The Man in the Hide: Western Island Oracles

The Man in the Hide: Western Island Oracles Highland Cattle, probably the source of the hide. [Source: Wikipedia.]

The Man in the Hide: Western Island Oracles Highland Cattle, probably the source of the hide. [Source: Wikipedia.]

The detritus at the bottom of my tea-cup has been trending towards posts about prophecy. Today we look at some oracular methods from the Hebrides featuring mysterious creatures and a terrifying night ritual. These are related by Martin Martin, the late-17th-, early-18th-century author of A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland and Voyage to St Kilda.

They had a Universal Custom, of powring a Cows Milk upon a little Hill, or big Stone where the Spirit call’d Browny was believed to lodge, this Spirit always appeared in the shape of a Tall Man having very long brown Hair. There was scarce any the least Village in which this Superstitious Custom did not prevail, I enquired the reason of it from several well meaning Women, who, until of late had practised it, and they told me that I had been transmitted to them by their Ancestors successfully, who believed it was attended with good Fortune, but the most Credulous of the Vulgar had now laid it aside. It was an ordinary thing among the over-curious to consult an invisible Oracle, concerning the fate of Families, and Battles &c., This was performed three different Ways, the first was by a Company of Men, one of whom being detached by Lot, was afterwards carried to a River, which was the Boundary between two Villages, four of the Company laid hold on him, and having shut his Eyes, they took him by the Legs and Arms, and then tossing him to and again, struck his Hipps with force against the Bank, one of them cry’d out what is it you have got here, another answers a Log of Birch-wood, the other crys again, let his invisible Friends appear from all quarters and let them relieve him by giving an Answer to our present demands; and in a few Minutes after, a Number of little Creatures came from the Sea who answered the Question, and disappeared suddenly, the Man was then set at liberty, and they all returned home, to take their Measures according to the prediction of their false Prophets, but the poor deluded Fools were abused for the Answer was still Ambiguous. This was always practised in the Night, and may litterally be called the Works of Darkness.

I had an account from the most Intelligent and Judicious men in the Isle of Skie, that about 62 Years ago, the Oracle was thus consulted only once, and that was in the Parish of Kilmartin, on the East side by a Wicked and Mischievous race of People, who are now extinguish’d, both Root and Branch.

The second way of consulting the Oracle was, by a Party of Men, who first retired to Solitary Places, remote from any House, and there they singled out one of their Number, and wrap’d him in a big Cows Hide which they folded about him, his whole Body was covered with it except his Head, and so left in this Posture all night until his invisible Friends reliev’d him, by giving a proper Answer to the Question in hand which he received, as he fancied, from several Persons that he found about him all that time, his consorts return’d to him at break of Day, and then he communicated his News to them, which often proved fatal to those concerned in such unwarrantable enquiries.

There was a third way of consulting which was a Confirmation of the second abovementioned. The same Company who put the Man into the Hide, took a live Cat and put him on a Spit, one of the Number was imployed to turn the Spit, and one of his Consorts enquired at him, what are you doing? He answered, I roast this Cat, until his Friends answer the Question which must be the same that was proposed by the man shut up in the Hide, and afterwards a very big Cat comes attended by a Number of lesser Cats, desiring to relieve the Cat turned upon the Spit, and then answers the Question. If this Answer proved the same that was given to the Man in the Hide, then it was taken as a Confirmation of the other which in this case was believed Infallible.

Mr. Alexander Cooper present Minister of North-viest told me that one John Erach in the Isle of Lewis assured him it was his fate to have been led by his Curiosity with some who consulted this Oracle, and that he was a Night within the Hide as above mentioned, during which time he felt and heard such terrible things that he could not express them, the Impression it made on him was such as could never go off, and he said that for a thousand Worlds he would never again be concern’d in the like performance, for this had disordered him to a high degree; he confessed it ingenuously and with an Air of great Remorse, and seem’d to be very Penitent under a just sense of so great a Crime he declared this about five Years since, and is still living in the Lewis for any thing I know.

A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, Martin Martin, 1703

Martin Martin was born in the Island of Skye, was factor to the Lair of Macleod and at the request of Sir Robert Sibbald [1641-1722] physician and antiquary, he collected notes on the culture and habits of the Western Islanders. He died in London in 1719. “A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland” roused Dr Johnson’s interest and resulted in his famous tour. Despite the inspiration, Johnson had harsh words for Martin’s book: “No man,” he said, “now writes so ill as Martin’s account of the Hebrides is written.” [Source: Dictionary of National Biography, Sidney Lee, editor, 1893 edition.]

Now, where to start with Martin’s account? In spite of its house-elf name and the appropriately elfin milk offerings, “Browny” is described more like the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui [Am Fear Liath Mòr] or a wildman. There is also a fairy element in the liminal location of the first oracle and the ritual abuse of the victim designed to bring his “invisible friends” to his aid. It is all very reminiscent of changeling torture. And what are we to make of the “little creatures from the sea?” The answers’ ambiguity may be a reflection of the trickster nature of the Gentry. Birch is said to be a fairy tree and when wives and babies were taken by the Good People, they sometimes left behind a stock of wood in the abductee’s likeness.

The second oracle, that of binding a man in a bull-skin, evokes Celtic bull cults, Cuchulain, or perhaps the malign Water Bulls of the Lochs. There is also a hint of those fabled tortures where people are wrapped in a wet hide which shrinks and kills them, as hinted in the phrase “often proved fatal to those concerned in such unwarrantable enquiries.”

Was this merely prophecy by ordeal? Or was the bull skin meant to protect the seeker from the “little creatures from the sea?” 

And, although I’m not sure how relevant it is to our discussion of oracles, my mind wanders to a group of puzzling 19th-century stories of criminals who disguised themselves in animal hides, although they were searching for loot rather than answers. Forgive my discursion, but a chapter in The Ghost Wore Black tells of a remarkable series of apparitions of a giant hooved and horned Devil in 19th-century Kentucky and elsewhere. An explanation was soon forthcoming:

The Devil Caught and Caged

The Nashville Banner says:

A man bearing the name of Oden, a resident of Carlisle, Nicholas County, Kentucky, procured a horse-hide, with which he clothed himself, and having furnished himself with a phosphorous substance, to imitate the devil’s eyes of fire, started forth to alarm the timid. He would approach a dwelling, making a strange noise, causing the inmates to leave hurriedly. He would then enter the house and appropriate what valuables he could find. He was shot at repeatedly, but being protected by a coat of mail the shots failed to take effect. Finally a number of persons surrounded and succeeded in lassoing him and he is now confined to the narrow walls of Carlisle Jail, to answer to numerous charges for theft, which will be arrayed against him. Macon [GA] Weekly Telegraph 9 April 1866: p. 2

[See Theo Paijman’s masterful story on the subject here, where he gives other examples of hide-bound criminals.]

Despite my skepticism about the efficiency of this disguise, there were reports of similar thieves:

The town of Maple Grove, Wis., is excited over a recent Sunday occurrence there. The people were mostly at church, and in one house a twelve-year old boy was the only occupant. During the absence of the family a man came to the house completely enveloped in a beef hide, with horns, tail, and all complete, and so fitted that nothing else could be seen. It was known in the neighborhood that the occupants of this house had money, and there was there at the time about $200. The object disguised in the hide told the boy that he was the devil, and that he had come after his money and he must give it to him. [The boy shot the “devil,” who proved to be a neighbor.] Galveston [TX] Weekly News 11 June 1877: p. 3

Another story told of a thief who wore a reinforced mule skin to render himself impervious to bullets.

But back to the Hebrides: In the third oracle, we find another victim tortured to draw his friends: in this case the King of the Cats [an ABC?] and his minions, who are there to confirm the revelations given to the Man in the Hide. The redundancy of asking the same question three times to verify the answer may be a function of a mystic obsession with threes, or the cross-checking may have been a practical way to arrive at a consensus about sensitive issues like the fate of families or battles.

One wonders what happened to the Man in the Hide during that terrible night on the hilltop. It sounds rather like one of those sensory deprivation experiments that trigger OOBEs, hallucinations, and clairvoyance. Or was it a type of ritual animal disguise–with the participant becoming a wer-bull or a bull-shaman? Whatever he experienced, it seems to have permanently scarred John Errach.

It is interesting that Martin’s subjects deny that this oracle is still practiced and claim that, although performed only once, it destroyed those who consulted it. One suspects that the islanders were not as forthcoming to an outsider as they might have been or were telling him what he wanted to hear. However, it seems that such customs persisted in the islands and Scotland long after Martin’s visit. Here is an account by a lady brought up on the Moray coast [northeastern Scotland], who studied the Western Islands.

Till very lately there existed all manner of curious methods for consulting oracles, such as sewing up a man in a cow’s hide, and leaving him for the night on some hill-top, that he might be made a spirit-medium….

Akin to these traces of the old pagan superstitions was the custom of sacrificing a bull as an offering to the earth spirits, in time of any grievous cattle-plague. The latest instance on record of this offering having actually been made occurred at Dallas, in Morayshire, on my father’s estate, somewhere about A.D. 1850. A murrain having decimated the herd of a small farmer, he proceeded to kindle the Need-fire with all ceremony [a ritually kindled fire to avert disease, also mentioned in Martin’s book]; then, having dug a pit, he therein sacrificed an ox to some spirit unknown!

In the Hebrides, C[onstance].F[rederica]. Gordon-Cumming 1883

Any other, more recent accounts of this custom? Send in triplicate to Chriswoodyard8 AT

A selection of some of my posts on prophecy: White House Shadowgraphs, Gettysburg predicted, The Spectral Well of Virginia, The Sun King’s Death in a Glass of Water, Mrs Blanchard and her bowls of clay.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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