Witches were believed
to have communication with a spirit of evil from which they received the
power to change themselves into any shape they pleased. When they took
the shape of animals, they were thought to have some very evil design in
view, and it was dangerous to meet them. They were supposed to have the
power to take away the dairy products, and, indeed, those of the whole
farm. The Druids led their followers to believe that they had charms to
prevent the witches from doing harm, and these charms they gave on
receipt of payment. (Introduction to Popular Tales of the West Highlands
by J. F. Campbell).
Sir Lawrence Gomme in his "Ethnology in Folklore" traces witchcraft back
to the aboriginal inhabitants of Britain. He explains it as the survival
of aboriginal beliefs from aboriginal sources. The aborigines believed
in their own demoniacal powers, and passed on those beliefs to their
Celtic conquerors. The Scottish witch he considered as the successor of
the Druid priestess in her capacity for animal transformations, and her
power over winds and waves.
The stories that follow show that there was a belief in witchcraft
current in Nova Scotia in pioneer days. These stories I have taken down
from word of mouth as they were told me.
A trustworthy woman in Inverness Co. knew of a certain farm where at the
milking hour a rabbit used to come to the cow yard and run in and out
among the cows. The day following this occurrence there would he no
cream on the milk. As this state of affairs continued day after day, the
woman of the house asked her husband to take his gun and shoot the
animal, for she felt sure that it was the cause of the lack of cream.
Accordingly, the next evening the man went out prepared to put an end to
the rabbit. Just as he raised his gun and took aim, he heard a child’s
voice call: “Granny, Granny, hurry, they’re after you!” and he saw a
little boy peering anxiously through the palings. He lowered the gun,
picked up a stone and threw it at the rabbit, hitting it on the leg. It
scampered off on three legs as fast as it could go. The next day it was
discovered that an old woman of the neighborhood had had her leg broken
in some mysterious manner.
Butter-forming in the churn was frequently delayed through witchcraft.
Another woman in Antigonish Co. had churned cream for two whole days
without any success. At last she felt convinced that some evil force was
at work, so she went to her husband and induced him, much against his
will, to go to the parish priest and get some water blessed especially
for the purpose. After the blessed water had been sprinkled over the
churn the butter formed immediately. (First hand information).
Mr. Murphy, who lives at Low Point, Cape Breton Co., told me that he
often heard his grandfather and other old men of the place tell about an
old squaw who lived there in the long ago, and who had uncanny powers.
Sometimes the young boys of the neighborhood would assemble near her hut
to see what she would do. In a twinkling she would enter her abode, and
reappear in a few moments as a rabbit. After they had given her chase
and she had shown them that they could not catch her, she would enter
her hut again and reappear in her usual form. She was never accused of
harmful deeds, yet people were on their guard against her.
A more vicious witch was known around Antigonish Co. For the
accomplishing of her misdeeds she used the 108th Psalm as an
Mr. Murphy, mentioned above, was acquainted with an old deep-sea
fisherman who had a fund of queer old stories, of which these are
Once upon a time there was a company of fishermen., all of whom were
wizards. On Saturday night they would jump, each one into a bailing can,
and would sail away to parts unknown. On Monday morning they would all
come back, each one with a clean “shift.”
One evening a boat load of fishermen was approaching the shores of Nova
Scotia; so near were they to land, that the lowing of cows in a nearby
pasture could be heard very distinctly. One of their number expressed
his longing to reach land so as to get a good drink of water. A rather
strange-looking individual among them said that he could satisfy this
craving for a drink immediately. So he took a piece of rope and
unravelled it, then set the bailing can in position, and began “milking”
the rope into the can, while the cows lowed but a short distance away.
When the process was completed he offered the milk to his thirsty
companions, who naturally would have none of it. Nothing daunted, he
drank it all himself.
At Mull Eiver, Inverness Co., there lived in pioneer days a very bad old
woman, who died at the age of one hundred and eighteen. After she had
passed the century mark she grew two horns on her forehead, which
increased a quarter of an inch every year. She had the evil eye, and
consequently everyone was afraid of her. If her neighbor’s cow happened
to give more milk than hers, on the day following her cow would give
twice as much milk as before and the neighbor’s would give none.
Periodically, she went collecting around the neighborhood and carried
with her for the purpose a large canvas bag bound with iron. She would
take everything that was given her, and woe betide those who refused
her. She used a terrible incantation, in which she called upon the devil
to harm those who denied her requests.
She lived in a tiny, windowless log cabin, which had a queer old flue
called the witch’s chimney. When she was dying, charitable people used
to bring her some tallow candles that she might not be in complete
darkness; but never one of them did she burn. Instead, she melted them
all, mixed the tallow with meal, and ate them. So much for her digestive
The night she died, those who were watching beside her, heard stones
falling from the roof. They went out to see what was happening, but
although they could see nothing, they could hear the stones falling and
the witch’s incantation muttered all around the house.
After she was buried, the neighbors decided to burn down the house. Two
courageous men, whose names tradition has preserved, went into it, and
spied at once the witch-bag in a corner. Immediately they lighted a Are
and placed the bag upon it. As they did so, a terrible explosion shook
the hut, the bag shot out through the chimney, which it took with it,
and rose up into the sky. Then it descended to the earth intact. Since
they could not burn it, they decided to bury it. As they left the
country shortly afterwards, the knowledge of its location has been lost.
(Story told by a man who spent his childhood and boyhood at Mull River).
If a witch should happen to meet a herd of cattle, she was blamed for
any trouble that might befall, such as failure to give milk, sickness of
the cattle, accidents. One potent witch formula is this: ‘‘If you want
to get the cream of another man’s cow, go out in the morning and pick up
as many as possible of the webs of dew from the cow’s tracks.” (Local
Closely allied to witchcraft is the EVIL EYE. This is an affliction from
which some people suffer without any apparent fault of their own,
whereby they cannot look at anything in an admiring fashion but they do
harm to it. A beautiful child, if looked at or admired by such a person,
immediately falls ill of some strange wasting disease. To prevent the
Evil Eye, people used to put silver coins around the child’s neck. This
practice probably accounts for the number of pierced coins that are
found around Nova Scotia. (Local Tradition).
Mrs. MacGillivary, in Antigonish Co., had a fine cow in her pasture
which she took her friend out to see. Her friend praised it very highly.
After she left, the cow took a peculiar sickness, of which she died in a
few hours. If Mrs. MacGillivary had taken the precaution to say “God
bless it,” no evil would have befallen the animal.
When a person who had the Evil Eye wished to buy an animal, it was best
to let him have it. even at his own price, for otherwise something or
other usually would happen to the animal. Mr. MacLeod, in Inverness Co.,
had a very fine horse, for which a man in the neighborhood, who coveted
the animal, offered a good price. MacLeod refused to sell it at any
price. A couple of hours later the horse was found with its leg broken.
There is an island near the south shore of Antigonish harbor which was
rented for twelve years by a certain family. At the end of that time,
Mr. Cameron, whose property was nearer the island, wanted to lease it.
but the other people wished to continue holding it. The owner decided in
favor of Cameron. When the other family heard this they were very much
incensed, and one of their number told Cameron that he would never get
any good out of it; nor did he. Everything seemed to turn against him
there. Fire destroyed all the timber he cut down; grubs attacked the
crop of vegetables he planted there, although a like crop which he asked
a neighbor to plant adjoining his own was left untouched. At last the
evil wish was removed by having the bishop bless the place. (Story told
by Mr. Cameron’s grandson).
Salt blessed by a priest was looked upon as an unfailing remedy against
the influence of the Evil Eye. Mrs. MacNeil, who lived on a farm in Cape
Breton, was having a great deal of trouble with her cows. When she went
to milk them they became so wild that it was necessary to hold them. One
day, while in conversation with her parish priest, she mentioned this
circumstance. The priest blessed a quantity of salt, and told her to
give it to her cows. She did so, and had no further trouble. She gave a
part of the salt to her neighbor, who was never able to churn much
butter although her cows gave a great deal of milk. After the cows had
eaten the blessed salt, there was a marked increase in the amount of