From Storm Witches to Friday Pudding
via Revenge, Heartbreak, Pressgangs, Eggshells, Thyme & Nettles, and some 18th Century Complexion Advice
I’ve spent a lot of today thinking about storms, with a pretty revolting headache creeping up on the right hand side of my head for the the last few hours. This happens every time a storm is due then when the storm breaks and the thunder rolls my headache lifts, just like that. I’m usually pretty rational, I like science and proper peer-reviewed studies and when it comes to medicine, I like mainstream treatments and drugs. I’m not saying that complimentary medicine isn’t effective or doesn’t work, I actually have a qualification in body massage, specialising in Aromatherapy. I have aromatherapy books even, but beyond a certain point when I’m ill I personally turn towards standard western medicine.
However, it always fails me with these storm headaches, nothing but the storm breaking releases the pain. I’ve been told by my doctor that it’s unlikely that a storm could cause it and I suppose it could be psychosomatic, maybe I anticipate the headache because I know a storm is coming. Storms inspire some pretty strong emotions, even now. A huge, showy demonstration of what nature can do if she likes, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.
In times past there was a strong connection to witchcraft. People who could foresee the weather or storms were often considered to be witches and weren’t always treated kindly. They were often blamed for the effects of big destructive storms, especially at sea. You may have heard the old folklore that you mustn’t leave egg shells about because witches can make boats from them and use them to travel over seas and whip up storms. James I of Scotland was so convinced of the connection, which he felt nearly caused the death of him and his new bride, that he started a persecution which led to the deaths of over 2,500 people (mostly women) over a century and a half.
Over the last few weeks I’ve read two tales about women who were persecuted as witches, both of which resonated with me. The first has no known factual basis but is the story of a woman and her sweetheart who were eloping to escape her overbearing parents. However, once out at sea the sailors decided that the woman was a witch and it was agreed that the only way to save the ship was to throw her overboard.
They did this, and her sweetheart did nothing to protect her, so she cursed the ship. They say her curse raised a storm which caused the ship to founder on rocks and all hands went down with her. The woman was so heartbroken by the betrayal of her love that she couldn’t leave earth and her spirit remains in the form of a cat. British fisherman were even known to throw some of their catch back into the sea for ‘the cat’. Sailors and cats have an interesting relationship, which we don’t have time to examine here sadly.
The second woman has a name and there is actually a record of her existence, she was Janet Forsyth, otherwise known as The Westray Storm Witch. She lived on Orkney in the seventeenth century and she too had a sweetheart. This sweetheart, whose name was Ben Garrioch, was due to go fishing with other young men. However, Janet had a terrible dream foretelling of great danger and begged Ben and the others not to go.
It may not surprise you to find out that she was ignored, but later that day a treacherous thick fog descended and Ben and the other men did not return. Janet was blamed by the desolate community for the loss of their young men. She already had somewhat of a reputation for the uncanny and she was accused of raising the fog.
Janet was heartbroken by the loss of Ben and the accusations of the villagers. She withdrew from the society of the other islanders, living a wretched existence, barely surviving, knowing that to return was to live amongst the whispers and the fear and the hatred of her community. Her isolation, however, did not stop the villagers from blaming her for any terrible storms or odd weather patterns and the deaths of any at sea. They must have known that the seas and winter storms around Orkney are treacherous but they didn’t let that stop them.
Several years after this, a ship was spotted in trouble off the coast. Whilst the other villagers waited for it to break up so they could scavenge what was left after the storm (they were a poor people), Janet set out to sea in a small boat and managed against all odds and the terrible storm to reach the ship and guided it to safe harbour in the closest bay. The people of the village could not believe that this was not possible without witchcraft and they had her formally charged. I’m sure the fact that the chance to scavenge possible luxury goods and alcohol had been removed by her act of bravery didn’t bear upon their decision. They have not exactly been a showcase for friendliness, understanding and compassion so far have they?
Janet was put on trial, found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death. As she looked out across the court before she was taken to prison she saw her lost love, in a naval uniform. He had apparently been press-ganged by the Navy, not taken by the sea and this was the first time he had been able to return. She called out to him to save her but he left the room.
Janet was taken to the dungeon below Kirkwall Cathedral to await her terrible fate. However, when they returned the next day to take her to her execution she simply wasn’t there, no trace could be found of her or later when they looked, of her lover Ben.. It is believed that he saved her, just as she tried to save him those years before.
These tales may or may not be a true recollection of what really happened but the fact that they exist in the folk memory shows us what a strong connection existed between women who were believed to be witches and power over the weather, storms or otherwise. You can see how that could be terrifying in a rural or seafaring community where the right weather at the right time could be all that stood between life and death.
Storms and food folklore produced some very interesting ideas too. People believed that storms could ruin butter, cheese or beer that was in process when the storm arrived and there are herbs that were used to alleviate the risk of this. A bunch of wild thyme, laid by the milk in a dairy, was said to prevent milk, eggs and cheese being spoiled by thunder. Sunflowers were equally effective in season. Nettles were added to brewing barrels to the same effect.
Casks of wine that were exposed to lightning were destroyed because it was thought that the wine inside would poison the drinker or send them mad. Bay trees on the other hand were planted to avoid the effects of lightning as they were said to be immune plus bonus bay leaves. You haven’t read anything until you’ve read a book printed in 1758 about science.
They had some interesting ideas in the 18th Century as a whole, ably demonstrated by our remedy today. This is from The Compleat City & Country Cook or Accomplish’d Housewife by Charles Carter in 1732. Hyssop is from the mint family which has a sort of musky odour so this may be challenging especially with warm ale. In defence of this remedy, all the rest of the remedies for the complexion on this page involved rubbing various animal fats into the skin. There, a bit of musky mint and warm beer doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?
Our recipe today is from the same book but is less off putting. It’s a rich, set custard with biscuit crumbs and sack (a sweet fortified wine from Spain similar to sherry). Essentially a stiff, trifle-flavoured custard served with sliced oranges which definitely sounds delicious on this oppressive heat soaked day.
With that, I must bring this letter to a close, gentle reader. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch via the comments or via any of my social media profiles/my website . If you have enjoyed this and would like to read further such nonsense, please don’t hesitate to subscribe for free at the button below. You’d be very welcome and it would be a joy to write to you.