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.

“Folk-medicine,” says Sir Clifford Allbutt (Brit. Med. Journal, Nov. 20, 1909), ” whether independent or still engaged with religion and custom, belongs to all peoples and all times, including our own. It is not the appanage of a nation ; it is rooted in man, in his needs and in his primeval observation, instinct, reason and temperament. . . . To Folk-medicine doubt is unknown ; it brings the peace of security.”

” A drucken doctor’s clever,” is the popular opinion expressed in a curiously unwise proverb. But even he does not always command the undoubting faith that is reposed by the ignorant in the unwashed oracles of the roadside, the tinker and the tramp, who have successfully dodged the dominie, but who nevertheless are reputed to be ” skeelie wi’ simples.” For ” ye’d wonder what gaun-aboot folks kens.” If the ” cure ” these remedies are always known as ” cures ” can be got from anyone invested with a slight touch of the uncanny, so much the belter.

One old lady told me, ” My mither got the cure from a man wantin* the legs, that was drawn aboot by tvva black dogs.” A man with two legs, drawn about by a horse, can be met with and consulted any day ; but one wanting the legs and drawn about by two black dogs is something out of the usual run, and naturally his advice should be something ” by-ordinar,” and implicitly to be trusted.

Bone Setters

In folk-surgery, the bone-setter holds an accepted position. ” A’ body kens doctors ken naething aboot banes.” It is a matter of ” heirskep ” (heredity). The bone-setter’s father before him, or at least his grandfather, or at the very worst his aunt, possessed ” the touch,” as it is called, in their day and generation. “It rins in the bluid.”

I know not why, but this particular unqualified practitioner is most frequently a blacksmith. Still, among the many Fifeshire bone-setters I have known or heard of were a schoolmaster, a quarryman, a platelayer, a midwife, and a joiner.

A rough and ready massage plays an important part in the modus operandi ; so does the implicit faith of the patient. The fearlessness of utter ignorance leads them to deal with adhesions in joints in the most thorough-going fashion, and we hear of their successes not their failures. Many of them have the gift, agift also common to others who never use it as hereditary skill of making a cracking noise at the thumb or finger joint by flexion and extension.

When an injury is shown for treatment, the bone-setter handles it freely, says how many bones are ” out’ and then works away at the joint, making cracking noises with his own fingers, each separate noise representing one of the patient’s bones returning to its proper position. ” They maun ha’ been oot,” says the sufferer afterwards : ” I heard them gaun in.” A coachman who had been flung off his box and got a bruised elbow had thirteen small bones ” put in ” by one famous blacksmith still in practice.

I suppose every medical practitioner in Fife could tell of cases ruined by these charlatans. On one occasion I was asked to see a ploughman who had fallen off a cart. I found him with a Colles’ fracture, the injured part covered with a stinking greasy rag, above which were firmly whipped two leather bootlaces. The bones were not in position, and the hand, from interference with the circulation, was in a fair way to become gangrenous. Yet the injury had been met with a week previously, and both he and his employer had been highly pleased with the treatment of the ” bone-doctor ” who had been consulted. I was only wanted to fill in the insurance schedule.

One curious qualification for bone-setting was given me by a collier who had been to a bone-setter with a ” staved thoomb.” I asked him why he had gone there. ” Lord, man ! I dinna ken. They say he’s unco skcely.” But what training had he ? ” Weel, he was aince in a farm, and drank himsel’ oot o’t ! ”

Health Sayings

  • Hair. If a grey hair is pulled out three will come in its place. (Auchterderran and Fife generally.)
  • A horsehair put into water is supposed to turn into a worm or an eel. Many people otherwise intelligent fully believe this. (Auchterderran and Fife generally.)
  • Hair and nails should not be cut on Sunday. ” Cursed is he that cuts hair or horn on the Sabbath,” was quoted against a resident who had dishorned a ” cattle-beast” on Sunday. (Auchterderran.)
  • An excessive amount of hair on a new-born child’s head is an explanation of the mother having suffered from heartburn.
  • ” A hairy man’s a happy man or, a ‘ geary ‘ (wealthy) man ” ; a hairy wife’s a witch.”
  • A tuft of hair on the head that will not keep down when brushed is called ” a coo’s lick.”
  • Red Hair. A red-haired first-foot is very unlucky. ” He’s waur than daft, he’s reid-heided.” There is a schoolboy rhyme : ” Reid held, curly pow, Pish on the grass and gar it grow.”
  • Large Head. ” Big heid, little writ.”
  • The Heart. ” To gar the heart rise,” to cause nausea.
  • ” To get roond the heart,” to cause faintness. (” It fairly got roond my heart.”)
  • Sudden death is explained as due to the heart having been ” ca’ed (pushed) aff its stalk,”
  • Any injury, however slight, near the heart, is looked upon as dangerous. ” Far frae the heart ” is used to mean, not dangerous, not of much importance, trifling. ” O that’s far frae the heart ! ” not worth bothering about.
  • ” Whole at the heart,” courageous, in good spirits. ” But a’ the time he lay he was whole at the heart.”
  • ” Something cam’ ower the heart,” t.e. a feeling of faintness occurred.
  • ” I saw her heart fill,” I saw she was overcome with emotion.
  • Hiccough is supposed to be caused by ” a nerve in the heart,” and at every hiccough ” a drop o’ blude leaves the heart.” Jugular vein. Great importance is attached to any injury ” near the joogler.” Fear will be expressed lest any swelling in the neck should be ” pressin’ on the joogler.”
  • Menstruation. It is steadfastly believed by the folk that substances such as jam, preserves, or pickles, made by a menstruating woman will not keep, but will for a certainty go bad. On one occasion I was told in all seriousness that a newly-killed pig had been rendered quite unfit for food through being handled by a woman ” in her courses,” all curing processes being useless to check the rapid decomposition that followed.
  • Nerves. A ” nervish ” person is a nervous person : a ” nervey ” one, a quick active person.
  • Hysteria is described as ” the nerves gaun through the body.”
  • A highly neurotic imaginative person is described as ” a heap o’ nerves ” ” a mass o’ nerves.”
  • A pot-bellied individual is described as ” cob-weimed.” The ” cob ” is the grub found at the root of the docken, and is a favourite bait with fishers.
  • Sneezing (” neezing “) is held to clear the brain.
  • Spittle, spitting. Fasting spittle is a cure for warts and for sore eyes.
  • The spittle of a dog (” dog’s lick “) is a cure for cuts and burns.
  • Spitting for luck. At the conclusion of a bargain the money is spat on ” for luck.” Money received in charity from one for whom the recipient has a regard is similarly treated.
  • A man meeting a friend whom he has not seen for a long time will spit on his hand before extending it for shaking hands.
  • Along the coast, any dead carcass is spat on with the formula, ” That’s no my granny.”
  • A schoolboy challenge is to extend the right hand and ask another boy to ” spit owre that.” If he does so, the fight begins. A schoolboy saying (contemptuous) : ” I’ll spit in your e’e an’ choke ye.”
  • Teeth. Toothache is caused by ” a worm in the teeth.”
  • To extract eye-teeth endangers the sight.
  • ” He’s cut a’ his teeth,” he is wide awake.
  • ” He didna cut his teeth yesterday,” he is an experienced person.
  • ” A toothful,” a small quantity of anything.
  • Thumb. An injury to the thumb is supposed to be specially apt to cause lock-jaw.
  • Tongue. ” Tongue-tackit,” tongue-tied.
  • ” The little tongue,” the uvula.
  • If a magpie’s tongue has a piece ” nickit oot ” between two silver sixpences, the bird will be able to speak.
  • A seton passed in below the tongue of a dog will make it quiet while hunting. A poacher’s dodge.
  • ” To have a dirty tongue,” to be a foul speaker.
  • ” To gie the rough side o’ the tongue,” to swear at, to speak harshly.
  • “Her tongue rins ower fast,” or “She’s owcr fast wi’ her tongue,” said of women.
  • Unconsciousness is described as ” deid to the warl’.” ” I was deid to the warl for sax hoors.”
  • Wind (flatulence) has extraordinary powers attributed to it : ” gettin’ roon’ the heart,” ” gaun to the held.” An acute pain in the chest or belly is often said to be caused by ” the wind gettm’ in atween the fell (skin) and the flesh.”
  • Yawning (” gantin’ “). There is a proverbial saying : They never gantit, But wan tit, Meat, meal, or makkin’ o’ ” (fondling, petting).

Pathological Ideas. Popular Conception of Disease. An implied belief in the existence of disease as an entity an entity that can be fed, or starved, or transferred is often peculiarly prominent.

There is always, for example, a fear of taking anything that may ” leed the tribble.” A light is going on between the trouble and the ” system,” and unsuitable medicine may go to help the former at the expense of the latter. ” For ony favour,” said one woman, ” dinna gie me ony thing that will gar me eat, lor a’ I tak just gangs to the hoast and strengthens it.” Again, in the case of a poultice, there is an underlying idea of the transference of the ” tribble ” from the afflicted body to the poultice, and it is with this idea that the poultice is usually burnt. The poultice is held to ” draw the tribble ” : the disease is ” in ” until it has been extracted: it has to be got out. Some poultices, such as carrot or soap-and-sugar poultices, are described as ” awfu’ drawin’ things.” ” Is it no’ drawin’ it owre sair ? ” is a common query regarding a poultice or a dressing. When a blister does not rise readily it is looked on as a bad sign : the trouble cannot be drawn out : ” it is ill to draw,” ” dour to draw ” ” the tribble’s deep in.”

Disease may also be ” drawn out ” from a human body to that of a lower animal, as appears from the treatment of syphilis noted below and other cases.

Contagion. ” Ay, an’ wha smittit (infected) the first anc ? ” is often said contemptuously as an argument against instructions to isolate an infectious case. Measles, scarlatina, etc., are looked on as ” bairns’ tribbles ” and to ” pit them a’ thegither an’ hae dune wi’t ” is often practised. On the other hand, it is believed that all bedding and clothes belonging to a deceased physical patient should be burnt. It is also held that those who are not ” feared at ” a trouble will not take it. Another belief is that a younger person cannot ” smit ” an older. ” She’s safe to wash his clacs : she’s auld be’s (compared to) him.” An older person sleeping with a younger is considered apt ” to tak the strength frae ” the younger one (Auchterderran).

Boils are looked upon as a sign of rude health. Swollen glands (referred to as ” waxen kernels ” or ” crucls “) are looked on as a sign of the system being ” down.”

Cancer is referred to as ” eatin’ cancer.” A common expression is ” They say an eatin’ cancer will eat a loaf.” Of one case of cancer of the breast a woman said, ” It used to eat half a loaf o’ bread and a gill o’ whisky in twa days ” (Auchterderran).

Celibacy in a male is held to be bad for mental conditions. ” His maidenheid’s gaun to his brain ” : said scoflingly of an eccentric single man.

Delirium. A delirious person is spoken of as ” carried ” One who is excited is spoken of as ” raised ” or ” in a raptur’,” and a confused person as ” ravelled ” (i.e. tangled a ravelled skein of wool is i tangled skein) .

Drunkenness. A drunk man, if very drunk, is described as ” mortagious,” ” miracklous,” ” steamin* wi drink or ” blin’ fou’.” A chronic drunkard (” drooth “) is spoken of as “a sand-bed o’ drink.” A man wanting a drink will ask you to ” stan* your hand/’ or ask ” Hae ye ony gude in your mind ? ” or ” Can ye save a life ? ” (Auchterderran).

Hives. Jamieson in his dictionary gives this word as meaning ” any eruption on the skin when the disorder is supposed to proceed from an internal cause. Thus bowel-hive is the name given to a disease in children in which the groin is said to swell. Hives is used to denote both the red and yellow gum (Lothians) A.S. Heafian, to swell/’ But this is by no means a complete definition for Hives in Fife. Generally speaking, if an infant is at all out of sorts it is said to be hivie : diarrhoea, vomiting, thrush all these conditions come under the adjective, while a fatal result is frequent through ” the hives gaun roond the heart.” The commonest varieties of hives, so far as we can classify them, are those that follow :

  1. Bowel-hives is the diarrhoea so often associated with dentition and mal-feeding in infants.
  2. Oot-fleein’ hives is where we get a rash of any sort (short of the exanthemata). For example, eczema capitis is frequently described as starting with ” a hive ” on the brow, and the sudamina so common on neck and nose in the first few days of infant life are frequently looked on as a good sign, and called ” the
    thrivin’ hives.”
  3. In-fleein’ hives is what ? It frequently spells sudden death, or, at any rate, sudden death is quite satisfactorily accounted for by the fact that ” the hives have gone in wan ” (inwards), the usual goal being, as I have mentioned, the heart.
  4. The bannock-hive is a term applied humorously and contemptuously to the person who is suffering from a gastric derangement as a result of over-eating. When doubt is thrown in the family circle on a member’s claim to be an invalid, we hear the phrase, ” Weel, if ye’re hivie, it’s the bannock-hive ” ; similar to ” Ye’re meat-heal, ony way,” or to Gait’s famous ” Ony sma’ haud o’ health he has is aye at meal-times.”

Mumps. Local terms for this are ” Bumps,” ” Buffets,” and ” Branks ” ” Branks ” meaning the halter for a cow (Auchterderran).

Pap o’ the hass (” hawse,” ” hass ” throat, ” pap o’ the hass ” uvula). In relaxed throat the condition is referred to as ” the pap o’ the hass being down.” Tt is believed that there is one single hair in the head, which, if found and pulled, will ” bring the pap o’ the hass up.” The difficulty is, of course, to find it.

Suicide. It is often said of a suicide ” he maun hae been gey sair left to himsel’ afore he did that.”

White liver. A man who has been a widower several times (” wearin’ ” his third or fourth wife) is supposed to have a” white liver,” along with which condition goes a ” bad breath ” fatal to the spouse.

County Folk Lore VII

Author: Ewart Simpkins John
Publisher: Sidgwick And Jackson Limited
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