Lancaster County SC Genealogy
SCOTCH-IRISH CUSTOMS AND BELIEFS
by Louise Pettus
For all their self-sufficiency and love of independence, the sturdy Scotch-Irish pioneers who settled this region in the early 1750s had within them vestiges of medieval superstition and fear.
One story concerns the Rev. William Richardson, pastor of the Waxhaw Presbyterian congregation, who hanged himself 20th July 1771, while in a state of melancholy (his diary reveals that he suffered from migraine headaches and 'fits of ague.') He was found in an attitude of prayer but with bridle reins around his neck.
Reverend Richardson's widow was the daughter of Rev. Alexander Craighead, another Presbyterian minister. When Mrs. Richardson, after waiting a reasonable length of time, married George Dunlap, an elder and prominent leader of the Waxhaw settlement, there were some in the settlement who cruelly suspected her of having a hand in her husband's death.
An ancient Scottish custom was revived, called 'trial by touch.' It is the basis of a major scene in William Shakespeare's "Lady Macbeth." The folk belief was that only the murderer's hand would cause blood to flow from the victim's body.
The coffin of Reverend Richardson was dug up and Agnes was forced to place her hand on his forehead. He did not bleed, even though Archibald Davie, Richardson's brother-in-law, pressed down upon Agnes' hand until she wept aloud.
The Scottish people believed in fairies, goblins and ghosts and had many stories about them. The stories crossed the Atlantic with the people.
As late as the 1950s, when I was managing a cotton gin in the Belair community of Lancaster county, I listened to the ginner tell about a fellow riding a horse who was pursued by witches. He knew if he could cross over water he would be safe. Just as a witch reached out her hand to grab him he came to a bridge. She managed to grab the horse's tail and it came off in her hand but the rider and horse, sans tail, got away. Bobby Burns, in the poem "Tam O'Shanter," had written the tale but the ginner placed the story in Belair and said it happened to his grandfather while crossing a nearby creek. He did not know that the story he told went back hundreds of years to Scotland.
Scotch-Irish superstitions were handed down for many years. One should get out of bed on the right hand side; it was bad luck to rise on the left. When visiting the sick, be sure that it is the right foot that is first inside the door. Home builders placed a piece of silver under the door-post to bring good luck on all those who enter. If one borrows salt from a neighbor, return it as quickly as possible: if the borrower should die before returning salt, his ghost will come back to haunt.
There were many things that were unlucky, like a black cat crossing the road in front of you. And it was unlucky to look back after starting out. If one should see a snake, rat or mouse while journeying, then one might as well turn back for no good will come out of the trip.
If the nose itches, a letter is coming (a very important event to our ancestors, most of whom received only two or three letters a year). There were many things that depended on the left or right side for interpretation: if your right ear itches, what is being said about you is good, if your left ear itches, someone is speaking ill of you.
The Scottish cook knew to never throw away a remnant of bread dough or oatmeal cake. The leftover dough was made into small cakes for children or else there would be back luck. Even better was to punch a hole into the dough. This is the origin of doughnuts. The hole in the center was meant to keep evil spirits away.