The Society of the Horseman's Word

It is difficult to determine the boundaries, both temporal and geographical from within which the members of a secret society are drawn. It enhances the self-esteem of members to believe that they belong to a widespread and ancient society; but social conditions pertaining to agriculture in Scotland in the era of the horse provided an environment in which a widespread and secret society of horsemen could flourish.

The Society of the Horseman's Word had obvious similarities with Freemasonry. The members were initiated in a ceremony that was more or less terrifying; they were taught secret signs by which members could reveal themselves to one another while keeping their membership secret from the profane. They taught a fanciful history that purported to explain the origin of the Society from the earliest times, involving biblical and mythological characters, and others that are referred to in the pseudo-history of Freemasonry, and finally, as horses were replaced by tractors, some of the members of the Society, no longer operative horsemen, retained the rituals by amalgamating with Masonic Lodges.

The initiation

The account that follows is abridged from The Ancient Ritual of the Buchan Ploughmen Incorporated with the Antient Horsemen as transmitted by W. M. Rennie, in Anon (n.d) The Society of the Horseman's Word, with minor additions from Lyon (2003).

One day late in the year the halflin would find an envelope on his bed; inside it would be a single hair from a horse's tail, knotted in a particular way. This was the invitation to join: it could be accepted or rejected. Mostly it was accepted. Candidates who rejected the invitation tended to be unlucky. Most welcomed the invitation and prepared themselves to attend the initiation on the appointed day by providing themselves with a loaf of white bread and a bottle of whisky.

The meeting was held at dead of night, in secret, usually in a chaff-house, or barn. The candidate is blindfolded and led by a proved horseman, his mentor. There was an exchange of ritual questions and answers, and after this the neophyte was led into an adjacent field, stripped to the waist, smeared with dubbin, and straw was packed into the back of his trousers and into his nicky-tams (straps worn under the knee to keep the ends of the trousers from being soiled while ploughing). He was then hobbled by having his hands tied to his feet, and was made to drag a harrow. The candidate dragged the harrow round the field, whipped on by an unseen hand, the straw protecting him from the worst of the whipping, and was offered a drink of caul pee, in reality ale, at the first corner, which naturally he refused. His lips were wetted with caul pee at the second corner, and at the third an attempt was made to open his mouth and force him to drink the caul pee, as he struggled to keep it out of his mouth. Then he was led to the middle of the field to shake hands with Auld Nick. He reached out his hand and found a cloven hoof. Then he swore his oath, to keep matters secret, to treat horses kindly, to keep the Word secret and made other obligations. The lad, his blindfold removed, was led back indoors was given the Word, was washed and dried, and was given his own clothes back. Then he was offered a drink of the caul pee which, without his blindfold he easily recognized as ale, and drank freely.

Some accounts state that at this point in the ceremony the new initiate was invited to write down the Word lest he forget it. If he did, as soon as he began to write he was struck very hard on the hand holding the pen with a cudgel or chain for the breach of his oath never to reveal the word.

The final act in the initiation is The Ploughman's Court. This is a mock court, at which the initiate is condemned for lack of trust: he should have trusted those who offered him caul pee that they would not act to defile him. He is found guilty of lack of trust and sentenced to be hanged. The preparations included showing him the noose attached to a rafter, the drop through an open trapdoor and the floor beneath. He is blindfolded again, the noose is placed round his neck, and he is pushed through the trapdoor. But the noose round his neck is not connected to the rafter, and he falls free on to bails of straw that break his fall, surreptitiously placed after he had been blindfolded, the straw in his trousers providing some protection in case his bowels were caused to empty by the drop. At last the blindfold was removed and the initiation was completed. And in Buchan he was given permission to add his own white stone to the white horse of Mormond Hill.

Afterwards the bread was eaten and the whisky was drunk. Newly initiated ploughmen usually had sore heads and sore right hands the following morning.

(Revision date: Tuesday 10th April 2012)