Habetrot (also 'Habitrot, Habtrot, Habbitrot') is a figure in folklore of the Border counties of Northern England and Lowland Scotland, associated with spinning and the spinning wheel.
Habetrot appears in a Selkirkshire folktale which is a variant of the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index tale type ATU 501, The Three Old Spinning Women. She is an old, deformed woman who lives underground with a group of other spinsters, all disfigured by their work (some have splayed feet or flat thumbs). The only other named spinster is Scantlie Mab. Habetrot spun yarn for a local girl and then convinced the girl's new husband that she should never spin again.
According to the folklore of the borders, it was considered unlucky to step upon "unchristened ground" (the graves of stillborn or unbaptised children) and any who did were said to catch "grave-merels" (or "grave-scab") an illness that causes difficulty of breathing and trembling limbs as well as the burning of the skin as if touched by a hot iron. The only way to relieve this was for the afflicted to wear a sack made from linen grown in a field using manure from a farmyard that has not been disturbed for forty years, spun by Habetrot, bleached by an honest bleacher in an honest miller's milldam and sewed by an honest tailor.
Similar tales appear in countries such as Germany (such as The Three Spinners) and Norway (The Three Aunts).
A Selkirkshire matron had one fair daughter, who loved play better than work, wandering in the meadows and lanes better than the spinning-wheel and distaff. The mother was heartily vexed at this taste, for in those days no lassie had any chance of a good husband unless she was an industrious spinster. So she cajoled, threatened, even heather daughter, but all to no purpose; the girl remained what her mother called her, "an idle cuttie."
At last, one spring morning, the gudewife gave her seven heads of lint, saying she would take no excuse; they must be returned in three days spun into yarn. The girl saw her mother was in earnest, so she plied her distaff as well as she could; but her little hands were all untaught, and by the evening of the second day a very small part of her task was accomplished. She cried herself to sleep that night, and in the morning, throwing aside her work in despair, she strolled out into the fields, all sparkling with dew. At last she reached a flowery knoll, at whose feet ran a little burn, shaded with woodbine and wild roses; and there she sat down, burying her face in her hands. When she looked up, she was surprised to see by the margin of the stream an old woman, quite unknown to her, "drawing out the thread" as she basked in the sun. There was nothing very remarkable in her appearance, except the length and thickness of her lips, only she was seated on a self-bored stone. The girl rose, went to the good dame, and gave her a friendly greeting, but could not help inquiring what made her so "lang lipit." "Spinning thread, ma hinnie," said the old woman, pleased with her friendliness, and by no means resenting the personal remark. It must be noticed that spinners used constantly to wet their fingers with their lips as they drew the thread from the rock or distaff. "Ah!" said the girl, "I should be spinning too, but it's a' to no purpose, I sall ne'er do my task;" on which the old woman proposed to do it for her. Overjoyed, the maiden ran to fetch her lint, and placed it in her new friend's hand, asking her. name, and where she could call for the yarn in the evening; but she received no reply; the old woman's form passed away from her among the trees and bushes, and disappeared. The girl, much bewildered, wandered about a little, set down to rest, and finally fell asleep by the little knoll.
When she awoke she was surprised to find that it was evening. The glories of the western sky were passing into twilight grey. Causleen, or the evening star, was beaming with silvery light, soon to be lost in the moon's increasing splendour. While watching these changes, the maiden was startled by the sound of an uncouth voice, which seemed to issue from below a self-bored stone, close beside her. She laid her ear to the stone, and distinctly heard these words: "Little kens the wee lassie on the brae-head that ma name's Habetrot." Then looking down the hole she saw her friend, the old dame, walking backwards and forwards in a deep cavern among a group of spinsters all seated on colludie stones (a kind of white pebble found in rivers), and busy with distaff and spindle. An unsightly company they were, with lips more or less disfigured by their employment, as were old Habetrot's. The same peculiarity extended to another of the sisterhood, who sat in a distant corner reeling the yarn; and she was marked, in addition, by grey eyes, which seemed starting from her head, and a long hooked nose.
While the girl was still watching, she heard Habetrot address this singular being by the name of Scantlie Mab, and tell her to bundle up the yarn, for it was time the young lassie should give it to her mother. Delighted to hear this, our listener got up and turned homewards, nor was she long kept in suspense. Habetrot soon overtook her, and placed the yarn in her hands. "Oh, what can I do for ye in return?" exclaimed she, in delight. "Naething — naething," replied the dame; "but dinna tell yer mither whae spun the yarn."
Scarcely crediting her good fortune, our heroine went home, where she found her mother had been busy making sausters, or black puddings, and hanging them up in the lum to dry, and then, tired out, had retired to rest. Finding herself very hungry after her long day on the knoll, the girl took down pudding after pudding, fried and ate them, and at last went to bed too. The mother was up first the next morning, and when she came into the kitchen and found her sausters all gone, and the seven hanks of yarn lying beautifully smooth and bright upon the table, her mingled feelings of vexation and delight were too much for her. She ran out of the house wildly crying out —
"Ma daughter's spun se'en, se'en, se'en, Ma daughter's eaten se'en, se'en' se'en And all before daylight!
A laird, who chanced to be riding by, heard the exclamation but could not understand it; so he rode up and asked the gudewife what was the matter, on which she broke out again —
Ma daughter's spun se'en, se'en, se'en, Ma daughter's eaten se'en, se'en, se'en" before daylight; and, if ye dinna believe me, why come in and see it."
The laird's curiosity was roused; he alighted and went into the cottage, where he saw the yarn, and admired it so much, he begged to see the spinner.
The mother dragged in the blushing girl. Her rustic grace soon won his heart, and he avowed he was lonely without a wife, and had long been in search of one who was a good spinner. So their troth was plighted, and the wedding took place soon afterwards, the bride stifling her apprehensions that she should not prove so deft at her spinning-wheel as her lover expected. And once more old Habetrot came to her aid. Whether the good dame, herself so notable, was as indulgent to all idle damsels does not appear — certainly she did not fail this little pet of hers. "Bring your bonnie bridegroom to my cell," said she to the young bride soon after her marriage; "he shall see what comes o' spinning, and never will he tie you to the spinning wheel."
Accordingly the bride led her husband the next day to the flowery knoll, and bade him look through the self-bored stone. Great was his surprise to behold Habetrot dancing and jumping over her rock, singing all the time this ditty to her sisterhood, while they kept time with their spindles:
"We who live in dreary den, Are both rank and foul to see, Hidden frae the glorious sun, That teems the fair earth's canopie: Ever must our evenings lone Be spent on the colludie stone."
Cheerless is the evening grey, When Causleen hath died away, But ever bright and ever fair, Are they who breathe this evening air; And lean upon the self-bored stone Unseen by all but me alone."
The song ended, Scantlie Mab asked Habetrot what she meant by her last line, "Unseen by all but me alone." "There is ane," replied Habetrot, "whom I bid to come here at this hour, and he has heard my song through the self-bored stone." So saying she rose, opened another door, which was concealed by the roots of an old tree, and invited the bridal pair to come in and see her family.
The laird was astonished at the weird-looking company, as he well might be, and inquired of one after another the cause of the strange distortion of their lips. In a different tone of voice, and with a different twist of the mouth, each answered that it was occasioned by spinning. At least they tried to say so, but one grunted out "Nakasind," and other "Owkasaand," while a third murmured " 0-a-o-send." All, however, conveyed the fact to the bridegroom's understanding; while Habetrot slyly hinted, that, if his wife were allowed to spin, her pretty lips would grow out of shape too, and her pretty face get an ugsome look. So before he left the cave he protested his little wife should never touch a spinning-wheel, and he kept his word. She used to wander in the meadows by his side, or ride behind him over the hills, and all the flax grown on his land was sent to old Habetrot to be converted into yarn.
Henderson, W. (1879). Notes on the folk-lore of the northern countries of England and the borders. Covent Garden: W. Satchell, Peyton and Co., p. 258 ff.