot of people using White Sage to smudge is a great example of this. There is a lot of, I think entirely appropriate, back lash and anger from Native American people and others to stop folk using Sage to smudge in their efforts to purify their spaces. Others cite the over harvesting of the plant in the wild and other issues caused by the commodification of these native practices by predominately white western Capitalists eager to cash in on the latest white person trend adding to it becoming problematic.
There are a number of articles written about alternatives to this practice of smudging with sage such as blood and spice bush aiming to help people explore more appropriate alternatives. Below you’ll explore the practice of purification, known as Saining, from a Scottish Folk Magic point of view. Please note I share this information for people who wish to explore purification from within Scottish folk magic practices. These practices are culturally specific. I hope those with Scottish Heritage might find these practices useful. I hope those without Scottish heritage will be encouraged to explore the different ways these purification practices work from their own cultural point of view.
Saining practices are important but why did Scottish folk magic practitioners carry them out? Saining practices, similar to smudging, were carried out primarily to remove influences of negative spirits on people, places, objects, and livestock. Note, these aren’t “energy cleansing” practices it also doesn’t equate to removing sin.
Purification practices are there to remove influences from being overlooked or to remove unwanted spirits influencing the person or the environment. Carrying out Saining helps us to uphold principles of living within the right order of things, alongside this is being diligent in your work, hospitality, keeping an orderly house and being true to our word.
Scottish Folk Magic is Syncretic and Animistic
Just to note Scottish folk magic practice is highly syncretic. It’s how the information and practices survived throughout the different cultural influences impacting them. I have no problem with the syncretism but others might find some elements of the practice too focussed on an Abrahamic point of view.
Due to the syncretic nature of Scottish Folk magic Saining incorporates the idea of making the sign of an equal armed cross though drawn X in fashion and not + linking it to these patterns in Celtic art. The Etymology of the word Sain is worth noting. Sain comes from Middle English (whence also English sain) and is found in the Scots language as Sain. Cognate to the Scottish Gaelic word Seun (“a charm”). Sain can mean to bless or consecrate and make the sign of the cross. Seun covers a charm for protection, protection in general and also prosperity and fortune. To Seun/sain an object you utilise the sign of a cross or say a protective charm said over an object or both to hallow it and to awaken it to purpose aimed at protecting your prosperity.
Scottish Folk magic practice is animistic – everything has a spirit. Water, plant, person, house etc. When we use a practice to put purification “at a person”, we are asking the spirit to awaken and help us to help remove the unwanted influence “at them”. Here we can already see an issue with items brought that you don’t know the providence of. How do we know the proper call and request protocols, or relevant respect and charms sung, when harvesting the items for use? If the spirit of the object isn’t willing the action of employing it in itself is not enough. You’re basically wasting your money on empty gestures.
Different purification practices, using different components from the natural world, appear throughout Scottish Saining practices and can be performed over land, livestock, around a person or a whole community as required. Activities to purify a community are of course orders of magnitude larger than those for a person as you can imagine and would usually occur at the quarter day festivals.
Saining With Fire
Bealtainn and Samhuinn are two examples where saining with fire is used at the quarter days. Fires are lit from a sacred fire known as the Neid fire to remove negative spirits from cattle and people who are driven between the two fires. We also have folks jumping over the fires and embers to achieve the same purpose. This practice is brought home to the hearth altar when relighting the home hearth fire from the sacred fire. Torches of bog wood split open and stuffed with straw are used to mark the boundaries of fields and farms at Samhuinn.
Fire is used to Sain new-born babies and their mothers. Midwifes would use what’s called a pine candle also known as a Peerman or a puir man. The midwife would twirl the pine candle about the bed three times in a sun wise (deosil) direction (Flora Celtica). A Rann or charm was spoken at the same time. A pine candle is resin soaked pine wood found when a pine tree falls down in the stumps left behind. Folks would cut them into 2 feet long and a 3rdof an inch in diameter sticks. It is referred to as fatwood today. The smoke they give off is black, aromatic and resinous and were often used as candles as they burnt for a long while or to light fires.
Fire is also used when healing cattle from being Elfshot. Well fire in a fashion. When a cow was affected by the Síth it would be demonstrated by a great swelling and a baying. A fairy doctor stood to one side of the cow and their assistant on the other. The assistant would take a burning piece of turf and burn the cross on the hair on one side of the cow. When done they would pass the tongs under the cow. The Doctor would burn another cross on the other side and then pass the burning turf back to their assistant over the cows back. This, of course, would be done three times. The ceremony would then be concluded by marking the cow with the sign of the cross on the cows nose. More of the ceremony would follow. Interestingly the cow was then dedicated to St Martin ( ie earmarked for sacrifice at Martinmass. Earmarked they actually were with a small notch taken out the cow’s ear. To show it had been effected by elf shot and marked for St Martin. (Taken from irishloreandtales.com)
Saining with Water – Lustration
At La Feill Brid we have examples of people going down to the waters edge to carry out lustration, Saining with water. Sea water to be more accurate. For example, On La Féill Brìde, or the day after, folks would go about on their hands and knees in a church in Orkney. Having done this would make their way down to the water. Cover their heads and bodies with the sea water, and then head off to the pub (Banks, 1939).
We also have examples of this happening with horses swimming in the sea on St Michael’s Eve. The sea blessing the horse and rider and a practice that was legislated against in Scottish law. This MAYBE somewhat reminiscent of the practice of Misogifound in Shinto. (That’s a very strong maybe by the way!)
Examples of blessed water used on an individual are found in the use of Sained water known as forespoken water. This special water is used to remove the effects of being forespokeni.e. cursed or overlooked. To create this water a person would drop three stanes of different colours – one red, one white and one black (are traditional) into water taken from a march (or border) stream both the living and dead have crossed.
The water from a border stream both the living and dead have crossed is important. It represents liminality as do the stones gathered from a beach. The stones in turn link the practice to the Sacred Three and to the spirits found in the sea. I’ve written a lot about the practice of the stones used in the Tales of the Taibhsear Chapbook. The mark of the equal armed cross was made over the water with the thumb of their right hand whilst the person said the word “Sain”. The following charm was then spoken over the water with the corresponding directions followed (screen shot taken from the Chapbook):
The left-over water was taken to the fireside and three handfuls poured over the fire with the words:
“An till teine farmad?
Tillidh teine farmad.”
“Will fire turn envy?
Fire will turn envy.”
The remainder of the water is then taken outside and spilled on a special rock. We find very similar practices of the use of the fire in the Snaim charm also to take away the curse.
Saining With Smoke
“Iubhar beinne [juniper] and caorran, [mountain ash or rowan], were burnt on the doorstep of the byre on the first day of the quarter, on Beltaine Day and Hallowmas. The byre lintel was sprinkled with wine, or failing wine, with human urine. … This was done to safeguard the cattle from mischance, mishap, and each other’s horns.”Taken from the Carmina Gadelica
As Carmicheal points out, Saining with smoke is usual not only at quarter days but at other times. The most common plant used for Saining with smoke is Juniper (known as iubhar-Beinne in Scottish Gaelic the Mountainous/rock Yew or bountiful yew)or the Rowan (Called Caorran in Scottish Gaelic and used, whilst smouldering, as in the Snaim charm). I have found some mention of the smoke from a burnt bannock (recipe for which can be found here) but I can’t find a reference for this. We do know charred bannocks were common at the Quarter festivals however and it may be a great excuse for my bad cooking skills.
Taken from Campbells Gaelic otherworld we have the below sections supporting our sources:
- “Juniper, pulled in a particular manner, was burned before cattle and put in cows’ tails.
- Juniper (Iubhar-Beinne, literally Mountain Yew): This plant is a protection by land and sea, and no house in which it is will take fire.
- Shrovetide [the Tuesday before Lent] was one of the great days for ‘saining’ cattle, juniper being burned before them, while other superstitious precautions were taken to keep them free from harm.”
Juniper was primarily used and burnt in such quantity as to fill the whole household with smoke. People and animals alike would sit in the smoke until they coughed and sputtered and had no other choice but to leave and wait for the smoke to recede. This was usually done on New years day.
“Juniper is another tree whose branches were sometimes hung above the doors and windows on auspicious days or burned in the fire. Juniper burning, which formed part of the New Year rituals in some parts of the country, seemed to have a dual purpose. Not only was it supposed to ward off witches and evil spirits but, at a more practical level, it cleansed the house of pests and diseases. The branches were dried beside the fire the night before, and when all the windows and doors were shut, fires were lit in each room until the whole house was full of their acrid smoke. When the coughing and sputtering inhabitants could stand it no longer, the windows were opened, and the process was repeated in the stables. Interestingly, the smoke of burning juniper is also used for spiritual cleansing in Nepal, where it plays a key part in puja ceremonies such as those held before attempts to climb Mount Everest.”Taken from the Flora Celtica
Here we have a direct example of the importance of gathering plants with certain charms and animistic respect. The charm also demonstrates the syncretic nature of Scottish folk magic
“Juniper, or the mountain yew, was burned by the Highlanders both in the house and in the byre as a purification rite on New Year’s morning. Like all magical plants, it had to be pulled in a particular manner. The Druids, as we have seen, had considerable medical skill. They knew all that was known of botany and chemistry, and to them fell the selection of the herbs for the mystic cauldron. These were gathered at certain phases of the moon. Magical rites were employed in the culling; sexual abstinence, silence, a certain method of uprooting, and occasionally sacrifice was necessary. Long after the disappearance of the Druids, herbs found by sacred streams were used to cure wounds and bruises and other ills, and traces of the rites and runes linger in folk tradition. Juniper, for instance, to be effective, had to be pulled by the roots, with its branches made into four bundles and taken between the five fingers, whilst the incantation was repeated:Taken from the Silver Bough F Miriam McNeil
“I will pull the bounteous yew,
Through the five bent ribs of Christ,
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,
Against drowning, danger, and confusion.”
Clearly pulling up a whole Juniper bush is not respectful or responsible harvesting today when a lot of it is endangered in the wild in Scotland. Juniper berries, I think, would be sufficient to provide you with enough smoke on a hot charcoal disk for Saining purposes and taking them does no harm to the tree but these have also had a few bad seasons so be mindful.
It’s important to recognise your heritage has ways of managing purification linked to the lore of your ancestors. Saining is the Scottish way of smudging. There is absolutely no need to appropriate things from other countries when we should, no we must in all conscience, look to our own traditions woven throughout folk lore to provide us with a culturally appropriate way to carry out purification. I hope this information will help you to challenge cultural appropriation as well as continue your own folk practices safe in the knowledge you are following in the footsteps of your culture and not impinging on other cultures practices.