Why sailors fear the cry of the curlew and other strange sto­ries

Macclesfield Express - - THE LAUGHING BADGER - SEAN WOOD

“THEM jack­daws is ter­ri­ble un­pleas­ant,” said Willy the farm hand in Tip­per­ary.

He was mak­ing ref­er­ence to their habit of nest­ing in chim­neys, and ten min­utes later, af­ter set­ting fire to the chim­ney in an at­tempt to shift the nest, he jumped back into the liv­ing room, flames light­ing up around his head like a halo. When I asked if he was burned, his re­ply was price­less, “Ah no, I’m just swunged a wee trutch.”

This type of close en­counter be­tween man and bird has spawned hun­dreds of tales, many of them com­pletely un­true, but nev­er­the­less they il­lus­trate how closely man and birds have ex­isted over the cen­turies. I would be in­ter­ested to hear of any ‘lo­cal’ bird­lore sto­ries from read­ers, but in the mean­time a few ex­am­ples from times gone by.

Swal­low: In­side their bod­ies swal­lows were be­lieved to carry two pre­cious stones – a red one which could cure in­san­ity, and a black one which could bring good luck.

Wheatear: In north­ern Eng­land they were feared for bring­ing bad luck, while in Orkney they were dou­bly feared be­cause Is­lan­ders be­lieved that toads in­cu­bated their eggs.

Mag­pie: These days the Mag­gie is re­viled for its habit of killing song­birds, how­ever, this dis­like could stem from the old days when the mag­pie was ac­cused of not wear­ing full mourn­ing cloth­ing at the Cru­ci­fix­ion. In Scot­land it was con­sid­ered such an evil bird, that it was said to carry a drop of the Devil’s blood un­der its tongue.

Robin: The robin fares bet­ter in another Cru­ci­fix­ion leg­end. It was said to have ac­quired its red breast when it tried to ease Christ’s pain on the cross and was splashed with a drop of his blood.

Curlew: Sailors dreaded the cry of the curlew, for they be­lieved it was a warn­ing from a drowned friend. In Scot­land it was as­so­ci­ated with a long-beaked goblin that car­ried off evil-do­ers at night.

Swan: A per­son’s ‘swan-song’ - his fi­nal ef­fort – de­rives from the belief that swans sing only once – just be­fore they die

Cuckoo: In Wales it was lucky to hear the first call if stand­ing on grass, but bad luck if stand­ing on bar­ren ground. Some peo­ple be­lieved that if you turned your money in your pocket and then spat on it, the money would last for the rest of the year.

Some of the sto­ries are easy to ex­plain, for ex­am­ple, the wheatear nest­ing un­der rocks prob­a­bly ac­counts for the belief that toads in­cu­bate the eggs, while the Ab­bot of Malmes­bury was com­pared to the jack­daw be­cause of the jack­daws habit of ‘col­lect­ing’ glit­ter­ing trin­kets. Other sto­ries are a lit­tle more dif­fi­cult to de­ci­pher, es­pe­cially the pre­cious stones in a swal­low’s body.

Mam­mal sto­ries are just as plen­ti­ful, the fol­low­ing ex­am­ples be­ing my per­sonal favourites.

Sheep: Were said to face east on Christ­mas Eve in re­mem­brance of the birth of Christ.

It was once be­lieved that if a child with whoop­ing cough was laid down where a sheep had been, the child would be cured.

Pig: The bite of a pig was thought to cause can­cer, while a snack of pig’s brain was said to act as a truth drug.

Fox: In the Mid­dle Ages, foxes were as­so­ci­ated with the Devil, and in Lin­colnshire, a fox bite was said to be fa­tal.

On days when rain and sun­shine co­in­cided, foxes were said to be get­ting mar­ried.

Hare: To the an­cient Bri­tish, hares were sa­cred, but in the Mid­dle Ages they were as­so­ci­ated with witch­craft.

Witches were said to trans­form them­selves into hares.

Hedge­hog: Farm­ers once killed them as ver­min. They thought the ‘prickly back otchuns’ sucked milk from cows.

The Laugh­ing Badger Gallery, 99 Platt Street, Pad­field, Glos­sop

●● A jack­daw perched on a branch

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