The Booth-Scryer had been a stock character of Scottish literature from the times of the medieval makar poets such as William Dunbar and ‘Black’ Campbell through to the poetry of Robert Fergusson (1750-1774). Fergusson’s celebrated ‘Mab of Cock Wynd’ (1772) telling of the wickedness of Fionnghuala Tanttrum whose misdeeds led to her burning at the stake outside Edenborough’s Old Tolbooth is only the most famous of a rich vein.
Two years ago on a cold and snowy December night I took a tour of the Edenborough closes and wynds. We were a party of a dozen or so in the care of one Tip MacCannie, which I assume was not his real name, and the tour was named ‘Auld Reekie’s Ghastlie Ghaists’. One does foolish things at times and I may have had one too many at the Stuffed Cock on the Royal Mile. Wynds, incidentally, are pronounced as in winding a clock and so named for their convoluted progress, while Closes are the small courtyards linked by the Wynds. On the night in question I am afraid the distinction passed me by and while I initially kept up with Tip MacCannie and my eleven or so fellows, I was soon lagging behind until I lost the party and the high stone walls pressed upon me. The clock at Tron Church chimed the hour and I caught an occasional snatch of carol singing as I wandered, feeling very much lost in an ancient labyrinth and cursing the uneven paving. I did not, of course, have any kind of torch and the only street lamp was an antique specimen I must have passed a dozen times. A black cat crossed my path but despite my entreaties it refused to lead me to safety. I do not believe I saw any ghosts and certainly no striped tents of the booth-scryers but I cannot say I wouldn’t have welcomed either. After an hour of frozen wandering – I kid you not – rescue came from the very man who had lured me into the labyrinth for Tip MacCannie ran his tours hourly and happening upon him a second time I joined his little party and followed it out to the Royal Mile and promptly into the Stuffed Cock to warm up.
A booth-scryer first appeared in what we would recognise as a novel in James Dalziel’s Dunedin Fayre (pub. 1749) and soon after they were an established part of any sensationalist or Gothic novel set in Edenborough. Their role was to lead the hero astray with false prophecy or foreshadow some peculiarity of their fate. Booth-scryers, or perhaps women in general – certainly ex-wives – rarely give a definite answer to any question but always leave one feeling that one can infer almost anything from their reply. Of course, their response when whatever they alluded to finally occurs is to claim that they told you it would happen and that it’s your fault for not avoiding it. I recall the Oracle at Delphi was equally vague.
In reality, few booth-scryers had anything other than a rudimentary knowledge of magick: enough to tell a man’s fortune with cards or dice or diagnose if his wife was faithful or deceiving, while charming coppers from his purse. Even fewer possessed clearsight or genuine intuition into magick, though public opinion – in part encouraged by the booth-scryers themselves – exaggerated this number. Though this exaggeration probably increased demand for their services it also brought them unwelcome attention, most obviously from the church which periodically demanded the town magistrates remove them. Thus, booth-scryers, like prostitutes, fell into the unfortunate position of public condemnation and private employment, but save for occasional sweeps into the narrow wynds and closes by the town’s auxiliary justices (later the Dunedin Nobblers from the truncheons they carried) little was done to deter them and unless a booth-scryer became particularly prominent or transgressed, as did Fionnghuala Tanttrum, they were tolerated until the early years of the twentieth century when the terminal decline in magick saw them at first marginalised and then wholly ignored.
At the time of writing Acts of the Servant MacGregor would certainly have been at least as familiar with the booth-scryers as any other resident of Edenborough and most likely more so for the booth-scryer encountered by Paavo Jukola is not the first to appear in his work. At the beginning of his best known novel, Edmund Pevensie (1857), a young Edmund encounters a booth-scryer who plies him with sweetmeats and attempts to kidnap him and in Camberwick (1842) Ben Camberwick’s horse accidentally runs over a booth-scryer whose deathbed curse haunts the entire Camberwick family for three generations. Booth-scryers also appear, either directly or in passing, in three of the poems collected in ‘The Border Minstrel’ (1837) and several more in ‘A Basket of Balladry’, a collection of tradition Scots verse which MacGregor edited and compiled in 1839. However, it is clear that whatever he may have known of booth-scryers while writing Acts of the Servant he would later become much more knowledgeable for A History of Scottish Magick (Published as L’Histoire de Écossais Magie, Paris, 1899) includes an entire chapter on their history and practises together with a number of pen-portraits of individual booth-scryers.
The evidence shows that the great majority of booth-scryers were destitute women drawn from a variety of backgrounds who were one step from prostitution and two steps from the grave, with many pursuing the oldest profession by day and the second oldest by night and often to the same customers! Undoubtedly, among their number were a handful who genuinely possessed and employed magick, both for good and ill-purpose, but compared with the evil of Edenborough’s resurrectionists and vivisection men who preyed on graveyards and workhouses for dead and infirm bodies to provide specimens for apprentice surgeons in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the wickedness of the booth-scryers has been greatly exaggerated.