The History of 12 British Superstitions

If you see a magpie, have an onion ready.
If you see a magpie, have an onion ready. / yorkfoto/Getty Images (Union Jack background); kaanates/Getty Images (red onion); Sander Meertins/iStock via Getty Images (magpie)

When it comes to weird and wacky superstitions, the United Kingdom has developed some real oddities. While they may now seem illogical—and a little obsessed with witches—they connect us to the ancient British peoples. Here are 12 of the strangest, and where they came from.

1. For luck, meet a chimney sweep on your wedding day.

London Chimney Sweep
Good luck keeping your white dress soot-free. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

Sweeps are considered lucky in several European countries, including Germany, Austria, Poland, and Hungry. In continental Europe, they’re particularly fortuitous on New Year’s Day if carrying a pig. But in the UK, the season doesn’t matter. European tradition favors the luck being transferred through rubbing their buttons or stealing some bristles from their brush, whereas in Britain people wave, tip their hat, or blow a kiss.

A rather muddled story about George II being rescued by a mystery sweep when his horse bolted is often quoted as being the source of the tradition. It’s said the king was so grateful, he proclaimed that henceforth sweeps would “bring good luck to the land.”

However, the fact that this belief is shared across the continent suggests a more ancient and common source. For centuries, fire was thought to possess magical properties that transferred themselves to the ash and soot, and hence to the man who spent his day covered in them. Cleaning the hearth on New Year’s Day was thought to bring luck to a house for 12 months.

But why does Britain associate sweeps with weddings? The answer may lie with the legacy left by the Romans. Vulcan, the god of fire, was associated with both destruction and fertility; myths told of how the hearth and ash was a source of several magical pregnancies. This was mirrored in an ancient religion where the god of fire, Bel, was celebrated at the Beltane Festival in May in a ceremony closely associated with courting, marriage, and fertility.

 2. Bringing hawthorn flowers into the house will cause a death.

Hawthorn Blossom, UK
Keep these outside. / Tim Graham/GettyImages

Superstitions about hawthorn, also known as the May tree, date back to the British Celts, who believed it was one of the three magical trees: ash, oak and thorn. People planted hawthorn in hedgerows to protect livestock from witches. To this day, few farmers will cut one down, often leaving them to stand alone in a field. Even as recently as 1998, Yorkshire farmers were seen hanging a mare’s placenta in a hawthorn tree to bring good luck to its foal.

According to the lore, the trees are where fairies live, and boughs are often left at the door for good luck. In early spring they burst out in an abundance of white flowers, which has given them a close association with fertility and new life and made them an important part of Beltane and May Day; people will dance around the Maypole and use hawthorn blossom as garlands.

Inside the home, however, the hawthorn has a contradictory reputation. In some parts of the country such as Herefordshire, branches are bent into a globe and hung in the kitchen to be burnt on New Year’s Day as good luck for the year ahead. But the flowers are widely considered a symbol of death, and it’s forbidden to bring the blossom into the house. This derives from the smell, which bears a resemblance to rotting flesh. In the 17th century, Francis Bacon recorded that the plague bore “the smell of a mellow apple and (as some say) of May flowers.” Another common saying ran, “Hawthorn bloom and elder flower; Fill the house with evil power.”

Modern science has finally provided an explanation for this: The flowers contain trimethylamine, the same chemical formed when tissue begins to decay—which, in an age when corpses were often laid out in the house, was an odor many would have been all-too familiar with.

3. Grow holly if you want to stop a witch in her tracks.

Blue Tit in Snowy Landscape
With holly, you can feed birds and stop witches. / Tim Graham/GettyImages

Like hawthorn, holly is said to be one of Britain’s most magical plants. Druids venerated it as a symbol for fertility and eternal life. Holly also played a significant part in the Beltane and May Day festivals. Christianity absorbed the pagan beliefs, and the leaves and berries came to represent the thorns and blood of Christ’s crown.

Trimming a holly for decorations, particularly at Christmas, and bringing the plant inside is said to give protection to a house, a practice that pre-dates the Christmas tree by centuries. However, you must never cut the whole tree down—this will open up a highway in the hedgerows for witches to skim across. For even more protection, people plant a holly outside the house, while a self-seeded sapling is even better luck.

4. Throwing salt over your left shoulder will hit the devil in the eye.

Salt Shaker
Season your food and ward off evil. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Superstitions around salt are common in much of Europe, including Spain, Germany, Ukraine, and France. In the UK, spilling salt is considered unlucky. It’s still a widespread practice to use the right hand to throw salt over the left shoulder (where, in Christian tradition, the devil sits).

While some believe the origin of this superstition started with Judas spilling salt during the last supper (as depicted by Leonardo da Vinci), the mineral’s use as a protective force predates Christianity. In the UK, throwing salt into the fire was said to keep witches away, as was putting it on the lid of a butter churn. The tradition of placing a bowl of salt on a corpse was also used to keep ghosts from walking. In 1873, it was still being used as a way to lift a curse with the words “Salt, salt! I put thee into the fire, and may the person who has bewitched me neither eat, drink, nor sleep, till the spell is broken,” and 20 years later as a way of enticing a lover to visit.

While most of these have faded away, throwing salt in the devil’s face to distract him is still regularly practiced. You just have to be mindful of who else is standing behind you.  

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5. Never put shoes on a table (for reasons that have nothing to do with germs).

pile of shoes on grass
Keep your shoes on the ground. / Harry Engels/GettyImages

Britain has always had a superstitious streak about shoes—it was common practice to leave a shoe in a mine and to hide one in the wall or under the floor of a house as protective magic. Shoes have also had a long association with wedding ceremonies. Anglo-Saxon bridegrooms would tap their bride on the head with one of her own shoes to show authority; by the Tudor period, this had evolved into throwing a shoe at a newly married couple. Fortunately, both of these have died out for obvious reasons, although people still tie them to the back of a wedding car.

Putting shoes on the table as an invoker of bad luck is peculiarly British (although Italy forbids placing shoes on a bed). It sounds logical from a hygienic point of view, but this superstition is about death, not germs. The most commonly quoted reason relates to the mining communities in the north of England, who would display a miner’s boots on the table when they died.

But there may have been a wider practice to associate shoes with the dead, particularly those who had met a violent end. A report of a trial in Victorian Edinburgh details how a police constable removed and buried a murdered man’s shoes on a beach instead of keeping them with the other evidence. Although the constable would not admit to why he had done it, the consensus was that it was an attempt to prevent the victim’s ghost from perpetually walking across Arran, where he had been murdered.

6. Saying Macbeth in the theater will send the actors into a frenzy.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare
A scene from "the Scottish play." / Culture Club/GettyImages

If there is one superstition in the theater that every actor must follow, it's that you can never say Macbeth or quote from the play unless it’s during a rehearsal or show. History has it that this tradition began with the show’s first performance, when the actor playing Lady Macbeth died unexpectedly.

Since then, the play has been littered with mishaps and disaster. Numerous actors have been injured or died, theaters have burnt down or gone out of business, technology has failed, lines have been forgotten, and props have injured members of the audience. The most famous events have seen the onstage murder of the actor playing Duncan in 1672, the outbreak of riots in New York in 1849 resulting in the death of 22 people, and a near fatal accident involving Sir Laurence Olivier in the 1937.

But all is not lost, and there is a way to reverse the bad luck: Should you ever be in the position where you have made the catastrophic mistake of saying the Scottish king’s name in a theater, you must immediately go outside, spin around three times, spit, curse, and then ask to be let back in.

7. Smash your egg shells if you want to stop your boat from sinking.

Three white eggs
Don't let any witches sail away in these shells. / Roberto Machado Noa/GettyImages

As far back as the Romans, people believed there was something suspicious about eggs —particularly the shells—with Pliny the Elder linking them to a “dread [of] being spell-bound by means of evil imprecations.” By the time Reginald Scot wrote his Discoverie of Witchcraft in 1584, it had become a common belief across Europe that witches would “saile in an egge shell.” In particular, people feared they used the shells to make boats so they could travel out to sea, where they would stir up storms to sink ships. In fact, just boiling an egg could get a person convicted of witchcraft.

The egg superstition was so widely and seriously believed that not only was it used as evidence in witchcraft trials, but it became an everyday practice for people to smash up their eggshells. Irish immigrants to America in the 1840s broke their shells to stop the fairies from returning home, and even as late as 1934 children were being told, “Oh, never leave your egg-shells unbroken in the cup; Think of us poor sailor-men and always smash them up, For witches come and find them and sail away to sea, And make a lot of misery for mariners like me.” It’s still common for sailors to ban eggs on board. Even the name is taboo, with some only prepared to call them roundabouts.

8. Never kill an albatross (especially with a banana).

A couple of Moli, or Laysan albatrosses
For good luck, you'll want them alive. / Wolfgang Kaehler/GettyImages

Sailors are particularly superstitious. There’s a whole range of dos and don’ts to keep people safe on the water, including never taking a banana on board a ship. The fruit is said to prevent a boat from catching fish, and, worse still, may even sink it. 

One of the biggest and most famous superstitions involving the sea relates to the albatross, which can bring good and bad luck in equal measure. For centuries, sailors have believed they’re supernatural due to their ability to ride the air currents for long distances without the need to land. The bird is said to hold the souls of dead seamen who will protect the ship, so seeing one is considered a lucky omen.

It stands to reason therefore that killing one will bring bad luck. While some suggest this has only come about since the publication of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1797, the author Samuel Taylor Coleridge actually got his inspiration from stories of real-life encounters with the bird, including that of the Speedwell, which ran into trouble after a sailor killed an albatross in October 1718.

The superstition still persists. When a ship encountered numerous problems in 1959 after an albatross died on board, the Captain admitted “That albatross may be to blame for the strike. I had courage bringing that … thing on board.”

9. If you don’t want to drown, get a tattoo.

'Britannia-the Unprotected Female!!', 1859.
Get inked for good luck. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Learning to swim was never an option for most sailors who were press-ganged into service from inshore towns, and a bizarre seafaring superstition prevailed that doing so would anger the sea. Perhaps it had more to do with the fact that sailors knew that if they fell overboard, death was inevitable because no one would rescue them. As well as the impracticality of turning the ship around in time, they believed that rescuing a colleague cheated the sea of a soul—and that as payment, the sea would soon take their life.

Sailors purchased cauls (a membrane that covers the faces of some babies at birth) and got tattoos as a way of protecting themselves against drowning. Folklore said that the owner of a caul could never drown, while propellers inked onto each buttock would push a man ashore. People noticed that animals kept in crates often survived a shipwreck due to their buoyancy, giving rise to the superstition that God was in some way protecting them. Thus, having a tattoo of a pig and rooster on your feet was thought to encourage the gods to show you the same favor. 

10. Use a hagstone to protect your house and animals from witches.

Etching of Horseman Fleeing from Witches by Richard Cockle Lucas
This rider should've carried a hagstone. / Historical Picture Archive/GettyImages

Stones with a naturally occurring hole, known as hagstones, have been considered protective for centuries. The hole symbolized a passage through which only good luck and prosperity could pass. Witches, fairies, and evil thoughts were too big, and would therefore be kept at bay. This was even more potent if the hole had been created by water or if the stone was hung with iron, such as on a keyring.

People often put the stone in their houses to keep the witches out. They also placed them in stables, on the bow of boats, and even between the horns of a cow to stop the fairies from stealing the milk. Hanging them over the bed would stop nightmares (known as hag-riding) and putting them with animals would protect them from fever. In 1686. John Aubrey noted that “in the West of England … the Carters, & Groomes, & Hostlers doe hang a flint (that has a hole in it) over Horses that are hagge-ridden for a Preservative against it.”

Hagstones are still considered lucky. But if you want one, it’s best to find it yourself. You can buy one from the internet, but beware: If the hole isn’t natural, the witches will come right on through.

11. If you want something good to happen, tie a cloutie to a tree.

Put trees and water together and you have a place particularly powerful in magic, according to Celtic religion. Both were inhabited by spirits and both could bring good luck if given an offering (hence why we throw coins into wells and fountains) or touched (hence why we touch or knock on wood).

Clootie or cloutie wells were sacred springs often with a tree beside them. The sick would visit them while seeking a cure. The belief was that if the affected area was washed with a strip of cloth (the clootie/cloutie) and then left to rot in the sacred tree, it would take the illness with it. As Christianity took hold, saints became associated with the wells, but the pagan tradition survived. Sometimes the cloth was accompanied by other offerings such as pins, coins, and beans.

Despite advancements in medicine, the tradition of making offerings to the gods still persists in the form of the modern wishing tree. In addition to clouties hanging from tree limbs, you can also find paper notes on branches, padlocks on bridges, coins hammered into logs, and even sports team's scarf tied to the club’s railings.

12. If you see a single magpie make sure to tip your hat (especially if you’re not carrying onions).

Deer At Hampton Court Palace Golf Course
He probably knew how to greet the magpie. / Ian Walton/GettyImages

Until the arrival of Christianity, magpies were seen as a lucky bird. But the story that they refused to weep at the crucifixion or enter Noah’s Ark changed their reputation into one of misfortune. In 1507, it was reported that “whan pyes chatter upon a house it is a sygne of ryghte evyll tydynges” and the fact that they could often be seen around places of death looking for carrion only cemented their reputation.

By 1780, the superstition around the magpie was so strong that the UK had developed a rhyme recounting the different types of luck a magpie could bring. It’s still commonly recited today: “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy.” There are several regional variations on what that sorrow can be, including a sign of an impending death in Scotland, a hazardous journey in Wales, and a day without catching any fish in Devon. In Northampton, three magpies predict a fire rather than a girl.

There are ways, however, to negate the bad luck, the most common being to doff your cap and say “Good morning general (or captain).” Again this varies by region, and other greetings include making the sign of a cross, asking after the magpie’s wife, and spitting three times over your shoulder. The oddest is practiced by the people of Somerset, who are encouraged to carry an onion with them at all times to protect themselves from the evil effects of seeing the magpie.