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Widdershins (Martlew)

Illustration of a Witches' Reel from Niccolò Paganini's Le streghe (Witches' Dance), composed about 1813

the Season of the Witch

Oct 28

Other Scottish Country Dances for this Day

Today's Musings, History & Folklore

Widdershins (Martlew)

Beliefs in the significance of direction in human culture - front and back, left and right, clockwise and counterclockwise - have inspired everyday practices and superstitions and dominated magical practices and appeals meant to access the supernatural.  

Before clocks were commonplace, the terms "sunwise" and "deosil" from the Scottish Gaelic language were used for the clockwise direction. "Widdershins" or "withershins" was used for counterclockwise.

To preserve good luck and the perceived natural order of things, cooks stirred food clockwise, and cut and served from left to right. If someone accidentally turned his hand counterclockwise, he needed to turn his hand an equal number of times clockwise to undo the harm.  Popular warnings discouraged twisting one’s thumbs around – “twiddling one’s thumbs” – toward oneself.  

Traditionally, it was considered bad luck to move widdershins around a building or person.  Walking widdershins around a church was considered especially unlucky and could cause you to be transported to the land of the fairies!

When wishing to manipulate the supernatural, however, the patterns were typically reversed.  Witches, it was believed, danced widdershins (as well as stirred their potions in this direction) in order to cast spells or commune with the supernatural.  

In 1591, a Scottish witches' dance (with explicit widdershins directions) came to prominence in the form of "The Witches' Reel" during The North Berwick witch trials.

This was the first major witchcraft persecution in Scotland, and began with a sensational case involving the royal houses of Denmark and Scotland. King James VI sailed to Copenhagen to marry Princess Anne, sister of Christian IV, King of Denmark. During their return to Scotland they experienced terrible storms and had to shelter in Norway for several weeks before continuing. The admiral of the escorting Danish fleet blamed the storm on the wife of a high official in Copenhagen whom he had insulted. Several nobles of the Scottish court were implicated, including, Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell on charges of high treason. Witchcraft trials were held in Denmark, but when James heard news he decided to set up his own tribunal.

Some of the words of this song are taken from the witchcraft trial of the Earl of Bothwell Francis Stewart who was accused of using sorcery to try to kill King James VI.   Claims that witches were dancing on cliff in order to stir up the sea while King James was sailing was one of the accusations.  

The Witches' Reel:

Cummer, go ye before, cummer go ye
If ye willna go before, cummer, let me
Linkin lithely widdershins
Cummer, carlin, crone and queen
Roun go we


Cummer, go ye before, cummer, go ye
If ye willna go before, cummer, let me
Loupin lightly widdershins
Kilted coats and fleein hair
Three times three


Cummer go ye before, cummer, go ye
If ye willna go before, cummer, let me
Whirlin skirlin widdershins
De’il tak the hindmost
Wha e’er she be

For more on these terrible witch trials, click the witches dancing widdershins below.

And to see the  dance performed at the Oxford Cambridge Highland Ball 2012, click the video.

Widdershins (Martlew)

Click the dance cribs or description below to link to a printable version of the dance!

Widdershins (Martlew)

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