Folk-Lore/Volume 4/First-footing in Aberdeenshire


FIRST-FOOTING is still practised in some parts of this county on the morning of the New Year ; but, as a rule, little, if any, importance is attached to the first-foot. It is generally engaged in merely for the "fun of the thing", and sometimes, perhaps, for the sake of the dram, which is generally offered and shared on those occasions, and which it would be unlucky to refuse. The drinking is, however, by no means a recent introduction. One of my informants, the Rev. Dr. Cock of Rathen, a parish in the north-east of the county of Aberdeen, where he succeeded his father as minister, tells me that about sixty years ago, when he was a boy, he recollects that spiced ale was generally carried by the first-foot, and shared with all whom he met, or at whose houses he visited. Readers of Chambers's Book of Days will find on page 28 of vol. i the recipe for the spiced ale, and an account of its use in Edinburgh by the first-foot on a similar occasion. The whisky-bottle has nowadays entirely superseded the more picturesque, but probably hardly less intoxicating wassail-kettle, mentioned by Chambers, though the reason which prompted the carrying of either on these first-footing visits was identical. Everywhere it seems to have been considered most important for luck in the coming year to the family on which he calls that the first-foot should not make his entry empty-handed. A whisky-bottle certainly met this requirement, inasmuch as it filled the bearer's hand ; and even if its contents sometimes filled his head also, before he had gone his round, he and his bottle were still welcomed by the superstitious housewife, because they set her mind at rest about another superstitious practice, the neglect of which was considered most ominous of ill luck, and for the carrying out of which she was mainly responsible. This was the belief that nothing must be carried out of a house on the morning of the New Year till something had been brought in.

An informant in the parish of New Machar (Mr. Wm. Porter), tells me that his parents are still living, and that they can recollect that in the beginning of the present century it was customary to go out and bring grass and water into a house on New Year's morning, before anything was taken out. This was to ensure plenty of food for man and beast all the ensuing year. A Stonehaven correspondent informs me that a green sod is brought in and laid on the grate cheek. While in the Tarland district of Aberdeenshire, the Rev. Mr. Skinner tells me that there it used to be customary to bring water from the well and peats from the stack the moment the New Year came in. The fetching of water from the well—"creaming the well," as it was called—appears from replies to my inquiries in different parts of the county to have been almost universally the first thing done on New Year's Day morning. An early call by the first-foot and his whisky-bottle obviated much of this worry.

Sometimes, instead of a whisky-bottle, the first-foot carries shortbread, oatcakes, "sweeties", and last, but not least, sowens. For the information of such as are unacquainted with the delicacies of the Scotch menu, I may say that sowens is a concoction something like gruel, but is made from the dust of oatmeal, mixed with the husks of the corn, which are left to steep till they become sour. The carrying of sowens is not, however, so much a custom of the first-footing of the present New Year's Day as of a parallel procedure on the eve of Old Yule; nor are the sowens, like the whisky or spiced ale, for internal application only. The Rev. Mr. Michie of Dinnet writes me as follows: "The carrying of sowens on Old Yule was mainly a token of hospitality. In this part of the country those carrying it from house to house were generally a band of young folks of both sexes; they approached each house in turn (there was no first-foot among them), chanting this ditty:

"'Rise up, good wife, and shake your feathers,
Rise up and dinna swear,
For here we've come wi' our Yule sowens,
And fain would taste your cheer.'

If they were refused admittance, the door was liberally bespattered with sowens in revenge." And this is still practised in the district.

In some respects Mr. Michie's account differs from the other stories I have heard. All whom I have consulted do not agree that the sowens were sprinkled in revenge for non-admittance. For example, another correspondent, the Rev. Dr. Jamieson of Old Machar, whose experience of parish work extends over half a century, writes: "The practice of carrying sowens by the first-foot on the morning of Old Yule, to sprinkle on the doors of persons he wishes well to, was common enough." And he goes on to relate how, on one occasion, about fifty years ago, he went, as a young preacher, to a manse on the last day of the year (a Saturday), and was awakened after twelve o'clock by the offer from the servants of a bowl of sowens.

From Tarland and Fintray I get further confirmation of the carrying of sowens by the Old Yule first-foot. My Fintray informant tells me of how the aspersion was made: "The man gets a pail like what we use to water horses with. This he fills with sowens, and then having procured a brush, similar to those painters use for whitewashing walls, he goes round the houses of those he wishes well to, sprinkling doors and windows with the concoction."

Besides New Year's Day and Old Yule, there were other occasions when some attention was paid to the first person met, and omens drawn regarding the fortune, or misfortune, that would attend the enterprise the observer was engaged on. These were: Going to or from a wedding; after the birth of a child; taking a child to church to be baptised; when "streckan" the plough in spring, i.e., taking the first yoking; when going fishing or fowling; generally when undertaking anything the success of which depended on luck.

In the case of weddings, I am informed that it was not unusual for the party to carry a whisky-bottle, and treat the first person they met. I have myself seen this done near Braemar, within the last twenty years, but, as far as I remember, everyone they met got a sip.

In carrying a child to be baptised I find it was once very general for the mother to carry bread and cheese or oatcake, wrapped up in the folds of the infant's dress, to give to the first-foot, partly with a view, no doubt, to propitiating him, and partly from the belief that lavishness on the part of the infant on this occasion would ensure his always having plenty through his life. Down near Coupar Angus, in Perthshire, I have heard of this christening custom having been practised by one family very recently, and as the mother was known to carry sweet biscuits in place of oatcake, the boys in the neighbourhood used to look forward to the baptisms of successive members of the family with much interest, and lie in ambush for the party, in order to obtain the good things.

My inquiry as to what persons or things are or were considered lucky or unlucky, as first-footers or to first-footers, has resulted in a somewhat long list. The following were considered lucky: Friends, neighbours, and all well-wishers; a kind man; a good man; a sweetheart; people who spread out their feet (Old Machar); those who were born with their feet foremost (Old Machar); a man on horseback; a man with a horse and cart; the minister (?); a hen.

One of the clearest cases of the luck considered to attend the meeting of a horse and cart comes to me from New Machar. On the 16th December 1841, the old lady to whom I am indebted for the information had just been married, and, when proceeding along with her husband to her new home, met a man with a horse and cart in a narrow part of the road. The man apologised for not turning his horse and cart at once, and accompanying the party a short distance, as was the custom, because the narrowness of the road prevented his so doing, but the moment he came to a suitable spot he turned and followed them part of the way home.

That the minister should be a lucky first-foot is perhaps to be expected in Scotland, but certainly the priest is by no means universally regarded in this light. Among the Greek Women of Turkey, p. 151, Miss Garnett mentions that it is considered most unlucky to meet a priest. She couples him with a funeral and a hare! And Mr. Rodd fully confirms this on p. 157 of his Custom and Lore of Modern Greece. The instances communicated to me illustrative of the contrary view held in Aberdeenshire regarding the minister, both occurred in the parish of Old Machar to the present incumbent. On one occasion, he tells me, he happened to be the first-foot when a farmer was flitting to a new farm, and he had to turn and go part of the way with the ménage. On another occasion he was compelled by the salmon-fishers at the Bridge of Don to accompany them in their boat when they made their next shot, for precisely the same reason. Against that we must set the superstition current among fishermen, on the Kincardine coast at any rate, that it is unlucky to name the minister at sea. He is then spoken of as "The lad wi' the black coat." The catalogue of lucky persons or objects is small compared with the list of unlucky ones. The business with which I am connected employs a large number of women as power-loom weavers. The majority of them are young, but there are one or two old women who have been in the service of the firm, for a long time. I am told that one of these is considered most unlucky and some of the other weavers, if they meet her going down to work in the morning, or enter the factory gate at the same time, feel certain that they will have trouble with their work on that day. I have never succeeded in discovering why this should be so.

The following are some of the persons or objects considered as unlucky for first-footers:—Thieves; persons who walked with their toes turned in; persons who were deformed, or whose senses were impaired—cripples, for instance; a stingy man; an immoral man; a false pretender to religion; the hangman; the gravedigger; the midwife (New Machar); women generally; and all who were suspected of being addicted to witchcraft; those whose eyebrows met, and males who had red hair. Among animals, the cat, the pig, and the hare.

The cat is universally held in detestation by first-footers in Aberdeenshire. In the parish of Rathen, the Rev. Dr. Cock tells me he has heard of the cat being immediately shut up whenever anyone dies in a house, to prevent its jumping over the corpse; because, if it was allowed to do so, and then got out, the first person who met it would be struck blind. So much for the cat's first-foot.

Various devices have been tried to render innocuous the meeting with persons or things of evil repute. If it is a person, the thing is to "have the first word of him". Some people spit; others make a cross on the road and spit. It is generally the custom to spit over the track of an unlucky animal when it presents itself. In Tarland, two twigs of rowan crossed and tied with a red thread is used as a specific. But in a great many places the people, very rightly thinking that prevention is better than cure, take means to prevent an unlucky first-foot presenting himself at all. Thus, in New Machar, when the midwife was seen approaching, people shut their doors and paid no attention to her knocks. In some places it was customary to fasten the house door of a reputedly unlucky person from the outside. For instance, my mother tells me that fifty years ago, when she was a girl, and went a good deal to Fort William, it was a regular practice for those starting upon an expedition of any kind to go by stealth the evening before, and nail up the door of the man who performed as district-hangman, and who was regarded as a most ill-omened first-foot. In some of the fishing villages of the coast I have heard of a boat being drawn up against the door of a churlish individual to prevent his getting out.

But generally speaking the belief in the first-foot has vanished, like Hans Breitmann's famous party, and "goned" away, like the lager beer, away to the Ewigkeit.