The Horseman’s Word: Revealed

‘The  Horseman’s Word’3867538391_11f4bf66d1_z


Here’s to the horse with the four white feet,

The chestnut tail and mane,

A star on his face and a spot on his breast,

And his master’s name was Cain.’


Traditional knowledge was often passed in secret fraternities. One of these was the society of horsemen, a rural organisation that fiercely protected its lore. All teachings were customarily oral, from mouth to ear, records were forbidden, all had to be remembered by initiates into these groups. But it was often sound advice and practise, appearing as magic or ‘arcane gibberish’ only to those who were not in the ‘know.’ Of course, a certain flair and aptitude was essential, just as with any Craft, and this illusive ingredient could not be taught. Initiates were given a ‘word’ of power, their guard against the devil, whose word it was, whilst wielding its power.  According to legend, the first horseman was reputed to be Cain, forging another link between this agricultural figure and the devil.

CHAPTER 12 image 59 Horse Whisperer

Given that Cochrane’s father was allegedly a ‘horsemen’; this may possibly have influenced his choice of name for his Clan.  Another notorious cunning-man active during the latter half of the 19th century was George Pickinghill, and who was also rumoured to have been a renowned ‘horse whisperer.’ Pickinghill allegedly held one of his many cuveens in Sussex and is claimed to have enigmatically predicted the revival in 1962 of the ‘Old Craft.’[1] Coincidently, Prof. Hutton makes the observation that Robert Cochrane possibly released his first published work in that very year: 1962. Clearly this was a fateful and auspicious date in the historiography of the Craft. [2]

Divers communal customs and rites of passage immersed the farm labourer within the superstitions and lore that saturated traditional rural practices. Cogently, the leader or foreman drawn from among the harvesters was known as the ‘lord.’ and to whom his men ‘owed duty.’ All newcomers were initiated according to medieval custom, wearing a ‘halter,’ submitting their oaths to the ‘Lord’ and his ‘Lady.’ [3] He was the surrogate ‘Master’ for the Manorial, (or feudal Lord) and one of his obligations was to ensure the provision of vitals and all ‘good fayre’ for his men. As host in this sense, he is perceived by some as having parallels with the faerie ‘lords’ and with the greenwood lord, Robin Hood. [4] These patterns suggest the template for many later ‘Craft’ traditions, and the scion between the feudal compact, the superstitious reverences and the mentoring system, often secret, can be evinced within them.


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One of these events, bound intrinsically to Martinmas, is held in honour of the patron saint of smiths and labourers, and was the traditional time for the agricultural hiring fair. A huge feast of bread, cheese and whiskey, or more generally ale, both welcomed the new labour and celebrated for the last time, the camaraderie with those leaving. All manner of labour including ploughmen and carters were contracted to prepare the fields and animals for winter. One custom peculiar to this fair, was that ‘blood should be spilt on this day to secure good fortune for the next twelve months,’ referring of course to the necessary annual slaughter of livestock for the winter. [5]

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Even when celebrated at a domestic level, an ox or a fowl at least was duly prepared and mindfully consumed. It was a celebrated public holiday, and one of the few days in rural employment where no work was undertaken. Initiations into Horsemen’s societies normally took place on this auspicious eve, and the barn was often a favoured location. Three knocks upon the door and the declaration that the candidate was there at the behest of the devil, gained them admittance to the smell of burning sulphur.  Led in, under the moon, blindfolded, he would then be enjoined to take ‘a shak o’ ould hornie,’ the hand of the devil, over which the pledge or covenant was declared:


‘to hele, concele and ne’r reveal; neither write, nor dite, nor recite; nor cut, nor carve, nor write in sand.’


horseman's word


The hand of the devil, was of course, the Master Horsemen, draped in calf skin speculatively rubbed with phosphorous, wearing a horned mask. The pledge bound them never to reveal the horseman’s ‘word’ (of power), to anyone who wore an apron except a smith or farrier. Smiths were also held in awe, wielding the power to heal and expel baneful influences. The ceremonial toast was to Cain, as the first master of the art:


‘Here’s to the horse with the four white feet…………..,


According to folklore, they were shown the ritual handshake, in order to greet and recognise a true ‘brother’ and taught many charms, some were reputed to invoke the assistance of the devil himself by right of the toad bone. [6] The devil as a master craftsman was also allegedly a smith, whose civilizing arts repelled the darkness and ignorance of tribal societies. Though not all engagements were beneficial, especially those that challenged fate; the best example of this, is gambling. Playing cards were typically referred to as the devil’s books, not because they were evil per se, but because they engaged fate to manipulate the outcome. Perceived as hubris to challenge the devil at his own game, the odds were never good.


Even so, the devil is also a useful ally, a powerful protagonist, a force invoked adverse to another. In this way, a negative neutralises or binds another negative. Baneful hemlock, denoted as a witch’s plant, evocatively drawing its power from the ‘devil’ is put to use as a healing salve, where it is set in opposition to the disease. This belief reveals a spiritual level of healing in addition to that of the physical properties of the plant itself. Of course, the recipes do contain other narcotics and natural entheogens, having juice, seed and root concocted according to variable but once tightly guarded recipes. [8]


A certain procedure for self-empowerment through an invocatory compact with the devil involves the complex extraction of the frog or toad bone. Charms of this nature vary across counties, but normally entail a gruesome and excruciating death for the unfortunate frog, whose excarnated bones are disarticulated by throwing them into a stream at midnight, retrieving the one screaming bone that flowed contra to the others, upstream. This esteemed bone was endowed with similar powers to that carried by the ‘Toadmen’, the infamous and enigmatic horse-masters, whose power, drawn through this bone, generated fear amongst the common folk, convinced the carrier must be in league with the devil! [9]


An alternative rite requires that the bone, once won, be taken to a stable or a graveyard for three consecutive nights, whereupon the devil, in order to preserve this power for himself, will attempt to wrest it from its claimant; to best him, is to earn the right to carry it.[10]


In summary, it is worth pointing out how these traditions and lore came into England from the Scottish Highlands,  during the  late 17th century, and early 18th century,  when the horseman’s skills were needed there. Taken up by Cunning-folk to counter supposed situations involving possible hexing against the landowners. Once shared, it became the stuff of legend.[11]



“In June 1989 the local newspaper printed the Oath of the Horseman’s Word, and the belief that a member was initiated ‘a few weeks ago’. The article is here.


The Horsemen originated in the north-east of Scotland before 1870. Much has been written about the growth and the following of the Horsemen with anecdotal versions of the initiation ceremony, the mysteries, the Oath, and versions of the ‘Word’ itself.   For anyone keen to read such accounts, a short list of books is given below.

On a light-hearted note, from ‘Scots Pegasus’ by the Scottish dialect poet Alastair Mackie, ‘ . . the hert o the nut is this – naebody, dammt, kens the horseman’s word’.


Contrary to what curious readers may find stated elsewhere on the internet, the Horsemen (as we call it) is still an active Society in Scotland. Competent authors such as Russell Lyon in Lanarkshire made the effort to check facts before writing “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”.  And indeed this is so.


Billy Rennie, from Stuartfield near Peterhead, was described by a Scotland on Sunday columnist in Dec. 2002 as ‘the last known surviving member of the Horseman’s Word’.  In Oct. 2009 the Buchan Observer had a local headline entry ‘Horseman’s Word expert publishes book’ – none other than brother Rennie, initiated in Sept.1961. A deluxe limited edition (100) followed, bound in leather ‘with an imprint from an actual horseshoe, with nail holes in genuine gold’ and including an envelope containing ‘a horsehair knotted in the special manner that signifies that it is your invitation to the mysteries of the Society of the Horseman’s Word’.


Yes, we have many more ‘surviving members’ . . .  and that is from the horse’s mouth!”

For the enjoyment of visitors who can understand the broad Scottish tongue, a delightful poem ‘The Horseman’s Word’ by William Christie can be read online here.[11]


 and another resource:


“To become a “Horesman”, a form of initiation had to be endured. The young “Orraman” went to the barn on the appointed night armed with a loaf, a candle and a bottle of whisky. He was blind-folded and taken to an altar made of a bushel, where a series of questions had to be answered. During the ceremony he swore never to reveal the “Horseman’s Word”.[12]


The Horseman’s Word

The following notes regarding “The Horseman’s Word” arrived at the Archive in August 2005 from Stewart Beveridge who emigrated to Australia in 1970:[13]

“I read an article on this many years ago in one of the Weekly or Monthly UK magazines. It seems that The League of the Horseman’s Word was similar in many respects to modern Trade Unions, the difference being that the bosses were the farmers, landowners etc. all part of the establishment per se, so in the God fearing climate of the North East as it used to be, they all went to kirk on Sunday. To emphasise their differences, the horsemen worshipped their Founding Father, Tubal Cain the first blacksmith or worker in brass and other metals who is important to the equestrian world and became translated to Auld Clootie or Auld Nick (Satan) who was reputed to be an exceptional fiddler. (See Burns’ Tam o’ Shanter).

Apparently there was an initiation ceremony where a novice was given the welcoming handshake before being given “The Horseman’s Word”. He was sworn to secrecy about The Word and told never to disclose it or write it down. At the end of the ceremony he was offered a pen and paper and told “Now that you ken the word, write it.” At this point, if the person reached for the pen, one of the officials standing by would hit his hand VERY hard with a chain causing wounding.

The researcher of the article said he had interviewed many old horsemen with massive scars on the backs of their hands. The other classic question was “Fit do you need maist?” Many answers were forthcoming but the ideal was “Mair light.” The song “Nicky-Tams” recounts part of this event when the singer is inducted after being Fee’d to the Mains (hired to the farm). “Weel I gaed on for Baillie Loon, Sine I gaed on for Third (Horseman), And sine of course I had to get the Horseman’s Grip and Word”. I knew the song but had not appreciated what was being said until reading the article. I did my Agri Practical on a farm near Montrose in 1953 which was not all that far removed from the time in question. Horse work was being phased out by that time but the older farm hands were a pretty insulated group of people. In those days it was a 5½ day week with very few people having cars so public transport, if available, took you where you wanted to get to.

The men and wives would come into town on Saturday afternoon. The men, in their good blue suits with white collars and ties, went to the football while their wives went shopping. Everyone went home on the 5pm bus. Life was simpler in many respects in those days.”[14]

~Stewart Beveridge, August 2005.


•   Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, Reader’s Digest Association Ltd., 1977.
•   The Quest for the Original Horse Whisperers, Russell Lyon, Luath Press Ltd., Edinburgh, 2003.
•   The Horseman’s Word, Timothy Neat, Birlinn Ltd., 2002.
•   The Pattern Under The Plough, George Ewart Evans, Faber & Faber, 1966.



[1] W.E. Liddell. & M. Howard (Ed.) ‘The Pickinghill Papers’ (Berks.1994) p103

[2] Prof. R. Hutton. ‘The Triumph of the Moon’ (Oxford, 1999) p313

[3] B. Bushaway. ‘By Rite: Custom, Ceremony and Community in England 1700-1880’(London, 1982) p112.

[4] This would tally well with Cochrane’s claim through his father, of five generations of Craft in his family.

[5] C. Hole. ‘British Folk Customs’ (London, 1976) p127. Significant now as Armistice Day, where we remember those fallen in death during the two world wars.

[6] Readers Digest Ass. (Ed.)  ‘Folklore, Myths and Legends’ (GB, 1974) p462

[7] E. & M. A. Radford p168

[8] E. & M. A. Radford. ‘Ency. of Superstitions’ (GB, 1974) p188

[9] Shani Oates ‘Brimstone and Treacle’  2008  Published in ‘The Arcane Veil’ Mandrake Press 2012  [This article was originally written  for and  submitted to a Journal publication through Three Hands Press that never came to fruition, so was eventually included in ‘The Arcane Veil.’]

[10] These are extant themes and praxes utilised within many Craft Traditions.]

NB: As a long standing interest of my Clan, a few valuable scraps of information have been collated over time; some of these were shared several years ago in an article that was submitted by myself for The Cauldron, but the editor felt the information was not something he wanted to put out in the Public Domain. This was a shame, as the information was of great interest to many people interested in and researching horse and craft related folklore, moreover, much of it already existed in the public domain, albeit in diverse and obscure places.  Thankfully, before too long, the rest of that information, and considerably more besides, became published in a couple of books on ‘The Horseman’s Word,’ and made widely available online. It is wonderful therefore to share here yet further information for all interested parties, of many excellent on-line resources for this lore, for those who may not yet be aware of them. Enjoy!





~ by meanderingsofthemuse on April 17, 2017.

6 Responses to “The Horseman’s Word: Revealed”

  1. Excellent article, pulling together lots of sources. I love that Horseman’s Word website and a couple of nice recipes as well…ok, one of them is nice!

  2. This is a fascinating DVD with an account of the Waters of the Moon by an old Horseman:

  3. Hi, good article, Thanks for Sharing . G E Evans also has collection of vocal recordings, of people who worked on the farms / Blacksmiths / Horsemen (men and women) in the early nineteen hundreds,(last of the Horse run farms etc), for His book research ,There is a web site which includes some recordings people can listen to If they wish. Thanks once again for this useful article ….. 🙂

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