Thursday 18 August 2011

Frìth: A Method of Divination

Silhouette in Doorway

A name by now very familiar to this blog is John Ewen (Iain Eòghann) MacRury who hailed from Torlum, Benbecula, and who supplied quite a lot of information to Alexander Carmichael. It appears that he was something of a tradition bearer himself and so it is rather difficult to ascertain if some of his anecdotes were his own or came from some other source. Either way, what he did write down contains some fascinating details particularly about superstitious beliefs. In this narrative, a Donald MacInnes (fl. 1850), styled Dòmhnall mac Ailein, is name-checked as someone who had a particular bent for making auguries using the frìth. In short, this allowed the augurer to obtain occluded information previously hidden which allowed in some instances to find out the whereabouts of missing people or cattle. The first story tells of a lost vessel and its crew who were thought to have persished but are found safe and well in remote St Kilda whereas the second ones tells of the tragic drowning a young man from Howgarry, North Uist:

MacCallain Duncan
McInnes Balavanich
Benbecula was known
far and wide for his
power of Frith making.

On one occasion a
boat with four men
were driven, by a severee [sic]
storm from the N[orth] E[ast]
off the coast of Uig
Lewis. The idea was
at the time that the
boat was swamped
and all perished but
as no wreckage was
cast on shore on
the west of Lewis
or Harris resembling
the belongings of the
boat people thought
they managed to get
on shore in the Flannan
Isles. A boat & crew
went there but got
no trace of the miss
ing boat.
People advised
the nearest relative
of the missing crew
to visit MacCallen
in Benbecula and
he lost no time in doing
so. In his arrival at
his destination Mac
Callen received him
hospitably and told
him to at rest
It was late at night
for to make a Frith
but early the following
morning he told him
that his missing friends
were all well on
the Islan[d] of St
Kilda, and were actually
k[i]l[l]ing & flaying a
cow along with
some of the natives
and that they could
not come home till
the Month of March
This happ[e]ned in Winter.

On another occasion
a fine young man
from Howgarry
North Uist was
drowned and his
remains could not
be found,
His father
weeks after the
accident visited
MacCallen and
he told him to
go back at onc[e]
and that his son
was lying face
downward under
a quantity of sea-
weed in a “geobha”
at the point of
Instances of this
sort could be followed
to a great length.

Elsewhere in Carmina Gadelica, Alexander Carmichael offers a description of this method of divination in connection with Frìth Mhoire (‘Augury of Mary’):

The ‘frith’ augury, was a species of divination enabling the ‘frithir’, augurer, to see into the unseen. This divination was made to ascertain the position and condition of the absent and the lost, and was applied to man and beast. The augury was made on the first Monday of the quarter and immediately before sunrise. The augurer, fasting, and with bare feet, bare head, and closed eyes, went to the doorstep and placed a hand on each jamb. Mentally beseeching the God the unseen to show him his quest and to grant him his augury, the augurer opened his eyes and looked steadfastly straight in front of him. From the nature and position of the objects within his sight, he drew his conclusions.

Carmina Gadelica, ii, p. 24, p. 158, p,. 295; iii, p. 156; iv, p. 150; v, p. 286, p. 290, p. 292, p. 294, p. 296.
CW 1/65, ff. 28r–30r.
Silhouette in Doorway.

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]