Kirk papers reveal charmed cows

London, UK - Kirk session records have revealed examples of Highlanders using so-called good and bad magic on cattle.

Dr Karen Cullen, of higher education institute UHI, trawled the papers in her research for a lecture - Charmed Cows and Contentious Neighbours.

She found one minister who "dressed up" practical advice on better hygiene as a charm to allay a parishioner's fears.

The practice of charming to either protect or harm livestock was used during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Dr Cullen, programme leader of UHI's undergraduate honours Scottish history degree, will deliver her public lecture in Inverness on Monday.

She said: "The lecture is an off-shoot of my research of a famine of the 1690s and my interest in how weather impacts on crops.

"While doing this research I became aware of the attitudes of the population and how they were affected by famine.

"In urban areas riots broke out, but in rural areas this did not happen.

"I found in Kirk session records that in upland areas, where people were more dependent on cattle than crops, there were tensions in local communities and of people suspecting neighbours of harming their cattle."

With little understanding of the scientific reasons behind poor productivity, people believed witchcraft was used to stop dairy cattle expressing good quality milk.

Dr Cullen said: "There is mention of cows having less profit, or goodness of milk, and people suspected a witch had taken that away.

"People then used counter charms such as putting rowan branches above the milking shed to ward off evil magic, or paying charmers to protect their cows."

She found the church advised against using charms. However, one case surprised her.

Dr Cullen said: "Although ministers disapproved of the beliefs held by parishioners, some almost went along with them.

"One example from the 18th Century tells of a woman who believed her cow was charmed because its milk would not churn to cheese.

"Her minister suggested better hygiene, but dressed it up as a charm, a language the woman understood, and the matter was resolved."

The practice continued in some places into the 20th Century, but the beginning to its end was the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in the mid 1700s and greater understanding of scientific explanations to natural events.