is mentioned, briefly, in the section dealing with Orcadian
wedding traditions, in bygone days a young Orcadian girl, growing
up on a croft, or farm, had but two prospects in life.
She could marry, start a home and family, or remain
with her parents, a spinster, spending her days looking after the
Needless to say, marriage was high on the list
of priorities of most Orcadian girls. It was therefore imperative
that they attract and secure a husband.
A classic example of the seriousness with which
the Orcadian women regarded marriage is the superstition that it
was considered extremely dangerous to let water boil alone in a
pot. If this occurred, it was a certainty that the girls within
that household would lose their sweethearts. This tradition also
serves to indicate the importance placed on superstition in everyday
The road to marriage may have been rocky but
these young ladies were not content to sit and wait for fate to
deal its cards. From her earliest days an Orcadian girl took part
in numerous forms of divination with the sole intention of finding
out any tiny snippet of information relating to her future love.
In most cases the results of these divinations
appear to the modern reader as insignificant - the anxious girl
could perhaps hope to discover the colour of her the lover's hair,
the sound of his voice or perhaps the direction in which he lived.
All seemingly pointless and general information.
But with all these we must remember that in small
island communities where everyone knew everyone else, the diviner
was almost certain to know someone who, in some way, fitted the
results. In a land steeped in superstition and lore, could we go
as far as saying the idea planted within a maiden's head after her
divinations may have been the catalyst in more than a few courtships
Across the islands it was generally agreed that
there were certain times of the year when an attempt to peer through
the veil into the future was likely to be successful.
Traditionally these times were Candlemas (2 February),
Johnsmas (Midsummer) and the most commonly used Halloween (31 October).
The forms these divinations took were varied and
the methods employed also differed from isle to isle and parish
to parish. Some were little more than vague interpretations of natural
occurrences while others had stricter almost ritualistic procedures
that had to be adhered to. The latter group usually resulted in
a "conjured" up a likeness of the future husband.
These divinations existed as oral lore and as
such few were actually recorded. Some examples from the former category
- At Candlemas each year, the girl should startle
the first crow she saw. The direction in which the bird flew was
the direction in which her future husband lived. If the panicked
bird flew over a churchyard, the girl was certain to remain a
- Flowers picked from Ribwort Plantain were placed
under a stone. If the plant grew more flowers before the heads
under the stone withered, the girl and her sweetheart were sure
- Sweethearts would place two straws - one for
each of them and named accordingly - onto a glowing peat. A knot
had been tied on one of the straws and the heat within the peat
would eventually cause this straw to jump. If the straw leapt
toward the other it was a sure sign that the sweethearts would
- On the Orkney mainland, one tradition recorded
within the parish of Orphir has the girl removing a burning coal
from the fire and extinguishing it in a bucket of water. The coal
was then placed under a turf and left. When the next morning dawned,
the turf was broken in two and examined. If a hair was found,
it was sure to be the same colour as her future husband's.
- After the bonfire
festivities, girls often carried home a partially burned peat
which would be completely extinguished in a tub of "strang
bing" (urine) and placed on the door lintel. The peat would
be taken down the next day, broken in two and the colour of the
peat within would foretell the colour of the girl's future husband.
The second category are by far the more interesting.
Most of the rituals within this group were specifically carried
out at Halloween and may hark back to a common Orcadian belief that
all living people had a "ganfer" - a supernatural duplicate
For a person to meet there own "ganfer"
was disastrous for it meant certain death but in these cases they
merely allowed the girl to glimpse the form of her intended. For
more on the ganfer, click here.
- The most common of the Halloween divinations
involved the sieve, the scissors and the knife. The brave girl
would leave the house and go to the barn (or other building) where
she had to stand in the dark, winnowing "three wechts o naitheen"
with the sieve containing the knife and the scissors. If carried
out correctly, the girl could expect to see an apparition of her
future husband pass the open door.
- A similar ritual had the hopeful young girl
hanging a wetted sleeve in front of the fire before retiring to
bed. Once in bed she would wait for an apparition of her future
spouse to enter her room and "turn the shift".
- A salt herring, eaten before bedtime, would
ensure a visitation by the husband-to-be, who would appear sometime
during the night to quench the girl's thirst with a draught of
- In order to hear the voice of their future
love, the girl in question had to throw a ball of "worsted"
(wool) into the kiln used for drying grain, while reciting:
"Wha taks had o me clew's end"
The disembodied voice that answered (if any) was said to be that
of the girl's husband. Needless to say, this ritual was the source
of numerous japes in and around farms, when local lads would hide
themselves within the kiln awaiting the arrival of the anxious
- A final example regarding the spectre of a
future love involved the young lass entering the farm's stackyard
at night, running round its circumference with her arms outstretched.
Upon reaching full circle she would embrace the apparition of
an unknown man - the man she was destined to wed.