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Although the superstitious omens of approaching death, and the funeral formalities briefly described in the following Poem, were formerly observed by nearly the whole of the Scottish peasantry, it is only in the central Highlands, and a few of the Western Isles, that these ancient customs are now believed, with that implicit faith which is requisite to preserve them from total oblivion.
There are, however, some traces of these reveries, which owe their protracted existence to their having been blended with the tenets of religion, still to be found in the most civilized parts of the Lowlands. In the metropolis of Ayrshire, young persons are unwilling to be married in the month of May, lest such an untimely connection should be chastised by the production of an idiot. And in many other places, it is deemed necessary for a young wo
man, who has had many suitors, to wear a piece of silver in one of her shoes from the time of her marriage till after she is kirked, lest the malignant glance of a disappointed lover's
eye should have a physical effect on her constitution. But as many of these practices are mentioned in the annexed Notes, I will here confine myself to a few remarks on the custom of Watching the Dead.
It appears early in ecclesiastical history, that the feasts usually observed on the Sunday next after the Saint's day to whom the parish church was dedicated, which, with dancing and drinking, continued all night, were commonly called Wakes. They seem to have taken their origin from the following letter sent from Gregory the Great to Melitus, who came into England with Saint Austin, in the sixth century.* 5 It may therefore be permitted them on the dedication days, and other days of martyrs, to make them bowers about the churches; and refreshing themselves after a good religious sort, kill their oxen now to the praise of God and increase of charity, which before they were wont to sacrifice to the devil."+
* Encyc. Brit.
+ Baylie's Etym. Diet.
These midnight revellings of devotion, thus constituted by the primitive fathers of the church, soon became frequently observed. The great number of saints introduced into the Popish calendar, in honour of whom, certain days in each year were to be thus religiously observed, no doubt contributed much to the speedy return of these meetings. And so congenial was conviviality to the manners of the time, that even the watchings of the dead are very early represented as scenes of amusement, in which the chieftain and the vassal equally participated. The hilarity of the Wake is thus personified by a modern poet.
An wha are ye, my winsome dear,
That tacks the gate sae early ?
For I right mickle ferly ?
I dwall amang the cauler springs
That wet the lan o'Cakes,
At Bridals an' Late-Wakes.
They ca’ me Mirth, I ne'er was kend
To grumble or look sour,
It was not in Scotland alone that these watchings degenerated into excess. Not only did the Synod of Worcester prohibit songs and other loose and foolish amusements, but enjoined that none should attend Wakes except for the pure pose of devotion. Although the first clergy of the church of Scotland were zealous in abolishing every custom that rose in the reign of Popery, and exercised the most absolute controul over the morals of their people, I have not been able to discover that Wakes were laid under any restriction, although it was deemed necessary to restrain, by act of Parliament, the expences of marriages, of baptisms, and of burials. *
In Ireland, the Wake is still a scene of merriment and festivity, which collects an immense assemblage of men and women to howl round the corpse of a deceased neighbour, which is usually laid out in a large barn or other capacious building. Smoking and drinking is the amusement of the night, heightened by storytelling of ghosts and fairies, in which the lower Irish are implicit believers.
These amusements are, however, subject to
* Scot. Parl. 1681, cap. 14.