They were a superstitious lot, those old Lancastrians. Naturally they were worried by a myriad of things unseen – the boggarts and ghosts that haunt this county – but they also held superstitious beliefs about all kinds of perfectly visible animals and birds. The living creatures all around them could foretell the weather if you understood the signs in their behaviour (I well remember my mother teaching me that when cows were lying down, rain was on the way) but they could also foretell death and disaster. Sometimes their mere presence was a simple good omen, maybe a promise of riches to come or even marriage, but just as often they were a harbinger of bad luck.
In old times, cats and dogs enjoyed the same close relationship with their owners as they do today, but they were also expected to earn at least part of their keep by keeping down vermin, hunting for rabbits for the table, or rounding up sheep. They were also able to foretell the weather; if a cat was sharpening its claws on the furniture, or if it was unusually lively about the house, these were sure signs of windy weather. If, when washing, a cat assiduously pulled its paw over its whole head, the weather would definitely be fine. If not, it would soon rain.
If a kitten chose to come and live in a house, it was a lucky omen – but if an old cat was approaching the end of its life, allowing it to die in the house would bring bad luck. Cats were never allowed to sleep with their people, because they were believed to suck their breath and their health away; likewise, playing too much with a cat would result in illness, especially if you happened to swallow a cat-hair, for you would surely die.
Dogs, being more affectionately and loyally connected to their owners than cats, were said to have prior knowledge of impending sickness or death and would let it be known by howling at the door of the soon-to-be-afflicted person’s house. If a dog was driven away from a house and kept returning, a death would certainly follow. A whining dog foretold bad times coming, unless a sensible reason could be found for its distress.
Another animal commonly found in houses was the cricket, who liked the warmth of the fireplace and chimney. The presence of crickets was considered lucky and if they abandoned the house, it was a sure sign of approaching woes.
Birds were also believed to have uncanny knowledge of people’s lives. Canaries were common family pets, loved for their cheerful singing – but their mood was watched carefully because their silence was not a good sign. Numerous wild birds, however, had more definite superstitions attached to them.
A jackdaw paying a visit to a house where a sick person lay was always rapidly chased away as it was an omen of death. Similarly, a dove was seen as an angel coming to take the sick person to heaven. In spring, the cuckoo’s first call was always listened for eagerly, for if the sound came from the east and if coins were in one’s pocket, then it was certain that there would be no money worries for the rest of the year. Swallows nesting in the eaves of a house were lucky and their annual return a welcome sight – but if they did not return, the household would fear bad luck.
Everyone knows that magpies can tell the future. A lone magpie is unlucky – raise your hat in greeting and all will be well. There is a rhyme, known all over the country, which lists the futures predicted by seeing different numbers of magpies;
One for sorrow, two for joy
Three for a girl, four for a boy
Five for silver, six for gold
Seven for a secret never to be told
A much older version of the rhyme, recorded in 1780, says;
One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a wedding
And four for death
An alternative version takes the number of magpies up to ten;
One for sorrow, two for luck (or mirth)
Three for a wedding, four for death (or birth)
Five for silver, six for gold
Seven for a secret, not to be told
Eight for heaven, nine for hell
And ten for the devil’s own sell!
An old Lancastrian version includes a witch;
One for sorrow, two for mirth
Three for a wedding, four for a birth
Five for riches, six for poor
Seven for a witch, I can tell you no more
And another version also recorded in Lancashire – dating possibly from the times of the Napoleonic Wars – ends in a very interesting fashion;
Five for a fiddle, six for a dance,
Seven for England, eight for France.
But whichever version you prefer, one thing is certain, that to see a lone magpie is unlucky. So remember – tip your hat to him if he crosses your path.
Finally, there is one particular Lancashire superstition connected to the common snail which makes me smile – for it is considered that catching a black snail by its horns and throwing it over one’s left shoulder is a very lucky thing to do. Lucky maybe, but not for the squeamish, and as snails rapidly withdraw their ‘horns’ at the first sign of interference, I’d think that this particular method of attracting luck is virtually impossible!