Scottish Folk magic fundamentals – or why i write what i write – or my BIAS FAQ …

by Scott
Path by Gemma Dagger

As your mind wanders through the landscape of ideas, research and stories presented to you please don’t allow your mind to slip into a passive state of observing and repeating. In light of your experience, question my assumptions and laugh at my conclusions. I accept and relish the opportunity to change my mind and reach different ideas. We are all seekers. I am aware my mind holds constructs of thinking and attachments to things it has deftly disguised as a certainty. Through community, we can help each other see past these pits in the road and move safely onwards with our journey.

If you’d like to know more about me check out the about section. Cover image by the fantastic Gemma Dagger.

I write from my own perspective 

The focus of my writing are Scottish folk traditions, lore, and folk magic through the lens of Scottish and European culture. When I write an article about say “Saining not Smudging” for instance its focussed-on people from Europe and Scotland. Yes, people from other places will read it but please just remember I write from the lens of Scotland and Scottish practice. I focus on why it’s important we embrace our own practices. If you don’t like it, you don’t need to read it. You can if you are like some of the others shout at me and/or offer to kill me but it will come to naught. Move on.

Whilst we are on the subject I think there is a huge difference between cultural exchange and just taking what you want and using it (more than likely incorrectly) however you see fit. This is not to say I am exclusionary, folkish or nationalist. We are a cultural melting pot and we are syncretic and our diversity is what is beautiful about us. I have no time for racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, ableism or discrimination of any kind.

I am not a reconstructionist.

Though tradition is really important to me. There is a fine line between reconstructing the old because that’s HOW people did it with no thought to the WHY and carrying on regardless. I think understanding the WHY people did it is of the upmost importance. Sometimes we can arrive at the WHY through emulation – or following the HOW. Sometimes we can explore them in a less literal sense.

I write to uncover the wider themes within the Scottish tradition. I write about the HOW to discover the WHY. To me this is important for a number of reasons. If we know WHY we can look to adapt old ideas to our modern times. If we know WHY we can start to understand what makes the mindset of our ancestors different and in turn what we have inherited making us different but also like others with similar practices. If we just do the HOW and don’t understand the WHY we are stuck in dogma and we are in danger of drowning as we stop moving. 

I ask myself about how our ancestral mindset reproduces itself in the modern day. What might the practice be applicable to today? I analyse it rather than simply list a story or tell a tale or practice. I try to understand it. Through my own subjective analysis I explore the wider picture and see how some of the older traditions limit us (like infanticide, distinct gender roles being to name a few). Though we will find examples of outdated practices in the lore we can adapt it or remove it from our day to day practice. Things move on.

This is why I write what I write. I want to inspire myself and maybe others, to move forward with new useful perspectives created from this juxtaposition of old and new.

If I was just a reconstructionist, well things might never change. I’d be stuck in aspic and everyone would have traditional roles assigned to them from a time when people thought the earth was flat. However, learning HOW to do things the traditional way can give us insight into how these crafts and arts impacted on the mindset of our ancestors. A good example of this is drop spindle spinning and all its associated magic and lore which unless we dig deeper and examine and try would be lost to us given our reliance on disposable fashion and shopping.

This way the lore has insight to offer the modern way of life. The WHY of things within practices can help shed new light on modern problems such as climate change, ecology, disposable culture and communities in collapse. We can look at HOW they managed things to help us create a new methodology for today. Inspire us to a new WHY. History is, after all, a two-way street. This is why I write what I write. I want to inspire myself and hopefully others to move forward with new useful perspectives created from this juxtaposition of old and new.

To me reluctance to move forward in a modern world is infantile and self-limiting. Not moving forward and progressing might provide comfort to some people terrified to embrace difference because they are scared. To me to not move forward means to lose relevance. Being stuck in a fantasy past is a very impractical way of keeping traditions and cultures alive. I am interested in the juxtaposition of traditional cultural thinking and modern culture.  If I know how and the why of this, I can apply the why to my life today. So, I always ask myself HOW does the WHY of the past fit the HOW and WHY of today . My writing on Scottish folk magic and traditions is trying to find these fundamental WHYS by exploring the HOWS so we can, as a community, start to explore, apply and create better ways of being in our communities of human and non-humans safe within the guiding philosophy of our ancestral culture philosophy.

I do not write from a lens of witchcraft(ism), shamanism, paganism, druidism, new age mysticism etc.

I loosely write from the perspective of animism but acknowledge Scottish folk magic and culture is Syncretic. Scottish culture is a melting pot of influences. Our diversity is beautiful. Scottish Folk Magic survived because it borrowed from lots of different things as we were persecuted/moved in with/defeated by the Romans, Anglo Saxons, Norse, Gaels, Normans etc. One surviving thread I explore in my writing at the moment is ANIMISM and ANCESTOR VENERATION. I currently focus my writing on these interlinked philosophies. That’s not to say there aren’t other views and philosophies within our folk belief. I am happy holding conflicts of perspectives and you will see this expressed in my writing. I guess what I’m saying here is things aren’t binary and I’m open to new ideas but this is my current focus.

Why I have trouble with the term Witch 

The term Witch is a pretty bad word in Scottish lore. I know it’s been reclaimed and folks like it. I just don’t use it. People assume I’m being anti witch. Fair enough – sometimes I can be and I acknowledge that. Another more insightful reason for my lack lustre embrace of the word is because we have our own traditional terms reflecting the nature of Scottish folk magic and culture. If we just call what we do witchcraft, we have already shut the door on the nuance and understanding we might gain from exploring our culturally specific names for folk who used folk magic and spoke to the síth. We lose any chance of understanding the WHY if we start to homogenise under umbrella terms. What I do is folk magic – with all its amazing words and terms associated with it. I don’t call myself something other than folk practitioner because titles are given by your community and my community hasn’t given me one. What I do is a becoming my way of life more and more everyday. I don’t need any form of Witch blood or initiation to be a folk practitioner. It’s folk magic after all – meaning peoples magic. Let’s not forget that. 

I do not agree with witchcraft/shamanism/druidism/new age etc borrowing from culturally specific practices. 

As a scotsman this is troubling for me. We have lost a lot of the original meaning of our Scottish specific practices a long time ago without the added confusion of competing ideologies. The ones we do have a grasp on are not safe and are in danger of being lost or overwritten. Saying you should not borrow from specific cultural practices if they are not yours might get me a lot of hate but I’m being honest with you. (I’ve written a story about this here). If you’ll bear with me, I’ll try to explain. I think everything including traditions/religions (all of them) come with an agenda/overriding philosophy the best we can be is explicit about it. (I have an agenda; you are reading it now).

Another more insightful reason for my lack lustre embrace of the word witch is because we have our own traditional terms reflecting the nature of Scottish folk magic and culture.

These traditions have a dominant philosophy just like any big or small cult or church. This dogma or the traditions philosophy or way of seeing the world is one developed (from true Gnosis or romanticism and anything in between), to fit the world view of the tradition. When people borrow from a culture with already shaken knowledge of itself it can corrupt the original use of the folk practice. We lose sight of our WHY. They reshape it to fit a belief or way of doing things of their own devising and to fit with the philosophy of the tradition that “borrows” it. Some of this is well meaning. Sometimes they borrow from marginalised culture for more nefarious reasons like faking legitimacy, perhaps by creating a foothold in a real tradition or for power, money, abuse and control amongst many other bad reasons. 

As a researcher the “borrowing” provides a mask hiding the original WHY. The original practice, WHY it’s carried out in a particular tradition is overwritten. Then it its harder for me to understand the underlying WHY of our cultural approach when it has been misrepresented. If I have to constantly fight through all the noise of people claiming this is “old as time” or  “my grannies granny grannytaught me this” or “this is from a tradition with teachers going back to the 16thcentury passed on through generations to us now” nonsense plus its original use has been so changed by wrong application it makes things so much harder. (All this just to prop up egos really astounds me). This “borrowing” runs the real risk of misrepresenting the original WHY. That which made it work might be removed and causes the practice to be ineffectual. It becomes but pantomime for those who carry it out. For this reason, I ask people to kindly not misrepresent things which are so fragile and crucial to our culture but perhaps help us rediscover them? 

This absorption of Scottish folk magic into the witchcraft community means it potentially puts a lot of folk magic practices behind a wall of initiation and “specialness”. To witches within traditions you must be initiated to do this and that. NO. This is nonsense and I personally feel a weird throwback from Christian or secret society thinking.  (Now we are also seeing a new term “folk witchcraft” which to me is just putting folk magic in a new dress by folks who cant stop using the word witchcraft. Let’s no go there).

That being said today’s younger witches with their questioning authority minds are more inclined to “just do witchcraft” in all its many varieties without the traditional initiation and tradition. They have anarchised and weaponised it. I love it. It’s interesting to watch from the side lines and in some ways it’s a modern rebirth of folk magic for the masses. I see now some initiated witches are experiencing and lamenting exactly what the cultures they took the ideas and reshaped them from have been experiencing for ages. Though I avoid getting involved with this discussion in my writing but its needs stating.

The reason I am worried and write what I do is because of the fragility I perceive in a very Scottish way of life we know very little of. I’m concerned we will lose the truths it holds and what it may teach us about how to be in the world around us. If this was to happen a light would go out for me and the world shine a little less.

This conversation about misrepresentation I think would be very different if our lore and practices were written in stone. Safe and able to be enjoyed by those who wish to play around the alchemical edges of it. That way we would always have the CORE WHYS to return to without fear of losing them forever. 

I write to encourage people to explore their ancestry. 

Our history and culture can help us answer and explore our modern condition in a unique way. I have a lot of people who have distant Scottish Ancestry contact me and ask “Can I practice Scottish Folk magic or traditions where I live?’ I’m not sure I can answer this. I’m not a teacher and I’m not sure what they are really asking me. Is it for permission or for me to say it’s ok? This isn’t mine to give if tats what they are looking for. I don’t know what the underlying situation is so I can’t answer the question. Ever. I’ll try to give a limited illustration of where I might come from on this more generally.

For example – I have distant polish ancestry but I don’t think for one second I’m Polish. Can I legitimately practice Polish Folk Magic? Well I don’t think I can as I am in Scotland and I’m not in contact with anyone from Poland except a few old flatmates and I’m also not Polish. (Why would I want to do this though when i can just learn the folk practices of the community around me?) What happens if I can’t find anyone to teach me? Then I suppose I could always apply what I read in books though then I might have to be extra careful I was doing things the right way. I could try and find a teacher in Poland to help me make sure I’m doing things the right way and cross check things with but that will take effort and finding the right person can be hard. Could I find someone in Scotland to teach me a form of Polish Folk Magic where I live? Yes, if they want to teach me. I must also recognise I live on a land where the non-human community and majority of the human community might not know Polish and Polish ways. They might only speak Gaelic or Scottish. They might recognise some of the things I do but our communication will be limited. So, if I was to address the community in Polish around me, I might not get that far. I’d need to find a way of working out the WHY of what I have been taught and blending them with the WHY of where I live to find an effective practice. I could achieve this, just like my ancestors did who moved to Appalachia or other parts of the world, through cultural exchange. That means I need to work with people who hold knowledge in the land I live in and combine that with the WHY of my own ancestry. i.e. it’s not going to be so straightforward. Of course, there is another way. The non-human community might approach me to teach me. This is something represented by what has been termed the “Shaman’s crisis” for want of a better word and I’m not equipped to advise you with this. I suggest you find a genuine practitioner in a living practice (i.e. not a white person trained in the western shaman tradition who may or may not cause more harm). 

I write from the perspective of Scottish Folk magic being about community.

To me primarily Scottish Folk practices are about our and our community’s relationship to the everyday things people do at home, outdoors or in community. The Everydayness of things (some might say the mundane) hold a significance and spirit we have lost in our modern world approach. This is my own personal take on the WHY of Scottish tradition. It’s not just a once the month hanging out under the moon asking for something kind of thing affair and attending the Gate days. It’s the everyday which was so important. The now. The power of Scottish Folk Magic comes from living in Right order with our surroundings and community and this includes nature and our environment. When we enjoy good human and non-human relations things have a tendency to work out for us. If we are at odds with this well not so much. It’s as simple and as profound as that. Of course, there are charms to thwart ill luck, illness, and bring love and protection and all the rest but the magic of everyday is what nourishes us and provides for us.

Scottish Folk practice has a tendency to be anxious of the Liminal.

There is a saying in Scotland “you’re only ever three feet from heaven” which I interpret to refer to the idea of the otherworld being ever present or maybe just how beautiful Scotland is. This leads to another fundamental WHY of Scottish folk magic. The focus on transitional times and place, liminal moments or basically change. There are places which are thin or nearer the liminal and at certain times these places become a door. These can be calendar dates like Samhuinn and Bealtainn or life changes stages like marriage, birth, death etc or even times of day like dawn and dusk. Scottish folk practitioners believe things come back or through and for this reason go out their way to protect these places – these literal or figurative doors – from intrusion from the other than human community. They achieve this by working in partnership with the natural world utilising things like water, wood, plant and stone and other protective mechanisms. Please note this is not a new age idea of earth energy or however you might express it. I have written a lot about it here, but this always bears repeating. My writing focusses on sprits and the otherworld as represented to us from our lore and what this has to teach us about keeping good relations and right order with the good neighbours and others. 

The obvious contradiction

I have provided a contradiction in my above discussion about reconstruction i.e. moving the WHY into the modern culture and relishing the new about the old in our younger generation yet whilst still trying to protect the original WHY of things in the same breath. This is something I struggle with every day in my writing and in my life. I’m not sure where to go with this except to acknowledge the contradiction.

I’m acutely aware my interpretation of the lore and traditions will not be 100% accurate but the best I can do at this moment. I’m learning just like everyone else and it’s why I put on events and write the books and carry out the projects I do. I hope to bring as much as I can into the modern day with the hope it will inspire others to do the same and build on what I write about in the future for others who want to elaborate and build on it. I hope together we can build a bedrock of tradition we no longer need to fear being misinterpreted or used by others in nefarious ways.

You might also be asking yourself who can use these traditions then? You seem very protective of them?

I believe folk practices are open to people who embrace them as they are as part of their way of life and try not to put too much of a spin on them. If you live in a land away from your ancestor’s land, I would say keep your folk magic to hearth and home until community is created. Whatever and however you choose to do- do so wisely and politely. Folk practices aren’t for the elite few or for those with more than human senses. It’s for everyone and they will enrich your life. I can’t and won’t say don’t practice them, but they must be carried out cordially and in the right way.  Make your ancestors proud.

All I can ask is if you are going to tread in the footsteps of your ancestry you do so in a genuine and respectful manner. Try to find the WHYS for yourself, work in community if you are not sure of where to go, reach out to others human and non-humans and perhaps together you can find a way through. I would also ask you advocate for our traditions and practices and seek to rediscover what you can and let others know. Teach others what you know of the way you do things and see what you can co-create together even if you are from different cultures. Im sure you will find similarities between your old lore that helps build bridges. Build something new together but keep an eye on the reasoning and the tradition of things least you lose your way. Keep in the right order of things along the way and above all else don’t fool yourself or allow others to fool you.

Finally …

I feel passionate about Scotland’s traditions and folk practices amongst other ideas I write about. If my idiosyncrasies suddenly present me as a street corner preacher, please allow me this social mistake. Please try not to find fault with my passion. Please though take a note of what you do not agree with and get back to me about my fault in judgement by contacting us. That way we can be co-seekers and co-members toward a community and a way of life which still has a lot to still discover about itself.