County Folk Lore is a collection of stories written by Ewart Simpkins John in 1914, and is released for free on The book explores the different uses of the social sciences, and we have selected the specific chapters that highlights life, old sayings and superstitions from around the Fife area and specifically in Lochgelly.

Of the three stages of life round which old customs and beliefs cluster, namely, marriage, birth, and death, the second has perhaps the greatest amount of folklore connected with it. Some part of what is here set down has already appeared in the Caledonian Medical Journal, vol. v., 1 but all of it is the fruit of many years’ personal experience as a medical practitioner among the folk of Fife, more especially among those who daily go down into the coalpits of the county to earn their bread. From County Folk Lore VII.

Pregnancy. There is a popular belief that when pregnancy commences the husband is afflicted with toothache or some other minor ailment, and that he is liable to this complaint until the birth of the child. On one occasion a man came to me to have a troublesome molar extracted. When the operation was over he remarked, in all earnestness, ” I’m feared she’s bye wi’ it again, doctor. That tooth’s been yarkin’ awa’ the last fourteen days, an it’s aye been the way wi’ me a’ the time she’s carryin’ them.” Another patient assured me that her husband ” aye bred alang wi’ her’ and that it was the persistence of toothache in her adult unmarried son which led her to the (correct) suspicion that he had broken the seventh commandment, and made her a grandmother.

Pregnancy is frequently dated from taking a ” scunner ” (disgust) at certain articles of food tea, fish, etc. If the confinement is misdated, the woman whose calculations have gone wrong is said to ” have lost her nick-stick,” a reference to the old-fashioned tally.

While the woman is pregnant she must not sit with one leg crossed over the other, as she may thereby cause a cross-birth ; nor, for the same reason, may she sit with folded arms. If she is much troubled with heartburn, her future offspring will have a good head of hair ; while a dietary including too much oatmeal will cause trouble to those washing the child, as it produces a copious coating of vernix caseosa.

Many mothers believe that the tastes (likes and dislikes) of the child are dependent on the mother’s diet while pregnant ; e.g. a woman who has eaten much syrup will have a syrup-loving child. If a woman while pregnant has been ” greenin’ ” (longing for) any article of diet which has been denied to her, the child when born will keep shooting out its tongue until its lips have been touched with the article in question.

The belief in maternal impressions is of course fixed and certain ; and wonderful are the tales told of children born with a ” snap ” on the cheek (through that favourite piece of confectionery having been playfully thrown at the mother), or with a mouse on the leg. E.g. a woman who was slapped in the face with a red handkerchief while pregnant, had a child with a red mark on the forehead ; another woman had a ” red hand ” on her own abdomen because, before her birth, her mother’s nightgown caught fire, and she laid her hand violently on her body to extinguish the flames.

It is always considered among the folk a most reprehensible thing to throw anything, even in jest, at a pregnant woman, on account of thereby causing a birthmark, or even a marked deformity, to the future offspring. Should something be thrown, however, and the part hit be an uncovered part of the body, such as the face, neck, or hand, the probable birthmark may be transferred to a part covered with clothes, if the woman touches with her hand the spot where she has been struck, and then touches a clothed part of her person. A young married woman is always so advised by her elders. The transference only effectual before the fourth month of pregnancy. Any tart or fright to a pregnant woman is considered dangerous, the child may ” put up its hand and grip the mother’s heart.”

I have heard sudden deaths in pregnancy attributed to this, each pregnancy is supposed to cost the woman a tooth. A barren woman is often told chafingly to ” tak’ a rub ” Against a pregnant woman and ” get some o’ her luck.”. If a woman is presented with a bunch of lilies before her child’s birth, the child will be a girl. This is believed to be of French origin, as it was narrated by a daughter of a Frenchman who was taken prisoner at Waterloo. She lived in Ceres, Fife.

Children (generally illegitimate) ” gotten oot o’ doors ” were expected to be boys. ” It couldna but be a laddie, it was gotten amang the green girss (grass) ” ; (cf. ” The Birth of Robin Hood,” in Jamieson’s Popular Ballads, 1806).

Child bed. When labour was in progress, various proverbs, consolatory and otherwise, were always used ; such as, ” Ye’ll be waur afore ye’re better ” ; ” The hetter war, the suner peace ” ; ” Ye dinna ken ye’re livin’ yet,” etc.

  • In a prolonged or tedious labour an older woman would often open the door and leave it slightly ajar.
  • It was not uncommon for some women to desire to be confined kneeling in front of a chair, on the ground that ” a* their bairns had come hame that way.” This position must have been very common at one time.
  • After the birth the mother had to be very careful till the ” ninth day ” was past. Till then, she was not allowed to ” redd ” her hair, or to/ lift her hands ” abune the breath, ‘ i.e. higher than her mouth. 1 Nor, if she ” tak’ a grewsin’,” (rigor), must she touch her mammae, or a ” beelin’ ” (suppurating) breast will be the consequence. ” I maun ha’ gruppit it,” is often given as the cause of an abscess. And if, while ” grewsin’ ” she were to grip her child, it would take the illness which caused the rigor.
  • ” Nurse weel the first year, ye’ll no nurse twa,” was the advice given by experienced elders to young mothers.
  • ” A woman was in seeing a neighbour who had had a ‘ little body.’ The patient got up while the caller was in. The caller was going out again, but she was brought back until the mother got into bed again. Before leaving, the caller got ‘ the fitale dram.’ ” (Cowdenbeath) .
  • The Newborn Infant. When the child was born, it was frequently greeted with the words, ” Ye’ve come into a cauld warl’ noo.”
  • The child may be born with a caul (” coolie,” ” happie-hoo,” ” sillie-hoo,” or ” hallie-hoo “) over its face. This is a sign of good luck, and is still frequently preserved. I was once shown a specimen fifty years old, by its owner, who as it happens has been a peculiarly unfortunate woman. Some held that if given
    to a friend the caul will serve as a barometer of the donor’s health. If in good health, it keeps dry, but if the giver turns ill, the hood becomes moist.
  • A child born feet first was held to be either possessed of the gift of second sight, or to be born ” a wanderer in foreign countries.”
  • A premature child will live if born at the seventh month, but not if born at the eighth.
  • If the child’s first cry can be twisted into ” dey ” (father), the next comer will be a male.
  • The umbilical cord must be cut short in the case of a girl, but the boy whose umbilical cord is cut too short will, when his time comes, run the risk of either being a childless man, or a bed-wetter.

The child at birth used in the old days to be wrapped, if a male, in the mother’s petticoat ; if a female, in the father’s shirt. If this was not done the child was thought to run the risk either of not being married at all, or if married, of being childless.

If the child micturates freely at birth, it is considered a sign of good luck to it and to all who may participate in the benefit.

The nurse examines the child to see that it is ” wice and warl’ like,” and that there are no signs of its being an ” objeck,” or a “natural/ 1 Should the child have ” hare-shaw ” (hare-lip), or ” whummle-bore ” (cleft-palate), there will naturally be much chagrin, but a ” bramble-mark ” or ” rasp ” (naevus) is not objected to unless on the face as it is supposed to indicate future wealth. Such marks are held to increase in size and darken in colour as the fruits in question ripen, and to become more marked and prominent on the child’s birthday. A child with two whorls on its head will be a wanderer, or, otherwise, will live to see two monarchs crowned.

It occasionally happens that a child is born with one or more of its teeth cut. This is considered very lucky ; but the teeth should be ” howkit out ” (dug out) to avoid disheartening the mother, for ” sune teeth, sune anither.”

If the child is pronounced to be like father or mother, some one present will say, ” Weel, it couldna be like a nearer freen’ ! “. It is held that the child will be liker the parent who has either been fonder of the other at the time it was begotten, or fonder of the other during the pregnancy, ” because he or she looks often at, and thinks often o’ ” the other. Or again, that the infant will be more like the parent who has the stronger constitution.

If the little stranger is a well-developed child, we are told : That ane hasna been fed on deaf nuts’ (Deaf nuts are worthless withered nuts.) Should it have enlarged breasts, the common and dangerous practice of ” milking the breasts ” is almost always resorted to in the case of a girl ; but if a boy were so treated, it is thought that it would injure his chance of becoming a father hereafter.

It is considered very unlucky to weigh a newly-born child, and very genuine opposition may be offered to the proposal.

To wash the child’s ” loof ” (palm) too thoroughly is held to spoil its chance of ” gainin’ gear,” while to wash its back too well for the first three weeks is thought to weaken it. Others say the child’s hands and arms should not be washed ” till it is a gude twa-three weeks auld, as it taks their luck awa.” (Cowdenbeath).

Mrs. H. of Auchterderran, previously mentioned, said that ” when she was a lassie’ the howdie in charge would then mould and press the child’s head (” straik it “) to ” pit it in til shape, ‘” special attention being paid to the nose. A mouthful of whisky was taken, and skilfully blown as a spray over the child’s head, and then massaged in ” to strengthen the heid.” A plain closely fitting cap (” under-mutchie “) was then applied, and a more ornamental one on the top of that, as the child was supposed to take cold very readily through the ” openins o’ the heid ‘* (fontanelles) , by which ” the air would get into the brain.”

If a child cries continuously after being dressed at birth, the granny or some other wise elder will say, ” If this gangs on we’ll ha’e to pit on the girdle ” (the large circular flat baking-iron on which scones and oatcakes are “fired”). Sometimes this is actually done, but the practice is rare now, and very few can give the true meaning of the saying. The idea is that the crying child is a changeling, and that if held over the fire it will go up the chimney, while the girdle will save the real child’s feet from being burnt as it comes down to take its own legitimate place.

First Ceremonies. The ceremony of drinking the child’s health at birth (” wettin’ the bairn’s heid “) is laid stress on, and those not ” drinkin’ oot the dram ” are expostulated with thus : ” Ye wouldna tak’ awa’ the bairn’s beauty ? (or luck).” The refreshments, usually shortbread and whisky, are called ” the bairn’s cakes.”

A visitor going to see a newborn child must not go empty handed but must carry some small gift for presentation to the youngster, or he or she will carry away the child’s beauty.

The child should always, when possible, be carried upstairs before it is carried down ; and where this is impossible, a box or chair will give the necessary rise in life.

” The bairn’s piece ” was a piece of cake, or bread and cheese, or biscuit, wrapped in a handkerchief and carried by the woman who was taking the child to the kirk for the christening. This woman was always if possible one of good repute in the district, and the office was considered an honour. ” Mony an ane I carried to the kirk,” said old Mrs. H., with pride. The first person met with on the way, whether ” kent face ” or stranger, was presented with ” the bairn’s piece,” and was expected to partake of the proffered refreshment. Sometimes he or she would indulge in prophecy and say, ” A lassie the next time,” or, “a laddie ” ; but failing this it was considered that if the person met was a male, the mother’s next child would be a female, and vice versa. The custom is now practically extinct, even in country places.

” Children that are taken to be christened are taken in at the little gate instead of at the big gate now, since suicides are not taken over the church wall to be buried, as it was supposed that the first child that was taken in at the gate would commit suicide.” (Verbatim as given. Cowdenbeath)

If on a Sunday a boy and a girl are being christened, the girl must be christened before the boy, otherwise she will have a beard.

On the child’s first visit to another house its mouth is filled with sugar ” for luck.” Unless this was done the bairn would always be licking its lips and shooting out its tongue, and be generally discontented. The first visit of an infant to another house brings luck to that house, provided it is not carried by its mother, but if the mother herself is carrying the child, it is not every neighbour that would welcome the visit.

” The first time you take out your first baby, you should not bring it in yourself. Go in yourself first and get some other one to bring it in ; or come in backwards with it.” (Cowdenbeath.)

The Cradle. Various beliefs are connected with the cradle The first child should not be rocked in a new cradle, but in a borrowed old one ; nor should the cradle be in the house before the child is born. In sending the borrowed cradle back, it should never be sent empty, but with a blanket or pillow in it, nor should it touch the ground on the journey. Even when the child is older and the mother wishes to take the cradle to a neighbour’s house for a ” crack,” it is unlucky to take it in empty. A ‘ pillow or blanket should be in it, or better still, the child should be placed in the cradle and carried in that way. An empty cradle should never be rocked, as it gives the child ” a sair weim.”

If a mother thinks she is not to have more children, and so gives her cradle away, another child will be born to her.

Early Infancy. If you see a baby about six weeks old watching smoke going up a chimney, it will never have a birthday.

A child with differently coloured eyes (e.g. one blue, one brown) will never live to grow up.

( If a young child on being given a piece of money, holds it tight, it will turn out ” awfu’ grippy ” (greedy) ; but if the money slips through its fingers it will be openhanded and generous. – If the child ” neezes ” (sneezes), the correct thing is to say, ” Bless the bairn ! ” If it ” gants ” (yawns), the chin is carefully pushed up to close the mouth.

When the child’s nails require shortening, they should not be cut with scissors, but bitten. If a child’s nails are cut before it is a year old (some say six months), it will be ” tarry-fingered,” (a thief).

A child speaking before six months old will/ if a boy, not live to comb a grey head.

A child speaking before walking will turn out ” an awfu’ leear.”

The first time a child creeps, if it makes for the door, it will creep through life and be a slowcoach, and never ” mak’ a name for itsel’.”

If a child on first trying to walk is inclined to run, it will have
more failures than successes in life.

A child should not see itself in a mirror before it gets its teeth, | as it will not live to be five years old.

Gums through which the teeth are shining are called ” breedin’ gums,” and should be rubbed with a silver thimble or a shilling to bring the teeth through. If a stranger (i.e. any other than the mother) discovers the first tooth, the mother has to give that person a present. (Auchterderran.)

Early teething portends sundry troubles. ” Teeth sune gotten, teeth sune lost ” ; ” Sune teeth, sune sorrow.” And as regards the mother : ” Sune teeth, sune anither ” ; or, ” Sune teeth, sune mair.”

To cut the upper teeth before the lower is very unlucky, for “He that cuts his teeth abune Will never wear his marriage shoon.”

When a milk-tooth comes out, it should be put in the fire with a little salt, and either of the following verses repeated : ” Fire, fire, burn bane, God gi’ me my teeth again.” Or, ” Burn, burn, blue tooth, Come again a new tooth.”

Families. If twins grow up, and both marry, only one of them will have children.

An addition to a miner’s family, if a boy, is described as ” a tub o’ great ” ; if a girl, as ” a tub o’ sma’.”

A family of two is described as ” a doo’s cleckin’ ” (i.e. a pigeon’s hatch).

A family of three is looked on as ideal : ” twa to fecht an’ ane to sinder ” (separate). Sometimes another child is allowed, and it becomes ” twa to fecht, ane to sinder, an’ ane to rin an’ tell.”

The last of the family is described as ” the shakkins o’ the poke,” (bag). ” Losh, wumman ! this’il surely be the shakkins o’ the poke noo ! ”

County Folk Lore VII

Author: Ewart Simpkins John
Publisher: Sidgwick And Jackson Limited
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