Sangstories - Stories of Scottish Songs

Tales of Scottish traditional and newer songs sung by Sangschule of Linlithgow

Witches Reel

Cummer, go ye before, cummer go ye
If ye willna go before, cummer, let me
Ring-a-ring-a-widdershins
Linkin lithely widdershins
Cummer, carlin, crone and queen
Roun go we

Cummer, go ye before, cummer, go ye
If ye willna go before, cummer, let me
Ring-a-ring-a-widdershins
Loupin lightly widdershins
Kilted coats and fleein hair
Three times three

Cummer go ye before, cummer, go ye
If ye willna go before, cummer, let me
Ring-a-ring-a-widdershins
Whirlin skirlin widdershins
De’il tak the hindmost
Wha e’er she be
 
Words:
Carlin:  old woman, witch
Cummer: woman friend, witch
Deil: devil
Fleein: flying
Hindmost: last, furthest behind
Kilted: tucked up
Loupin: jumping, leaping
Queen: quean or quine, girl, woman
Skirlin: screeching
Widdershins: anti-clockwise; opposite to the sun’s movement; against nature,  so used by witches

Christine Kydd brought this song to Sangschule. She recorded it along with Corrina Hewat and Elspeth Cowie as Chantan on their CD Primary Colours. Their notes say: “A song from 1591 and the witch trials of King James 6th of Scotland. A time when any woman could be accused of being a witch on a whim. The words come from the transcripts of one of the trials in connection with a plot, by Francis Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, and others to kill the king. It is the first written record of a reel in Scotland.”

Witches were supposed to meet and dance in a circle going “widdershins”, against the sun, as part of reversing what was natural or holy.  They were naked or immodestly dressed  - Burns’ “cutty sark” is like the “kilted coats” – revealing a lot of leg. “Three times three” was a magic number. And the devil would sometimes join the dance, though here the old saying “Deil tak the hindmost” suggests fear of this event rather than a welcome for the master.

A ‘thread’ of entries on www.mudcat.com    attempts to pin down more of the sources and Jack Campin’s entries say that the first two lines do appear in the transcript of the witch trials, but “ the rest was obviously made up in the 20th century”.

James 6th himself was present at the North Berwick witch trials where the accusations against his cousin, Bothwell and the “other witches” were dealt with, and he took part in interrogations. Two of the accused women were Geillis Duncan and Agnes Sampson. They did not survive, but Bothwell escaped.  Excerpts from trial papers are available on http://homepages.tesco.net/~eandcthomps/Chronology1.htm

 a website belonging to Dr E H Thompson of the University of Dundee e.g.:

Agnes Sampson “admitted healing the sick by natural remedies and prayer, helping people who had been bewitched and having dealings with the devil in the form of a dog.”

She confessed to the King that she had been moved to serve the devil by poverty after the death of her husband and had received the devil’s mark. (This mark hidden on the body was said to be impervious to pain, and led to ‘witches’ being pierced all over with a pin by accusers trying to find it.)

Reading between the lines from our present-day standpoint, it is easy to see how superstitious fears led to ordeal and death for many poor and helpless women, but James 6th pursued the prosecution of witches with determination and wrote his own book on the subject, Demonologie, published in 1597. 

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