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Folklore of the
Scottish Highlands

Folklore and Folklife
of Dunkeld and Tayside Region

Why do we throw a coin in the River Tay or the River Forth “for luck ?“ The origin and significance of many of our customs, superstitions and sayings are now unknown to us. Even such things as guising, dookin’ for apples, washing our faces in May dew, bonfires and turnip lanterns, these are not merely games or frolics; they are relics of ancient rites.

The truth is, we are still very much encompassed by the customs of the ancient past. These are many and strange—they begin with our birth and end only with death and burial. The curious customs associated with weddings—especially the weddings of fisher and country folk—would need a web site to themselves!

Besides which, we still have our lucky charms, our silver coins, our white heather. We no longer venerate the oak, like the Druids, as the symbol of the Supreme Power, whose spirit emanated in the mistletoe fruit. But mistletoe berries still play a prominent part in the festive fun of Hogmanay.

We no longer believe that Sir John’s Wort (St. Columba’s axillary flower, and often used in Midsummer Eve celebrations) will ward off the fairies, but now believe it will ward off depression. The rowan-tree (a protection against witches) still grows alongside many a cottage door, as well as alongside many ancient sites of pagan worship. You see, the past is inextricably bound up with the present.

Superstitions survive in our most modern communities. Think of the number thirteen, fear of going under ladders, looking at the new moon through glass, black cats, bringing hawthorn or wild cherry blossom into the house, spilling salt.

As we have ourselves witnessed in modern politics and war, the “magical powers” of a leader can still be impressed on the mass of the people by ritual performance and symbols. So it looks as if the magical attitude in human affairs is far from dying out.

We may no longer worship the sun, but sun-worship is not entirely forgotten. We may not venerate our river gods, but when we open the salmon-fishing season by breaking a bottle of whisky over the bow of a boat, are we not endeavouring (with this great sacrifice!) to solicit the favour of Tatha, the ancient goddess of our greatest river?

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