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  Orcadian Childbirth Traditions

"Come soon. Break from the poor ring of souls,
A swaddled wail."
George Mackay Brown

Cradle: 3D Illustration by Sigurd TowrieThere 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 fairy folk.

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 supernatural interference.

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 child.

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 child’s 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 XII

The newborn's 'Blide Maet'

Like marriage, the birth of an Orcadian child was celebrated with a number of specific feasts.

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 and ale.

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 "Fittin' Feast".

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 mother’s 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’ Feast".

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.