In both ritual and daily life, an important element of any activity – especially related to the cultivation or provision of food – was that it should be done deiseal – sunwise. “Deiseal for everything,”1 wrote Campbell, which he says is from the words deas, right-hand, and iul, meaning direction. He described it as being “the most important of all the observances,” since to go tuaitheal, widdershins, or wrang-gaites or against the course of the sun was very unlucky indeed.2
Whatever was being done, whenever possible, it should be done in accordance with the path the sun took, from the east round to the west, or from left to right. This was expressed in simple things like screws being driven in clockwise, drinks being passed around a group sunwise, tying knots, or approaching a house. The dairymaid, after milking a cow, was supposed to strike it deiseal with its shackle, saying mach is dachaigh ('out and home') as she did so in order to make sure it returned to its pasture and its next milking safely.3 Wedding parties would turn to the right as they entered the church, and the bride would be taken to the minister in the same direction, to ensure a prosperous marriage for the couple. Coffins were taken to the grave and laid in the ground observing the same principle, and the mourners would approach the grave in the right direction as well.4 McNeill notes that as late as 1928, “the present writer witnessed a funeral in the Hebrides where the approach to the graveyard was made deiseil, though this meant taking a longer and more circuitous route than the direct approach.”5
The custom was observed in Ireland as well as Scotland, and can be seen even in early Irish literature such as the Táin, where the blessing “I drive around you [in a chariot], turning to the right!” (rendered “May your road be blessed!” in Kinsella's translation) was given to Cu Chulainn by his wife Emer. To travel in the opposite direction was supposed to be an insult – a direct indication that the driver's intent was anything but positive.6
It is not surprising, then, that one particular Highland custom saw a person (usually a patron) was walked around three times by someone as they spoke a blessing to their benefactor and wished them success in their enterprises. Martin describes an instance of this being performed on him by a woman on the island of Islay, to whom he had given alms: “I desired her to let alone that compliment, for I did not care for it; but she insisted to make these three ordinary turns, and then prayed that God and MacCharmig, the patron saint of that island, might bless and prosper me in all my designs and affairs.”7
Perhaps some examples of these blessings can be found in the section called Good Wishes in the Carmina Gadelica, such as:
Wisdom of the serpent be
Wisdom of raven be thine,
Wisdom of valiant eagle.
Voice of swan be thine,
Voice of honey be thine
Voice of the Son of the stars.
Bounty of sea be thine,
Bounty of land be thine,
Bounty of the Father of heavens. (288)8
This example notably mentions the three realms as well.
Evans, in detailing aspects of Irish life, noted that women tended to work on the left-hand side of the fire, whereas men sat the right, which made sense when considering the fact that “...the woman's functions are best carried out on the left side. Besides the convenience of this for a normal right-handed person, there lies behind it the notion that for good luck significant actions involving the food supply – such as ploughing, casting a net or taking a pot off the fire – should follow the direction of the sun's movement in the sky. Thus the crane on which the pots are hung is almost invariably pivoted on the left side of the fire so that it swings out with the sun.”9
In seventeenth century Scotland, Martin Martin records several examples of the right-hand turn. In business, he wrote: “The natives of Colonsay are accustomed, after their arrival in Oronsay Isle, to make a tour sunways about the church, before they enter upon any kind of business.”10 To do otherwise would have risked a negative outcome in any undertaking. In the same vein, then, boats were meant to travel and turn in a sunwise direction in order to ensure a safe journey or a good catch – much to the disapproval of Martin, since he saw it as a pagan superstition.
In travelling to the islands, it often took him several attempts to find sailors who would agree not to observe the right-hand turn before setting off to ensure a safe journey. His somewhat triumphant tone is therefore understandable when Martin describes the practice of the fire-round that was observed on Lewis, in which a flaming torch was taken about houses, crops and livestock in order to ensure protection from evil influences and health and prosperity on all inhabitants: “...a man carried fire in his right hand, and went round, and it was called dessil, from the right hand, which in the ancient language is called dess. An instance of this round was performed in the village Shader, in Lewis, about sixteen years ago (as I was told), but it proved fatal to the practiser, called MacCallum; for after he had carefully performed this round, that very night following he and his family were sadly surprised, and all houses, corn, cattle, etc, were consumed with fire. This superstitious custom is quite abolished now, for there has not been above this one instance of it in forty years past.”11
On special occasions the observance was considered to be especially important, and expectant mothers would walk round a church three times in order to ensure a safe and easy delivery, and fire was carried around newborn infants and mothers in the proper direction to ensure protection from faeries, who were said to steal unprotected babies for their own, leaving sickly faery babies in the child's stead, or carry away nursing mothers to become wet nurses for aristocratic faery babies.12
McNeill notes: “The Caledonians paid a supersitious reverence to the sun, and practically every religious festival began with the ceremony of walking thrice deiseil, that is, in a sunwise direction, round the circle, cairn, altar or bonfire that marked the site, the object of the rite being to aid the sun by virtue of mimetic magic.”13 The principle can at least be seen in many of the rituals and devotions that were carried out on the Cross Quarter Days. These include saining rituals (protective charms against danger or evil) like the sop seile (the saining straw),14 the making of the Brigid's Cross and the Threshold Rite on Bride's Day,15 the walking of the boundaries with flaming torches to ensure protection of property, as well as in healing rituals where sacred wells were supposed to be approached from the rite and circumambulated three times (usually) in the deiseal direction before water from the well was then drunk.16
2 McNeill, The Silver Bough vol 1, 1957, p 54.
3 Campbell, The Gaelic Otherworld (ed. Ronald Black), 2000, p125.
4 Campbell, The Gaelic Otherworld (ed. Ronald Black), 2000, p655; McNeill, The Silver Bough vol 1, 1957, p54; Napier, The Folk Lore Or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within This Century, 1879, p134-135.
5 McNeill, The Silver Bough vol 1, 1957, p171.
6 Kinsella, The Táin, 1969, p259.
8 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p270 (song 288).
9 Estyn Evans, Irish Folk Ways, p65-67.
12 McNeill, The Silver Bough vol 1, 1957, p53-54.
13 Ibid. See also Napier, who may have been her source (or used the same source), quoting Simpson's Meeting the Sun: “...the old Deisual, or sunwise, round houses and graves, and to turn their bodies in this way at the beginning and end of a journey for luck, as well as at weddings and other ceremonies.” James Napier, The Folk Lore Or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within This Century, 1879, p133-134.
14 Campbell, The Gaelic Otherworld (ed. Ronald Black), 2000, p136-137.
15 See Seán Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid: Goddess and Saint, 2005, Chapter 10, p95ff.
16 McNeill, The Silver Bough vol 1, 1957, p67.