Hunting a Shapeshifter

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Davie Donaldson
University of Aberdeen

Hunting a Shapeshifter

Hunting for Nawken is a practice deeply influenced by spirituality and superstition. One Elder explained that Nawken have ‘nick-names’ for each Nawken family, usually associated with animals:

“It goes right away way back, an’ I once when I was about Elspeth’s age, asked this aul’ aul’ man, an’ he says ‘do ye’ no ken that’s whit’ ye’ come aff’ oh?’. He meant that the different breeds come off of different animals…” (1978)

This explanation of each family having an associated animal, is implied as a very ancient custom and still retained through kinship relations to this day. This understanding not only supports the notion that Nawken families are ancestrally related, but spiritually linked with animals – perhaps these animals being part of their origin story. Another elder explained, ‘You canny kill crows, it’s bad luck – they’ve got the eyes of our ancestors ye ken? They’re like us, they make tools, they mate for life and they recognise yer face’. This respect for animals follows through to the animals Nawken will eat and those that they deem impure. One such animal that divides Nawken families is the Hare.

The brown hare lives across Scotland, mostly throughout the higher lands, and areas of open vegetation. Whilst the hare is very common, and most Nawken families would hunt the animal, only some Nawken families would eat the animal after killing it. One elder recalled a time when he was able to run after a hare at a camping ground near Auchterarder and catch it for his family to eat. This feat of physical speed, being able to catch a running hare, was a story his family proudly retold time and time again. This pride followed the Nawken elder to his funeral, where his daughter had a florist make an effigy of a hare to decorate his coffin. However remarkable this elder’s feat was, many Nawken would’ve never ate the hare he had caught due to superstition surrounding the animal.

The hare changes the colour of its coat between winter and summer, it’s coat brown in the summer and appearing bluish white in the winter. This ability to change has been long recognised by Nawken and has led to many families associating the hare with shapeshifters and witches. Nawken embed a deep mistrust of the hare in their children from a young age, retelling folk tales associating the animal with Fee (fairies) and witches, changing their form to commit evil or mischievous acts. These acts usually include stealing children, belongings and most often – milk. One such story was retold to us during our research by Nawken Elder, Margaret Higgins; in her version of this popular Nawken tale she uses a cat, however it is usually always a hare.

This belief that hares are shapeshifting witches is thought to have been the original reason that young Nawken boys were taught to ‘go coursin’, whenever their families moved to a new camp to ‘clean the area’. Coursin being the act of hunting hares with dogs, mainly lurcher, whippet and saluki breeds. Elders share that the hares caught would often only be used to feed the dogs, the meat believed to be impure.

The practice of coursin has been outlawed in the UK, with anyone now caught hare coursing now facing an unlimited fine and up to six months in prison. This new legislation has caused conflict to arise with Nawken communities who continue to practice their own form of purification ritual as they travel.


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Reading Links

Stewart, J. (1978) Two stories of milk being stolen by witchcraft and the witches being thwarted. (TAD 56116) Available from:


Whyte, B. (1978) Traveller family nicknames, some based on animals; offence taken at their use; taboo names for animals. (TAD 67343) Available from:


Thank you to the Nawken tradition-bearers who shared their experiences, beliefs and knowledge of the Brown hare. Specifically to Margaret Higgins and Tommy Brown, Nawken Elders.