Wag At the Way
Wag-at-the-wa', another Border sprite, is mentioned in the
following verses, which Mr. Wilkie took down from the recita-
tion of an old lady in the village of Bowden, Roxburghshire: —
Wag-at-the-wa' went out i' the night,
To see that the moon was shining bricht,
The moon she was at the latter fa',
" 'Gang hame to yer hods 1 " cried Wag-at-the-Wa'.
" Why d'ye wag the witch nickit crook.
When the pyet's asleep where the corbies rook ?
Hell's e'en shimmert on ye i' the moon's latter fa'.
And ruin's fell couter will harry ye a'."
" I maun gae fra' ye, tak' tent what I say,
Gae tear frae the sowie an armfu' o' hay,
riing wisps i' the fire till it mak' a red low,
Frae the eizels will rise up a dead man's pow.
" The pow will stare ugsome, but dinna heed that.
Thud fast o' the wisps, and beware o' the cat,
For she will yer fae be, wi' teeth and wi' claw.
An' her mewing will soon warn anld Wag-at-the-wa'.
" Whenever the e'en holes wi' low sail be fou.
Then is the time that we maun dread the pow,
For Hell's e'en are firelike and fearfu' to view,
And they oft change their colour fra' dark red to blue.
" They pierce like an elf, prick ilk ane that they see.
Then beware o' their shimmer, if yer seen ye will dee,
Your heart's pulse will riot, your flesh will grow cauld,
Oh, how happy the wight that draws breath till he's auld !
" Then fly frae the house, to the green quick repair,
And Wag-at-the-wa' will full soon meet ye there,
As ye kneel 'neath the Itood and mutter yer prayer. . . ."
These obscure lines do not give us much information respect-
ing Wag-at-the-wa'. We are told elsewhere, however, that he
is a sort of Brownie, who presided over the Border kitchen,
where he acted family monitor, but was a torment to the servants,
especially to the kitchen-maid. His seat was by the hearth, or
on the crook or bar of iron, terminating in a large hook, which
may be seen in old houses hanging by a swivel from a beam in
the chimney to hold pots and kettles. Whenever the crook was
empty, Wag-at-the-wa' would take possession of it, and swing
there with great complacency, only absenting himself when there
was a death in the family. He was fond of children and of
household mirth, and hence his attachment to the ingle. When
droll stories were told his laugh might be heard distinctly ; but
if he heard of any liquor being drunk, except home-brewed ale,
he would cough and be displeased.
His general appearance was that of a grisly old man, with
short crooked legs, while a long tail assisted him in keeping his
seat on the crook. Sometimes he appeared in a grey mantle,
with the remains of an old " pirnicap " on his head, drawn down
over that side of the face which was troubled with toothache, a
constant grievance of his ; but he commonly wore a red coat and
blue breeches, both garments being made of" familie woo."
Altogether there is something uncannie about this ancient
sprite, and the mode of his disappearance (for he has passed
away from the Scottish ingle) does not speak well for him. A
deep cut is now invariably made in the iron of the crook in the
form of a cross, and is called the witches' mark, because it warns
witches from the fire. This sign also scares away auld Wag-at-
the-wa', and keeps him from touching the crook. Still it is
deemed wrong and foolish ever to wag the crook, since it is a
sort of invitation to the sprite to return. Mr. Wilkie says that
he has seen a visitor rise up and leave the house, because one of
the boys of the family idly swung the crook : she was so horrified,
at this " invokerie" that she declared " she wad na abide in the
house where it was practised."
Mr. Wilkie says the sign of the cross was in like manner
marked on many tools and utensils, down to the " torwoodie "
of the harrow, as a protection against sprites of doubtful character
— a singular preservative in Presbyterian Scotland! In many
parts of England, however, we find an analogous use of this sign.
The Durham butchers mark it on the shoulder of a sheep or lamb
after taking off the skin, probably because in the peace-offerings
of old it was the priest's portion; the housewives mark it on their
loaves of bread before placing them in the oven. In the West of
England, I believe^ the cross is more commonly made on the
dough when set to rise.