The Witches’ Reel

This song originates from Scotland and has been dated to the year 1591. The words are from the witchcraft trial of the Earl of Bothwell Francis Stewart who was accused of using sorcery to try to kill King James VI. He was found guilty, but escaped the castle he was being held in and caused all sorts of ruckus afterward – you know raising small armies to kill the king – little stuff like that… But this reel is what is interesting to me. Read in the Scots tongue by one who doesn’t understand it, this song doesn’t mean much nor make much sense beyond “ring-a-ring a widdershins” which makes a witch’s ear’s perk up. But there is much more within it once investigated and translated. to hear how it is to be sung listen to Green Crown’s version

Firstly a reel is a folk dance accompanied by a tune and/or a song. In The Witches’ Reel the instructions for the dance are given in the song – and it is a witches’ dance. The song is to be sung three times while circling counter-clockwise nine times in total, one time for each verse, faster and faster each time. The witches do not hold hands as they dance, but rather link arms and spin around each other to catch the next witch’s arm and so on and so on. This is how one may be left behind as last when the song ends.

Translation using the Dictionary of the Scottish Language:

Witch go you fast, witch go you
If you will not go fast, witch let me
Circling a circle widdershins (counter-clockwise)
Linking hands quickly and merrily widdershins,
Wives, crones, mothers and young lasses

Round go we!

Witch go you fast, witch go you
If you will not go fast, witch let me
Circling a circle widdershins
Looping (or weaving) easily and swiftly
Tucked up skirts and flying hair
Three times three!

Witch go you fast, witch go you
If you will not go fast, witch let me
Circling a circle widdershins
Whirling (rotating) screaming louder, widdershins
Devil take the last one (furthest behind)
Whoever she be!

In the 16th century Earl’s trial this reel was accused of being performed on a cliffside by the sea and causing a fierce wind and rain storm to raise up threatening the ship the king was on at sea. I conjecture, being a Scottish witch and well-read on the lore, that this widdershins reel is for opening a doorway into the underworld to call up Nicnevin (also known as M’Neven or the Gyre Carline meaning ‘witch ogress/giantess’), queen of Elphame and the unseelie court. To the ancient Celts the sea was the underworld and one can still find traces of Nicnevin as a sea witch in folktales with the sea being her domain. In legends it is also said that when you invoke her you know she has come when a storm or a fierce wind rise up. I also suggest that the last person to circle was perhaps chosen to be possessed by Nicneven or to commune with her to deliver her messages to the rest of the group. “Devil” was used by the Scots to refer to any evil or unseelie spirit, not necessarily the Christian devil, as in the witches initiation charm from the Orkneys. Some scholars argue that in reel’s like these with possible druidic origins, the last person standing could possibly have been chosen as a sacrifice – but this doesn’t necessarily mean killing them – but instead their being chosen for a possibly dangerous task.

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  • Katrina says:

    What a wonderful post! 🙂

  • Miaerowyn says:

    I remember listening to this from a podcast… I’m pretty sure it was probably the Wigglian Way… lol. Could be wrong, but I loved it! Thanks for bringing light to what it actually means, lol!

  • astranawindwalker says:

    Hello, I’m usually a tad shy for commenting, but I had to tell you: this post had me dancing like a person possessed while singing that song as loud as I could (clockwise though, don’t want to accidentally end up with house guests). I must have heard the song somewhere before; it’s melody was just too familiar…Anyway, thank you. Your posts just get me so worked up sometimes. 🙂

  • I *love* this. My teacher is especially interested in songs of this kind. I will definitely pass this on to him.

  • Eric says:

    Very interesting! I do love the song that Green Crown recorded. It is very simplistic and easy to remember.

    I see that a lot of Scottish Witchcraft (or at least what I have seen so far) is very female based. Is there a reason for this?

    I am Scottish by descent so I have been trying to crop up some practices, mostly in the Isle of Skye region (MacLeod). There is one story for my clan, and it is very “Arthurian” if you will: The Chief being the consort of a fairy queen within the Land.

    • Sarah says:

      It’s mostly the misinformation from the witch trials that has witches as all women – cummers. In Scotland male healers, seers, and fairy doctors usually out numbered the female ones. Spaewifery, however, was the sole domain of women as it stemmed from the Norse spáekona who was a Völva (meaning wand/distaff carrier) and were only women. They were a kind of Norse shamaness mostly known for being great seers and mystics. A man couldn’t be called a Spae Wife, but if he had similar abilities would’ve simply been called a seer or “that gud fellow in Inverness wha heals breks and sprains”.

      If you want a Scottish Witchcraft booklist, I could give you one as long as my arm.


  • Ran says:

    Pretty good translation. I’d probably translate “loupin” (lowpin) as leaping or jumping though. And where did you find that Green Crown CD?

    • Loup (lowp) means to loop which made more sense to me in the context of this reel dance than leaping especially with the previous verse referring to “linking”. There are many instance of circle dances where the dancers link elbows or hands which is why I chose that translation. Lowpe, meaning leap, also commonly just translates as dance or prance as well so it’s hard to be exact in translating that term.

      My partner has the album from before the band broke up and took their website down. Now, unfortunately, you can only hear their music streaming on myspace:

  • Prinny Miller says:

    Greetings Sarah!

    I know this is an old and/or moribund post, but I wanted to follow up on your reply to Eric regarding a Scottish witchcraft booklist. I, for one, would be ever so grateful if you could provide one.

    Thank you,