For years, I've thought Nicneven was the name of a legendary Scottish fairy queen, the leader of a Wild Hunt-like procession who made her rounds on Halloween. It was a little confusing - she was also named Gyre-Carling and was the Scottish equivalent of Hecate? But also there was a real woman named Nicneven and no one was sure which came first? Recently I started researching, and discovered pretty much everything I knew was wrong.
As a character, Nicneven's first ever appearance was in the Flyting between Alexander Montgomerie and Patrick Hume of Polwarth, composed sometime between 1580 and 1585. A Flyting was an exchange of intricate poetic insults, essentially a 16th-century rap battle. Montgomerie and Hume (who is referred to throughout the Flyting as Polwart) were court poets under King James VI of Scotland.
One section of Montgomerie's Flyting is quoted constantly. This was an elaborate imaginary narrative about Polwart's birth and infancy, overflowing with folklore and superstition. It kicks into gear about here:
Jn the hinder end of harvest on Alhallow even,
When our good Neighbours do is ride, if I read right,
Some buckled on a bunewand and some on a been,
Ay trottand in troupes from the twylight,
Some sadled a shee Aipe, all grathed into greene,
Some hobland on an hemp stalk, hove and to the hight,
The King of Pharie and his court, with the Elfe Queene,
With many Elrich Incubus was rydand that Night.
So on Halloween night, the Good Neighbors go riding, many on ragwort stalks and other plants, some on apes. The King of Fairy and his court and the Elf Queen are there. During this gathering, an elf and an ape beget an "unsell," an evil creature (a form of the word "unseelie"). This is Baby Polwart. Now, it's unclear whether Polwart is conceived and born in one night or whether more time passes, but at the very least, in the version I read, the poem then moves to him being found the next morning, abandoned in a ditch. He is discovered by the Weird Sisters - i.e. the Fates, essentially the same characters who show up in MacBeth. They are disgusted by his ugliness, and foretell that he shall die in three seemingly contradictory ways (a common Celtic concept, seen in works like the story of Myrddin). One states that Nicneven shall nourish him twice. This is a reference to taboos around breastfeeding and ideas that children who nursed at both breasts were greedy or depraved.
The Weird Sisters leave the baby lying there, and Nicneven arrives with a whole crew of women. Here we get some more famous lines:
Nicneven with her nymphes, in number anew,
With charmes from Caitnes and Chanrie of Rosse,
Whose cunning consists in casting of a Clew.
The poem immediately makes it clear that these are witches; they are mounted on pigs, dogs and monks, and ride widdershins nine times around the thorn-tree where Polwart is lying. They immediately spot him and are delighted. They perform an unholy baptism, dedicating Polwart to their goddess Hecate. Finally they send Polwart off to "Kait of Crief" to be raised, where he acts much like a changeling, silent for seven years, and is brought food by fairies and breastfed by monkeys.
Montgomerie was declared winner of the Flyting.
So that's the poem. Anyone seeing a problem here? Nicneven appears in a completely different section from the fairies and the Elf Queen. She is the foremost witch, but is never described as a queen. Her ladies may be called nymphs for alliteration, but they are clearly witches in name and behavior. Apparently, it's not even Halloween anymore by the time Nicneven shows up!
And that's it for appearances of Nicneven in print . . . until the 1800s rolled around. The next mention I know of is from 1801. John Leyden, in his commentary on The Complaynt of Scotland, described a figure known as "the gyre-carlin, the Queen of Fairies, the great hag, Hecate, or mother-witch of the peasants." He states that Nicneven is one of her names, quoting Montgomerie.
This is where the problems start. Leyden is combining a ton of characters here, including a possibly hypothetical "mother witch." The gyre-carlin was a common word, often a generic term for witches in general - Polwart even mentioned it in his response to Montgomerie, saying "Leave boggles, brownies, Gyre-carlings, and Gaists (Ghosts)." Also, Nicneven cannot be Hecate. In Montgomerie's poem, she worships Hecate. This leaves massive questions about why Leyden said any of this, or where he got his information. But his interpretation quickly became widespread, appearing in dictionaries and in works by authors like Sir Walter Scott.
Some writers seem to have simply parroted Leyden - for instance, Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language defines Nicneven as "The Scottish Hecate or mother-witch." But this wasn’t the case for all; Robert Cromek, collecting Scottish folklore about witches, described a more unique Gyre-Carling or “McNeven” who wore a gray cloak and wielded a magic wand that could rearrange the landscape. (Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, 1810.)
A Historical Nicneven?
There were also several mentions of women with names similar to Nicneven, all executed for witchcraft in Scotland. Scott ran wild with this and presumed that Nicneven was a traditional Scottish title for the leader of a witches' coven. But as I read about the few scraps of evidence we have, it seems equally possible that all of these Nicnevens were one person.
According to The Historie and Life of King James the Sext, in May 1569, a woman named Nicniven or Nic Neville - a "notable sorceress" - was burnt to death at St Andrews. The spellings of her name vary from manuscript to manuscript.
A letter from Sir John Mure of Caldwell, dated 10 May 1569, offers a tantalizing look at more of the case. Mure mentions seeing the trial of an old woman called "Niknevin" that past Tuesday. She was considered dangerous, but people weren't sure whether she'd get the death penalty or not. She refused to confess to witchcraft, saying that the doctors had accused her out of envy because she was a better healer than they were. Mure notes that she is very clever and well-spoken for a woman a hundred years old. (Longueville, Pryings)
Then there was the witchcraft trial of John Brughe of Fossoway, in November 1643. Brughe, it was said, had learned spells from a sixty-year-old widow, the "sister daughter" of "Nikneveing that notorious and infamous witch in Monzie" who was burnt as a witch about eighty years before.
Quick math check: at this point, it had been seventy-four years since Niknevin/Nic Neville's execution by burning. That's close enough to eighty. But at the same time, if these are the same woman, here are more questions. Was Mure right that Niknevin was a hundred years old? How does that mesh with a niece born twenty years after her death? Is a "sister daughter" a niece, or a more distant kinswoman?
Finally, we have Kate Nevin or Kate McNevin, the subject of a local legend from Monzie, first mentioned in print in 1818. Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, in a foreword to Robert Law's Memorialls, mentioned "a tradition current in Perthshire" about a witch named Catharine Niven. He gave no date, but did suggest that her surname Niven was probably a nickname "from that of the Fairy Queen." Very mysterious . . . unless Sharpe had read Leyden's description of Nicneven as the Queen of the Fairies.
The overall story, across various versions, runs that Kate lived in Monzie and served as a nursemaid for the Graeme family of Inchbrakie. She was also a witch and healer, and in one tale she took the form of a bee to steal silverware. Ultimately she was arrested for witchcraft and burnt to death on the Knock of Crieff. As she died, she cursed the people of Monzie (versions vary on whether she focused on the Laird of Monzie or the local minister) so that their town would languish and the laird's lands would never pass from father to son in an unbroken line. The Laird of Inchbrakie - either her former employer or his son whom she had nursed - attempted to save her, and so she blessed him. She spat out a blue bead and told him that as long as he and his heirs kept it on their land, they would hold that land and always have heirs. Centuries later, the Graemes kept a gemstone they claimed was Kate McNiven's gift, and family tradition ran that it was eventually removed from the home by mistake and the land was subsequently parceled off and sold.
People have suggested a huge range of dates for Kate's death. In 1845, the Reverend George Blair wrote a poem about her ("The Holocaust, or the Witch of Monzie") and set the story in 1715, making her one of the last witches burned in the area. This date has been repeated numerous times by other authors, but Blair is pretty clear in his foreword that it was a guess. We can dismiss this one completely.
Another writer, Alexander Porteous, apparently made the connection to Nikneveing of Monzie. As a result, he called her Kate Nike Neiving, and stated that she died in 1563, exactly eighty years before Brughe's trial.
However, George F. Black dismissed Porteous' date completely, and instead estimated the date at 1615, with no explanation. Did he mean to write 1715? Or did he think 1715 was clearly wrong and "correct" it to 1615? (A Calendar of Cases of Witchcraft in Scotland 1510-1727)
To sum up, we have multiple references to a woman named something like Nicneven of Monzie, who was burnt to death for witchcraft. The existing evidence points to this happening in the 1560s. And Montgomerie's poem is historical evidence too! Particularly in a Flyting, all the jokes had to make sense and references had to be clear.
There are still discrepancies - did this woman die at St Andrews, or at the Knock of Criff in Monzie? Those two places are about 50 miles away from each other. The Kate McNiven legends were not collected until the 19th century; how reliable are they? Another odd note: remember the mention of "Kait of Crief" in Montgomerie's poem? Could this a reference to Kate and the Knock of Crieff? But then, that would imply that Nicneven and Kate were separate people. There are questions upon questions here.
Without more information on John Leyden's methods, it is unclear why he called Nicneven a Fairy Queen. Montgomerie's Nicneven, at least, is not the fairy queen who rides on Halloween. She's clearly not Hecate, either. She might be a gyre-carling, though, because a gyre-carling is a witch. You might say all of her women are gyre-carlings.
As for the question of where the character came from, there are more questions than answers. It's difficult to pin anything down with the spotty record-keeping and wildly varied spellings. Alison Hanham, who looked exhaustively at the various Nicnevens, called this "one of the minor mare's nests of Scottish history." As Jacqueline Simpson puts it, "We cannot therefore decide between two interpretations of Montgomerie's Nicneven. Was she a figure from folk tradition, a superhuman hag-ogress? Or was she a real "criminal," executed barely more than a decade before?"
At this point it's impossible to say for sure, and it's greatly debated. You'll find people arguing that Nicneven was the traditional goddess of Samhain, that Kate Niven never existed, that Kate Niven did exist and was titled after Nicneven, that Kate Niven had nothing to do with Nicneven... and so on. I do think that these are all connected - the very first printed mention of Catharine Niven references Nicneven.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.