Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

Folklore of Nova Scotia
Chapter VIII. Witches and Witchcraft

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 incantation.

Mr. Murphy, mentioned above, was acquainted with an old deep-sea fisherman who had a fund of queer old stories, of which these are specimens:

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 powers.

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 tradition).

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 butter.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.