Mare Stanes (Hag Stones) – Keeping the Nightmare at Bay 🌌

Small stones with one or more naturally occurring holes in them, usually found near water, are commonly known as “hag stones” in much of the English speaking world. In this article I’m going to explore what I’ve found in terms of names for them in Scotland and their use as a defense against nightmares in particular. From what I’ve seen floating about on social media etc, there seems to be a wee bit of confusion about this so hopefully this article will be helpful for anyone interested in the topic – it was certainly interesting for me to try to pin down sources etc for certain claims I’d seen made!

The lovely examples shown in the Featured Photo above were taken by and used with kind permission from the fabulous artist Jane Brideson. As always I’ll be listing and linking my own sources at the end along with links to Jane’s work for anyone interested.

What is a nightmare? 💭

Before getting into it, I think it’s a good idea to define “nightmare” in the historical and Germanic-influenced cultural context in which these charms were commonly used. Though nowadays it just means bad dream or even bad situation, in the past it used to be a wee bit different. Historically, a nightmare is often described in a very similar way to what we would now call sleep paralysis – nighttime attacks by some kind of evil entity that sits on the sleeper’s chest, preventing them from moving and filling them with terror, often leaving them feeling drained after the attack.

In areas of Scotland with Germanic linguistic and therefore cultural influence – the Lowlands where Scots Language was born, and of course places like Shetland and Orkney by way of old Norse culture – this evil entity was known as the Mare or Mair, sometimes later Mara. The Mare seems to have been thought to be female, usually appearing in the form of an old hag or otherwise scary-looking female figure. Although there are some stories involving her shapeshifting/appearing as animals, including a female horse, I personally couldn’t find anything to back up the claim I’ve seen by some modern practitioners that she was generally seen as being an evil horse entity. Plus, given that in addition to attacking people in their sleep the Mare was infamous for letting horses out of their stables and riding them around all night, exhausting them – much easier to do in human-like form than horse form lol! The confusion may come from the fact that “mare” meaning female horse and “mare” in nightmare are spelled and pronounced the same in modern English. However, they have different etymologies – the origin of “mare” in the English nightmare or the Scots Mare is widely thought to have come from a word meaning crushing or pressing, not female horses.

Hag Stones in Scotland – Mare Stanes 💧

On to the name of these stones. In Scotland, “hag stones” are traditionally known as “mare stanes” in Scots due to their association with being able to keep away the above mentioned Mare. They were also sometimes known as “adder stanes”, but this usually applied to either more colorful natural glass, or man-made items such as rediscovered Neolithic spindle whorls or colourful beads. I’ve sometimes seen people post pictures of mare stanes saying that they were known as “Druid beads” or “Druid stones” etc but this doesn’t seem to have been the case, at least certainly not in Scots. In Scottish Gaelic they had Druidical beads (gloine nan draoidh) and adder/serpent stones/beads (clach nathrach/glaine nathair), but again these historically referred to more colourful and/or man-made stones or beads with holes in them. To be fair, I have to note that modern online Scottish Gaelic dictionaries such as Learn Gaelic do sometimes lump everything together when translating into English, which does make things more difficult to tell apart. In some old sources these terms are hyphenated as “hag-stone” and “mare-stane”.

Mare Stane Charms (and human teeth)! 🦷

The most common way to use mare stanes to either protect people and horses from the Mare was to hang a stone on or above the sleeper’s bed, or in the stable where the troubled horse was kept overnight. There are stories of people who used these stones always taking them with them when they stayed the night somewhere else, not liking to be without them. Some sources also state that this practice was particularly popular in fishing communities. Additionally, this type of folk magic – not witchcraft – with mare stanes was used by some to protect against witchcraft in general as well as nightmares in the old sense of the word. Then into the 1800s you see people using them against “bad dreams” in general rather than specifically attacks by the Mare.

A particularly interesting mention of a mare stane charm I came across while researching was in “Scottish Charms and Amulets”:

One of the stones has two human teeth inserted and fixed in the natural holes in the stone. It was known to have been seventy years in one house, and was given to Mr A—, of Marykirk, by an old lady. She had used it to ward off bad dreams.
pg458 (see links at end)

I’ve never seen the use of teeth mentioned anywhere so I have quite a few questions, and would especially like to know whose teeth were used. If anyone reading has any further information or sources on this I would love to see them! I have to admit the image in my head of 2 teeth shoved in the holes in the stone gives me trypophobic heebie-jeebies just a wee bit lol! (There’s no picture provided in the source)

The last thing I wanted to look into – again something I’d seen done on social media – was the potential combination of mare stane charms, horse hair and spoken charms against nightmares in Scotland. Early Modern English text “The Discoverie of Witches” (1584) mentions both a charm calling on St George to protect the sleeper from nightmares, and the hanging of a stone over their bed in the same section where the sceptical author proposes that there’s no supernatural cause at play here, so these charms are useless or even fraudulent. (It is in fact the purpose of the book to argue that witchcraft, folk magic etc don’t actually exist). This book was cited as the source for using the spoken charm and the stone together in one modern example I’ve seen, however even in the source it’s not entirely clear whether that’s the case or if these are just 2 different methods people used.

Moreover, the Scottish versions of the spoken charm – usually involving either Arthur, potentially King Arthur, or an unnamed “man of might” – don’t mention the use of any stone, and any hair used is human, usually from the charmer. The Scots versions I came across most commonly came from Shetland and are in the local dialect. I’ll put some of the versions I’ve talked about below as even if they aren’t necessarily related to using mare stanes, at least not directly, they’re still interesting to read:

De man o' meicht 
He rod a' neicht,
We nedder swird
Nor faerd nor leicht.
He socht da mare,
He fand da mare,
He band da mare
Wi'his ain hair,
An' made her swear
By midder's meicht,
Dat sho wad never bide a neicht Whar he had rod, dat man o'meicht.
from Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning the Orkney & Shetland Islands, pg145 (See links at end)
Arthur Knight
He rade a' night,
Wi' open swird
An' candle light.
He sought da mare;
He fan' da mare;
He bund da mare
Wi' her ain hair.
And made da mare
Ta swear:
'At she should never
Bide a' night
Whar ever she heard
O' Arthur Knight.
from Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning the Orkney & Shetland Islands, pg145 (See links at end)

Mare stanes and their equivalents in other languages/cultures have other uses such as protection against witchcraft as mentioned, as well as healing, ensuring safe births and so on. I felt these uses were better known so I haven’t gone into detail about them here. I hope details I did give about them being charms against the Mare were of interest though and that there being no apparent Druid etc connection wasn’t too disappointing!

📚 Source and Further Reading/Listening/Watching list:

🎨 Have a look at Jane Brideson’s art on The Ever-Living Ones, on Facebook here & here, & on Instagram

📸 Featured Photo Credit: Jane Brideson – used with kind permission ☺️

⚠️ LAST CALL – consultation on a legislative pardon for those convicted of “witchcraft” ends tomorrow (15th Sept) 🗓

If you’re interested in helping achieve a legislative pardon for all those convicted of “witchcraft” during the Scottish witch trials be sure to have your say before the consultation closes on the Scottish Parliament Website ⬅️

After an official apology being given earlier this year by the Scottish First Minister on International Women’s Day this is the next step in achieving justice for & memorialisation of all those, mostly women, who suffered so much after being falsely accused of witchcraft during the witch trials of the Early Modern Period ⚖️

There has also been an acknowledgement & apology this year from The Church of Scotland for its role in the trials, showing we’re well on the way to achieving our goals. So, please take the time to add your voice to the government consultation if you haven’t already 📄

For more information & updates follow the Witches of Scotland podcast & campaign 🎧

Hopefully it won’t be too long until justice is served & then a state national memorial created 🤞🏻

📸 Featured Photo credit: Pexel

Corn Dollies at Lammas & Lughnasadh/Lùnastal – “The Clyack” & “The Cailleach” 🌾

🌾Just a wee post to highlight a couple of contrasting beliefs about seasonal corn dolls (actually made of wheat or similar grain plants) in Scotland. I feel it’s interesting & is a good example of how there wasn’t, & isn’t, a singular pan-Scottish culture – cultural & linguistic influences vary by area 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

📖 I’ll start with “The Clyack” as at least in my personal experience she is less well known nowadays. The Dictionaries of the Scots Language is a wonderful resource for both language & culture – which should be no surprise given how closely they’re interlinked – so here’s an extract from an entry on making a “Clyack”, an old custom for Scots speakers at this time of year:

“…“The last sheaf of corn to be cut at the harvest” (e.Rs.1 1929; Mry.1 1912), gen. cut by the youngest person on the farm. It was dressed to represent a maiden, or decorated with ribbons and carried home in triumph. At “Aul' Eel Even” it was given to the oldest (or sometimes to the best) animal on the farm, or to a mare in foal. Usually in phr. to tak, get (Abd. 1863 G. Macdonald D. Elginbrod xi.) or hae clyack. In the south of Scot. this is called the kirn (see Kirn, n.2, 2), elsewhere the Maiden. Sometimes used attrib. with sheaf…”

To read the full entry plus examples of use in extracts from old books newspapers etc see the DSL website ⬅️

❄️ In Scottish Gaelic culture however this last sheaf wasn’t considered in such a positive light. It was referred to as a “Cailleach” (hag, the spirit of the harvest) & having to look after her all winter was undesirable as it was thought to be a bad sign. Folklorist John Gregorson Campbell asserted that no-one wanted to have to take in & feed this “Cailleach” over winter. I suppose a surprise extra mouth to feed, even symbolically, over the harshest time of year wasn’t a welcome thought. He also states that this harvest hag spirit is the same as the one being taunted in the New Year rhyme chanted by groups of boys as the went round the houses – there appear to be 3 Cailleachan mentioned in that rhyme, so I’m guessing it’s the one with sharp sticks in her eyes & stomach. You can read the rhyme & translation here in this article I wrote earlier this year, along with more info on Campbell’s indispensable writings on Scottish Gaelic culture, now put together in one book: The Gaelic Otherworld 📜

🔥 You can read more about Scottish Gaelic Lùnastal customs & see photos etc online at The Cailleach’s Herbarium – have a look at their great article on wheat weaving in general too ⬅️

🐍 Additionally you might want to have a look at the Language & Folklore, Folk Customs & Folk Magic sections of the Resource Pages, &/or related topic tags that can be found either the the bottom or on the right-hand side of any page depending on your device 🏷

📸 Featured Photo credit: Pexel

🔥Happy Lùnastal &/or Lammas to those celebrating 🌾

🗓 1st August is the modern fixed date of the Scottish Gaelic fire festival of Lùnastal/Lughnasadh & the Scots festival of Lammas, associated with the first harvests of the year (though the actual harvesting often happened later depending on local climate) 🌾

📰 Here’s a nice wee article by Raghnall MacilleDhuibh on some songs & folk traditions associated with this old Gaelic fire festival such as divination, saining & visiting holy wells in the hope of healing both physical & mental health issues – well worth a read ⬅️ Like any fire festival it’s a time when supernatural forces were/are thought to be more active than usual, so things like saining for protection are a feature 🌫

💧If you’re planning on visiting any wells yourself, have a look at this helpful guide before you go from the Woven Land Network 🌱

🎧 You can also listen to some 1st August events that happened in Barra in Scottish Gaelic & read an English summary on Tobar an Dualchais 🐴

🔥 It’s interesting to note that large fires traditionally lit at this time of year later came to be known as ‘Baal Fires’. Why ‘Baal-Fire’? As the DSL puts it: “Bale and bale-fire are mod. revivals of the 19th cent. The spelling baal is due to a fanciful connection with the pagan god, Baal.” – people have also tried to make this connection with the Phoenician God Baal & Bealltainn, but it’s just as fanciful & isn’t backed by any evidence 📖

🐍 Lastly, for anyone that missed it – a recent article on St Enoch mentioning a sadly now lost healing well in what’s now the centre of Glasgow can be read here

📸 Featured Photo credit: Pexel

🐍 Happy World Snake Day 🌎

🗓 Today (16th July) is World Snake Day! What’s World Snake Day? From Advocates for Snake Preservation:

“An opportunity to celebrate snakes and raise awareness about their preservation. While snakes are threatened by many of the same issues that affect all wildlife (habitat loss, climate change, and disease), negative attitudes toward snakes may be the biggest barrier to their preservation because it often impedes efforts to address other threats.

We encourage everyone to use this day to share positive stories about snakes with their friends and families. Need some inspiration? We’ve got you covered…” – read more here ⬅️

📸 Though it’s not the best photo, the Featured Photo above this post is from the only time I encountered an adder in the wild – I feel really lucky to have had this experience & so I treasure this memory ☺️ Here are a couple more I managed to take of the same snake when it stopped to look at us before slithering away ⬇️

ℹ️ You can can learn more about adders in Scotland, which are our only venomous snakes & a Protected species, through:

🐍 As you may know from this blog, in Scotland we have some interesting folklore relating to adders, but feel free to have a read if you missed it & you’re interested: here 🐍

📸 Featured Photo credit: Me, Lochgilphead

“Proposed Witchcraft Convictions (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill” – Public Consultation now live 📄

💥 Please consider voicing your support for a legislative pardon for all those convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1563-1736 – with apologies from both the State & the Kirk being given earlier this year, it’s now time to pursue the next step in achieving justice for these innocent people. You can read the proposal document & fill out the consultation online here ⬅️

⛏ A similar bill pardoning those convicted during the miners’ strikes was passed recently, so there’s a real chance of success if we can show public support for those unjustly convicted of witchcraft too.

🐍 For previous articles related to the Witches of Scotland campaign for justice see the “Scottish Witch Trials” & “Witchcraft” Topic Tags 🏷

📚 For more background information, links, podcasts, books etc on the trials see the “Witchcraft Beliefs & The Witch Trials” page in the Resources section 🔍

📸 Featured Photo credit: Pexel

Church of Scotland Apologises for Role in Historic Witch Trials

📰 Following the recent decision from CoS to allow their ministers & deacons to perform same-sex marriages comes even more good news on a different front – an acknowledgment of & apology for the harm done during the witch trials of the Early Modern Period:

The General Assembly has accepted a new motion brought forward by Rev Prof Susan Hardman Moore to “acknowledge and regret the terrible harm caused to all those who suffered from accusations and prosecutions under Scotland’s historic witchcraft laws, the majority of whom were women, and apologise for the role of the Church of Scotland and the General Assembly in such historical persecution.”

This comes following the publication of the paper ‘Apologising for Historic Wrongs’ produced by the Kirk’s Theological Forum.

Quoted from the Church of Scotland’s FB page – see embed below ⬇️

There have been individual ministers at various local memorial events for the accused in recent years, so it’s great to now see an official collective announcement 👏🏻 With a State Apology already been given, I’m sure a legislative pardon & a national state monument are not too far off now 🙂!

📢 International reaction: advocacy group that fights for those accused of witchcraft in modern day Africa – they hope that moves like this will help prompt African churches to move to end such accusations, & similarly praised the Scottish state apology given earlier this year due to the Witches of Scotland campaign – here ⬅️

📺 See also recently released documentary on the North Berwick Witch Trials hosted by Lucy Worsley here or where you access BBC iPlayer.

📄 CoS Theological Forum paper mentioned above

🎧 Witches of Scotland campaign for justice

📸 Featured Photo credit: Pexel

🔥Oidhche Bhealltainn Greetings!

🔥 Tonight is Oidhche Bhealltainn (Beltane Eve) – hope everyone celebrating has a good time 💛

📰 Here’s an interesting & relevant article from the brilliant Quern-Dust Calendar online archive:

“…May-Day is universally known to Gaelic speakers as Latha Buidhe Bealltainn, the Yellow Day of Beltane. It marks the first day of summer, but we needn't necessarily regard it as falling on 1 May - in the Old Style which survived until a couple of generations back, it fell on 13 May.

Bealltainn has been derived from beall-teine, "bale-fire" or "beacon-fire" (of which more later), but why buidhe, "yellow"? Well, buidhe is the colour of gold and of sunshine and of whisky and of good luck as well: buidhe dhut, lucky for you! Gold and whisky make little sense here, and the weather of May-Day, far from being sunny, is characterised by glaisean cumhach na Bealltainn, the dreary drabness (or linnet) or Beltane; so that seems to leave good luck.

The best-remembered saying about Beltane is…”

➡️ Continue reading more about dates, language, the role of fire, & of course washing faces in the morning dew in “BETWEEN TWO BELTANES” by Raghnall Mac Ille Dhuibh. (You may notice there’s no mention of any connection to the Phoenician God Baal because there isn’t one – unfortunately it’s a common myth that doesn’t make sense if you know anything about Scottish Gaelic Language)

🩸As mentioned in yesterday’s post, this is one of the times of year when Otherworldly beings were thought to be particularly active, so have a read about this cute wee bird & some surprisingly sinister folklore associated with it in “Yellowhammer Folklore”, a previous short article of mine.

⬆️ Informative post & lovely photo from Stories of Scotland giving more details about morning dew as well as showing people still washing their faces in modern times 💧

🐍 Read more about Bealltainn & its relationship with other major Scottish folk festivals here ⬅️

🗓 Lastly, there are many other festivals taking place in Europe at this time of year – such as Walpurgisnacht – so it’s important not to lump them all together & recognise they all come from different cultures ☺️

📸 Featured photo credit: Pexel

Official State Apology on International Women’s Day 2022 for All those Accused of Witchcraft during the Scottish Witch Trials

🎥 Watch FM Nicola Sturgeon give an official state apology to all those accused of witchcraft during the Scottish Witch Trials of the Early Modern Period – a historic moment that’s been a long time coming. Link: https://www.facebook.com/WitchesofScotland/videos/520775759398188/ ⬅️ Keep an eye out for the Public Consultation coming out soon as that’s the next step to achieving a pardon for all those convicted & a national memorial 📝

🎧 You can listen to the apology instead along with the reaction from WoS here on the Witches of Scotland Podcast

📰 Alternatively you can read some details if you’re not able to watch or listen at the moment here in this news article

✨ This additional article about what obtaining a pardon for those convicted of witchcraft historically might mean for those who identify as witches & pagans today may also be of interest: have a read on the brilliant The Cailleach’s Herbarium website – personally I think education on how the definition of witchcraft has changed over the years is key to helping people understand & process this 🔑

Now on to the legislative pardon & national memorial 💪🏻

Lilias by Heal & Harrow – a song in memory of Lilias Adie who was accused of witchcraft but died in prison before being convicted, so she is one of the people the apology was so important to get for as well as a pardon because a pardon wouldn’t cover cases like hers, only those that were convicted

📸 Featured Photo credit: Pexel

Bible, Key & String – folk divination through time

📖🗝✨I’ve shared posts before regarding using keys & things like Bibles, prayer books or Psalters in folk magic in order to divine certain information, one post concerning the Medieval to Early Modern Period & another the mid-1800s, so I thought I’d share what seems to be an example surviving into modern times. This example of teenage girls using a key, string & a Bible in an effort to find out who they’ll marry was collected from a Margaret Wilson of Lilliesleaf in the Scottish Borders, 1990, recalling her younger years:

“When I was [young], right silly, I used to do these things with friends, girls together. I must have been about sixteen. The girl I worked beside she used a Bible; this Bible was opened at a certain place and a big door key was put in, and string tied round. You each put a finger below the key and you said letters. It was supposed to move at a certain letter; it moved, but I don’t know whether the other person was helping it move or not!”

Scottish Customs: From the Cradle to the Grave by Margaret Bennett (Unfortunately not sure how old Margaret Wilson was at the time of her interview)

⭐️ Previous posts referred to:

Medieval to Early Modern ➡️ here on this site &…

Mid-1800s ⬆️

(Side Note: Margaret Wilson’s account of the method they used also bears obvious similarities to Ouija boards – these aren’t of Scottish origin so I’ve waited to the end of the post to mention them. I think many people now are familiar with the relatively short history of the Ouija board & how it didn’t really get its “demonic” reputation until after films like The Exorcist came out etc, but I thought I’d link an article on it here just in case anyone’s interested: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-strange-and-mysterious-history-of-the-ouija-board-5860627/ ⬅️ Whether you believe in the paranormal or not, I think it’s interesting how certain things have ended up with very bad reputations in popular imagination while others haven’t despite being very similar 💭)

📸 Featured Photo credit: Pexel