Death is perhaps one of the most strongest primordial fears of the human race. We don’t know what, if anything lies beyond, and comfort can be sought in the notion that we do carry on somehow, though perhaps not in corporeal form. The idea that when we snuff it, that is it, we no longer exist, is quite disconcerting. The thought we are temporary in the grand flow of the overall picture is not a comfortable one and perhaps dents our ego somewhat: though as a certain song goes, life flows on within you and without you.
Perhaps it’s little wonder that folklore is full of all manner of death omens, from supernatural apparitions to certain events being seen as portending death. As can be seen on the Superstition Dictionary website alone, the list is long, ranging from calm weather on the first day of the year meaning many old people will die, to a black cat mewing a midnight meaning death is on its way. The most famous death omen of all is no doubt the Irish Banshee, from the Irish bean sidhe (literally meaning “woman of the hills”). Dr Daithi O hOgain describes the Banshee as a “Female spirit which, in folk belief, is heard to cry when the death of a member of an Irish family is imminent. The designation means ‘otherworld woman’, and the banshee is invariably a solitary being. Her cry is described as plaintive and very much like that of a keening woman of this world. It is usually heard in the vicinity of the family dwelling and therefore near in location to the person who is about to die. However, some accounts have her cry being heard at the family home, although that person be far away, even in a foreign country” (1991: 45)
The Scottish equivalent of the Banshee is often thought to be the Bean Nighe or Nigheag, the “washerwoman” who governs over people about to die, washing their shrouds in a burn or loch, whilst singing. She can be made to answer three questions if she had been caught unaware at her work, though it is difficult to outfox her. Or you might get her to grant three wishes. More on the Bean Nighe be read in an earlier article on Modern Scot.
There are, however, several other death portents to be found in the Scottish tradition, perhaps too many to be listed in one article. There is the belief that seeing the spectral double, commonly known as the doppelganger, of a living person, their death would soon follow. In the Highlands, the Gaelic word taibsh (tysh), meaning spectre, covers both spectres of the dead and living. The taibsh of a living person could do many things, and not all sightings necessarily meant death for the person whose spectre was seen. Living doubles seen wrapped in a shroud were not long for the earth. Just how much of their body was covered by the shroud indicated how long they had left: a person seen with a shroud up to their knees had much longer than someone seen covered up to their neck for instance. Sometimes a seer might just find themselves being plagued endlessly by a living person’s spectre and would put an end to it by asking the no doubt confused individual to stop it. Lashing out at a living spectre might not bode particularly well for the person whose double it is.
Elizabeth Sutherland mentions a tale collected by J. G Campbell of a young bride to be in Morven who wished aloud to her friends as they sat sewing up her trousseau that she could see her betrothed at that very moment. The man in question just happened to be crossing the mountains and was somewhat surprised to see his intended’s taibsh appear before him, so stuck the apparition with his dirk. Shortly after, the girl took ill and died.
Disembodied wailing, tàsg (task) heard from nowhere might also presage a death, even years before the event. Strange knockings are another audible phenomenon foreshadow impending death. John Macpherson, best known as The Coddy, was a renowned storyteller on Barra and had a curious story about a hotel keeper at Polacharra in South Uist who had a beer cask which would jump and make thumping noises a few days before a funeral was due to be held. In one instance, he was sitting with a young girl, when both heard the cask making a noise like a shot going off. The young girl commented on it first, saying that her mother said she had often heard such noises, like a gunshot, just before a death. It was the girl herself who was to die not long after, from consumption. The hotel keeper attended the funeral.
Phantom funerals, which perhaps only one or two people could see in the company of others who saw nothing, were also taken as a death omen. Sometimes they were seen by individuals on their own, again, the unfortunate holder of Second Sight, perhaps. There are several tales of lone travellers coerced into becoming a pall bearer in ghostly funeral processions, and later find the real funeral taking place. Of course, phantom funeral processions are not unique to Scotland as a death omen, and similar tales can be found all over. For instance, in Wales, the Toleath is the sound of an unseen funeral procession passing by, which can also be seen.
In the grand Scottish families, there are many legends of ghosts (of the dead, rather than the living) foretelling the death of a prominent family member with their appearance. A famous one comes from Cortachy Castle, a residence of the Ogilvy family and the Earls of Airlie , and was noted in Catherine Crowe’s exuberantly prosed The Nightside Of Nature. The ghost was a man who was killed by an Earl of Airlie after trying to romance the Earl’s wife. The unfortunate man in question was a drummer and was killed by being put through his drum and hung from one of Cortachy’s tower windows. The eerie sound of the ghost drumming meant that one of the Ogilvys was about to die, causing great distress to the family. There are several instances recorded from the 19th century in which the drumming was heard before a death.
http://superstitiondictionary.com/omens-of-death-folklore-and-superstition/ Omens of Death, Superstition Dictionary accessed 04/01/2017
http://21timetraveler.com/2015/10/scottish-death-omens-and-beheaded-boyds/ Scottish Death Omens and Beheaded Boyds, 21 Time Traveller accessed 05/01/2017
http://hauntedohiobooks.com/news/phantom-funerals/ Phantom Funerals, Chris Woodyard’s Haunted Ohio, accessed 05/01/2017
http://angusfolklore.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/the-phantom-drummer-of-cortachy.html The Phantom Drummer of Cortachy, Angus Folklore accessed 05/01/2017
Macpherson, John (1992/ 2008) Tales of Barra Told by The Coddy Edinburgh, Birlinn
o hOgain, Daithi (1991) Myth, Legend and Romance: An Enclopedia of the Irish Folk Tradition New York: Prentice Hall Press
Sutherland, Elizabeth (1985) Ravens and Black Rain: The Story of Highland Second Sight London, Corgi
Westwood, Jennifer; Kingshall, Sophia (eds) (2009) The Lore of Scotland: A Guide To Scottish Legends London: Arrow Books