Friday, 9 May 2008

Archive: Folk Lore Or Superstitious Beliefs - James Napier

Folk Lore Or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within This Century
James Napier

This was first published in 1879 so it's no surprise that a lot of this book is out of date for one reason or another, but like MacKenzie's Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk-Life I really enjoyed it.

It's useful for a number of reasons: first, there are a few tidbits that I haven't seen anywhere else, so it's not just a rehashing of the same old stuff that tends to be trotted out elsewhere. The author draws from a lot of sources that I haven't seen used in more modern books, and adds in plenty of his own anecdotes and examples of folk-practice that he's seen himself, or even been involved in. Secondly, he's one of the sources that F Marian McNeill used in her Silver Bough series, so it's always good to go direct to the source and see for yourself.

Some of the more interesting things that caught my eye was the mention of the sunwise turn being performed before the start of anything important, like weddings, funerals and festive occasions. McNeill makes a vague mention of this in The Silver Bough (Volume 1) but doesn't give a source, so I assume this is where she got it from. There wasn't much in the way of festivals being covered (that you wouldn't find elsewhere), and there was no mention of Lùnasdal at all, but there were a few interesting things about how Hogmanay was celebrated when Napier was a child, for instance, that helped to offer something different.

Overall, Napier covers the usual areas like birth, death, marriage and childhood, but he also has a good look at types of charms and counter-charms, divination and witchcraft, and that was the stuff that interested me most. While The Gaelic Otherworld does a good job of covering pretty much anything and everything in that area, Napier comes up with plenty of extra stuff to supplement Campbell's works, but one thing to be said is that the details Napier provides aren't as useful in terms of practical application for a reconstructionist as Campbell is (or Ronald Black's editorial notes). Essentially, I suppose Napier's book help flesh things out a bit more, and the anecdotes help to give a better insight into the minds and culture of the people who observed the traditions than Campbell alone does.

The downside is that the book is very much a product of the time it was written in. The disapproval towards 'Romish' Christianity is amusing, as is his hasty attempt to assure the reader that superstitions are silly and evidence of a backward, primitive (and predominantly Catholic...) people, and that he views such things with a skeptical and professional eye, not a gullible one. This detachment is contradicted at times by his attitude towards some practices that make such things seem perfectly reasonable and not at all heathenish or 'superstitious', like when he talks about how a 'skilly' removed the evil eye from him as a child. It makes for an odd mix, and it's hard to tell whether the disclaimer is perfunctory and considered necessary by the publisher rather than author, or whether he really meant it and perhaps the things he experienced himself were familiar and therefore acceptable, whereas other things weren't so much...

Like MacKenzie (a good fifty years or so later), Napier attributes Celtic and especially druidical origins to the Phoenicians and Egyptians (presumably to give them a Biblical link, or something?). While it's easily read around, it might prove confusing for someone who's relatively new to the subject and hasn't yet got their head around a more up to date history of the Celts and knows for sure that Baal has nothing to do with Bealltuinn.

And one final thing: I laughed out loud, and then so did Mr Seren, when I read, "In Paisley, considered to be the most intelligent town in Scotland..." Oh, how times change. But for me this one is definitely a keeper.

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