Birth and Baptisms, Customs and Superstitions


Some strange customs, the origin of which does not appear to have been traced, but which probably came down from the dark ages of Celtic paganism, were performed in bygone times on the birth of a child. When such an important event in family history was expected, a rich cheese was made, which, when the anticipation was realised, was divided among the women who, on such occasions, were injudiciously allowed to crowd the chamber. A lighted slip of fir-wood was whirled three times round the bed, with the superstitious idea of averting evil influences. The new-born babe was next dipped into a vessel of cold water, tempered in a very slight degree by dropping a burning coal into it. This may have been done with the Spartan idea of rendering the child hardy. If a boy, it was afterwards wrapped in a woman’s chemise; if a girl, in a man’s shirt. The idea underlying this custom is not clear. Women were not allowed to touch the child without first crossing themselves. The tiny creature was not to be referred to in terms of admiration, lest it should be “forespoken,” which implied consequences prejudicial to its future welfare.

After the mother’s recovery, friends and neighbours assembled to congratulate the parents, and drink to the child’s future prosperity. This gathering was known as the cummer-fealls, or the gossips’ wake, concerning which custom the Kirk Session of Dunfermline made, in 1645, one of the most sensible enactments to be found on the minutes of those bodies. Considering, it is recorded, “the inconveniences arising therefrom, as mainly the loss and abusing of so much time, which may be better employed in attending to business at home, by such as frequent the occasions thereof, and the prejudice which persons lying in child-bed receive, both in health and means, being forced, not only to bear company to such as come to visit, but also to provide for their coming more than is either necessary or their estate may bear,” the Session inhibited “all visits of this kind, and for the end foresaid, under the pain of being, for the first fault, censured by the Session, and there to be obliged to acknowledge their fault, and, for the next, to make public confession of their fault before the whole congregation.”

Other singular practices were observed in connection with the baptism of a child. It was placed in a basket, on which a white cloth was spread, with some bread and cheese, and the basket was suspended by a crook over the fireplace, and swung round three times. This was said to be done to counteract the evil influence of fairies and other malignant spirits. The bread and cheese were offered to the first person met on the way to the church, and rejection of it was thought to presage future evil to the babe. When several children were baptised at the same time, the boys were presented for the rite first, for it was thought that, if a girl obtained priority, she would in after time be disfigured by a beard.

Baptism was at one time refused to the children of persons outside the communion of the Reformed Church. In 1567, the Countess of Argyle was ordered by the Assembly to “make public repentance in the chapel royal of Stirling, one Sunday, in time of preaching,” for assisting at the baptism of the royal infant, afterwards James VI., “in a papistical manner.” And even in 1716, registration of baptism was refused to the child of Harry Foulis, son of Sir James Foulis, on the ground that it had been baptised by a minister of the Episcopal Church. Thereupon the father procured the baptismal register from the session clerk, and made the entry himself, appending a statement of the circumstances.

The sacrament of baptism has been the subject of much controversy in the Scottish church, especially in the seventeenth century, when everyone born north of the Tweed seems to have been, more or less, a theological disputant. In the First Book of Discipline, in the framing of which Knox had much to do, it was laid down that, “In baptism, we acknowledge nothing to be used except the element of water only; wherefore, whosoever presumeth to use oil, salt, wax, spittle, conjuration, and crossing, accuseth the perfect institution of Jesus Christ of imperfection, for it was void of all such inventions devised by men.” The abjuring of conjuration seems to refer to a formula of exorcism prescribed by the first Prayer Book of Edward VI., to be used in the rite of baptism.

Concerning the use of the cross in baptism there has been an enormous amount of controversy, and very opposite views are still held. Dr Renaud, who wrote a ponderous volume on the subject in 1607, says: “It is as unfit to make a cross a memorial of Christ as for a child to make much of the halter or gallows wherewith his father was hanged.” The Service Book of 1637 enjoined the use of the cross in baptism, and as that book is said, by Spalding, to have been introduced in many parts of the country, it may be concluded that the practice existed thereafter in some Scotch churches. As to other baptismal ceremonies, Dr Edgar observes, in his “Old Church Life in Scotland,” that the principles laid down by Knox “are the principles on which the Church of Scotland has always acted. She has uniformly endeavoured, except during a brief interlude of Anglican innovation prior to 1638, to make her sacramental forms square with the pattern and precepts set before her in Scripture.”

Another question concerning which there has been much controversy, is the lawfulness or otherwise of private baptism. In 1618, when the historically famous “five articles,” framed by James I., as king of both England and Scotland, were sent to the General Assembly for sanction and approval, their adoption by that body raised a storm of indignation and opposition which was not allayed until they were abjured by the General Assembly in 1638, and the proceedings of the Assembly held at Perth in 1618 were declared null and void.

One of the articles objected to was that which pronounced “that baptism might be administered at home when the infant could not conveniently be brought to church.” This was objected to as papistical, and denounced as introducing a new and false doctrine of baptism, calculated to create a superstitious belief that there was some spiritual efficacy in the act of sprinkling a few drops of water on an infant’s face, in the name of the Trinity, thereby giving ground for the belief that baptism is essential to salvation. This doctrine, though taught by the Church of England, has not been accepted by the Church of Scotland since the Reformation.

Moreover, as non-attendance at the services of the Church was regarded as contrary to good order, it was objected that the administration of baptism in private houses would allow Christian privileges to be enjoyed without compliance with Christian duty. If a child was to be accepted and declared a member of the Church, the act should be performed by the whole congregation, and not by the minister alone. For at least a hundred years this was strongly and firmly insisted upon. Some doubt seems to have been felt in 1643, as to whether the Westminster Assembly would adopt the Scottish view of the question, as baptisms were very commonly performed in private houses by ministers of the English Presbyterian Church. It was with much satisfaction, therefore, that the news was received in Scotland that the Assembly had affirmed the necessity of public baptism.

The Directory for Public Worship in the Presbyterian Church states, accordingly, that baptism “is not to be administered in private places, or privately, but in the place of public worship, and in the face of the congregation, where the people may most conveniently see and hear; and not in the places where fonts, in the time of Popery, were unfitly and superstitiously placed,” that is, near the church door, and behind the backs of the congregation. The view held by Presbyterians since the Reformation thus became the law of the Church; and the General Assembly, in 1690, strictly enjoined that baptism should not be administered elsewhere than in church, and before the congregation. But in this matter, as in some others, there appears to have been a laxity in enforcing the rule of the church, which has gone on increasing. Wodrow stated, in 1718, that private baptisms were unknown in the Church of Scotland, except in Edinburgh and Glasgow; and only two years later the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr had to repeat the injunction of 1690. What the state of things in this respect is at the present day we are told by Dr Edgar, who, as minister of Mauchline, must be considered to speak from experience. He says that, “in some parishes there are ten private baptisms for every one public baptism; and these private baptisms are never challenged as irregular, unlawful, or deserving of censure.”

Registers of baptisms have been kept, with more or less regularity, from the time of the Reformation; and these show that, in some parishes at least, private baptisms had become very frequent about the middle of the eighteenth century. In referring to the evidence of the parish register of Mauchline on this matter, the writer just quoted says: “Although such baptisms were a violation of Church order, I cannot help remarking that Church order was not, in this instance, clearly founded on the evangelical principle professed by our forefathers, that all procedure in Church ritual should be conform to the precept or example of Scripture. It seems quite certain that, in the days of the Apostles, baptism was not always, if ever, administered in the place of public worship and in the face of the congregation. The eunuch of Ethiopia, Cornelius the centurion, St. Paul himself, and the gaoler at Philippi were each baptised privately.”

The Church of Scotland has been more strict in upholding the rule of the Westminster Directory, that baptism “is not to be administered, in any case, by any private person.” This also, it may be remarked, is not in strict accordance with the principle of the Christian Church in its early ages, as set forth by some of the Fathers; and down even to the present day the Church of England, while discountenancing lay baptism as a rule, has recognised its validity in cases of necessity. The recorded instances of refusal to admit evidence of lay baptism in the Church of Scotland are, however, chiefly cases in which the rite had been performed by deposed ministers. In 1708, a Kilmarnock man was cited to appear before the Kirk Session for having had a child irregularly baptised by a deposed minister, namely, Macmillan, the founder of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. No further proceedings appear, however, to have been taken. Similar cases occurred in 1715 and 1721, the General Assembly in the former case, and the Presbytery of Ayr in the latter, merely pronouncing the baptisms null and void.

Some differences have to be noted between the Churches of Scotland and England with regard to the forms and customs connected with baptisms. The former is the more strict with regard to the sponsors of the children to be baptised. The Westminster Directory states that the child is to be presented at the font by its father, or in the case of his unavoidable absence, by some Christian friend in his place; and in 1712 the General Assembly enacted that no other sponsor than a parent should be received at a baptism, “unless the parents be dead, or absent, or grossly ignorant, or under scandal, or contumacious to discipline; in which cases, some fit person (and if it can be, one related to the child,) should be sponsor.”

Not only was the Church more strict in this matter in Scotland than in England, but the nature of the sponsion was different. In Knox’s Liturgy, the sponsors are not regarded as proxies for the child, but are required to make a declaration of their own faith, in which they engage to instruct the child. As the matter is well put by Dr Hill, “the parents do not make any promise for the child, but they promise for themselves that nothing shall be wanting, on their part, to engage the child to undertake, at some future time, that obligation which he cannot then understand.”

In the latter half of the seventeenth and the first of the eighteenth century, the Kirk Sessions had as much to do in repressing undue gatherings at the font as on the occasion of wedding festivities. In 1622 the Kirk Session of Aberdeen, considering “that it is come in custom that every base servile man in the town, when he has a bairn to be baptised, invites twelve or sixteen persons to be his gossips and god-fathers to his bairn,” whereas the old custom was not to invite more than two, ordered that in future only two or at most four persons should be allowed to appear in that capacity. In 1681 an Act of Parliament prohibited the attendance at baptisms of more than four witnesses, in addition to parents and children, brothers and sisters; and in 1720 the Kirk Session of Kilmarnock made an ordinance that “only so many women as are necessary attend infants that are carried to the church to be baptised, and the Session think three sufficient.”

Down to the time of the Westminster Assembly, it seems to have been the custom in Scotland for parents, at the baptism of a child, to repeat the Creed. But in the Westminster Directory the father is merely required to promise that he will bring up the child “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Nevertheless, many Kirk Sessions overlaid this requirement with regulations of their own devising. In 1615, the Kirk Session of Lasswade ordained that “no children of ignorant persons be baptised, except the father first lay one poynd of ten shillings, and a month shall be granted to learn the Lord’s Prayer, Belief, and Ten Commandments, with some competent knowledge of the sacraments and catechism, which he performing, his poynd shall be returned, otherwise forfeited.” In 1700 an application to the Kirk Session of Galston for the baptism of a child was refused, on the ground that the father “did not attend diets of catechising.” On his promising to attend in future, and submitting to rebuke for his previous non-attendance, the child was allowed to be baptised. More than three-quarters of a century later, that is, in 1779, a man who had applied to the Kirk Session of Mauchline for the baptism of a child was subjected to a theological examination much too stiff for him; but on promising to study the knotty points propounded to him, and signing an undertaking to that effect in the minute-book, he was allowed to present the child for baptism, though the permission seems to have been regarded as a great favour.

As in England, so also in Scotland, the registration of baptisms was required at a period long antecedent to the statutary obligation to register births. Old sessional records show that fees were paid, but it is a disputed question whether these were for baptism or for registration. Dunlop, in his “Parochial Law,” quotes a legal opinion to the effect that “as to baptisms, what is paid on that account is for obtaining the Kirk Session’s order for baptism, and recording that order.” But an entry in the records of the Kirk Session of Galston, in 1640, after prescribing the fee to be paid for baptism, adds—“and there shall be no more exacted of any that come to this kirk for all time coming, except they desire the baptism registered, and in that case to satisfy the reader therefore, which is hereby declared to be other four shillings Scottish.”

There are several curious entries in Kirk Sessional Records, showing that those parochial bodies were as zealous in restricting the customary festivities at christening parties as they have, in another paper, been shown to have been in repressing undue feasting at weddings. With respect of the former, the interference of Kirk Sessions was preceded by that of the Scottish Parliament, by which assembly it was enacted, in 1581, “that no banquets shall be at any upsitting after baptising of bairns in time coming, under the pain of twenty pounds, to be paid by every person doing the contrary.” In 1621 it was further enacted that, “no person use any manner of dessert of wet and dry confections at marriage banqueting, baptism feasting, or any meals, except the fruits growing in Scotland, as also figs, raisins, plum dames, almonds and other unconfected fruits, under the pain of a thousand marks toties quoties.”

These enactments appear, however, to have had little effect. In 1695 the Kirk Session of Greenock ordained that “persons having their children baptised on the Sabbath day abstain from keeping banquets and convening people at such occasions on that day, whereby much idle discourse and sin may be evited.” In 1701 it was very seriously complained by the Kirk Session of Kilmarnock that feasts continued to be held on Sundays after baptisms, and it was ordered that children should be baptised on the weekly sermon day (Thursday), except in case of necessity. But, either through attachment to old customs, or want of inclination to attend the week-day sermon, children continued to be presented for baptism on Sunday, and in 1720 the Session again ordered “that none make or hold feasts at baptising their children on the Lord’s day.”

In conformity with the Registration Act for Scotland, passed in 1854, all parish registers are deposited in the Registry Office then established in Edinburgh. Most of the registers of births commence about the middle of the seventeenth century, those of only fifteen parishes, out of about nine hundred, dating from the preceding century. The register of baptisms of Errol, Perthshire, commences in 1553, but the entries for the years preceding 1573 are transcribed from an older register which has been lost. Many of the older registers have been injured by damp, others by fire, and not a few have suffered from the negligence of their custodians. In many of them blanks occur. In some instances session clerks of the sixteenth century recorded in their registers events unconnected with their own parishes. The clerk of the Kirk Session of Aberdeen made an entry in the register of the birth of James VI., who was born at Edinburgh, loyally and piously adding, in the curious spelling of the period (which in previous extracts in this paper, has been modernised,) “quhame God preserve in guid helth and in the feir of God, to do justice in punishing of wrayng and in manttinyen the trewht all the dais of his lyfe. So be itt.”