Where have ye been, ye ill woman,
These three lang nights frae hame?
What gars the sweat drap frae yer brow,
Like drops o` the saut sea-faem?
It fears me muckle ye have seen
What gude man never knew;
If fears me muckle ye have been,
Where the gray cock never crew.
But the spell may crack, and the bridle break,
Then sharp yer word will be;
Ye had better sleep in yer bed at hame,
Wi`yer dear little bairns and me.
Sit dune, sit dune, my leal auld man,
Sit dune, and listen to me;
I`ll gar the hair stand on yer crown,
And the cauld sweat blind yer e`e.
But tell nae words, my gude auld man,
Tell never a word again;
Or dear shall be your courtesy,
And driche and sair yer pain.
The first leet night, when the new moon set,
When all was douffe and mirk,
We saddled our nags wi` the moonfern leaf,
And rode frae the Kilmerrin kirk.
Some horses were of the brume–cow framed,
And some of the green bay tree;
But mine was made of ane hemlock shaw,
And a stout stallion was he.
We raide the tod doune on the hill
The martin on the law;
And we hunted the owlet out o` breath,
And forced him doune to fa`.
What guid was that, ye ill woman?
What guid was that to thee?
Ye would better have been in yer bed at hame,
Wi` yer dear little bairns and me.
And aye we rode, as sae merrily rode,
Through the mirkest gloffs of the night;
And we swam the flood, and we darnit the wood,
Till we came to the Lommond height.
And when we came to the Lommond height,
Sae lightly we lighted doune;
And we drank frae the horns that never grew,
The beer that was never browin.
Then up there rose a wee wee man,
From neath the moss–gray stane;
His face was wan like the colliflower,
For he neither had blude nor bane.
He set a reed–pipe till his mouth;
And he played sae bonnily,
Till the gray curlew, and the black cock flew
To listen his melody.
It rang sae sweet through the green Lommond,
That the night–wind lowner blew;
And it soupit alang the Loch Leven,
And wakened the white sea–mew.
It rang sae sweet through the green Lommond,
Sae sweetly, and sae shrill,
The the weasels leaped out of their mouldy holes,
And danced on the midnight hill..
The corby crow came gledging near,
The erne gaed veering by;
And the trouts leaped out of the Leven Loch,
Charmed with the melody.
And aye we danced on the green Lommond,
Till the dawn on the ocean grew:
Nae wonder I was a weary wight,
When I cam hame to you.
What guid, what guid, my weird, weird wyfe,
What guid was that to thee?
Ye wad better had been in yer bed at hame,
Wi` yer dear little bairns and me.
The second night, when the new moon set,
O`er the roaring sea we flew;
The cockle–shell our trusty bark,
Our sails of the green sea-rue.
And the bauld winds blew, and the fire– flauchts flew,
And the sea ran to the sky;
And the thunder it growled, and the sea–dogs howled,
As we gaed scurrying by.
And aye we mounted the sea–green hills,
Till we brushed the clouds of heaven,
The soused downright like the stern–shot light,
Fra the lift`s blue casement driven.
But our tackle stood, and our bark was good,
And sae pang was our pearly prow;
When we couldna speil the brow of the waves,
We needled them through below.
As fast as the hail, as fast as the gale,
As fast as the midnight leme,
We bored the breast of the bursting swale,
Or fluffed in the floating faem.
And when to the Norraway shore we wan,
We mounted our steeds of the wind,
And we splashed the floode , and we darnit the wood,
And we left the shore behind.
Fleet is the roe on the green Lommond,
And swift is the couryng grew;
The rein–deer dun can eithly run,
When the hounds and the horns pursue.
But neither the roe, nor the reindeer dun,
The hind nor the couryng grew,
Could fly o`er mountain, moor, and dale,
As our braw steeds they flew.
The dales were deep, and the Doffrins steep,
And we rose to the skies ee–bree:
White, white was our road that was never trode,
O`er the snows of eternity.
And when we came to the Lapland lone,
The faeries were all in array,
For all genii of the north
Were keeping their holiday.
The warlock men, and the weird women,
And the fays of the wood and the steep,
And the phantom hunters all were there,
And the mermaids of the deep.
And they washed us all over with the witch–water,
Distilled frae the moorland dew,
Till our beauty bloomed like the Lapland rose,
That wild in the forest grew.
Ye lee, ye lee, ye ill woman,
Sae loud as I hear ye lee!
For the worst–faured wyfe on the shores of Fife
Is comely compared wi` thee.
Then the mermaids sang, and the woodlands rang,
Sae sweetly swelled the choir;
On every cliff a harp they hang,
On every tree a lyre.
And aye they sang, and the woodlands rang,
And we drank; and we drank sae deep;
Then soft in the arms of the warlock men,
We laid us dune to sleep.
Away, away, ye ill woman,
An ill death might ye dee!
When ye hae proved sae false to yer God,
Ye can never prove true to me.
And there we learned frae the faerie folk,
And frae our master true,
The words that can bear us through the air,
And locks and bars undo.
Last night we met at Maisry`s cot;
Right well the words we knew;
And we set a foot on the black cruik–shell,
And out at the lum we flew.
And we flew o`er hill, and we flew o`er dale,
And we flew o`er firth and sea,
Until we cam to merry Carlisle,
Where we lighted on the lea.
We gaed to the vault beyond the tower,
Where we entered free as air;
And we drank, and we drank, of the bishop`s wine,
Till we could drink nae mair.
Gin that be true, , my guid, auld wyfe,
Whilk thou hast tauld to me,
Betide my death, betide my lyfe,
I`ll bear thee company.
Next time ye gang to merry Carlisle,
To drink of the blude–red wine,
Beshrew my heart, I`ll fly with thee,
If the deil should fly behind.
Ah! Little ye ken, my silly auld man,
The dangers we maund dree;
Last night we drank of the bishop`s wine,
Till near near taen were we.
Afore we wan to the sandy ford,
The gore–cocks nichering flew;
The lofty crest of Ettrick Pen
Was waved about with blue,
And, filchtering through the air, we fand
The chill chill morning dew.
As we flew o`er the hills of Braid,
The sun rose fair and clear;
There gurly James, and his barons braw,
Were out to hunt the deer.
Their bows they drew, their arrows flew,
And pierced the air with speed,
Till purple fell the morning dew
With witch–blude rank and red.
Little ye ken, my silly auld man,
The dangers we maun dree;
Ne wonder I am a weary wight
When I come hame to thee.
But tell me the word, my gude auld wyfe,
Come tell it me speedily;
For I long to drink of the gude red wine,
And to wing the air with thee.
Yer hellish horse I willna ride,
Nor sail the seas in the wind;
But I can flee as well as thee,
And I`ll drink till ye be blind.
O fy! O fy! my leal auld man,
That word I darena tell;
it would turn this warld all upside down,
And make it warse than hell.
For all the lasses in the land
Wald mount the wind and fly;
And the men would doff their doublets syde,
And after them would ply.
But the auld good man was a cunning auld man,
And a cunning auld man was he;
And he watched and he watched for mony a night,
The witches` flight to see.
One night he darn it in Maisry`s cot;
The fearless hags came in;
And he heard the word of awesome weird;
And he saw their deeds of sin.
The ane by ane, they said that word,
As fast to the fire they drew;
Then set a foot on the black cruik–shell,
And out at the lum they flew.
The auld gudeman cam frae his hole
With fear and muckle dread,
But yet he couldna think to rue,
For the wine came in his head.
He set his foot on the black cruit–shell,
With a fixed and a wawling ee;
And he said the word that I darena say,
And out at the lam he flew.
The witches scaled the moon–beam pale;
Deep groaned the trembling wind;
But they never wist that our auld gudeman
Was hovering them behind.
They flew to the vaults of merry Carlisle,
Where they entered free as air;
And they drank, and they drank of the bishop`s wine,
Till they could drink nae mair.
The auld gudeman he grew sae crouse,
He danced on the mouldy ground,
And he sang the bonniest songs of Fife,
And he tuzzlit the kerlyngs round.
And aye he pierced the tither butt,
And he sucked, and he sucked sae lang,
Till his een they closed, and his voice grew low,
And his tongue would hardly gang.
The kerlyngs drank of the bishop`s wine
Till they scented the morning wind;
Then clove again the yielding air,
And left the auld man behind.
And aye he slept on the damp damp floor,
Till passed the mid–day height,
When wakened by five rough Englishmen,
That trailed him to the light.
Now wha are ye, ye silly auld man,
That sleeps sae sound and sae weel?
How gat thee into the bishop`s vault
Through locks and bars of steel?
The auld gudeman, he tried to speak,
But ane word he couldna finde;
He tried to think, but his head whirled round,
And ane thing he couldna mind:
“I cam from Fife,” the auld man cried,
“And I cam on the midnight winde.”
They knicked the auld man, and they pricked the auld man,
And they yerked his limbs with twine,
Till the red blude ran in his hose and shoon,
But some cried it was wine.
They licked the auld man, and they pricked the auld man,
And they tied him till ane stone;
And they set ane bele–fire him about,
To burn him skin and bone.
“O wae to me!” said the puir auld man,
“That ever I saw the day!
And wae be to all the ill women
That lead puir men astray!”
“Let nevir ane auld man after this
To lawless greed incline;
Let never ane auld man after this
Rin post to the deil for wine,”
He looked to the land frae once he came,
For looks he could get nae maie;
And he thought of his dear little bairns at hame,
And O the auld man was wae!
But they turned their faces to the sun,
With gloffe and wondrous glare,
For they saw ane thing baith large and dun,
Come sweeping down the air.
That bird it cam frae the lands o`Fife,
And it cam right tymeoslye,
But who was it but the auld man`s wife,
Just comed his death to see.
She put ane red cap on his head,
And the auld gudeman looked fain,
Then whispered ane word intil his lug,
And toved to the aire again.
The auld gudeman he gae ae bob
I` the midst o`the burning lowe;
And the shackles that bound him to the ring,
They fell frae his arms like tow.
He drew his breath, and he said the word,
And he said it with muckle glee,
Then set his feet on the burning pile,
And away to the air flew he.
Till ance he cleared the swirling reeke,
He luckit baith feard and sad;
But when he wan to the light blue aire,
He laughed as he`d been mad.
His arms were spread, and his head was high,
And his feet stuck out behind;
And the laibies of the auld man`s coat
Were wauffing in the wind.
And aye he neicherit , and aye he flew,
For he thought the play sae rare;
It was like the voice of the gander blue,
When he flees through the air.
He looked back at the Carlisle men,
As he bored the norlan sky;
He nodded his head, and gave ane grin
But he never said gude–bye.
They vanished far i` the lifts blue wale,
Nae mair the English saw,
But the auld man`s laugh came on the gale,
With a lang and a loud guffaw.
May everilike man in the land of Fife
Read what the drinkers dree;
And never curse his puir auld wife
Right wicked although she be.
~~ The Witch of Fife by James Hogg ~~
Although denounced as heresy, Witchcraft was not deemed a capital offence in the British Isles until 1563; but from that moment on, any poor soul believed to be “different” from the usual run-of-the-mill citizen was the prey of what amounted to judicial murder by the agency of superstitious fear, or just plain dislike or envy of another person. The pre-Christian era tended to tolerate and respect anyone who cast the runes, or could heal the sick through herbal remedies and give medical advice; but the Christian church saw such people as not only leading the people astray from the true path of God, but as a potent threat to it`s power and influence over the minds of it`s flock – and was therefore a dangerous enemy to be eradicated at every opportunity.
The 1705 Pittenweem Witch Trials in Scotland give a good example of the public hysteria which swirled around any kind of social deviancy. The small fishing village of Pittenweem in the East Neuk of Fife, Scotland, saw an extraordinary allegation by local blacksmith Patrick Morton of witchcraft against some of his neighbours.
One of the accused was Beatrice Laing, the wife of the former town treasurer, who he accused of sending him evil thoughts to torment him. Given the mind set of a pre-industrial people yet to be touched by the Enlightenment and advances in the rationality of science, no one thought to question Morton`s claims. Beatrice was incarcerated in a damp, pitch dark dungeon, and tortured for five months before being released; alone and shunned by everyone, she died soon afterwards.
A boy called Thomas Brown was also thrown into the dungeon, where he starved to death.
A third accused was Janet Cornfoot, who managed to escape her captors, only to be re-captured, dragged unceremoniously by her ankles to the sea front, where she was strung up by a ravenous mob, severely beaten, stoned, and finally taken down and crushed to death under a door piled high with heavy rocks. To make absolutely certain that the breath had left her broken body, a horse and cart was driven over her several times, whereupon, her corpse was thrown into a communal grave now known as “Witches Corner.”
Although Morton was later fully exposed as a liar who had perjured himself and caused the deaths and terrible torture of innocent men and women, neither he, nor the mob members who murdered Janet Cornfoot were ever brought to account.
Pre-industrial society nurtured and closely held superstitious practices and beliefs to it`s heart; old habits die hard and still lie dormant deep within the human psyche, ready to be ignited by disastrous and stressful events beyond seemingly rational control.
The Witch of Fife by James Hogg, wonderfully illustrates the sumptuous superstitious traditions and beliefs of times before the scientific discoveries of the modern world drove back the forces and spectres of darkness, with electric light and the internal combustion engine. Those creatures of the night are still there; lurking and huddled in the shadows of our minds, waiting for the lights to go out.