"Oh! cest triste, et je hais la mort."
The noise of the worm that eats the woodwork of houses, "the chackie mill," was looked on as presaging a coming death. 2
Before the death of one of the household there was at times heard during the night the noise as if something heavy were laid down outside the door of the dwelling-house. It was the sound of the coffin as it was laid down outside the door, before it was carried into the house.
A murmur as of many human voices was sometimes heard around the door of the dwelling-house. It was the harbinger of the murmur of the voices of those who were to assemble for the funeral.
A picture or a looking-glass falling from the wall portended a death. If one's portrait fell, death was not far off.
A death was often made known by the light called a "dead-canle." It was seen moving about the house in which the death was to take place, and along the road by which the corpse was to be carried to the grave. Its motion was slow and even. The light was pale-bluish, wholly unlike any made by human art. 1
A crop more than usually good foreshadowed the death of the goodman, and went by the name of a "fey-crap."
The common tallow candle in burning often gutters, and the tallow runs over the edge and down the side of the candle. It soon hardens. When the flame consumes the candle, at times the little column formed by the gutter is left standing unconsumed on the edge of the candle. It is called a "coffin-spehl," and is looked upon with suspicion as portending a death in the family at no very distant period. 2
The apparition of the person that was doomed to die within a short time was seen wrapped in a winding-sheet, and the higher the winding-sheet reached up towards the head, the nearer was death. This apparition was seen during day, and it might show itself to any one, but only to one, who generally fell into a faint a short time afterwards. If the person who saw the apparition was alone at the time, the fainting-fit did not come on till after meeting with others. 3
Three drops of cold blood falling from the nose was the sure indication of the death of one very nearly related to the one from whose nose the blood fell.
It was regarded as an omen of death, either of himself or herself, or of one nearly related, if one showed more than ordinary joy. 4
If the sick person did not sneeze, the disease would end in death. Sneezing was accounted the turning-point towards recovery. 5
When one fell sick means were at times used to find out whether the sickness would end in death. Two holes called
graves, the one the living, and the other the dead, grave were dug. The sufferer was laid, without being told which was the living or which was the dead grave, between the holes. If the patient turned with the face to the grave designed as the living, there would be recovery; if in the opposite way, death would follow. The following extract from the Session Records of the Parish of Cullen (1649) gives a different mode:--
"It was remembered that Marjorie Pulmer, halving a sick child, and desirous to know if the child sould live or die, digged two or three graves. On she called the dead grave and another the quick grave, and desyred a woman (who knew not how the said Marjorie had designed the graves) to go with the child and putt him in on of the graves for shee beleved that if the child sould be putt in the quick grave that he would live, and if in the dead grave he sould die. Therfor the said Marjorie being accused confessed that she did it out of ignorance be the information of a woman whom she knew not. Marjorie was debarred from the Sacrament by order of the Presbytery."
In some districts there was a belief in a sound of a mysterious kind that was heard before the perpetration of any dreadful crime, as murder.
A murder was committed at Cottertown of Auchanasie, near Keith, on the 11th January, 1797. Here is the tradition:--On the day on which the deed was done two men, strangers to the district, called at a farmhouse about three miles from the house in which lived the old folk that were murdered. The two strangers were suspected of being guilty of the crime. Shortly before the deed was committed a sound was heard passing along the road the two men were seen to take in the direction of the place at which the murder was perpetrated. So loud and extraordinary was the sound that the people left their houses to see what it was that was passing. To the amazement of everyone, nothing was to be seen, though it was moonlight, and moonlight so bright that it aroused attention. Near neighbours met, and discussed what the sound could be. All believed something dreadful was to happen, and some proposed to follow the sound. The more cautious, however, prevailed over the more fiery. One man, of the name of Newlands, and a man of great courage and strength, was with the utmost difficulty prevented from following in the wake of the sound. About the time this discussion was going on, a blaze of fire arose on the hill of Auchanasie. The foul deed had been accomplished,
and the cottage set on fire. By next day all knew of what the mysterious sound had been the forerunner. 1
When one was apparently struggling hard in the act of dying, or, as it was expressed, "hid a sair faicht," the "rock" was at times broken above the head, under the belief that when this was done the dying person's heart broke, and the struggle ceased. This action may be compared with the idea contained in the line,
At other times the dying person was removed from the bed, and laid on the floor of the apartment, as it might happen that there were wild fowls' feathers in the pillows or bed, at all times a cause of a hard struggle in death. This notion about wild fowls' feathers did not exist among some of the fishing population that used the feathers of all kinds of birds, except those of the pigeon. 2
In the very moment of death all the doors and windows that were capable of being opened were thrown wide open, to give the departing spirit full and free egress, lest the evil spirits might intercept it in its heavenward flight. The Esquimo have the same custom. 3
Immediately on death, a piece of iron, such as a knitting-wire or a nail, was stuck into whatever meal, butter, cheese, flesh, or whisky were in the house, to prevent death from entering them. The corruption of these articles has followed closely on the neglect of this, and the whisky has been known to become white as milk.
All the milk in the house was poured out on the ground. 4 In some fishing villages all the onions and butter were cast forth.
The chairs, &c. in the house were sprinkled with water. The clothes of the dead were also sprinkled with water, and it was the common belief that they always had a peculiar smell.
If there was a clock, it was stopped. 1 If there was a looking-glass, it was covered with a white cloth, 2 as were also the pictures.
All the hens and the cats 3 were shut up during the whole time the body was unburied, from the belief that, if a cat or a hen leaped over it, the person, who was the first to meet the cat or hen that did so, became blind, not perhaps at the time, but assuredly before leaving this earth.
The neighbours did not yoke their horses, unless there was a running stream between the dwellings. In the fishing village of -----, on the north-east coast of Aberdeenshire, not a single spadeful of earth was moved within the village during the time the corpse was lying unburied.
When the death took place a messenger was despatched for a wright, who hastened to the house of death with his "strykin beuird." The body was washed, and, after being clothed in a home-made linen shirt and stockings, it was "strykit" on the board brought by the wright, and covered with a home-made linen sheet. Many a bride laid up in store her bridal dress, to be made into her winding-sheet, and her bridal linen and bridal stockings, as well as her husband's, to be put on when life's journey was ended.
When the eyelids did not close, or if they opened a little after being closed, an old penny or halfpenny piece was laid over the eyes.
On the breast was placed a saucer or a plate containing a little salt, to keep the evil spirits away, because they could not come near Christ's savour of the earth. 4
To prevent swelling in the bowels, any small dish with a little mould was at times placed on them. If this had been neglected, and swelling made its appearance, a small green turf was cut, and placed upon it, when, it is alleged, the swelling immediately disappeared.
A candle or two were kept constantly burning beside the
body. It has happened that the candle has been overturned and the grave-clothes set on fire and. the body burned. This took place only in the case of those who were believed to have possessed during their lifetime more than human skill and power, which they had obtained at the price of their souls from the Prince of Evil, or of those whose lives had been more than ordinarily stained, either openly or secretly. Such an untoward accident was spoken of in whispers, and was looked on as the dark omen of the future state.
In one instance, at least, the time of the death was observed:--
The bodies of those who were drowned, but not recovered, were supposed to come to the surface of the water on the ninth day. It was the weight of the gall that kept the body at the bottom. On the ninth day the gall-bag broke, and the body, being relieved of the weight, floated. 1
A mode of discovering a body drowned in a stream or river, was to put a loaf into the water at the spot where the unfortunate fell. The loaf floated down the stream till it came above the body, when it began to whirl round and round.
If one committed suicide by drowning, it was believed the body did not sink. It floated on the surface.
The opinion prevailed till not very long ago, and even yet lingers, that in a case of murder, if the murderer touches the corpse, blood flows from the wounds.
The coffin and grave-clothes were made with all becoming speed. When all were ready, a day and an hour were fixed
for the "kistan"--that is, for laying the body in the coffin, and a few of the most intimate female friends and nearest relatives of the deceased were invited to attend. At the appointed time they came, usually dressed in mourning, and assisted in placing the body in the coffin, and in making suitable preparation for the funeral. The board of hospitality was spread, when the qualities and deeds of the departed formed the subject of conversation.
To the other female acquaintances that had not been present at the "kistan," invitations were sent to come, and take the last look of the dead--"to see the corpse."
The body was sedulously watched day and night, more particularly, however, during night. The watching during the night was called "the lyke" or "the waukan." 1
A few of the neighbours met every evening, and performed the kind office of watchers. One of them at least had to be awake, lest the evil spirits might come, and put a mark on the body. The time was ordinarily spent in reading the Scriptures, sometimes by one, and sometimes by another of the watchers. Some of the passages usually read were the ninety-first Psalm, the fifteenth chapter of St. John's Gospel, and the fifteenth chapter of I. Corinthians. Other passages were read besides these. All conversation was carried on in a suppressed voice.
Sometimes the "waukan" was not so solemn. Practical jokes have been played upon the timid. Some stout-hearted one placed himself within the "bun-bed" beside which the dead lay, and, when those on whom the trick was to be played had entered the house, and taken a seat, he began to move, at first gently, and then more freely, and at last he spoke, imitating as far as possible the voice of the dead, to the utter terror of such as were not in the secret.
There was a plentiful supply of new pipes and tobacco, procured specially for the occasion, and hence the irreverent sometimes spoke of the "lyke" as the "tobacco-nicht."
Whisky was also freely given, and in many eases tea, or bread and cheese with ale were served about midnight.
203:1 Cf. Henderson, p. 48.
203:2 Ibid. p. 45.
204:1 Cf. F. L Record, vol. i. p. 53 (178); Notes and Queries, 5th series, vol. ix. p. 65.
204:2 Cf. Henderson, p. 48.
204:3 Ibid. pp. 46-48.
204:4 Choice Notes, p. 123.
204:5 Notes and Queries, 5th series, vol. viii. pp. 221, 222.
206:1 Cf. Henderson, pp. 129-136.
206:2 Cf. Henderson, p. 60; F. L. Record, vol. i. p. 59 (193), vol. iii. pt. i. p. 127.
206:3 Cf. Henderson, pp. 53-56; F. L. Record, vol. i. p. 60 (194), p. 102; Choice Notes, pp. 117, 118.
206:4 Cf. F. L. Record, vol. i. p. 101.
207:1 Cf. Henderson, p. 56; Choice Notes, p. 121.
207:2 Cf. Henderson, p. 56 Choice Notes, p. 121.
207:3 Cf. Henderson, p. 59.
207:4 Cf. Henderson, p. 56; Choice Notes, pp. 119-121, 174 (4).
208:1 Cf. Henderson, p. 59.
209:1 Cf. Henderson, pp. 54-56.