Toradh, airgead, uisge... You can use a stick of rowan to sprinkle the water around, instead of using straw or your fingers

Toradh, airgead, uisge… You can use a stick of rowan to sprinkle the water around, instead of using straw or your fingers

Sain, sian or seun1 charms are intended to bestow protection on an object, place or person in order to ward away evil influences and intent (especially from witches and the daoine sìth), and to ensure the health and prosperity of the person or household, or else the richness of the crops or catch.

Given the nature of the Quarter Days, when unseen, supernatural powers were believed to be more powerful, saining rituals form an important part of the rites associated with them. Not only are these charms considered to be more necessary, they are also considered to be more potent on these days, and can be regarded as ensuring protection over the next three months until the next Quarter Day (although historically, saining rites have also commonly been performed on other festival days such as Shrovetide or Hogmanay as the ritual calendar developed and evolved).2

However, going by the sources we have to hand, these are not the only occasions that such rituals can be performed, or charms made. Campbell notes that such charms were said over cows and sheep as they were left for the night, in order to keep them safe, and sains were given to men who were of to sea to protect them from drowning, or about to go to war to protect them from injury and death.3

A famous charm, known simply as The Sian, was said to render anything invisible as the owner wished, provided the correct ‘mysterious incantation’ was said.4 It was made of leather or a tough vellum, and led a varied life in the hands a man loyal to Bonny Prince Charlie, who used it to make invisible kegs of gold and arms that were meant for the prince until royalists almost discovered it by chance. The owner of the charm was captured and put to death, and the kegs were never recovered, although they were often seen momentarily on St John’s Eve. It then fell into the hands of a smuggler, who used it with great success in his trade, until it came into the possession of a drover in Caithness. He used it to make his flock invisible when driving his herd through the laird’s land (which traditionally incurred a toll), and ultimately lost it when he sold the herd to an Englishman and made the cattle invisible as a joke. The Englishman, not sharing the drover’s sense of humour, attacked him and got his herd back, along with the charm and it was never heard of again.5

In a similar fashion, young women would have pieces of cloth blessed by Brìde sewn into their garments to protect their virginity.6 Saining rituals were also performed over newborn babies to ensure their safety from the unwanted attentions of faeries who might want to steal them away. This subject is dealt with in more detail in the Birth and Baptism article.

The practice of bringing rowan into the house on Quarter Days is one example of a simple saining rite, although some districts apparently preferred elder or juniper, perhaps using whatever was available.7 A branch of rowan would be put in the midden, and small equal-armed crosses made from rowan sticks tied with red thread were placed above doors and windows to ward off witches and faeries.8 In similar fashion in Ireland, the crosses made for Là Fhèill Brìghde and Samhainn also served the same purpose in Ireland.9

Sticks of rowan or juniper might also be tied into the tails of cows for protection, or else red or blue threads were used, and their ears and rump daubed with tar. Campbell also notes that charms were said at their udders to encourage a good supply.10 However, along with such physical charms that could be kept and could be seen as a reminder of the sain until the next Quarter Day (such as the rowan crosses), saining rituals tended to fall within two categories: rituals of fire, and rituals of water, which would compliment the physical charms that were made.

Saining by fire

Fire has long had strong protective qualities, and one Highland saying tells us: Cha tig olc a teine, ‘No evil comes from fire.’11 It was thus an extremely appropriate means of saining.

Such is the power that fire is thought to hold it is considered unlucky to give fire to someone on one of the Quarter Days (Là Fhèill Brìghde, Bealltainn, Lùnastal and Samhainn). To do so, even in the form of giving a neighbour a kindling or match, is seen to risk the household’s luck – or more specifically the toradh, or substance of benefit (such as a cow’s abundant supply of milk, or the ability for it to be turned into butter or cheese) – leaving with it.12 Similar customs involve the giving of rennet or money, and there are many charms that have been recorded to help avert disaster on the occasion that fire absolutely had to be given away. Throwing a lump of burning peat into some water, for example, would ensure that any ill intent from the person taking the fire would not be able to affect the prosperity of the household.13

Generally speaking, the fire in the hearth would be kept burning all year round in both Scottish and Irish homes, until they were ritually extinguished on the eve of Bealltainn, and then relit the next day, being kindled from a need-fire that was built by the whole community. Everyone would take fire back into their house, lit directly from the central bonfire to ensure protection and prosperity for the whole community in the coming year.14

Only in times of murrain, or plague (of any kind), which affected cattle, livestock, or people, were fires put out before Bealltainn – in this case, the fire would be considered to have been tainted in some way, and only by extinguishing it and making a new need-fire (or teine-éigin) would the problem be solved.15 Often the whole community would be involved in this practice, to make sure that the murrain didn’t spread any further.

The need-fire would have to be lit from a flame produced from no other flame – in other words, produced by friction. Observing one such example of this ritual in the late seventeenth century, the antiquarian Martin Martin described how one Island community went about it, saying it was necessary for 81 married men to be involved. First they would take two planks of wood, and then they would take it in turns to rub the planks together in teams of nine until enough heat was generated to start a fire. The fire was then carefully nurtured, and a cauldron of water was placed over it until it started boiling. The water was then sprinkled over people and cattle who were suffering from the plague, in order to cleanse them. Once this was done, everyone in the community could take some of the fire back to their own house to kindle a new flame.16

Other sources describe similar practises elsewhere in Scotland, usually involving three, nine, or multiples of nine men to kindle the initial flame. Ramsay of Ochtertyre, for example, gives this account:

“The night before, all the fires in the country were carefully extinguished, and next morning the materials for exciting the sacred fires were prepared. The most primitive method seems to be that which was used in the islands of Skye, Mull and Tiree. A well-seasoned plank of oak was procured, in the midst of which a hole was bored. A wimble of the same timber was then applied, the end of which they fitted to the hole. But in some parts of the mainland the machinery was different. They used a frame of greenwood of a square form, in the centre of which was an axle-tree. In some places three times three persons, in others three times nine, were required for turning round by turns the axle-tree or wimble. If any of them had been guilty of murder, adultery, theft or other atrocious crime, it was imagined either that the fire would not kindle, or that it would be devoid of its usual virtue. So soon as any sparks were emitted by means of violent friction, they applied a species of agaric which grows on birch trees, and is very combustible. This fire had the appearance of being immediately derived from heaven, and manifold were the virtues ascribed to it. They esteemed it a preservative against witchcraft and a sovereign remedy against malignant diseases, both in the human species and in cattle; and by it the strongest poisons were supposed to have their nature changed.”17

Elsewhere a type of spinning-wheel known as the muckle wheel was used in the kindling of the needfire, as recorded by Fraser who says such a method was used in places like Aberdeenshire and Mull. In Mull, Fraser says nine spindles of oak were used as kindling while the wheel was spun from east to west.18

It was often an important prerequisite for the men involved in the kindling of the needfire to be married, or at least be free of crime and sin. Where boiling water was not sprinkled around during the murrain rite, bunches of burning heather lit from the need-fire might be taken around each cow deiseil (sunwise) to sain them, and at the Bealltainn bonfires in both Scotland and Ireland livestock was driven between two bonfires, or made to jump over lighted straw, for the same purpose.19

At Shrovetide, juniper was often burned before cattle to sain them, and at Hogmanay, McNeill records that the plant was burned about the house and byre (see the Juniper and Water Rite below). At Quarter Days, torches of heather might also be taken around the boundaries of a property (sunwise, naturally), in order to sain the boundaries and keep away any evil influences.20

Rites of water

At each Quarter Day, as well as festivals such as Hogmanay, it was traditional to sain the door-posts and walls of the house and byre, as well as any equipment, people and livestock with ‘magic water’ or even urine. This was presumably performed using the sop seile (’spittle wisp’), or saining straw as described by Campbell:

“At certain times of the year, principally at Beltane and Lammas, a wisp of straw…was taken to sprinkle the door-posts and houses all round sunwise (deiseal) to preserve them from harm…The liquid used was menstruum.”21

The sunwise direction would have been an important element to the ritual, being the direction of increase and good fortune. The menstruum Campbell mentions would not have been menstrual blood as the term might imply, but was either water that had been in contact with gold or silver, or else had been mixed with spittle – hence the term ’spittle wisp’. The person making the water could either spit in the water, or pass the water from a container and into the bottle that was going to be used for sprinkling it via the mouth.22

Given the liminal nature of Hogmanay, New Years’ Eve, it is perhaps no surprise that saining formed an important part of the festivities since Otherworld beings were believed to roam freely at night. As one year shifted and blurred into the next, so did the boundaries between this world and the Otherworld, and so the dangers inherent with this state needed to be addressed. McNeill records a saining ritual known as the Juniper and Water Rite, the detail of which deserves to be quoted in full:

“After sunset on Hogmanay, bands of young men carrying axes and ropes set off to the hill whence they returned with loads of juniper. This was ranged round the fire to dry over night. A member of the household was also sent to draw a pitcher of ‘magic water’ from the ‘dead and living’ stream. Early next morning the household assembled, and each member took a draught of the water. The head of the house and his assistants then went from room to room, sprinkling the rest of the water on the beds and on any remaining occupants.

This done, all windows, crevices and keyholes were carefully stuffed, and the performers of the rite seized branches of the dried juniper, set them alight, and carried them through the house. The fumes spread over the low ceilings and gradually condensed into a thick cloud. This odiferous fumigation caused sneezing, wheezing, coughing and hiccoughing, and even drew cries of suffocation from the children.

When the fumes were deemed to have accomplished their work, fresh air was admitted, and the woman of the house, ‘having vented the most latent embryo of disease in a copious expectoration,’ as one participant has described it, administered a restorative from the whisky bottle. Whoever contrived to greet his neighbour first was entitled to a gift. The fumes were washed away, and the all sat down to their New Year breakfast.

The rite was repeated in the byre.”23

The use of whisky was perhaps particularly appropriate in this case, since juniper is commonly used as a flavouring for it. Gregor notes that byres were often fumigated with juniper on Christmas morning in order to ward off disease (though he also implies elsewhere that it was used to ward off disease in general, when the need arose), perhaps indicating evidence of local variation to the practice.24

McNeill’s description is very similar to one given by Alexander Polson of a rite that was performed to remove a case of the evil eye. In general, a case of the evil eye was usually evidenced by a malaise of unknown cause. The victim would feel tired and would grow thin no matter what they ate; cows that became affected would stop producing milk for no apparent reason, or else they might have an unfortunate and unusual accident that killed or seriously injured them. Fisherman that were affected would find that they brought home little in their nets, whereas others would have fish in abundance and so on.25 Like McNeill’s description, Polson’s example of a juniper rite deserves to be quoted in full:

“Ian Mhor had an only daughter. She became an invalid, and no doctor of the time could cure her. At last it was suspected that she had come under the influence of some evil eye, and her friends resolved to try the burning of the juniper and the sprinkling of the water from ‘the living and the dead ford.’ At midnight and in silence the water was carried from a south-running stream near the house. Care was taken that the bearer did not look back, nor permit the vessel in which the water was carried to touch the ground. In the house every precaution was taken to have the rite carried out in the manner approved by ancient custom. The door was barred, and the light of the moon and stars carefully excluded. The fire was prepared and the green juniper heaped upon it. The suffocating fumes grew denser and denser until they filled every corner of the house; the breathing of the patient grew heavier and heavier, but still the juniper was piled on the fire, and the magic spell was crooned. The poor sufferer could stand it no longer, and her breathing ceased for ever. She had been sacrificed on the altar of superstition.”26

The result of this tale, according to Polson, meant the rite fell out of use in most parts, and other means were favoured instead.27

The plant had a variety of properties associated with it, and it was said that it was a good protection over sea or land, and that any house in which it was kept would not catch fire.28 Because of its protective qualities, it was used as a substitute to rowan in some parts. However, in order to be effective it had to collected in a particular way:

“It must be pulled by the roots, with its branches made into four bundles, and taken between the five fingers, saying:

I will pull the bounteous yew,
Through the five bent ribs of Christ,
In the name of the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost
Against drowning, danger, and confusion.”29

Carmichael gives a similar, though slightly longer, version (song 404) of the incantation in Carmina Gadelica.30

At Hogmanay on Shetland, where trolls (or trows) were said to roam, infants were sained and guarded by the wise women of the village to protect them from being swapped with a changeling, and people would go out in groups rather than on their own, for safety. Charms for protection would be carried, and “saining rhymes and verses from the Bible were freely repeated.”31

Saining charms

Here is an example of a saining, as recorded by Carmichael. Here the agent from which the charm aims to protect appears to be the jealousy or evil eye from other people, and the opening verse seems to suggest a physical object being used, such as red or blue thread or twigs of rowan or juniper tied to the tail of the cow. Presumably the cow would also have been sained with the sop seile, as was common when a person brought home a new cow:32

135 The charm of lasting life
I will place the charm of the lasting life,
Upon your cattle active, broad, and full,
The knoll upon which the herds shall lie down,
That they may rise from it whole and well.
Down with success, and with blessing,
Up with activity and following,
Without envy, without malice, without ill-will,
Without small eye, without large eye,
Without the five eyes of neglect.

I will suck this, the sucking of envious vein
On the head of the house, and the townland families,
That every evil trait, and every evil tendency
Inherent in you shall cleave to them.

If tongue cursed you,
A heart blessed you;
If eye blighted you,
A wish prospered you.
A hurly-burlying, a topsy-turvying,
A hard hollying and a wan withering
To their female sheep and to their male calves,
For the nine and the nine score years.33

A Scots (as in a Scots dialect) version of a saining charm said at Hogmanay is as follows:

Wha sains the hoose the nicht?
They that sains it ilka nicht –
Saint Bryde an her brat,
Saint Colme an his hat,
Saint Michael an his spear,
Keep this hoose frae the weir,
Frae rinnin thief,
Frae burnin thief,
An frae a’ ill rea
That by the gate can gae,
An frae an ill wicht
That by the gate can licht.
(Who blesses the house tonight?
They that bless it every night –
Saint Brigid and her mantle,
Saint Columba and his hat,
Saint Michael and his spear,
Keep this house from the fear,
From running thief,
From burning thief,
And from all ill trouble
That goes by the road,
And from an ill (meaning) fellow
That by the road can light.)34


1 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p 211.
2 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p557.
3 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p211; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, 1957, p55.
4 Polson, Scottish Witchcraft Lore, 1932, p160.
5 Polson, Scottish Witchcraft Lore, 1932, p163-164.
6 Ó Cathaín, ‘The Festival of the Holy Woman Brigid,’ Celtica Journal, p235.
7 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p63.
8 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p63.
9 See Kevin Danaher’s The Year in Ireland.
10 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p557.
11 Henderson, Survivals of Belief Amongst the Celts, p211; Alexander Polson records it as ‘Cha tig olc a’s teine,’ or ‘No evil comes out of fire,’ – Polson, Scottish Witchcraft Lore, 1932, p131.
12 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, 1957, p55.
13 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, 1957, p55.
14 McNeill. The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p57-58.
15 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, 1957, p63-64.
16 Martin Martin.
17 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, p221.
18 ‘Muckle’ means ‘large’, and was an early type of spinning-wheel that was later replaced by the smaller and more efficient Saxony wheel. Fraser, The Golden Bough and Gregor, Folklore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p186.
19 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p57-58.
20 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p57-58.
21 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p137.
22 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p392.
23 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 3, p113-114.
24 Gregor, Folklore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p186; p159.
25 Polson, Scottish Witchcraft and Lore, 1932, p175.
26 Polson, Scottish Witchcraft and Lore, 1932, p179.
27 Polson, Scottish Witchcraft and Lore, 1932, p179.
28 See also note 30.
29 Juniper was also known as mountain yew. McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, 1957, p81.
30 I will pluck the gracious yew
Through the one fair rib of Jesus,
In name of Father and Son and Spirit of wisdom,
Against distress, against misfortune, against fatigue.

I will pluck the gracious yew
Through the three fair ribs of Jesus,
In the name of Father and Son and Spirit of grace,
Against hardness, against pain, against anguish of breast.

I will pluck the gracious yew
Through the nine fair ribs of Jesus,
In the name of Father and Son and Spirit of grace,
Against drowning, against danger, against fear. – Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1994, p369.
31 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 3, p138.
32 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p137.
33 See Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume 2.
34 Montgomerie, Traditional Scottish Nursery Rhymes, 1985, p122.