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Folklore of Nova Scotia
Chapter V. Forerunners

Closely allied to Second Sight is the belief in forerunners, especially with regard to death. There is a persistent tradition that the spirits of the living rehearse the making of coffins, the funeral preparations, even the funeral processions. Those who have the Second Sight see these things, those who have not, very often hear what is going on, although they cannot see them. Very few Nova Scotian Celts are brave enough to walk in the centre of a highway after nightfall, for fear of encountering any of these phantom funeral processions. That their fears are not unfounded, may be seen from the tales that follow.

The grandfather of the man who told me this story, used to go very often to see a relative of his who was dying. One night this relative seemed so near death that he remained until a very late hour. As he was returning home by the highway, walking in the middle of the road, for he was not a superstitious man, he was almost smothered by some terrible obstruction that he could not see. With difficulty he succeeded in getting off the road, and then he stood aside and listened. He could hear distinctly the sound of passing feet, then came the clatter of wagon wheels which he could even hear going over a stone on the road. He waited, until what seemed a whole procession had gone by, then made for his home. As a slight snowfall was covering the ground, he determined to go the next morning to look for tracks. At daybreak he was again on the road, but not a track could he see. The sick man died the next day, and he was convinced that it was the phantom of his funeral procession that he had encountered.

One night, two women had a similar experience. They were returning home after spending the evening with the grandparents of one of them, and were going up a hill walking in the middle of the road, when they suddenly found themselves smothered by some dreadful oppression from which they could not free themselves, and by which they seemed to be carried along. With great difficulty, they at last succeeded in getting to the side of the road and home. The sister of one of them, who told me the story, was present when they got home. She said they were as pale as death and in a miserably frightened condition. The next day a funeral procession passed over the same route in the same direction the women were going.

In pioneer days there were no undertakers, so coffins had to be made in the most convenient place in the neighborhood. Many people heard in advance the assembling of the boards for the purpose, and the ghostly strokes of the hammer, as the following stories will show.

One fine frosty morning in February in the early 00’s, a truck laden with boards, drove up to a farm house, and the two men on it began to unload it, letting the boards slap down one after the other onto the frozen ground. They had brought them to make a coffin for an old man who had died during the night. When the truck was unloaded they went into the house, the mistress of which was the sister of one man and the cousin of the other. She greeted them with ‘‘I hope you are going to finish your job this time. Many a cold night all winter you worked out there. Night after night I lay awake listening to that truck driving up to the door, and those boards being thrown off. Then the sawing, planing and hammering would begin, so that I was terrified to death, for I thought one of the family was going to die.” A few minutes later the woman’s uncle, who lived in the house, came in and told the same story. He had said nothing of what he had heard for fear of alarming the family. The noises were never heard after that day. (First hand information.)

On another occasion, two young women were sitting up with a child who was dying. It was a beautiful fine night and in that country home everything was quiet. Suddenly the silence was broken by the sound of hammering and sawing in the workshop near by. They looked out; the door was closed, nobody was about. One of them looked into her grandfather’s room, from which the sound of his deep regular breathing could be heard distinctly. “Isn’t it strange,” she said, “there is grandfather sleeping quietly, yet listen to his spirit working out there at the coffin that he’ll make only to-morrow.” They listened in silence to the uncanny sound. The lunch that was brought in to them could not tempt them. The baby died before morning, and the grandfather made the coffin the next morning as they knew he would.

The appearance of unusual birds, the crowing of cocks at unusual times, were looked upon as omens of death. Once two young girls were out swimming when they saw a big bird come in from the sea and alight on the shore. It seemed perfectly tame, so one of them swam ashore and tried to catch it. It kept just in front of her but she could not lay hands on it. Her companion, who was older and knew more about such things, shouted to her, “Leave it alone, don’t touch it, it is a taibhs.” “And what is a taibhs” asked the younger girl. “It’s a spirit. We’re going to get some bad news.” They went home as quickly as possible and reached there just at dark. To their surprise, the roosters were crowing as they passed the barns. The next day news arrived of the accidental drowning of the younger girl’s uncle. (First hand information.)

Some years ago, people who live on a certain hill at Barrachois, Cape Breton, used to watch a phantom train glide noiselessly around the headlands of the Bras d’Or, and come to a stop at a gate leading to one of the houses. One who saw it herself told me how at seven o ’clock every evening for a whole month, every family on the hill would go out of doors to see it. Every coach was lighted, but no people could be seen. At the hour of its approach, some people sometimes went down to the track to get a better look at it, but were disappointed at its not coming at all, although the watchers on the hill saw it as usual. At the end of the month, a man was killed by a train just at the gate to which the phantom train used to come. Nobody saw it afterwards.

Many years ago, at Mull River, Inverness Co., a very thinly settled district, a woman went out into the orchard beside her home to gather some fruit. The sun had just gone down as she was returning to the house; everything was quiet and peaceful; nothing but the distant sound of a cow bell could be heard. All at once the most delightful music broke the stillness. She stood entranced, all her music-loving soul stirred to its depths. But soon she realized that she was listening to phantom music such as she had never heard before. She entered the house and told her experience to her family. They laughed at her for her pains. She even hummed for them the refrain. Then they began asking what kind of music it was. “Was it a violin?” “No.” “An organ?” “No.” “Bag-pipe?” “No.” It seemed to be a combination of all these and a number of other instruments she had never heard before. Some time afterwards she again heard it, and this time she called some of the family to listen also. Four of them heard it this time. Later she heard a military band in Halifax, and recognized the music she had heard. It is believed that this is a forerunner of a military band that may yet be heard in that out of the way district. (Story told me by this woman’s sister.)

Automobiles, which have run in such numbers over our roads for the past twenty-five years, had their forerunners half a century ago. One evening fifty-one years ago, a young man at Mull River, Inverness Co., was going on a message to a neighbor’s house, when he saw before him on the road, a very terrifying object. It was large and black and had a red light in the middle of its back. A stream of light came from the front of it, so bright that he could see the shingles on the house to which he was going. It went up to the house, passed around it, and then came down the road so swiftly that he jumped aside to let it pass. Terrified, he made the sign of the cross, then looked to see the terrible bochdan. The bright front lights had turned once more to red. He heard no sound. Not until twenty-five years later did he discover of what it was a forerunner. (Story told me by the man’s sister).

Trains, too, had their forerunners in several places. Years before a railway was built through Inverness Co. trains were seen and heard. One evening, a man who lived a mile above Mabou River, when returning from feeding his cattle in the barn, heard the sound of a train passing where no one ever thought it would pass. He called his wife and children, and they all listened to the clatter of the “Judique Flier” as it made its way over the grassy slopes and wooded hills of this beautiful countryside. Contrary to all expectations, when the railway was built several years later, the route it took was through that particular part of the country.

When the engineers were surveying the Point Tupper to Sydney branch of the Canadian National Railways, they came one evening to a farmhouse and began surveying the land in front of it. The old farmer came out to them, and told them that they were wasting their time there, for the trains would pass at the rear of the house, for he had seen them there. The next year a new survey was made, and sure enough to-day the trains pass behind the old farmer’s house.

The main highway at Port Hawkesbury, C.B., skirts the cliffs that rise high above the waters of the Strait of Canso, and runs close to the tracks of the C.N.R. Across the narrow ribbon of water, Cape Porcupine casts his dark shadow from the Mulgrave side of the Strait, and busy ferry boats hasten to bridge the mile-wide passage. But time was when the houses on the steep hill above the road looked down on a much less active scene. In these early years, two old women were walking along this highway, when all of a sudden they heard a terrible noise, a rushing and a clatter; then, more terrifying still, an awful, huge,

black thing, with one big eye in it, came rattling past them and went right through a fish house that stood near by. They ran to the nearest house, and entered pale, breathless, scared to death. Years later, one of them heard a train on the mainland of Nova Scotia, and recognized the sound as the one she had previously heard. She died before the Inverness railway was built. The track, when surveyed, passed through the fish house. (Told me by a man who had it first hand.)

A young man was attending school at Antigonish, a distance of eleven miles from his home in Glen Alpine. On one occasion, he walked the whole distance in order to get home for a holiday. That night, although he was very tired, he could not sleep. As he lay awake in a little bedroom off the parlor, he happened to look out into that room, and was horrified to see the dead body of his sister laid out just opposite him. As she was in very good health at the time, he concealed his strange experience from the family. A month later, he was summoned home for her death. She was laid out just where he had seen her. (Story told me by a man who had it from the seer.)

As you approach beautiful Baddeck from Margaree, your motor runs smoothly up and down the rugged mountain sides giving you an endless variety of scenery. You play hide and seek with Cape Breton’s far-famed lakes which show you a new phase of their beauty at every height you climb; while your artistic sense is charmed by the variegated coloring of the trees, shrubs and undergrowth which surround you on all sides. But before the advent of automobiles and their attendant good roads, driving through this district was not so pleasant as it is to-day. The distances were great, the roads, poor. A doctor who lived at Baddeck, had a large country practice, and had to drive a long distance along these lonely roads to minister to his patients. One night, he was returning from one of these sick calls, when all at once, his horse stood stock still, and no persuasion would make him go on. Then the doctor saw a light coming towards him. Nearer and nearer it approached until it stood just in front of him. Then gradually there appeared in its midst the outline of a human face, which by degrees evolved into a countenance so beautiful that he could not tire of looking at it. At last it began to grow dimmer and dimmer, until it disappeared into the ball of light; then this, too, faded away. The doctor was so much impressed by it that although it was after midnight when he reached home, he awakened his wife to tell her of the strange happening; then he lay awake all night thinking about it.

A week later a man, his wife and child, were travelling along the same road in a sulky, when one of the wheels came off, and all three were pitched out. A hurried call brought the doctor to the scene of the accident. It was the very spot where his horse had been stopped a week before. He went first to attend the woman who was moaning and groaning; then he picked up the child, who was lying perfectly still. At a glance he saw it was dead. Its beautiful face he recognized as the face he had seen in the ball of light. (Story told by an intimate friend of the doctor).

Years before the Gypsum works were installed at Iona, Victoria Co., the wooded heights overhanging the calm waters in that picturesque cove, and indeed the whole shore-line, were the haunt of the spirits of the present-day workers; their machinery and railway trains were also seen and heard there by many. So frequent were these occurrences that people in nearing the present location of the plant, used to get into the water and wade past it; for the belief was that spirits cannot touch you if you are in the water. This looks like a survival of the belief in the potency of an ancient water deity. (Popular tradition).

The appearance of mysterious lights was looked upon as a warning of death. One of these lights was seen night after night for a long time at the entrance to Antigonish Harbor. People used to watch it wend its way up the Harbor channel and disappear. A strange boy was drowned just where the light appeared, and his body was taken up the channel for burial. It was believed that the light was the forerunner of this death, for it was never seen afterwards. (Story told me by one who used to watch the light).

A light seen going very quickly towards the graveyard was regarded as a sure sign of death. A clear, round light indicated the death of a man; a light with little rays or sparks after it, that of a woman. If you could see the house it started from, you would know where the victim was.

A falling meteor brought death to some one belonging to the person who saw it.

A limp corpse was a sign that another death would soon take place in the same house. A little child died in a home in Inverness Co. A wise old woman who prepared the little corpse for burial, came out of the death chamber, shaking her head in a very mournful fashion. “Pm very much afraid we’ll have this job here soon again,” she said to her assistant: “Didn’t you notice there wasn’t a bit of stiffness about the body?” The next week the little brother of the dead child died. (Told by the sister of these children).

Dogs howling without reason was considered a sure sign of death, for these animals were believed to be endowed with the power of seeing phantom funerals and such like things. This belief was quite common.

An interesting story of a death warning comes from the Indians of Escasoni. When Father Vincent, a saintly Trappist monk, preached a mission to them long ago on the shores of the Bras d’Or, they perceived that the good old man was not in his usual health; so a delegation of them went to him one day and asked: “Father, how will we know when you are dead?” The saintly old monk looked out over the beautiful Bras d ’Or, whose isle-studded waters the sun of the late afternoon was turning to molten gold, then, with a scarcely audible sigh, he pointed to a nearby tree and said: “You’ll know I’m dead when you see that tree fall.” Weeks passed, and then one day they found that the tree had fallen. They spread the report throughout the whole settlement that Father Vincent was dead. The report was soon confirmed by the news from the monastery.

In pioneer days, whenever anyone died in a house, the friends and relatives kept close watch lest a little white animal resembling a weasel, might get into the house without their knowledge. This little animal was the warning that the Aog—a spirit of evil attendant at wakes—had come to the house. If it came, they would take a large knife, or some other piece of steel, and pass it through the flour, meal, and all the food that was in the pantry. If this precaution was neglected, these materials would become useless; yeast would have no effect on the flour, etc. This would surely be a great misfortune at a funeral, for all the time the corpse was in the house the table was kept set and meals were served to everyone who came. It was considered very poor man-pers to say the least, for anyone to leave the wake house without eating; in fact, many regarded this behavior as an act of disrespect towards the dead.

While the coffin was being made—there were no undertakers in those days — the body was laid on a funeral couch made of boards, and draped with white sheets. A tiny plate containing salt was placed on the chest of the corpse. All the windows and doors were kept closed and the blinds were closely drawn. This may possibly have been an effort to exclude the destructive Aog.

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