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Scottish Traditions

Infancy and Superstitions

Baby feet
There are many traditions and superstitions regarding childbirth and infancy. Some of these are outlined by Hamish Fraser in Michael Lynch's book The Oxford Companion to Scottish History1. Rituals at the dangerous time of childbirth would help protect the mother and baby. New cradles were not welcomed and Margaret Bennett in her book Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave2 suggests that cradles were often borrowed instead. There were superstitions surrounding the rocking of an empty cradle as this rhyme illustrates:

If you rock the cradle empty
Then you will have babies plenty.

Alexander Polson indicates that the opposite was believed by others who thought that rocking the cradle was unlucky and believed that it was an omen of the child's death. Nowadays, parents can choose from an assortment of books with lists of baby names, but Margaret Bennett in Michael Lynch's book describes how it was widely considered bad luck in the past to speak the name of a new baby aloud before baptism.

All aspects of a child's growth get careful attention in folklore. Bennett2 refers to an example of matrons in Caithness in 1907 who objected to their babies being weighed or measured because they believed it to be unlucky. There is an example from Dunfermline in 1886 where it was also believed to be 'uncanny' to weigh an infant before it was a year old. The act of cutting hair also attracts superstitions:

'When the moon was on the wane, some thought hair should not be cut, as this would stop the youngster getting a bonnie head of hair.'

Bennett refers to the 1879 work of Rev James Napier, who writes about the custom of cutting children's hair behind closed doors and the importance of burning the sweepings afterwards. This was to avoid the hair clippings being used by witches. Elizabeth Stewart of Mintlaw was recorded in 1988 and her words are transcribed in Margaret Bennett's book. Elizabeth discussed the habit of not cutting a baby's nails until the child was one year old. There seems to have been a practical alternative to cutting the child's nails, as she also talks about the practice of taking a baby's nails off with your teeth. Another source is Alexander Stewart of Dunfermline, who reports (1886) that it was considered desirable to cut infants' nails over an open Bible.

Lynch1 describes the custom of handselling the baby. This meant giving the newborn a gift. The tradition often involved silver with a related belief that this was because silver was believed to avert the evil eye. The practice was common in the 1950s, but is perhaps not so prevalent today. Margaret Bennett reports on two oral sources, those of Margaret Wilson in Lilliesleaf (1990) and Maureen Jenks in Dundee (1992) which both mention the common habit of handselling a new baby.

The definition of HANDSEL in the Scottish National Dictionary (SND) is:
'A gift bestowed to commemorate an inaugural occasion, event or season, e.g. the beginning of the year, the first visit to a friend's new home or the commencement of a new undertaking, the wearing of new clothes, etc., with the idea of bringing good luck to the recipient'.

The baby was given best wishes for its start in life with this ritual. Burns refers to his own birth in There was a Lad and uses the word hansel:

Twas then a blast o' Janwar' win'
Blew hansel in on Robin.

The practice of giving a 'christening piece' to the first boy or girl a family met on their way to get an infant christened is also mentioned in Margaret Bennett's book. If the infant was a boy, it was given to a boy and if the infant was a girl, it was given to a girl. There are examples from informants who mention that this is still current in 1991 in Port Glasgow and Lennoxtown with the variation in their example that the piece was given after the ceremony on the way out of the chapel. In SND the definition of 'bairn's piece' is 'bread and cheese offered to those who visit or meet a baby after baptism'.

Teething babies and sleepless nights are part of parenting today and our grandparents had their own way of dealing with them. F. Marian McNeill refers to the 'teethin bannock' in her book, The Scots Kitchen3. It would have been a welcome remedy for red cheeks and fretfulness. The bannock was made with oatmeal, butter or cream. The ritual of making it sometimes took place in silence. When it was ready, the child could play with it until it broke and a small piece was then put in the child's mouth. Everyone present at the time would get a piece of the bannock. It is alleged that the teething troubles would disappear almost immediately and the bannock was sometimes called a 'teethin plaster' which seems to imply medical efficacy.

Children nowadays still expect the tooth fairy to pop silver under their pillows in exchange for milk teeth and you can buy dainty little containers to put milk teeth in. You might like to compare this with the practice mentioned in Margaret Bennett's book when the first tooth was carefully rolled up in paper and hidden in the hole of a mouse, which was common practice. Sometimes salt accompanied the tooth.

Helping our youngest children to thrive and wanting a healthy future for them is part and parcel of parenting. It must have seemed to be even more important at a time when childbirth and infancy were particularly perilous. It is interesting to hear how adults followed a whole series of rituals to try to keep their children safe from harm.

1 Lynch, M. The Concise History of Scots. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001.
2 Bennett, M. Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave. Edinburgh: Polygon 1992.
3 McNeill, F.M. The Scots Kitchen: Its Traditions and Lore with Old-time Recipes. Edinburgh: T. and A. Constable Limited 1929.