To seduce is to lure, entice, attract, beguile, tempt, and mislead. But imagine knowing a word so psychologically powerful that when whispered into a woman's ear they instantly become overwhelmed with carnal desires. Believe it or not, such a word exists and it was so valued in Scotland that for over 400 years its utterance was highly-guarded by a quasi-Masonic secret society.
Since at least the mid 17th century, and still today, a group of Scotland's leading rural horsemen have guarded an esoteric system of eccentric agrarian rituals structured around the perceived magical powers of a secret word, believed to have been given by the Devil himself. Whispering their enchanted word horsemen could "draw or jade" any horse rendering them immobile "which no power on earth could shift until the horseman himself released it." The horsemen's secret word was given even deeper magical significance and meaning, in that it was believed to also have the power to render women powerless. The horsemen's seductive powers were so ingrained in rural Scottish life that an unmarried girl seduced and made pregnant by a ploughman using the magic word, was regarded with no disapproval because it was accepted that the Word made her "incapable of withstanding the persuasion of her seducer."
Several 20th century scholars studied the history and origins of the Horseman's Word but got it wrong, for example, J.M. McPherson published his findings in his Primitive Beliefs in the North-East of Scotland (1929), in which he suggested it was "a survival of an ancient pagan cult that had been persecuted in the witch trials in the Early Modern period." But this theory was inaccurate because McPherson had only relied upon observations made in the late nineteenth century.
In the farming regions of Northern Scotland during the early nineteenth century, draft horses replaced oxen in Aberdeen and the Moray Firth and the ponies of Caithness and Orkney. Those men with the ability to raise and control these animals became highly valued and began commanding well paid and respectable work by day. According to esoteric author Ben Fernee "The ploughmen did not own the land, the horses, the harness, the ploughs or their homes but they took control of the new technology, the horses, and ensured that only a brother of the Society of the Horseman's Word might work them... unmarried ploughmen lived hard lives, drank hard, played rough and chased women."
The Horseman's Word was a form of trade union protecting the trade secrets of the growing number of men who worked with draft horses in north-eastern Scotland. It ensured its members were sufficiently trained, and it defended the rights of horsemen against more powerful land-owners. It was one of a number of groups in Britain that emerged from Freemasonry, which was commonly known as the "Mason's Word" in Scotland after the secret password that it offered members. The society was in essence a type of trade guild which had symbolised and allegorised the skills and knowledge of breading, rearing and working horses, just like the way Freemasonry allegorised the symbols and trade secrets of operative stonemasons.
The earliest records of Scottish horsemen possessing this magical word powers are given by Davidson in 1664, in Renfrewshire, Southern Scotland. Between the 17th and 19th century Scottish estates were owned by lairds and administered by factors. They generally comprised of a farmhouse, bothy, stables, byre and a barn. Farmers rented land from factors and employed grieves (foremen) who were responsible for hiring farm-servants. A distinct hierarchy existed among farm-servants of which ploughmen and horsemen were at the top. Halflins were young trainee horsemen and the most talented eventually became horsemen, and joined the ranks of the Society of the Horseman's Word, membership of which conferred three direct benefits - the inner-secrets of managing horses and women, and a "man's pay."
During the course of the nineteenth century, Scots farmers migrated south and leased north eastern English farms and the Horseman's Word was anglicised into the 'Society of Horsemen'. The ability to control farm animals had been attributed to both witches and cunning folk in English folk tradition, and by the nineteenth-century people renown for their alleged ability to control horses, such as the American James Samuel Rare were commonly known as "horse whisperers", a term that had been brought to England from Ireland in the early nineteenth century.
The Society of the Horseman's Word was not only structurally similar to Freemasonry, but also ritually, in that new members were initiated in a highly-guarded ritual/ceremony and were taught a series of secret signs and grips by which members could reveal themselves to one another in public. Claiming Biblical and mythological origins, when horses were finally replaced by tractors in the early 20th century the horsemen's rituals jigsawed perfectly with the pseudo-history of Freemasonry and their initiation ritual was amalgamated into some Scottish Masonic Lodges, especially in Orkney and north east Scotland.
The Horseman's Magic Frog
It has been suggested that the horsemen's secret powers were not generated by words but were actually obtained from the careful preparation of certain herbs and oils, which were attractive to horses and women. Billy Rennie, from Stuartfield, near Peterhead, is a living member of the Society of theHorseman’s Word and supported this notion by recently stating "It wasn't the Word that really gave the magical power, but a knowledge handed down through history...using various herbs and potions, the horsemen could make the wildest of horses follow him without halter of bridle, and make it so that the horses would not leave the stables without him." Proponents of this theory believe the act of "whispering" was no more than blowing scents into a horse, or woman's, face.
The horsemen's knowledge of potions, lotions and persuasive oils is said to have come from "The Toadmen" of the folklore of The Fens of East Anglia and Lincolnshire in England. Daniel Codd's 2010 book Supernatural Evil: Necromancers, Wisemen and Toad-men tells us members of the cult of the Toadmen made a deal with the devil for control over horses, as did the later horsemen. The Toadmen's initiation ritual involved catching male toads and hanging them from thorn bushes until their bones had been picked clean. Having carried the bones until they had dried, initiates threw them into running streams at midnight, under full moons, where all would all be swept downstream, except one. This small fork-shaped bone, similar in shape to a horses hoof, swirled against the current and became the agent of the horsemen's magical powers.
The idea of magic frog bones being used to control wild beasts first appears in Pliny's Natural History (ad 77), XXXII. xviii in which he wrote of a particular frog's bone which "cooled boiling water" and another which "Boiled oil and kept dogs at bay." However, The origin of the Toadmen's ritual is found in ancient India where Vedic high priests wrapped frogs in white linen and gave them astrological benedictions before putting them under ant hills at sunset. Once only the bones were left, two were kept, one to attract a desired object and the other to reject it. The latter was called 'the shovel' and was the supra-scapula bone of the frog. The frogs wish-bone, the one revered by the horsemen was the ilium, the chief bone in the frog’s pelvic girdle and in the words of a 19th century Suffolk horseman 'The frog’s boon was the same shape as the frog in a horse’s hoof; and if there was any doubt about the identity of the particular bone used by the old horsemen, this similarity would appear to dispel it.’
In a world before scientific reasoning people used demons, spirits, faeries and magic to give reason for natural occurrences. The Toadmen's ritual preparation of the frog bone and other magical compounds convinced the founding horsemen that the power they gained really was mysterious, dangerous and evil and their reputation as magical horse-handlers with otherworldly connections was enhanced by their genuine conviction in their own powers. The fact that for one to 'activate' a horse with a frog bone required jamming it in between the horses leg and the body, was seldom discussed for successful magic requires 100% belief, and often the rejection of logical explanations.
secrets of The initiation ritual
The precise nature of the Horseman's Word ceremony, and the oaths used, had a clear basis in Freemasonry evident in that inductees were blindfolded and severe punishments were specified for any breach of the oath, for example:
"So help me Lord to keep my secrets and perform my duties as a horseman. If I break any of them – even the last of them – I wish no less than to be done to me than my heart be torn from my breast by two wild horses, and my body quartered in four and swung on chains, and the wild birds of the air left to pick my bones, and these then taken down and buried in the sands of the sea, where the tide ebbs and flows twice every twenty four hours – to show I am a deceiver of the faith. Amen."
— The Horseman's Creed, as recorded as part of an initiation ceremony in Angus.
Records pertaining to the inner-workings of the Society of the Horseman's Word can be found in The Ancient Ritual of the Buchan Ploughmen Incorporated with the Antient Horsemen (transmitted by W. M. Rennie 2003). Halflins were invited to join the society in the most curious way. An envelope was placed on the candidates bed containing a "single hair from a horse's tail, knotted in a particular way" and an invitation to attend an initiation ritual, under a full moon at midnight, to which they were requested to bring "a loaf of white bread and a bottle of whisky." The meeting was held at dead of night, in secret, generally beginning in a ritually enhanced barn and similar to Freemasonry, candidates were blindfolded and led through the ritual by a mentor. An individual known as the High Horseman would be seated in this space and holding a cloven goat's hoof in his hand he presided over the ceremony. After being shown a noose tied to a rafter, above a trapdoor, an exchange of ritual questions and answers (catechism) was undertaken, for example:
Question: Who caught the first horse?
Answer: It was Adam.
Question: Where did he catch him?
Answer: At the east side of the garden of Eden in the way of the Land of Nod.
The field of mystery
The neophyte was then taken to an adjacent field where they were stripped to the waist, smeared with dubbin and spun around by his fellows in order to disorient him before being brought into the ceremonial space and made to stand before the High Horseman. Having had straw packed into their trousers, initiates hands and feet were bound (hobbled) and he was made to drag a harrow round the field, his stuffed trousers being "whipped by an unseen hand." Progressing round each corner of the field the initiate was pressed and coaxed into drinking caul pee (actually ale) which they naturally fought off. At the centre of the field they were made to shake hands with Auld Nick (The Devil) and gripped a cloven hoof.
After taking an oath to keep society matters secret, to treat horses kindly and to keep the Horseman's Word secret, his blindfold was finally removed and adhering to the common ritualistic format of presenting a sacred Word - as three - he was given the secret Word - "Both As One." We will return to the meaning of these three magic words later in the article.
The Ploughman's Court
The final initiatory step was The Ploughman's Court - a mock trial where the initiate was charged with a "lack of trust" in his brothers who had offered him caul pee in the field, which was actually ale. Being sentenced to death he was hoodwinked and the noose was placed round his neck. The last time he saw the noose it was tied to a rafter above a trapdoor, and now it was being looped around his neck! Terrified, candidates were pushed through the trapdoor, but of course the rope was not connected to the rafter and they landed on bails of straw to break their fall. Following the ceremony, a ceilidh was held and the assembled horsemen drank the whisky that the apprentice had been required to bring with him.
Regional variations of The Horseman's Word ritual were many and it was common practice to integrate local landscape features, for example, when the ceremony was completed in Buchan, in north east Scotland new horsemen were permitted to add a white stone to the white horse of Mormond Hill.
At 754 feet (230 m) high with two summits, Mormond Hill has been an oceanic navigational marker since ancient times. This massive equine landmark measuring 164 feet (50 m) from nose to tail, and 146 feet (44.5 m) from head to hoof, is formed with white quartz set into trenches. Commissioned by a Captain Fraser (Lord Lovat of Strichen) as a war memorial between 1820 and 1821 it was designed as a tribute to Sergeant James Hutcheon of New Pitsligo who during a battle against the French near Gilze in Holland in 1794 had given the horseless and vulnerable captain his mount, himself dying. However, this monument is more than a war memorial, it is a work of geographical art telling the story of the relationship between Scottish people and their horses.
Apart from gaining knowledge of the secret Horseman's word, lots of practical information and techniques about training horses was drip fed to members of the society in such a way that the horseman maintained their reputation as having unique/magical power over horses. Historian Neat stated that the Horseman's Word was "infused with verbal richness that would have thrilled William Shakespeare or Robert Burns.
Before being initiated into the society and the receiving of the magic word, apprentice horseman seemed to have endless troubles with horses. This was most often caused by older ploughmen putting tacks under horse's collars to cause them to behave irrationally. Most of the horsemen's magical control techniques were actually based on a horse's sharp sense of smell, and its appetite. Foul smelling substances placed in front of a horse stopped it moving forward (known as jading) and pleasant smelling substances were used to motivate horses to move forward or calm down.
Taming unruly horses, horsemen often wiped oils on their foreheads and would stand in front of the horses until the sweet smell drew the animals towards them. Simple boiled sweets in a horseman's pocket could have calmed, attracted, and subdued wild horses. Keeping these control techniques secret, and maintaining that they had a secret word giving 'them alone' power over horses, helped secure their reputation, prestige, job security, and pay, just like modern magicians who only share their trade secrets with other members of that trade.
Where today's farmers know the inside mechanics of tractor engines and proudly maintain their primary working tool, the horsemen of yesteryear were masters of animal welfare and understood the complicated and ever changing dynamics of horse psychology. Before nationwide veterinary services horsemen cured and cared for their own animals and in this union of man and beast a true win, win relationship was forged.
The term 'Both As One' was ascribed similar supernatural powers as that associated with the Trinitarian doctrine where God exists as three hypostases, but is one being, having a single divine nature. Members of the Holy Trinity are co-equal and co-eternal, one in essence, nature, power, action, and will. 'Both As One' represented not only the act of holding two reigns in one hand and controlling a horse, but corresponds with the esoteric principal which forms the inner-secret of horse taming - where masters do not attempt to 'control' a beast, but rather, to become 'one' with the animal.
Regarding the Horsemen's control over human females. Personally, I think this is a reference to a social dynamic that is still very present today. Generally, rather than being attracted to flighty, unpredictable boys, women, are more often attracted to powerful, centred, self-controlled, stable men. The Horseman's word is a male system of personal development and its message is loud and clear - develop unflagging internal self-control, and one activates the apparently magical powers of universal attraction.
Regarding the Horsemen today, Lanarkshire researcher Russell Lyon recently wrote "Small groups have survived, notably in Orkney where, I have been told, members are still initiated into the old secrets; and those societies which appear to have been incorporated into Masonic lodges still flourish". The current Baron of Kilmarnock is proud member of the Horseman's Word and he was initiated in Sandwick, Orkney, on 14th April 1983. In 2009, The Society of Esoteric Endeavour published a compilation of nineteenth and early twentieth century texts about the Society in a volume entitled The Society of the Horseman's Word. The first hundred copies contained an envelope containing a piece of horse hair, knotted in exactly the same manner as that which was originally used to invite prospective members into the Society.
My departing word of advice is to my female readers; if you ever find yourself in Orkney just be careful as go - and for your own sake - wear earmuffs.
- Fernee, Ben The Society of the Horseman's Word. Hinckley, Leicestershire: The Society of Esoteric Endeavour. 2009.
- Lyon, Russell The Quest for the Original Horse Whisperers. 2003.
- Neat, Timothy The Horseman's Word: Blacksmiths and Horsemanship in Twentieth-Century Scotland. 2002.
- Davidson, Thomas (1956). "The Horseman's Word”.1956
- Evans, George Ewart The Pattern under the Plough. 1966.
- Evans, George Ewart Horse Power and Magic. London. 1979.
- Carter, Ian Farm Life in Northeast Scotland 1840-1914. 1979.
- McHargue, Georgess The Horseman's Word: A Novel. 1981.
- McPherson, J.M. Primitive Beliefs in the North-East of Scotland. London: Longman. 1929.
- Porter, James. "The Folklore of Northern Scotland: Five Discourses on Cultural Representation”. 1998.
- Baron of Kilmarnock. "The Horseman's Word". The Lordship and Baronate of Kilmarnock. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 8 February 2016.