This article is part of a series on Nicneven. The links to part two and part three can be found here and here.
Nicneven is a topic near and dear to my heart, and a mystery I’ve been working to understand for years now. I’ve written about her before but I would like to take the time now to attempt a proper redo, and bear with me because this is a long story. In truth, I don’t think I’ll ever be done searching for stories of her, so much of her is speculation and there are many pieces missing in this puzzle. Nicneven is one of those characters that has a noticeable lack of information in the folklore and history that we have on hand concerning fairy faith and witch trials in Scotland.
My original thought was that if someone could just compile the information and put all the little pieces together, we might be able to form the bigger picture. And so far, this has been one hell of an undertaking. It has also been exhilarating and all consuming as I’ve spent countless hours tracking down obscure articles and notes and books just for a mention of her name. Love and devotion have been driving force behind this project and I am by no means finished. This article will be the first in a series, looking at the history and folk beliefs surrounding Nicneven.
So, who is Nicneven? She is alluring at first glance, here is an almost deified witch and fairy queen of versatile power; she’s refreshingly terrifying to behold and capable of many forms. Behind one mask is yet another, and another under that. Even her name presents a puzzle, the etymology holds no conclusive answers, only more speculation. But to start looking at the bigger picture of Nicneven, we can begin with the most easily accessible mention of her, taken from Water Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830):
“It was from the same source also, in all probability, that additional legends were obtained of a gigantic and malignant female, the Hecate of this mythology, who rode on the storm and marshalled the rambling host of wanderers under her grim banner. This hag (in all respects the reverse of the Mab or Titania of the Celtic creed) was called Nicneven in that later system which blended the faith of the Celts and of the Goths on this subject.”
This passage intrigued and haunted me for a long time – who was this mysterious being and why, when mentioned, does she seem like something of common knowledge and yet so hard to find detailed information on? It is from this passage we can glean a few things about her: we know that Nicneven is a leader of the wild hunt, described as a hag, giantess, or ogress. She rides on storms under a grim banner with a host of wanderers – lost souls, fairies, or witches? Scott’s description of her seems to include all three. A fairy queen in her own right, but a fearsome one.
The second place where Nicneven is found is in The Flytting Betwixt Montgomerie and Polwart:
“Then a clear Companie came soon after closs,
Nicneven with her Nymphs, in number anew,
With Charms from Caitness and Chanrie in Ross,
Whose Cunning consists in casting a Clew…”
The Flytting is a …charming interface of insults between poets Montgomerie and Polwart written in 1629 and possibly the earliest piece of written work that mentions her. I have included a link to the full text at the bottom of the page should you wish to read it in it’s entirety. There’s a lot more to say about the Flytting and what it reveals about Nicneven, but for now we will leave off – it is something that I would like to go into more detail about in a later article.
Here we see Nicneven in full style, riding out and this time accompanied by nymphs in “number anew”. That sentence alone is interesting because of the direct implication that it’s not just a horde of nymphs or fairies, it’s a specific number – a procession, perhaps like a queen with ladies in waiting, or maybe something else.
In addition to this we are now presented with a new piece of information. Nicneven is a keeper of magic charms from “Caitness and Chanrie in Ross”. These charms aren’t explicitly detailed anywhere else in the Flytting text, however from her cunning in casting a clew we can infer that Nicneven’s domain of magic revolves around cords, yarns, and threads. In both Irish and Scottish folk magic, many methods of divination involved thread or yarn – one particularly popular piece of folk divination was in casting a spool of thread or a ball of yarn into the woods, or a darkened room; while the querent held onto one end of the thread. The purpose of this piece of magic was to determine a future husband based on the vision that would emerge for the caster – the future intended would come out, carrying the other end of the yarn or thread.
While we can only assume that Nicneven may have held dominion over all forms of magic involving cord; this gives us a broad range of folk practices and superstitions to look into. Spinning, in particular.
“Before leaving the subject of witch rides we must not forget that notorious person, the Gyre Carline or Nicniven, the Hecate or Mother witch of the Scottish peasantry, who was reputed to preside over the Galloway “Hallowmass Rades”. She was a mysterious divinity about whom there are many notices in the traditionary and legendary lore, and is described as wearing a long gray mantle and carrying a wand, which, like the miraculous rod of Moses, could convert water into rocks, and sea into solid land. Tradition speaks of Lochermoss, which extends from the Solway sea to Locher-brigg Hill, as having been once an arm of the sea and a good anchorage for shipping. A large swell of the tide during the procession of a Hallowmass Rade which swept away some steeds from her assembly, so provoked her, that, baring her withered arm, she stretched over the sea her rod of power and turned it into a quagmire.”
This excerpt is taken from Rowan and Red Thread, by Thomas Davidson, published in 1949 and found on pages 8 and 9. Davidson further writes of Nicneven:
“Superstitious women of Fife, we are told, always spun off all the flax on their rocks (distaffs) on the last night of the year, otherwise, they believed, the Gyre Carline (or as they pronounced it, “gy-carlin”) would carry it off before morning. In this same district she replaced the usual “bogie-man” for frightening children by the threat of being given to M’Niven if they were not good.”
This two page passage about Nicneven brings a lot more information to the table in regards to her history and yet somehow still furthers the mystery. For starters, this equates Nicneven to the Gyre Carline (gy-carlin, gyre carling; there are numerous spellings of this name or title). Davidson’s description of the Gyre Carline reads very similar to Scott’s depiction of Nicneven; here we have a fearsome hag and this time she is described as one who was used to scare children into being on their best behavior. The similarity strengthens with the connection to spinning between the Gyre Carline and the magical abilities of Nicneven as mentioned in The Flytting.
Just from these few pieces, we have a connection now drawn between Nicneven and the Gyre Carline and may be able to make the assumption that they are the same being, or that perhaps Gyre Carline is a title that Nicneven claims. While at first glance this link might seem tenuous, it appears that other folklorists have drawn this conclusion and shown that this is something that was previously common knowledge. In the previous passage where Davidson speaks of Nicneven at Lochermoss, he is in fact referring to a section of Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song by R. Cromek (1810):
“We will close our history of witchcraft with the only notice we could collect, of a celebrated personage, called the Gyre Carline; who is reckoned the mother of glamour, and near a-kin to Satan himself. She is believed to preside over the ‘Hallowmass Rades’; and mothers frequently frighten their children by threatening to give them to M’Neven, or the Gyre Carline. She is described as wearing a long gray mantle, and carrying a wand, which, like the miraculous rod of Moses, could convert water into rocks, and sea into solid land.”
All of this information is again reiterated in J. Maxwell Wood’s Witchcraft and Superstitious Record: In the South-Western District of Scotland.
“Next in importance to Satan himself at these “Walpurgis” night festivals at Locharbriggs tryst, was the celebrated witch “Gyre Carline,” who possessed a wand of great creative and destructive power. It is told how in the days when Lochar Moss was an open arm of the Solway Firth, an extra large tide swept up and washed away several of the witch steeds from the Locharbrigg hill. This so enraged the “Gyre Carline” that over the unruly waters she waved her magic wand, and what was “once a moss and then a sea” became “again a moss and aye will be”.
This particular section of the book presents an intriguing new angle because it goes on to discuss that there were “carlines” at every witch coven, taking on the context of “carline” being used as a role for a member of a witch coven. To add to the mystery of Nicneven, there are several women through the course of witch trial history who had the name Nicneven, McNevin, or Nic Neville, who were condemned to death and of course said to have become the Nicneven who is a Queen of the Fairies, a witch-mother akin to Hekate, and a leader of the wild hunt.
“‘Nic neven’, apparently a name or soubriquet used by more than one witch or magical practitioner as early as the 1560’s, presents a continuing puzzle that may be solved by further study of magical practices.” Witchcraft in Scotland – Julian Goodare, pg 7 of 14, from The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America.
Coming back to the topic of location, we can now see a scattering of history and folklore concerning both Nicneven and the Gyre Carline (or Nicneven as the Gyre Carline) throughout Scotland. We began in the highlands, moved east, and we even have stories of her in the lowlands. This is another part of the intrigue of Nicneven – once again, we are presented with the fact that we simply lack the information and yet, she was a widespread folkloric witch and fairy queen throughout the highlands, the lowlands, and eastern areas of Scotland. What we can tell from mapping where she was known is that she was much more important and well known than how she appears now.
Whether or not we believe the explanation above that a witch died and became the fairy and witch queen of trial records and folktales, what we are left with as we reach the conclusion of this first look at Nicneven is a Fairy and Witch Queen full of glamours, secrets, and mystery.
And so this is where we start: with a divine hag, a creatrix of land and water, a fairy queen, a leader of the wild hunt, a consort of the devil, and a witching queen in her own right. To hold a living practice of veneration for Nicneven, all of these aspects need to be acknowledged. As a result of the lack of direct information, Nicneven often gets labeled as a sort of ‘Halloween Queen’ and while her lore does begin at the end of harvest, that label is misleading at best and reductionist at worst.
While I hope you have enjoyed this piece, this is only the beginning of my work in unraveling the tangled web of Nicneven and the Gyre Carline. There is more yet to be explored.
Walter Scott – Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft
The Flytting Betwixt Montgomerie and Polwart – full text available here: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A03840.0001.001/1:3?rgn=div1;view=fulltext – The Flytting Betwixt Montgomerie and Polwart
Bibliographical Notes on the Witchcraft Literature of Scotland – John Ferguson. Page 56 – Kate McNevin, Nicnevin (the witch of Monzie). Page 55 discusses another witch trial which speaks of the hanging of Nic Neville.
Rowan Tree and Red Thread – Thomas Davidson, pgs 8 and 9
The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America: Witchcraft in Scotland – Julian Goodare, pg 7.
Witchcraft and Superstitious Record: In the South-Western District of Scotland – J. Maxwell Wood
Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song – R. Cromek
Published October 6, 2021. Killian Wren. Copyright 2021.
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