In the Casting of a Clew

‘The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania’, Sir Joseph Noel Paton, c. 1849.

This article is part of a series on Nicneven. The links to part one and part three can be found here and here.

This is the second part of a series exploring the folklore and history of Nicneven, the Scottish Queen of Elphame and Witch-Mother. In my first article, I began by exploring what we actually know of Nicneven: the historical records where she is discussed, the locations, and the Gyre Carline who she has been equated with. Just to recap, Nicneven is an enigmatic being who is described in the source texts as a giantess, ogress, or hag. At Hallowmass, she takes up the reins as the head of wild hunts and faery rades in Scotland.

In this next segment, I would now like to take the time to revisit The Flytting Betwixt Montgomerie and Polwart – in particular, what more we can learn about Nicneven from this poem and what it can tell us in regards to the sorcery and witchcraft that she commanded. As I explained in the first article, this is possibly the first piece of written work that mentions Nicneven. The Flytting is important for more than just this though; while it is essentially a battle of words between two poets, Montgomerie weaves a fantastical tale of the rearing and baptism of Polwart incorporating elements of witchcraft and folklore throughout. It is this part of the Flytting which forms the basis for our understanding of Nicneven and her sorcery.   

The Birth of Polwart

The tale Montgomerie tells us regarding the birth, baptism, and upbringing of Polwart (Sir Patrick Hume of Polwart) provides a look at the popular beliefs of the time. Montgomerie begins with the Weird Sisters happening upon the infant who is found with ravens tearing at him. The Sisters determining the child to be a foul, cursed thing then make many predictions about his fate and nature.

Fra the sisters had seene the shape of that shit,
“Little lucke bee thy lot, there where thou lyes.
Thy fowmart face,” quoith the first, “to flyt sal be fit.”
“Nicneuen,” quoith the next, ” sail norish thee twyse;
To ride post to Elphin nane abler nor it.”

“Nicneven shall nourish thee twice.” These words stand out in a folkloric sense. To nourish means to breastfeed and for an infant to be nursed by this sinister hag, queen of fairies and witches, has dire implications for the child’s fate.

What we know of fairy faith and folklore of changelings was that it was a common practice for these good neighbors to swap out a human child with one of their own. This fairy that was left in the child’s place was said to be sickly and ill-tempered and there are many methods preserved that instruct the mother on how to make a changeling reveal its true nature and have her own child returned.

Superstitions regarding the connection between breastfeeding and the evil eye are numerous and some of them are still in circulation today. However, in this instance we must also consider some of the folklore surrounding changelings and why they had to take the place of human infants.

There are sources that give us a few different reasons for the changeling swap: it might have been a way for a fairy to avoid being offered as part of the tithe to Hell, it is possible that the fair folk needed to bring children into the mix for interbreeding or so that the fairy nature did not die out, and it has also been speculated that the fae were unable to breastfeed their own children.

To return back to the Flytting, the act of Polwart being breastfed by the queen of faery rades and wild hunts marks him out as being adopted or transitioned into one of the fair folk. He is then tasked with operating as a messenger between Elphame (the realm of the good neighbors).

The misfortune of having been “nursed” by Nicneven twice and then later fed by monkeys is sure to bring about further maledictions upon the infant. This specific practice of breastfeeding twice, or having been weaned and then returned to it, are intrinsically tied to raising a child with the evil eye. Montgomerie goes on that this instance of being raised by Nicneven in such a way makes Polwart the best candidate to be a messenger to elfland – and as we well know, this ability to travel between these realms and consort with the fair folk would have been damning evidence at a witch trial.

As an aside, once again between the Flytting and the stories of the Witch of Montie discussed in the first segment, we have another puzzle piece between Nicneven being noted here as a wet-nurse and Kate McNevin who was said to have worked as a nursemaid before her execution (the exact year she died is unknown, some sources have it as 1560 and others at 1610).

‘Titania and Bottom’, Henry Fuseli, c. 1790.

The Dark Baptism  

“They seeing this sairie thing, said to them self,
This thriftles thing is meit for vs
And for our craft commodious,”

Nicneven and her retinue spy the infant Polwart and declare him to be “meant for us”. Nine times widdershins they ride round the thorn tree under which the child rests, and he is spirited away with them to the water in the woods – there to be baptized for their wicked work.

“Syne bare-foot and bare-leg’d to babtize that bairne
Till a water they went be a wood side,
They fand the shit all beshitten in his awin shearne,
On three headed Hecatus to heir them they cryde
As we haue found in the field this fundling forfairne,
First his faith he forsakes in thee to confyde,
Be vertue of thir words and this raw yearne,
And whill this thrise thretty knots on this blew threed byd,
And of thir mens members weill sow’d to a shoe
Whilks we haue tane fra top to tae
Euen of ane hundreth men and mae
Now grant vs goddesse or we gae
Our dueties to doe.”

In the Flytting, Montgomerie’s baptismal story of Polwart shows us a lot of familiar folklore regarding witchcraft, fairies, and Nicneven that circulated at the time. But there’s a bit of a dissonance here, Nicneven while still named as riding out at the head of the wild hunt and a queen of fairies in her own right is now demoted down in lieu of Hecate the witching goddess.

This is where the shift comes in as Hecate being a deity isn’t something that the regular lay-folk of Scotland would have known or would have incorporated as part of Nicneven’s stories or practices. This does however, bring us back to the conflict of trying to determine whether the people believed that Nicneven was wholly fae and witch queen, or if she was a mortal witch who after death became the fairy queen. The blurring of lines becomes increasingly harder to sort out in this situation and perhaps it’s just as well; it serves its purpose as yet another of her mysteries.

In Conclusion

The Flytting is crucial to understanding the role of Nicneven as it sheds light on both her nature and the magic that falls squarely in Nicneven’s domain – control over the wind and summoning fiends from cairns. Cairns have historically been used as land markers, grave markers, and there is even a highland tradition of men laying a cairn at the top of a hill before battle. Those who survive the battle afterward remove a rock from the cairn, leaving the remainders as a way of honoring the fallen. To be able to summon fiends from a cairn, or rather, the ability to call forth liminal beings or restless dead and to grant that skill to her attending retinue marks her out as both a figure of powerful necromancy and as a dark psychopomp of sorts. Not only do the wandering, lost souls follow her – but they are called forth and commanded by her, as an army would be.

From the striking words “casting a clew”, our eyes are once again drawn to the sorcery and magics held by this figure. Whether human or fairy, witch or giantess, Nicneven’s magic was not just the act of simple love divinations. Cords and yarn, spinning, weaving, knitting, sewing – these practices were used for all different types of magic both healing and malefic in nature. To take the measure of someone with a length of cord, rope, or yarn was to have a piece of them that could then be used for good or ill. The baptism Montgomerie writes out later in the poem also brings back this magic of cord work – a blue yarn, knotted thrice times thirty during the event of Polwart’s baptism and based on the nature of the poem itself, it’s easy enough to assume that the knotted blue yarn is a tool of malefic power.

Looking at this whole picture – the imagery of Nicneven nursing an infant and offering it up for a diabolic baptism gives us the notion that she represents a sort of dark midwife, like the kind spoken of in the Malleus Maleficarum. And while this is a humorous poem of insults from one poet to another we can’t deny the folklore and practice that is contained within. In essence, the outline of Polwart’s baptism in the Flytting is a rebirth, and Nicneven is the midwife and nursemaid who causes the transformation and oversees the transition from human to fae.

“Nicneven with her nymphs rides out.
The Mother of Witches was once a Maid.
For Heaven is Hell and Hell is Heaven
Where all a-cold the heart was laid
Upon her sacrificial stone
And Man in his cruelty found his way
To wed that Queen on Her own ground.
Now all our souls like shadows race
Before the hunting of her hounds.”

-Audit/Poetry, Vol. IV, No. 3 featuring Robert Duncan, pg. 20

Sources and Further Reading

The Flytting Betwixt Montgomerie and Polwart, available here: rgn=div1;view=fulltext

And here: oemsalexanderm00montgoog_djvu.txt

Katharine Briggs – An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures; pg. 71 – “Changelings”.

Marie Walter – The Folklore of Breastfeeding.

Wikipedia – Changelings: _and_Northern_England

Audit/Poetry, Vol. IV, No. 3 featuring Robert Duncan, pg. 20

Published October 8, 2021. Killian Wren. Copyright 2021.

2 thoughts on “In the Casting of a Clew

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: