The main focus of this article is on Scottish practice, with some reference to Ireland.
Labour and birth
Lay baptism - baistidh breith
The merry meht
There is a wealth of lore surrounding childbirth and the first few days of an infant's life in both Scotland and Ireland and much of it appears to have only thinly veiled pre-Christian roots.
Childbirth and the first few days of the newborns life – as well as the mother – were seen to be precarious. In the time before medical advancements and understanding improved the survival rates of both mother and child there were many concerns that were seen as potential threats to their well-being. For the Gaels these were not just medical concerns like complications during labour, infections, premature babies, difficulties in feeding and so on, but underlying it all there was the belief that supernatural agents were a threat as well – from fairies, witchcraft or the evil eye.1
New mothers and babies were seen as being irresistible to fairies, who would spirit away the mother to their homes in the hills in order to make them feed their own offspring, since fairy women were believed to be unable to suckle their young themselves. Likewise, babies might be taken and a changeling left in its place – a sickly fairy facsimile of the human baby it was replacing, which would then rapidly waste away and fail to thrive to the despair of the parents. In Scotland, babies of either sex were at risk, but in Ireland it was mainly boys who were seen to be most in danger of being taken.2
Not surprisingly, then, much of the lore is concerned with performing rites of protection – saining – for the mother and child, as well as blessings for the baby in order to ensure a prosperous and successful future. These rites also acted as a kind of “lay baptism” (baistidh breith – 'birth baptism'), which acted as an interim measure until the infant could be properly baptised in a church (baistidh eaglais)3, and also meant that if the child died before it was baptised by a priest, it could still be buried in consecrated ground, and its immortal soul was saved from eternal damnation.4
In spite of the fact that these measures mitigated some of the danger to the baby, it was still kept in the room in which it was born for as much as possible until it was properly baptised.5 For her part, the mother was considered to be in danger until she was 'kirked' – until she had been to church – and up to then she was expected to stay and bed and avoid all but the most important of her usual duties.6
In the remotest parts of Scotland a priest wouldn't always be readily available, since he would serve a wide area and service each community on a continuing circuit. In some places it could take years for a priest to visit7 and so this is likely to have been a large factor in the continuing practice of lay baptisms. Some clerics regarded these rites as being too pagan and tried to discourage them from being performed, and eventually, as the belief in fairies and the inherent dangers they represented began to wane, so did the traditions associated with them until they could be found in all but the most remote and sparsely populated areas.
In Irish sources there is evidence for these 'lay baptisms' existing alongside the Church as far back as the twelfth century, since according to the Proceedings of the Synod of Cashel in 1171 we are told:
“For it was formerly the custom in various parts of Ireland that immediately a child was born, the father or some other person immersed it three times in water and, if it was the child of a rich man, he immersed it three times in milk and after that they threw that water and milk into drains or other unclean places (translated in: Lucas 1989, 6-7).8”
We might see the use of milk here as echoing the tradition that Brigid was similarly washed in milk just after she was born in a doorway as her mother was carrying milk inside the house. The Life of Saint Brigit (Bethu Brigte) clearly states that this was appropriate, since “...that was in accord with the merits of Saint Brigit, to wit, with the brightness and sheen of her chastity.”9 Naturally one might assume that milk was more likely to have been used by richer families, since it would have been more readily available to them, and its associations with purity would do well for the occasion.
On the one hand, the use of milk has the appearance of pre-Christian origins, since it was so important to the Irish economy and the practice seems to be so peculiar to Gaelic tradition. It may have its origin in Biblical tradition, however, since according to the fourth century Saint Ambrose (in reference to the Song of Solomon):
“The Lord baptizes in milk, that is, in sincerity. And those who are truly baptized in milk are those who believe without guile and hold the pure faith, so that they may put on immaculate grace. Therefore the spouse ascends white to Christ, because she has been baptized in milk.”10
Certainly the practice of using milk, rather than water, was considered to be heretical in Christian baptism,11 however, although feeding the newly baptised person milk and honey was not unheard of in the early Christian church.12 Considering Brigid's pre-Christian origins and intimate associations with milk and dairy produce in even the earliest hagiographies (biographical works of the saint)13 it's tempting to see the use of milk as genuinely rooted in pagan practice.
Sources for Scotland tend to be somewhat later, but we can see here that similar rites were carried out and that there are also a lot of similarities in the beliefs and customs for both Ireland and Scotland in general, and clearly (and unsurprisingly) they share a common heritage. From the time the mother went into labour, however, the sense of danger from the supernatural increased; as the labouring woman was in the process of giving birth she was in a liminal, in-between phase of life (as was the baby), which left her vulnerable.
Labour and birth
In Scotland, as soon as labour began female members of the family, as well as neighbour's, were called to attend. Doctors were rarely called upon, unless there were extreme circumstances that required the expense, and instead a midwife (or howdie, as they were called in Scots) helped deliver the baby and tend to the mother and infant.14
It was said that a pregnant woman present at another woman's labour would take on the labouring woman's pains as well as her own and so even the closest friend would stay away if she happened to be pregnant herself (this was also believed to be the case in Ireland15). Where two women were pregnant in the same house, they tried to stop this from happening: “...they took a straw, or a stalk of grass, or some such thing, and broke it, each repeating the words, 'Ye tak yours, an I tak mine.' “16
The women who attended would look after the mother and newborn for a number of days after the birth – in some places this would be for three days, in others, up to eight days or baptism.17 This served a practical purpose in that they could help the mother out with the newborn – especially useful for first time mothers who could then draw on the wisdom of her more experienced peers. It was also done for protective purposes, so that the women could take turns in watching the mother and baby around the clock, to make sure they weren't spirited away by fairies.18
According to Evans-Wentz:
“Placing iron about the bed, burning leather in the room, giving mother and child the milk of a cow which has eaten of the mothan, pearl-wort (Pinguicula vulgaris), a plant of virtue, and similar means were taken to ensure their safety. If the watching-women neglected these precautions, the mother of child or both were spirited away to the fairy bower.”19
Iron could be placed on the bed and underneath windows, or round the cradle to protect the infant, or an old shoe was put in the fire. Rowan was also used.20 Stale urine (maistir) that was usually stored for washing and dyeing could also be sprinkled on the door posts – which the fairies considered to be particularly offensive to them.21 For the baby, a necklace of red coral might be hung around the neck to protect them from the evil eye.22
Urine was sprinkled about the room in Ireland as well, and iron or a cinder were likewise employed for protection – particularly in the baby's crib, or in the baby's clothes (in the form of a pin, say). Red ribbon might be tied across the crib, and unsalted butter put in its mouth as was the case in parts of Scotland.23
Peculiar to Ireland, however, was the practice of laying out the brat Bhríde (St Brigid's cloak), which was a piece of cloth or an item of clothing that was laid outside on the eve of Là Fhèill Brìghde for the saint to bless as she made her way from house to house. This was then worn by the labouring woman, or laid across her brow, to help ease the process and ensure a safe delivery. Sometimes an item of her husband's clothing was worn, so that some of her pains would be shared with him.24 In Scotland, the midwife or family might have a charm that the labouring woman could hold onto in order to ease the birth, and this was often a seed that had been washed ashore and then set in silver.25
Also in Ireland, it was common for the first person to come into the room where the baby had just been born to spit on the baby, then on the mother, and then the midwife or doctor, in order to prevent the evil eye from falling on anyone.26 Saliva was also known to have such protective properties in the saining rites in Scotland and it would not be surprising to find something similar being practised here, too. The closest I have found so far is the mention of a person spitting three times upon a child's face to counteract the suspicion of the evil eye being placed on it.27
In Scotland, given the widespread belief that Bride was Mary's midwife when she gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, the midwife would often go to the threshold of the house and softly invite her in, just as she was at Là Fhèill Brìghde. Carmichael tells us that she would go to the door, with her hands placed on either side of the door jamb, where she would say:
“Bride! Bride! come in,
Thy welcome is truly made,
Give thou relief to the woman,
And give the conception to the Trinity.”28
The howdie also played her part in ensuring the safety of the child and mother – given their especial vulnerability and the fact that witches could use any part of a person's body to perform witchcraft against them (and were often blamed for the death or illness of the mother or child) – and so care was taken for the placenta to be buried or burned.29 It seems likely that since the placenta was effectively a part of the mother and child, to simply throw it out would also be effectively showing a lack of care for them, and as on Quarter Days, the idea of throwing something so important out would be effectively throwing away ones' health or wealth.
Similar care was taken with the umbilical cord. In an interview with a former midwife, then aged 105, Margaret Bennett records:
“MB: Did they have a special treatment for the cord – the navel?
MC: They had tae burn cloots [cloths] for the cord. They burnt it in the fire. And they take the piece of stuff that was left, that wisnae burnt, and take the piece of stuff that wis hauded taegither and pit it on the bairns naveal.
MB: Like, it was burnt cloth they put on the navel?
MC: Yes. That's whit they done.
[The baby's middle was then bound with cloth until the naval had healed.]
MB: What did you do with the piece that fell off?
MC: Oh, we just buried it – we chiefly buried it outside.
MB: Now who would do that?
MC: Sometimes the midwife. Well they had tae dae that, it wis common to dae that...It wis done that way for tae keep safety in the hoose, tae hinder a rat or anything tae be in the hoose.”30
Lay baptism – baistidh breith
Carmichael gives a detailed example of such a baptism performed for the child shortly after birth:
“When a child was born the midwife would put three small drops of water upon the forehead of the little on in the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, in the name of the Spirit, and she would say:
The little drop of the Father
On thy little forehead, beloved one.
The little drop of the Son
On thy little forehead, beloved one.
The little drop of the Spirit
On thy little forehead, beloved one.
To aid thee from the fays,
To guard thee from the host;
To aid thee from the gnome,
To shield thee from the spectre;
To keep thee for the Three,
To fill thee with the graces;
The little drop of the Three,
To lave thee with the graces.
Then the midwife would give the child to a nurse to wash it, and the nurse would put a small palmful of water on the poor little infant, and she would sing the sweetest music that ever ear heard on the earth, and she say in this wise:
A wavelet for thy form,
A wavelet for thy voice,
A wavelet for they sweet speech;
A wavelet for thy luck,
A wavelet for thy good,
A wavelet for thy health;
A wavelet for thy throat,
A wavelet for thy pluck,
A wavelet for thy graciousness;
Nine waves for thy graciousness.
The rune would be on the nurse's tongue till she was finished of bathing the little infant.”31
This kind of lay baptism varied slightly from place to place. Some midwives would put a gold or silver coin into the water that the child was washed and blessed with, and then given a few drops to drink;32 others would place a hot coal in the water instead. Otherwise, the baby could be bathed in and then fed salted water,33 or else the midwife might feed the newborn a spoonful of earth mixed with whisky.34 In both Ireland and Scotland the water was often taken from the local holy well,35 and there is a long tradition of these wells being associated with powerful saints or gods – for example, Adomnan's seventh century Life of St Columba makes it clear that wells and springs that were venerated by the pagan Picts of Scotland were often rededicated to the saint and their magical, healing properties were reassigned to Christian ideals.36
In washing the baby the midwife would often take care to avoid washing the palms, or even the arms and hands as a whole. To do so “too thoroughly” would wash away its chance of “gainin' gear.”37 This would be done for a good few weeks at least.38
Other traditions that were meant to preserve the child's luck included making sure the baby was taken upstairs, rather than downstairs, when it was first taken outside of the bedroom; where a house had no upstairs it wasn't unusual to find the baby being taken up three steps of a ladder instead – whatever the case, care was taken to make sure that he or she was not taken downstairs first of all, for this was unlucky.39
The fire-round was another means of bestowing protection on both the infant and mother before they went to church. Here, a burning brand was carried sunwise (deiseal) around the house in order to purify and protect it.40 Fire might also be carried around the infant in the same direction in the morning and evening; Martin Martin, writing in the early eighteenth century, also recorded a similar kind of ritual where a welcome stranger or someone who had done a kindness was circled round three times in a sunwise direction, and blessed as they were welcomed into the house.41
According to Walter Gregor, a fir candle was carried three times sunwise around the bed, or else it was whirled around over the heads of the mother and baby if it couldn't go around the bed freely. A Bible with some bread and cheese, or a biscuit, were then put under the pillow with the blessing: “May the Almichty debar a' ill fae this umman, an be aboot ir, an bliss ir and ir bairn.” The food was then given out to anyone present who happened to be unmarried, and they would put it under their pillow to evoke dreams of their future spouse. In Protestant communities, Bibles might be used instead of cheese and bread, since such things were considered to be too pagan.42
Carmichael records a slight variation, whereby (shortly after birth) the infant was handed to and fro across a fire from the midwife to the father, as blessings were said “in an almost inaudible murmur.”43 The child was then carried round the fire three times sunwise with further words of blessing being said.
A great procession was often made to the church on the occasion of the child's baptism – although it was not unheard of for the baptism to take place at home, with the priest making use of a special bowl that was set aside for the purpose, instead of the baptismal font.44 Perhaps this was done in order to keep costs down, since a church baptism could be expensive.
On the way to the church it was customary to hand out a piece of cake or bread and cheese to the first person who was met. If the child being baptised was a boy, the christening piece was given to the first female met along the way, and vice versa.45 This was seen as being 'a gift from the baby', and the child's future was often divined from the character of the person who was met, and whether or not they were seen as being lucky or unlucky (according to the same correspondences given for the frìth, presumably).46
The merry meht
Both fire and water were therefore integral elements in the rites to protect and bless the baby and mother, as they were in other occasions that called for saining. Dairy products – especially cheese – also figure heavily, since it was seen as good protection against unwanted attention from fairies. It was often carried by travellers to help keep them on the right path and not be misled by the thick mists that were common in the Highlands and Islands.
When the birth of a baby was imminent, the family would buy a whole cheese in expectation of the happy arrival and it was important that the cheese should be whole, and only cut by the howdie (midwife) once the baby was safely born.47 This cheese – the cryin' kebback – then formed a part in the merry meht, blide-meat (blithe-meat), joy feast,48 féisd baistidh or cuirm baistidh,49 a celebratory feast that usually took place after the baby was baptised in church.
The merry meht was an important part of the celebrations, where friends and family would gather in order to toast to the baby's future. In 1624, the Town Council of Aberdeen limited the number of people that could be invited to such occasions to no more than twelve people, since “all sorts of succours, confections, spiceries, and dessert, brought from foreign parts, beside great superfluity of venison, and wild meat of all sorts...and withal, extraordinary drinking and scolling [health-drinking]...to the slander of the town, in sic a calamatous time, when God is visiting the whole land with dearth and famine, and many poor anes [are] dying and starving at dykes and under stairs for cauld and hunger.”50
In later centuries such extravagance is not recorded, but a good spread was supposed to be laid on for everyone who was invited – scones, bread, bannocks (sometimes called the cryin' bannock, which was specially made with oatmeal, milk and sugar and then baked in a frying pan51), a spice or currant loaf were provided, with the cryin' kebback, and plenty of ale or whisky for the toasting to the bairns health. More modern celebrations, of wetting the baby's head, generally involved a Christening cake along with the whisky or tea.52
Traditions appear to have varied from community to community and family to family. Pennant records that upon returning home from the baptism at church, a basket filled with bread and cheese was hung by a pot-hook over the hearth-fire (which tended to be in the middle of the room), which everyone would gather round. The baby was then handed back and forth across the fire, “...with the design to frustrate all attempts of evil spirits, or evil eyes.”53 In a similar case, the baby was put into the basket with the bread and cheese and then hung from the pot-hook over the fire, by which it was swung round three times.54
Everyone was expected to partake of the bread and cheese, and to refuse to do so would cause great offence – it would be seen as ill wishing against the baby.55 Likewise, anyone meeting a party on their way to or from a church baptism was expected to walk a little with them, at the least, in order to wish the baby well. Care was taken to praise the baby upon seeing it for the first time, but it was important to not praise it too highly or without giving it a blessing as well. To do so would indicate covetousness, a prime cause of the evil eye, and so it would be taken as an insult. To guard against the eye, “it would be well to reply, 'A black spot on your eye, and may the dog take it off.' ”56 Or else someone could spit in the child's face three times, as mentioned above.
At the baptism feast, the toasts were given in the name of the babies' health, and according to Walter Gregor, in Scots communities these were invariably something like: “Wissin the company's gueede health, an grace and growan to the bairn,” or else: “Fattenan an battenan t' the bairn.”57 According to Carmichael, the blessings were given as the baby was passed around deiseal:
“Every person who takes the child is required to express a wish for its welfare. The wish may be in prose or in verse, but preferably in verse, and original if possible. Verse lives when prose has perished.”58
After the toasting came the feasting, and before the guests left they were expected to hansel the baby – give it a silver coin for luck. The tradition was that the coin should be put into the baby's palm and the baby should make an effort to hold it, and once it was all collected up that would be given to the midwife as her fee.59 People were expected to give as much as they could afford, and the more they gave, the more luck they wished. Hanselling wasn't just practised at the baptismal feast, though – it was done whenever someone would meet a newborn baby as they went about their day.60
One final tradition was that the water from the baptism was saved by the family and kept for a space of eight days or so, after which it was poured below the foundations of the house. Sometimes bread and a Bible was placed with it. Gregor does not say why this was done, but presumably it was for protective purposes.61
Names were generally passed on through the generations in families, and the first child was often named by the father – usually the name was taken from his parents. The wife would name the second child (after one of her parents), and then subsequent children would be named in turn by the father and then mother. In this case the child would often take the name of an aunt or uncle.62
Where a succession of children had died, one after the other, it was taken as a sign that some evil was upon the family and a family name should no longer be used. In order to break the negative influence, the next child would take an ainm rathaid ('road name'), air sealbhaich ('upon their luck') – the name of the first person who was met on the way to the child's baptism. Whoever was met (of the appropriate sex of the baby) would also be expected to attend the baptism, or at least walk with the party for a while, in order to show their good will.63
Generally speaking, the child's name was not to be spoken out loud until it was properly baptised by a priest, and even at the baptism it might not be spoken until the priest himself would say it during the rites. As a result, the name was often written on a piece of paper and pinned onto the chid's robes.64 Until that time, a boy would be referred to as 'Maol-domnuich' ('tonsured of the Lord' – implying his dedication to Him), while a girl would be known as 'Griadach' ('Gertrude', according to Carmichael). This was meant as a safeguard against the fairies, who might use their knowledge of the child's name to gain power over them.65
1 Napier, Folk Lore, Or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p21; Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p44.
2 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p19-20; Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p44.
3 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 2006, pp2-5.
5 Napier, Folk Lore, Or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p21;
7 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Vol III, 2006, p5.
9 Stokes, On the Life of Saint Brigit (Leabhar Breac).
14 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p18.
17 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p19-20.
18 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p18.
19 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, p87.
20 "Gryte was the care and tut'ry that was ha'en,
Baith night and day about the bonny weeane:
The jizzen-bed, wi' rantry leaves was sain'd,
And sic like things as the auld grannies kend;
Jean's paps wi' saut and water washen clean,
Reed that her milk gat wrang, fan it was green;
Neist the first hippen to the green was flung,
And there at seelfu' words, baith said and sung:
A clear brunt coal wi' the het tangs was ta'en,
Frae out the ingle-mids fu' clear and clean,
And throu' the cosey-belly letten fa',
For fear the weeane should be ta'en awa'."
Napier, Folk Lore, Or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p20.
21 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p19-20.
22 Napier, Folk Lore, Or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p24.
23 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p44.
26 Hedderman, Glimpses of my life in Aran, 1917, p104.
27 Polson, Scottish Witchcraft Lore, 1932, pp176-177.
29 Simpkins, County Folk Lore Volume VII, 1914, p396. Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p33. Interview with Mrs Margaret Ann Clouston, aged 105, from Kirkwall, Orkney, on 24th May, 1985.
30 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p33. Interview with Mrs Margaret Ann Clouston, aged 105, from Kirkwall, Orkney, on 24th May, 1985.
31 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume III, 2006, pp7-9. See pp2-23 for various descriptions of baptismal sainings/blessings.
32 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p18.
33 Napier, Folk Lore, Or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p20.
34 Pennant, A Tour of Scotland, p115.
35 MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, pp98-101.
36 See Book II, 10-11, pp160-161 with accompanying notes on pp322-323, in Sharpe, Adomnan of Iona: Life of Saint Columba, 1995.
37 Simpkins, County Folklore Vol VIII, 1914, p397.
38 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p30, quoting J J Vernon and J McNairn, Pictures from the Past of Auld Hawick, 1991, p89-91.
39 Napier, Folk Lore, Or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p21.
40 Martin, p117-118. In Curiosities of Art and Nature: The new annotated and illustrated edition of Martin Martin's classic A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, by Michael Robson, 2003.
41 Martin, p117. In Curiosities of Art and Nature: The new annotated and illustrated edition of Martin Martin's classic A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, by Michael Robson, 2003.
43 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume III, 2006, p2.
44 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p55.
45 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p58.
46 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p62.
47 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p30, quoting J J Vernon and J McNairn, Pictures from the Past of Auld Hawick, 1991, p89-91.
48 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p19, quoting John Firth, Orkney, 1920.
49 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume III, 2006, p5;
50 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, pp58-59, quoting from Domestic Annals of Scotland 1885, pp224-225.
51 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p6.
52 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p48.
55 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p19, quoting John Firth, Orkney, 1920.
56 Polson, Scottish Witchcraft Lore, 1932, pp174-175.
57 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, pp11-13.
58 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume III, 2006, p5.
59 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, pp11-13.
60 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, pp43-44. Although it has largely died out in Scotland, it is still practised today as I found out after I had my daughter. Living in Bo'ness, a lot of people (generally older) would put a coin in my daughter's hand or her pram whenever we went out. “For luck,” they would say.
61 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, pp11-13.
62 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p68.
63 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p134.
64 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p65.