The Sophia Morrison collection of Manx folk charms

From Kelten
Published: 5 March 2021
The Sophia Morrison collection of Manx folk charms
Stephen Miller
Title (NL): Sophia Morrison's collectie van Manxe spreuken
Abstract (NL):

Sophia Morrison (1859–1917) was een folklore-verzamelaar op het Eiland Man aan het begin van de 20e eeuw, met een interesse in volksgeneeskunst. Ze speelde een grote rol in de Manxe taalopleving, en was van plan te publiceren op dit gebied. Dit is echter nooit gebeurd. Dit artikel bevat een aantal passages uit haar notitieboeken, waarin ze 70 spreuken in het Engels en het Manx had verzameld, met onder andere christelijke en numerologische elementen.

Sophia Morrison (1859–1917) was a major collector of folklore from the Isle of Man in the early 1900s with a particular interest in folk medicine. Amongst the material she collected were folk charms used in healing a whole range of bodily complaints and afflictions. Her contribution to the field of Manx folk medicine has yet to receive any attention and the aim here is to highlight her importance through an introduction to her charm collection.

In an undated letter Morrison wrote to Karl Roeder (1848–1911), a German national resident in Manchester and fellow folklorist, that “during this last month, I have collected 6 or 7 note books full of Charms & herbal remedies […].”[1] Morrison’s collecting of folk medicine was carried out in — and seemingly over — the early 1900s, as she mentioned when sending some or all of this material to Roeder in 1906: “I send you my notes on Charms & Charmers, Manx Dye Plants & Herbal Remedies. I collected them about four years ago & have added nothing to them since. I have always intended to work them up, but from lack of time have not done so.[2] Fortunately these notes, with some bearing annotations by Roeder, were returned to her and so were not lost along with the majority of Roeder’s own personal papers. 

If we had not Miss Morrison at the wheel, I am afraid our ship would have foundered long ago. I only hope that she may be long spared to carry on her labour of love.[3] That ship was the Manx language revival and Sophia Morrison was indeed its captain and she also played a role in the wider pan-Celtic movement of the time. She was a folklorist, folksong collector, pioneer of recording with the phonograph, secretary of the Manx Language Society, editor of Mannin, and founder of the Peel Language Class, amongst others. The Peel Players took their inspiration from her enthusiasm, and their performances of plays by Christopher Shimmin created a Manx theatre where she even took to the stage with them. 

Returning to Roeder, she was aware that he was planning a publication on Manx folk medicine: "It seems a pity that so much information as you have should be lost. I will therefore with pleasure cooperate with you in the matter. […] I should be glad to know how you intend to arrange the material—I include the plan of arrangement which I had intended to follow. Is your idea at all the same?"

Neither she nor Roeder in the end ever published on this topic, but her plan is amongst her personal papers. Plainly titled “Arrangement of Article” it would have been intended for the Proceedings of the Isle of Man Antiquarian and Natural History Society, as that was the only forum then available to her. Amongst the manuscripts that have survived, there is more than sufficient material for her to have authored a book and any number of articles for that matter on the topic.

Morrison was not collecting only charms but also plant names and wider, as can be seen when her papers are worked through; basically the whole gamut of Manx plant lore. Her papers were deposited in the then Manx Museum Library in the 1950s (now the Manx National Heritage Library—MNHL), and the state of her papers is a familiar one, having seen loss in large part, despite being kept in family hands. Nevertheless, they have the undoubted virtue of survival. It is an open question as to how many of the “6 or 7 note books” are to be found there now. 

Her collection of verbal charms is found scattered through nine manuscripts and while it is clear that there is copying between a number of them, given the textual stability, it is difficult to decide which charm text is a copy and which ones are simply other versions of the same charm. The full catalogue of charms is too extensive to reproduce here (it is hoped to publish it in full at a later date) and so charms extracted from one of the fuller manuscripts are reproduced here to show the nature of the material collected by Morrison (the texts have been silently edited in places for readability).

A sampler of Manx folk charms

The eighteen charms here are to be found in a disbound notebook, paginated by Morrison on right-hand pages only, missing 1 (and so any title) and starts now on 3, undated. MNHL, MS 09495, Sophia Morrison Papers, Box 6, [Envelope] “Manx Plant Names Lore.” I wish to acknowledge thanks to Robert Carswell for translating the texts of the charms in Manx.

For a birthmark
Place a dead hand on the mark. A man’s hand for a girl, a woman’s for a boy. Say it is done in the name of the Trinity.

To stop blood
Before the flood when water was wood, Jesus stood and firmly stood. I pray thee stop this blood of [full name] In the name of the Father, Son & Holy Ghost.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, baptized in the river Jordan, as the water stood the child spoke I pray thee stop this blood of [full name] in the name of Father, Son & Holy Ghost.

In thy name I mean, & by thy power to stop this vein of [full name & age]. In the name of the Father, Son & Holy Ghost by thy power I stop this vein.

For erysipelas (or, St. Anthony's fire)
Magh ass show rose bwoirrin as rose fyryn. M’ess [my vees] eh shoh dy phooar Chreest Mac Yee dy row ec ny scughey gys crink s’yrjey as mar yn cheapen molar lhieeney as traie.
[Out of this rose female and rose male. If this is of the power of Christ the Son of God may it move to the highest hills as like the sea flowing and ebbing. — translation Robert Carswell]

Charm—the butter is divided into three three times. Whilst doing this the Charmer says that it is divided into three in the name of the Trinity for [full name] ill with St Anthony’s fire, & he prays that the butter may have virtue to heal by the power of the Trinity.

For lumbago, rheumatism etc.
Ta mee skeaylley yn ghuin shoh ayns ennym yn Ayr, as y Vac, as y Spyrryd Noo. My she grin ayns ennym yn Chiarn, ta mee skealley eh ass yn eill, ass ny fehyn, as ass ny crauenyn.
[I am dispersing this pain in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. If it is a pain in the name of the Lord, I disperse it from the flesh, from the sinews, and from the bones. — translation Robert Carswell]

For numbness in the feet
Numbness or ‘sleep’ in feet “Ping, ping, trash, cur yn cadley jiargan ass my chass” Kelly’s Dict (heard today in Peel = Bing, Bing, wass cur yn collan jiargan ass my chass. cadley-jiargan = the prickling sensation in a limb known as “pins and needles” preceded by the article yn. Known here as Collan bing, or jiargan; also cadley keirn).
[Penny, penny, brass [if not just vocables], put the pins and needles from my foot. — translation Robert Carswell]

For ringworm
Ringworm red, ringworm red, do not spring do not spread. (This must be said three times while rubbing round the ringworm sunrise).

For a scald
10 There were three angels came from the North, one to serve fire, one to serve frost, one to serve our Lord Christ. Out fire, enter frost, In the name of our Saviour Christ the Lord. (Blow on the scald when saying this charm, but not when “out fire” is said.

11 Place the hand lightly on the scald, then remove it saying “I do this praying it won't blister. In the name of the Father etc. Blow on the scald after each name in the Trinity”

12 Ayns ennym yn Ayr, as y Vac, as y Spyrrd Noo, how yn scoldey shoh ersooyl (If not too painful the hand must be placed on the scald whilst saying this charm removing it three times to blow on the scald when the names of the Trinity are said).
[In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, take this scald away. — translation Robert Carswell]

For a stye
13 Obtain a brass headed pin from the person who has the stye, rub the head of the pin round the stye nine times from left to right, counting in Manx as follows “lheumican nane, lheumican jees, etc. up to lheumican nuy.” Then reverse the rubbing & counting.

14 This charm seems to be an English version of the last. Obtain a yellow headed pin with it make thirteen crosses over the stye saying “from one to two, from two to three” etc; then count back again. “From 13 to 12” etc; to “from one to none at all.” Then the Trinity follows with a further cross for each name.

15 A funeral was one of the requisites of the following charm. Take a straw out of the bed, rub it round the stye, then run after a funeral throw the straw at the coffin & say “Take my stye away with your own.”

To remove warts
16 “You must tell nothing to nobody about what you are going to do, but when the people are in church on Sunday, get a snap, rub it over the warts & then stick it on a snail, rub it over the warts. When doing this it must be said to be done in the name of the Trinity, Father, Son & Holy Spirit. When the snail is dead the warts are gone.”

17 Fahney veg gob garragh, now raad as ny biooid dy brags y arragh.
[Little wart, growth, shift, go away and don’t be at you ever again. — translation Robert Carswell]

To see one's sweetheart
18 To see one’s sweetheart—say the Lord’s Prayer backwards three times. “I knew a girl that did this once — Mary Lewin — & she saw her sweetheart right enough, but she was plagued for long enough after it, for as soon as it was after sunset, no matter where she would be, stones and clods of turf & sticks would be flung at her & no one could find out who did it.”

Sophia Morrison in the field - an anecdote (1903)

I was amused this past September at the way which I was given received a charm without weakening its effect to the giver. Whilst blaberry picking I met on South Barrule, a family pulling ling, for winter firing. Manks is the man’s chengey ny mayrey (mother tongue), and so delighted was he to speak it some, that I ventured to ask him if he had any charms. He at once said “yes” and gave one me. But to avoid losing any of its virtue, he asked for my note book, put it on top of the cart wheel, and wrote it in there, for writing it does not count! This is what he wrote down—“As God said unto Moses, as thy river shall be as my river, and thy water as my water and thy blood as my blood. Why won’t my blood stop also thy blood [full name] In the name of the Father, of the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”[4]

Here we see Morrison in the field in 1903, not collecting charms as such but blaeberries (another common name is bilberries), but ever taking the opportunity to collect folklore when the opportunity presented itself. Speaking Manx to him — native speakers were still to be come across in this period — he was unwilling to recite the charm to her, for to do so would strip the charm of its power, but writing it down for her posed no such issue. Although he was a Manx speaker, the charm, one for blood stopping, was in English. It is from many such encounters as here that she collected Manx folklore and this was a time when one walked and when one recorded material in pencil in a notebook. Stamina was required as well as good weather, as Morrison wrote on another matter in 1910, that “when this hopeless weather passes I must seek light from Dinah Moore at Glen Meay.”[5]


All in all, hand collected by Morrison are a total seventy verbal charms recorded in English and as well as in Manx. Even allowing for the final number of texts to be reduced, due as mentioned earlier to copying between manuscripts, this is nevertheless the largest single corpus of charms now known from the Isle of Man. As regards the language of the charms, English and Manx both feature except in one case, and that is to do with blood-stopping charms where they are all recorded in English only. The blood-stopping charms (in common with others) draw upon Christian themes, calling upon variously the name of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost in the text; angels figure in charms for scalds (and only there). Charms often involve the name of the Trinity. Numerology is often employed in charms with repetative actions part of its performance, and often involving counting whilst doing so. There is abundant secondary literature on these and other topics and useful starting points (disregard the specific geographic mentions in titles here) are Thomas R. Forbes, “Verbal charms in British folk medicine,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 115 (1971), 293–316; Owen Davies, “Healing charms in use in England and Wales 1700–1950,” Folklore 107 (1996), 19–32; and “Charmers and charming in England and Wales from the eighteenth to the twentieth century,” Folklore 109 (1998), 41–52. Still of relevance is Felix Grendon, “The Anglo-Saxon Charms,” Journal of American Folklore 22 (1909), 105–237.

Turning to the specific charms themselves, they were employed to help cure a wide range of physical conditions and complaints. Not surprisingly, those to stop bleeding from cuts and wounds figure prominently, a common hazard with work on the land, especially during hay making and in the harvest, and these comprise the largest number of texts (17). Then there are charms for skin complaints such as erysipelas (5), popularly known as St Antony’s Fire, a relatively common bacterial infection of the skin, and ringworm (1), a rash caused by a fungal infection. St Anthony after whom the former condition is named, was the saint prayed to for relief by those afflicted, the legend of miraculous relief dating from c. 1095. Warts are another common skin complaint, which can be verbally charmed away (9). Turning to eyes, styes are caused again by a bacterial infection, and here a brass pin is used in a ritual manner along with the charm itself in order to seek relief (14). Lumbago is pain in the lower back muscles and caused by the sheer physicality of working on the land in bending and lifting (2); the same charm is also used for rheumatism, a complaint affecting joints, especially those in the hands. Numbness in the feet is another condition (1) for which a charm is available. Internal complaints (seen as “cancer”) involved the hemlock plant, Conium maculatum, and again a verbal formula was used in the cure. Moving into the world of the farmhouse and its work, scalds from boiling water or steam were a common hazard (11). Charms feature in folkore of the body, for instance in removing birthmarks (2), making use of the so-called “dead hand,” i.e., the hand of a corpse; they also figure in divination and forecasting, here in matters of love, with charms to see one’s sweetheart (1) and to foretelling one’s future husband (4). Finally, and to end with here, there is a charm called on in the act of renouncing God and giving oneself over to the Devil….

For witchcraft
You must go to church on a Sunday that then is sacrament. Pretend to eat the holy bread, but carry it home with you. At night go to a river where there is a bridge, undress & stand in the water under the bridge, then throw the bread away & say ‘so I cast away God.’ Then dip under the water & say, ‘as I wash clean in this water, so do I clean myself from all works of God & his church & give myself to the Devil.’[6]


Copy letter (fragment) from Sophia Morrison to Karl Roeder, undated, MNHL, MS 09495, Sophia Morrison Papers, Box 5.
Copy letter from Sophia Morrison to Karl Roeder, undated [April? 1906], MNHL, MS 09495, Sophia Morrison Papers, Box 4, Letter copy book (1904–07).
Letter from J.J. Kneen to William Cubbon, 9 November 1915, MNHL, MS 09913, William Cubbon Papers, Box labelled “WC: Correspondence.”
Clear text edit. Disbound pagespread from a School Exercise Book, paginated on side 1 as page 2 with heading “Charms & Charmers,” and on side 3 as page 23, undated. MNHL, MS 09495, Sophia Morrison Papers, Box 6, [Envelope] “Manx Plant Names Lore.”
Letter from Sophia Morrison to Josephine Kermode, 14 December 1910, MNHL, MS 08979, Kermode Family Papers, Box labelled “Josephine Kermode (‘Cushag’).”
Disbound pagespread from a School Exercise Book, paginated on side 1 as page 2 with heading “Charms & Charmers,” and on side 3 as page 23, undated. MNHL, MS 09495, Sophia Morrison Papers, Box 6, [Envelope] “Manx Plant Names Lore.”

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