Saining not Smudging- Purification and Lustration in Scottish Folk Magic Practice

by Scott
A picture showing a Juniper branch from scotland

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 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. 

Why Sain?

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.

Saining Cattle

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 

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!) 

Forespoken water

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 forespoken i.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:

Pen and ink Juniper branch - from my sketch book - used in Saining
Pen and ink Juniper branch – from my sketch book – used in Saining
  • “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:

“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.”

Taken from the Silver Bough F Miriam McNeil

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.

Final Thoughts

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. 

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witchosity 10th February 2019 - 7:24 pm

Being in England I don’t use white sage, I use a local traditional herb of mugwort, Artemisia Vulgaris, for the reasons that you mentioned, cultural appropriation and over harvesting. I grow my own mugwort as I use it in numerous ways, teas and balms/salves not just for purification.

selkiewife 10th February 2019 - 9:21 pm

This is complex….. I agree with the essence of what you say. I’ve not really felt comfortable with smudging but it’s felt effective. Now… as an English woman, Druid, living in Scotland…… saining feels good……. But question? Is it the culture of the land or the person that is primary? Ie a Scot living in North America….. sain or smudge? Just wondering?

Carmen 19th November 2020 - 6:22 pm

Smudging is considered cultural appropriation in the US unless you are indiginous.

2treeroots 26th May 2021 - 6:12 pm

I have no culture expect that of colonizers. I don’t want that culture. I want to grow and move beyond and connect to the spirit. I am German 3/4 and Native (Creek) 1/4. But I didn’t grow up in Native Cutlure. My grandfather went to a boarding school for Natives and wouldn’t allow us to learn about Native culture.
I don’t feel like I’m appropriating. I’m appreciating and creating my own way in the world based on an amalgamation of beliefs.
We tell white people to lay their colonizing culture to the side, but offer no traditional wisdom for them to grab to and create a connection with their earth and other humans. I use sage that I get from my property and cedar that I have from a long ago tree that was felled. And I appreciate and thank those that came before me and will come after me. I am living my fullest expression, and learning about different ways to connect with my Earth mother and and the oneness.

Erika Rivertree 11th February 2019 - 2:04 am

I always enjoy your posts! :) I use Eastern Red Cedar for saining; it is a juniper species native to where I live in the USA.

Frances Ambrose 11th February 2019 - 5:30 am

Once again you have written an incredibly insightful and informative post. I love how you clearly address cultural appropriation by westerners while also giving Scottish westerners a more culturally relevant way to go about personal rituals. I live in the US and when my native friends educated me on the culturally exploitative way white sage is used, I tried and failed to find an affective purification ritual that fit my own ancestors. Thank you so so much for the extensive research and work you put into your writing. You truly make the pagan/folk magic community a better group to be apart of.

Wendy 11th February 2019 - 1:50 pm

Thank you for this

Heidi Bohan 11th February 2019 - 5:31 pm

Excellent information, thank you. I facilitated a panel of native Americans on cultural appropriation in the herbal industry and this issue was at the forefront. As a person of Scottish descent i have been seeking this information, even attending the Tales of the Taibhseer launch conference, so I respect the depth of knowledge shared here, and will pass on in my work. With gratitude.

Brenda McNicol 12th February 2019 - 3:41 pm

Interesting read. I do love to learn about our heritage, our past traditions.

Anni Telford 12th February 2019 - 11:33 pm

Thank you throughly interesting article.

Jodie Zammit 13th February 2019 - 1:28 am

Thank you for this article. It was lovely, enlightening and thought provoking.

Saining not Smudging- Purification and Lustration in Scottish Folk Magic Practice  | Sanctuary of Horus Behdety 13th February 2019 - 1:42 am

[…] Source: Saining not Smudging- Purification and Lustration in Scottish Folk Magic Practice | Cailleach’… […]

Naomi 15th February 2019 - 3:39 am

??????thank u spmuch xxx this had made sense of many of my meternal sidesof familys long practiced–never questioned, tradition s . And some are what I vv us instinctly done when ‘freestyling it” by listening out and keeping my eyes and heart open for guidance from the spirits of our ancestors…—the Land–mother?

Ruth 15th February 2019 - 4:47 am

Thank you, a very informative and exstreamly interesting article. My family line on the maternal side of my paternal heritage amalgamates two clan lines, one from the Outer Hebradies in the West that I was already aware of and one from the East which I’m yet to exsplore having only just found them.

On the paternal paternal side we’re from the boarders, border revers to be exact (cattle thieves) and through the trauma of English rule our line has ended up in Jute City (Dundee).

Your article is thought provoking as the cut off from family practices has been complete, as our warriors were subsumed into the English Royal Household to protect their spoils and fight their battles and subjugate other cultures around our Mother.

Siofra 21st February 2019 - 7:20 pm

I have been quietly following for some time. I can’t begin to tell you how thankful I am you have posted this I have been personally looking for a way to purify with out being culturally approriative.

EJ Reid 26th February 2019 - 6:18 pm

This is very interesting to me – I stumbled quite independently upon the potential purification power of Juniperus communis while burning under many moons and sabbats (it is common here in limestone barrens of south central Ontario Canada). Later I learned about its use in the purification of temples in Nepal. This is the first I have read about its use in old Gaelic saining, and I must say I am not surprised. As for sage smudging there is no denying its positive effects, and I would say that its use is not appropriation if one has been introduced to it by a First Nation healer in its ceremonial context. Thanks for sharing.


[…] To read the whole article, head over to the Cailleach’s Herbarium […]

Abi_The_Gaël 27th February 2019 - 3:12 pm

Excellent post, thanks so VERY much for your indepth research. I am very interested in our indigenious roots before christiantiy came along and became interwoven with all our ancient rites, so I use my inturion to tease the threads out of all the written work that has been left for us to learn from. Max Dashu also has an extensive amount of research in this area, her website “suppressed HIstories” is an excellent resource.
I am a highland Lassie born and bred, now living in Eastern Canada, smudging has not sat comfortably with me for a long while now….I have been guided by “source” to use sap from a grandmother pine tree, freely cutting, no harm to anything. I place a small blob on a charcoal disk or on my wood stove to “sain” or for purification purposes. Intention is a huge part of magic, set your intention, call in the ancient ancestors to guide you.
I am inspired to grow and dry some mugwort and other magical plants this year to make my own magical insenses.
One last question the pronunciation of sain? As it reads?

Scott 28th February 2019 - 10:18 am

Hi Abi,

Yes Sain is pronounced in English how it seems SA-in – Sane. The Scottish Gaelic for Seun is pronounced SHAY-un. Hope that helps and glad you found the article useful and inspiring :)

Breacca 29th May 2019 - 7:10 am

A wonderful article, thank you… As an English woman who seeks not to culturally misappropriate others culture a lot of what you say echoes my own thoughts… We don’t use smudging in our praxis, although incense is often used for both cleansing and other reasons…. My lineage is Scots, my maternal grandfather was from Glasgow and my paternal line originates in the Home clan, but even with such a link I dont know that I would use Saining myself…

Lisbet 15th July 2019 - 9:08 pm

I’m in a conundrum​ then!
I’m Welsh, Scots, Irish, Native American (Seneca & Cherokee), & German!
Now what?!!

Bernice Drake 3rd January 2020 - 1:30 am

I’m in a similar situation to Lisbet. My ancestral heritage is English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, French, German, Jewish, Native American and I’ve traveled extensively since childhood. I grew up in West Africa with missionary parents, lived in many different states in the USA, lived in Germany, lived in Central American in Belize, visited many other countries. Everywhere I went, people welcomed me and wrapped me in the warmth of their culture and knowledge. No one warned me that, if I took their offering of knowledge and wisdom at face value and incorporated it as part of my spirituality, that some day I would find myself feeling as if I’m supposed to be embarrassed or ashamed for receiving what was freely given/taught. I can’t go strictly by my fundamentalist Christian parent’s ideas, because that does not fit me, it’s too limiting. I can hardly know where to begin to claim either the beliefs and practices of my genetic heritage or my heritage of location. I don’t feel the approach of exclusivity and shutting others out is a fit based on either the way nature works or the way the spirit flows. While clearly it helps some others to feel that they have something that resonates with them, my own instinct is to trust that I am always being led to what is right for my situation at that time. I practice with what is at hand. This article is very well researched and informative. I have much respect for what has gone into it and for the help it brings to those for whom it is a good fit. Thank you for sharing. ~Bea OneSpirit (Bernice Autumn Drake)

Kim 13th August 2019 - 3:06 am

Coincidentally, I had been looking at the medicinal effects of burning herbs a la Indian, Chinese, etc traditions. Thought to share the train of thought,

David Cameron 5th December 2019 - 7:42 pm

Thank you for all that I learned here. Trained in First Nations ways here in Canada, we also teach Celtic Lore and lead spiritual pilgrimages to Scotland, Ireland, Wales, UK, Brittany and the Yucatan. We struggle daily with the historical fact of broken lineages, the deep need at this time for reconciliation, and the obvious continuing need of most human beings for spiritual sustenance. Providing ourselves and others that sustenance is often akin to dancing on a tight-rope!

Chris Godwin 2nd January 2020 - 8:26 pm

Re-reading this, it sounds a little folkish.

Scott 6th January 2020 - 5:40 pm

Someone else has mentioned that to me too. Honestly, I’m not trying to be folkish ( in the Nazi focussed way i think you are suggesting) at all…

Hess 4th January 2020 - 12:54 am

Wow THANK YOU so much for this! So much information. The background and citing is really helpful. I have been wanting to talk to some of my white friends about the cultural appropriation we are committing here in the states with smudging. Having this info is going help that conversation so much! <3

Jamie Hume 5th January 2020 - 8:31 pm

Hello. I was born in Canada. My mother was born in England and most of teh family trace roots to Scotland, Ireland and possibly Wales. Some small connection to the Norse. For much of my life, I went to Indigenous elders for my earth based spiritual teachings. I would find out the proper way to approach the teacher and then would wait and see if I was accepted. If I was not, I respectfully walk away. If accepted, I respectfully show gratitude and do not abuse the gifts of their teachings. I also do what I can to support the causes of the people. This is not a shallow undertaking. This is not appropriation. However, as teachings from overseas came available to me, I became more and more involved in my own ancestral ways. There is a balance based on mutual respect of student nd teacher, land and human and our relationships as part of the many communities of nature.
I have never liked the term smudge as it has an actual historical meaning I do not feeling applies and wonder how it’s use got started. I prefer to use terms like cleanse, purify, bless. It is important to know the information you have shared here and honour it. How this will fit in to my practice I am unsure. There are no black and white guidelines to appropriations, but the most true is the difference between greedily taking of a source and being gifted and appreciating and respecting one another…whether between people, peoples, plants and humans, animals and humans and so forth. Working with the eagle is not appropriation for a Scot. We can debate the type of eagle…but if the eagle decides it is going to work with you, I believe that is where the final decision lies. There is a difference between being gifted something and stealing it.
The issue of non-natives gorging on wild sage in my area is a problem. Despite my being told to Sundance and becoming a Pipe Carrier, I am reluctant to pick much wild sage and am incredibly frugal with what ever I have. I break the stems off near the bottom so as to not eliminate the plant and pray for it’s propagation / protection within it’s eco system after giving it an offering. I follow the instructions I was personally gifted and am allowed to add to thee. I have however seen Europeans who participated in ceremonies here pick outrageous amounts of Wild Sage leaving large amounts to waste upon the floor. When urging them to be more careful I was met with mild disaproval by a spiritual leader attending. I proceeded to collect up the bits and respectfully clean off the remaining leaves and clean the floor. Lead by example.
I have slowly expanded my pallet of sacred herbs to include plants such as Juniper, Pine, Thyme and so forth. I still use sage, sweetgrass and so forth because I was directed to use them by elders here. Cedar, I had already developed a relationship with prior to having a human teacher as with other plants like the Birch tree that reached out to me and pulled me towards them.. Plants that grow around the northern hemosphere, though adapted to location, I will use with a mindful eye to their stories within our different cultures and traditions. It is important to be mindful of where you are and your position within that territory.
Being glutenous is never good. Pick modestly and never wipe an area clean of a plant or plants. Whatever turns out to be right for you and your situation be grateful. I never stop learning. There is always more.

Gratitude for the teachings in your article here. Beautifully done. I most certainly learned some things here for which I am most grateful. Thank you.

Jeanne Domek 9th January 2020 - 1:06 am

Loved your article. I am both Native American, English, Scots and Irish. I’ve learned mostly Native Americans ways. I’m now learning Celtic ways. I think it’s wonderful to see we are not so different.

Cate 19th April 2021 - 8:17 pm

Hey Ho. Like the last line, as I’m on the prairie, on Cree land in Alberta Canada, a Celtic lass. I found your site as I’m a wool spindle spinner, and your research and article on How To Spin Magically is forgotten spirituality. Thank You, Migwiich.

Why I Left My Priestess Training (Part 2) - Willowroot Healing Arts Toronto 10th June 2021 - 9:30 pm

[…] but with different herbs. I asked for more information on Celtic forms of smoke cleansing, such as Saining (which is Scottish), to which I did not get a detailed response. I was told that the Celts routinely cleansed cattle by […]

Smudging: An Issue of Ethics and Sustainability – The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine 13th August 2021 - 5:18 am

[…] 3. Scott. (2020). Saining not smudging – purification and lustration in Scottish folk magic practice. Retrieved from; […]


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