soon. Break from the poor ring of souls,
A swaddled wail."
George Mackay Brown
There was a time in Orkney, when childbirth was surrounded by superstition, uncertainty and, above all, fear.
Because of this, pregnancy and childbirth were surrounded by a number of spells, incantations, prohibitions and precautions - a mixture of magic and religion aimed at protecting both mother and child.
The most common and deeply-rooted Orkney tradition was the absolute requirement to keep a pregnancy concealed. This was deemed necessary to avoid attracting the unwanted, and malicious, attention of either the trows or the
If these creatures were to learn of an
impending birth, they would be sure to bring harm to both mother
and unborn infant. Because of this, it was extremely unlucky to
prepare for the coming of a new baby. Any such activity, it was thought, would
alert the trows to the woman's condition.
Precautions taken against the influence of trows
continued throughout pregnancy, reaching a peak with the birth of
the child. In some accounts, the danger was only thought to pass
after the child had cut its first tooth.
Iron and scriptures
Because of widespread fear of the trows
and fairy folk, pregnant women were guarded continuously throughout
the labour process.
For protection, a knife and Bible were placed
in the bed beside her. The iron of the knife, together with the
power of the holy scriptures, was a guaranteed deterrent to any
Then, immediately after the infant's birth, both knife
and Bible were transferred to the awaiting cradle. At the same time,
the attention of the family switched to protecting the helpless
Following the arrival of the baby, it was customary
for the women who had been present at the delivery to remain in
the house for several days. These women were afforded the best food and drink
the household could give them. In some recorded cases, as many as
six women were known to remain in the house, their sole duty to
protect the vulnerable child, and to a certain extent, the nursing
mother, from the fairy folk.
"For several nights
the neighbours by turns rocked the cradle all night so
that the baby was not stolen away."
John Firth - Reminiscences of
an Orkney Parish
As detailed in section dealing with the
trows, if a child sickened or failed to thrive, it was declared
that the protective measures had failed. The healthy young infant,
it was often thought, had surely been spirited away, replaced by
a sickly changeling.
"Weetin' the heed"
One tradition that followed an Orcadian birth remains strong today.
"Weetin the heed o the bern",
or Wetting the childs head, was an inescapable custom that
ensured the infant was brought luck.
A bottle of whisky was brought
out for the occasion and hastily consumed by the new father and
the menfolk of the area.
It was also not uncommon for the child's first
drink to be from this bottle. A drop of whisky - regarded as "an
infallible cure for all infantile ailments" - was immediately
fed to the baby with a teaspoon.
To ensure the infant's good luck, it was preferable
that this be a silver teaspoon. However, as most households
could not afford this luxury, a silver coin, very often borrowed,
was placed in the spoon and was thought to suffice. Silver, in
the form of a coin, is still given to newborn infants.
The reliance on alcohol during childbirth was
recorded by local author John Firth. Writing his reminiscences in
1920, the 82-year-old Firth remarked:
"It was no uncommon occurrence at an accouchement
for the mother and all her attendants to be the worse of drink...what
with the want of skill, and the superstitious customs and drunkenness,
it is surprising that more precious lives were lost."
Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish - Chapter
The newborn's 'Blide Maet'
the birth of an Orcadian child was celebrated with a number of specific
The first of these, known as the "blide-maet"
(joy-food), was served to visiting family and neighbours who called
to view the baby and congratulate the mother. The blide-maet was
passed out at regular intervals and usually consisted of scones
During these visits, it was considered very unwise
to audibly praise or admire the infant without first saying "Geud
save hid" (God save it) or "Sef bae hid" (Safe be
it). Without these precautions against supernatural attention, the
child was said to be "forespoken" - almost confirming
that it was too good to live.
Little is remembered of the second feast - the
It is likely that it did exist across Orkney,
but in communities that recorded little, it has since been forgotten.
What we do know of the "Fittin Feast"
is that it was a private meal for the child's immediate family and
marked the mothers return "to the fire" - the time
when she was able to resume her daily household duties.
Christening the infant
The third and final feast was the "Cirsenin
Celebrated immediately after the baptism, this
generally took place within two weeks of the birth, but more often
within the first week.
It should be remembered that any Orkney child that died without being christened could not be buried in the consecrated
ground of the kirkyard. In an age where infant mortality was high,
christening was considered, unsurprisingly, a priority.
When it comes to Christenings, one peculiar tradition
was that male children had to be baptised first.
If not, and a female was the first to receive the
Holy Water, the young girl was doomed to grow a beard, while the
boys would remain beardless.