It is because last evening tide
Brian an augury hath tried.
The Taghairm called; by which, afar,
Our sires foresaw the events of war.
(“The Lady of the Lake”, Sir Walter Scott, 1810)
Modern Wicca is an eclectic amalgamation of religion, folk, and magic traditions that emerged as we would recognize it today in the 20th Century (as “British Traditional Wicca”) and often integrating diverse elements (depending on who you ask) of Greek, Egyptian, Teutonic, Hermetic, and Kabbalistic practices into a user-friendly, pantheistic synthesis of pre-Christian belief systems. Regardless of the particular strain of Wicca, most tend to rely very heavily on a foundation of Gaelic polytheism originating in Iron Age Britain and Ireland, and as it was presumed to exist between roughly 500 B.C. – 500 A.D. We actually know very little specific about Celtic religion in practice except for a range of folkloric survivals, as their druidic priestly class left no written records. The few accounts that we have are largely derived from contemporary Greco-Roman sources, who were of course largely disparaging of anything not Greco-Roman and made vague references to human and animal sacrifice, the importance of divination and prophecy, reincarnation, and the description of a few select rituals. Most everything else we know comes from Medieval Irish writers and the revival of interest in Celtic history and culture that emerged in the late 17th century. While any blanket statement about modern practitioners of Wicca is fundamentally impossible, as practices have become very personalized, most people (i.e. those who don’t think the revival of the Inquisition is a great idea), understand the modern version to be a shamanistic and gentle form of nature spirituality, as do many practitioners. Far be it from me to disparage anyone else’s system of faith, as it would seem that from a structural perspective, the Pastafarian Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Discordian “Slack” are no less inadequate ontological organizing principles than the Holy Trinity or the reproduction of the means of production, but given a particularly well described Celtic ritual called the Taghairm, one thing is for certain – I wouldn’t want to be a Gaelic cat until the modern era.
Now, I’m essentially a dog person, inordinately fond of my half-breed, monster Pekingese named Milosevic (the wife rejected the name “DogX” or “The Dog Formerly Known as Prince”), who unfortunately succumbed to a congenital heart arrhythmia a few years ago after 12 years of a relatively aristocratic lifestyle, at least by dog standards. Something to do with an appreciation for unqualified adoration, I think. But I harbor no ill will towards cats. That’s why I was a little puzzled by the Taghairm nan Caht, a well-documented Celtic ritual that was reputedly practiced well into the 17th century, most particularly in the highlands of Scotland, involving roasting cats alive until a monstrous feline named “Big Ears” (believed to be a demon) shows up to grant supernatural favors, predict the future, or answer existential questions. My interest in this stemmed not from some sort of prurient interest in the torture of small animals, rather from an attempt to find the source of an odd Scottish proverb, “Ge be ‘chi no ‘chluinneas tu, cum an cat mu ‘n cuairt — Whatever you see or hear, keep the cat turning” (Forbes, 1905, p83). Whatever this proverb is meant to communicate, and I presume it has something to do with perseverance in the face of adversity, it is a specific reference to the Taghairm. Most of the descriptions of the Taghairm are colored by the Christian sensibilities of their authors, so this becomes some sort of devil-invoking ritual, which was most certainly not its original sense, but neither does “Big Ears”, the fearsome gigantic cat with enormous ears, and glowing yellow eyes that the ceremony is meant to attract have much in common with well-known Celtic fairy-lore about the Cait Sidhe or Irusan “King of Cats”, although attempts have been made to connect them.
The most awful ceremony known in the Highlands was called Taghairm, but better understood as “giving his supper to the devil.” It consisted of roasting cats alive on spits till the arch-fiend appeared in bodily shape. He was then compelled to grant whatever wish the persons who had the courage to perform the ceremony preferred, or to explain and answer whatever question might be propounded. Tradition makes mention of three instances of its performance in the West Highlands. It is a tribute to the fearless character of the actors that such a rite should be ascribed to them. Those mentioned are Allan, the cattle lifter, who was a native of Lochaber, who derived his name from having lifted a creach for every year of his life, and one for every quarter he was in his mother’s womb. The place where the rite was celebrated is still called, in Lochaber, Dail-a-Chait—the Cat’s Field. Another instance was by some of the “children of Quithen,” a small sept in Skye, now absorbed with the family of MacDonalds. The place was called the “Make-believe Cave,” on the east side of the island. The last instance was that performed by Allan Mac Lean, commonly styled Ailean Mac Eachainn of the family of Lochbuy who projected the rites, and Lachlan MacLean, or Lachaim Odhar, who was an exceedingly bold and warlike man, and governor of Duard Castle, under his chief, Sir Lachlan Mor MacLean, and fought in all the battles of the latter. These two men shut themselves up in a large barn at Pennygown, on the sound of Mull, Isle of Mull. According to custom they must roast the cats alive for four days, without intermission or taste of food. The ceremony commenced on a Friday, and had not long proceeded, when infernal spirits, in the form of black cats, began to enter the barn in which the rite was being celebrated, and joined in the horrible howling of those being roasted (MacLean, 1917, p29-32).
Apparently, the Taghairm nan Caht was part of a complex of Taghairm rituals of divination, not all of which involved gruesome barbecues and attracting monstrous fortune-telling felines. “They had several methods of consulting the fates. One of the most remarkable was when a number of men retired to a lonely and secluded place, where one of the number was, with the exception of his head, enveloped in a cow’s hide, and left alone for the night. Certain invisible beings then came, and answering the questions which he put to them, relieved him. Another method of seeking information was known as the Taghairm nan caht, and consisted in putting a live cat on a spit, and roasting it until other cats made their appearance, and, answering the question, obtained the release of the unfortunate animal” (Lee, 1920, p41-42).
This word seems to be derived from tu, which in some parts of the Highlands is still used for a spirit or ghost, and from ghairm, calling upon or invoking. It signifies, therefore, necromancy, or an invoking of spirits. There were different kinds of taghairm. One of them was used in Skye not many years ago. The diviner covered himself with a cow’s hide, and repaired at night into some hollow – sounding cave, whither the person who wanted to consult him followed soon after all alone. At the mouth of the cave he proposed aloud the questions of which he wanted a solution, and the man within pronounced the responses. Indeed the awful silence of night, the gloominess of the place, and the sounding of the cave, must have often produced in both a fit of terror not less suspensive of the due exercise of reason than fury or madness. I need hardly remind my learned readers that some of the most celebrated heathen oracles were given in caves. Another species of it is called taghairm an uisge—i.e., taghairm by water. It was last used by a tenant of the name of M’Curdhean, whose predecessors were also farmers, for that art. He lived in the isle of Skye, near a beautiful cascade, on the water of Easbhercraig; and when consulted on any matter of consequence, he covered his whole body with a cow’s hide, and placed himself between the water of the cascade and the rock. Another man attended with a heavy pole, whose office it was to give repeated strokes to the water and to the man concealed behind it, crying now and then, “An maide fearna so?”—i.e., “Is this a stock of arn?” This operation was continued till it was perceived that M’Curdhean was frantic or furious; and he was then thought in a condition to answer the most important questions. He was frequently consulted about futurity, and his responses were attended to, as proceeding from something more than human (Ramsay, 1888, p459-460).
While there may have been a number of related divinatory rituals, some scholars have suggested that the cat-roasting Taghairm, given its atrocious nature may not have solely been for the purpose of prophecy, rather had more instrumental motivations.
As a third mode of Taghairm, Martin briefly describes that above detailed, viz., the roasting of a live cat on a spit till at last a very large cat, attended by a number of lesser cats, comes and answers the question put to him. Both Martin and Scott fall into the error of supposing that the object of the Taghairm was solely divination, to ascertain the future, the issue of battles, the fate of families, etc. The mode by roasting live cats was too fearful a ceremony to be resorted to except for adequate reasons, and the obtaining of worldly prosperity, which was the object of the Mull Taghairm, is a more likely reason than curiosity or anxiety as to a future event (Campbell, 1900, p310).
The procedure, although awful was obviously pretty straightforward, and involved a lot of cats.
The person who would learn of the future by Taghairm nan Caht had to stand before a great fire, and keep roasting live cats on spits, until, in response to their cries of agony, large black demon-cats appeared, and gave the sought-for information. The same result was sometimes attained through the turning of the sieve and the shears, which, had the effect of raising the Devil (Mackay, 1893, p433).
Blood sacrifice is of course not uncommon historically among the religious set. It seems that the histories of a number of Highland clans make reference to somebody practicing the Taghairm, such as Allan and Lachlan Maclean, said to have performed the last Taghairm nan Caht on the Island of Mull, in the 17th century.
The institution was, no doubt, of pagan origin, and was a sacrifice offered to the Evil Spirit, in return for which the votaries were entitled to demand two boons. The idea entertained of it at the time must have been dreadful, and it is still often quoted for the purpose of terrifying the young and credulous. The sacrifice consisted of living cats roasted on a spit while life remained, and when the animal expired, another was put on in its place. This operation was continued for four days and nights without tasting food. The Taughairm commenced at midnight between Friday and Saturday, and had not long proceeded, when infernal spirits began to enter the house or barn in which it was performing, in the form of black cats. The first cat that entered, after darting a furious look at the operator, said, Lachain Our, thou son of Neil, that is bad usage of a cat.’ Allan, who superintended as master of the rites, cautioned Lachlan, that whatever he should hear or see, he must continue to turn the spit; and this was done accordingly. The cats continued to enter, and the yells of the cat on the spit, joined by the rest, were tremendous. A cat of enormous size at last appeared, and told Lachain Our that if he did not desist before his great-eared brother arrived, he never would behold the face of God. Lachlan answered, that if all the devils in hell came, he would not flinch until his task was concluded. By the end of the fourth day there was a black cat at the root of every, after on the roof of the barn, and their yells were distinctly heard beyond the Sound of Mull, in Morven (Maclean, 1840, p264).
While later literature insists on the equation of the Taghairm with Christian notions of infernality, one still sees that peculiarly Scottish defiance of everything up to and including the Devil himself.
Just beyond Storr is the farm of Rigg, a green and fertile spot amid these stony sea-walls; and on the shore, a little farther north, lies a huge fallen boulder, through which the ravages of time and the sea-waves have pierced a high archway. From its resemblance to a church with an open door, it is called Eaglais Bhreagach, or the False Church, and nearby stands the petrified minister, a pillar of rock, never able to enter his pulpit. This boulder was the scene of a grisly rite, well known in Celtic folk-lore, but so awful as seldom to be performed—that of Taghairm, or giving the devil his supper. A small sept, the MacQuithens, despised by all men, lived nearby, and some of them resolved to perform the ceremony. They caught some cats and roasted them living on a spit. By and by they found themselves surrounded by cats, yelling like fiends. “Whatever you see or hear, keep the cat turning,” said the leader of the MacQuithens to him who held the spit. There came a dread silence; another cat had joined the company. Him the leader knocked down with the cross of his sword-hilt, and at once the devil appeared in his proper guise, compelled now to grant whatever the men asked for. But earthly prosperity was not theirs for long; they died, and the devil marked them for his own, and now they are in hell. The leader of the band was the last to die, and was warned of the fate of his comrades. But he was utterly unrepentant, and with much composure announced his intention of joining his companions, saying that if they had “three short swords that would neither break nor bend they would vanquish all the devils in hell and make prisoners of them” (MacCulloch, 1910, p125-126).
Cats certainly have an honored place in association with various forms of witchcraft and magical ritual, but a lot of divinatory practices are slightly less fatal to the feline, as the time-honored concept of ailuromancy (sometimes called felidomancy) is generally understood to be the foretelling of future events through the observation of the behavior of cats. The Taghairm nan Caht was a little more edgy.
According to Horst’s Deuteroscopy, black cats were indispensable to the incantation ceremony of the Taigheirm, and these were dedicated to the subterranean gods, or, later, to the demons of Christianity. The midnight hour, between Friday and Saturday, was the authentic time for these horrible practices and invocations; and the sacrifice was continued four whole days and nights, without the operator taking any nourishment. “After the cats were dedicated to all the devils, and put into a magico-sympathetic condition by the shameful things done to them, and. the agony occasioned them, one of them was at once put upon the spit, and, amid terrific howlings, roasted before a slow fire. The moment that the howls of one tortured cat ceased in death, another was put upon the spit, for a minute of interval must not take place if they would control hell; and this continued for the four entire days and nights. If the exorcist could hold it out still longer, and even till his physical powers were absolutely exhausted, he must do so. After a certain continuance of the sacrifice, infernal spirits appeared in the shape of black cats. There came, continually more and more of these cats; and their howlings, mingled with those of the cats roasting on the spit, were terrific. Finally appeared a cat of a monstrous size, with dreadful menaces. When the Taigheirm was complete, the sacrificer demanded of the spirits the reward of his offering, which consisted of various things; as riches, children, food, and clothing. The gift of second-sight, which they had not had before, was, however, the usual recompense; and they retained it to the day of their death. The connection of these ceremonies with those of the Shamans of Northern Asia, and of the witch practices of the middle ages, is obvious (Ennemoser, 1854, p104-105).
My recommendation, obviously, is that one should avoid being a cat in the Scottish Highlands prior to the 18th Century. Failing that, avoid domestication if possible and run really fast. Cats have suffered a lot over the millennia at the hands of humanity, usually due to their unfounded association with nefarious activities, from stealing our breath to acting as familiars for the infernally connected. One wonders why they bother hanging around with us at all, but as historian Cleveland Amory noted, “Anyone who has ever been around a cat for any length of time well knows, cats have enormous patience with the limitations of the human kind”.
Campbell, John Gregorson, 1836-1891. Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland. Glasgow: J. MacLehose and sons, 1900.
Ennemoser, Joseph, 1787-1854. The History of Magic. London: H.G. Bohn, 1854.
Forbes, Alexander Robert. Gaelic Names of Beasts (mammalia), Birds, Fishes, Insects, Reptiles, Etc: In Two Parts: I. Gaelic-English.–II. English-Gaelic. Part I. Contains Gaelic Names Or Terms for Each of the Above, With English Meanings. Part II. Contains All the English Names for Which Gaelic Is Given In Part I., With Gaelic, Other English Names, Etymology, Celtic Lore, Prose, Poetry, And Proverbs Referring to Each, Thereto Attached. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd [etc.], 1905.
Lee, Henry James, 1864-. History of the Clan Donald, the Families of MacDonald, McDonald And McDonnell. New York: R.L. Polk and Company, Inc, 1920.
Mackay, William, 1848-1923. Urquhart And Glenmoriston: Olden Times In a Highland Parish. Inverness: The Northern Counties Newspaper and Printing and Publishing Company, Limited, 1893.
Maclean, Lachlan. The History of the Celtic Language: Wherein it Is Shown to Be Based Upon Natural Principles, And, Elementarily Considered, Contemporaneous With the Infancey of the Human Family … London: Smith, Elder and co., 1840.
MacLean, J. P. 1848-1939. An Epitome of the Superstitions of the Highlanders of Scotland: Together With a Selection of Books Pertaining to the Subject. Franklin, Ohio, 1917.
MacCulloch, J. A. 1868-1950. The Misty Isle of Skye: Its Scenery, Its People, Its Story. Edinburgh: Oliphant, 1910.
Ramsay, John, 1736-1814. Scotland And Scotsmen In the Eighteenth Century. Edinburgh and London: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1888.
Scott, Walter, Sir, 1771-1832. The Lady of the Lake. Philadelphia: Press of Ketterlinus litho, mfg, co., 1916.