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' meichtfrom Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning the Orkney & Shetland Islands, pg145 (See links at end)
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.
Arthur Knightfrom Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning the Orkney & Shetland Islands, pg145 (See links at end)
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
'At she should never
Bide a' night
Whar ever she heard
O' Arthur Knight.
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:
- DSL up to 1700 entry for “Mare/Mair(e)”
- DSL 1700 onwards entry for “Mare”, includes “Mara” variation – also mentions later confusion with English “mare” meaning female horse
- DSL up to 1700 entry for “Hag-mare” – interesting combo that seems to have been in use around the mid-1600s
- Scottish Charms and Amulets by George F Black, Assistant-Keeper of the Museum (1893) – downloadable free PDF version of text
- Scottish Charms and Amulets – online version on Electric Scotland, divided into sections so you can jump to Mare Stanes section and also see what other charms are included at a glance
- Ducie, E. of. (1888). Exhibition of Three “Mare-Stanes,” or “Hag-Stones.” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 17, 134–137. (https://doi.org/10.2307/2841595)
- “Mare Stanes, Adder Stones and Frog Stones, Oh My!” on the wonderful Tairis Blog, where she also notes different names for different stones, beads etc
- Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning the Orkney & Shetland Islands (1903) also by George F Black – spoken charms against the Mara mentioned on pg145
- The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot – first published 1584, free PDF of 1886 reprint. Charm & stone mentioned on pg68
- Milne, L. (2017). The Terrors of the Night: Charms Against the Nightmare and the Mythology of Dreams – interesting paper on ideas about & charms against nightmares in various European countries & areas, with mention of Shetland
- “Lullabies and Nighmares” – episode 26 of the amazing Bone and Sickle podcast exploring the topic, again in various European countries. with mention of Scottish mare stanes
- History of the Scots Language
- Example of YouTube video from modern practitioner I’d seen – while it’s brilliant to see people engaging with these charms in the modern day, there appear to be many errors here such as the horse attributions, calling it “witchcraft” & the claim that the Scots charm comes from The Discoverie of Witches when it doesn’t…I’m not 100% where she found that particular version – the only place I came across it was in The White Goddess by Robert Graves which is unfortunately a notoriously unreliable text, appears to have errors in the Scots & doesn’t say what his source is…Happy to stand corrected if anyone finds it somewhere else though. (Again this is just an example so I don’t mean to single-out this content creator as the only one putting out these ideas because she isn’t)
📸 Featured Photo Credit: Jane Brideson – used with kind permission ☺️