And if such misfortunes weren't enough, it was also claimed that harming a robin would mark you for life. In parts of England, it was said that if you killed a robin, the hand that did the deed would shake forevermore. Over in Ireland, it said that the offended hand would developed ugly red weals or boils, while in the county of Shropshire it was claimed that the hand that did the bloody deed would actually drop off!
And it gets worse. An old English folk rhyme states -
This belief that harming robins was bad luck was very common throughout the British Isles, and furthermore has persisted into modern times. In 1974 when the showjumper Ted Edgar was asked by a reporter why he wasn't having much success that season, Edgar wryly replied "I must have shot a robin, mustn't I".
So why is the robin so revered? Well, it should also be noted that robins were believed to be, quite literally, ominous birds. For across the length and breadth of the British Isles, there are folk beliefs that cast robins as omens or messengers of death. In the northern counties, it was believed that if a robin came and tapped three times at your window pane, death was near for someone in the household. While in other many regions it was said that a robin entering a house foretold a death to come soon within that household.
Even the robin's warbling song could bode ill. While the redbreast's singing is usually cheery and bright, it has been noted that the song becomes more wistful and even sad sounding in the winter months. And so, in some places, to hear a robin singing mournfully was considered to be unlucky, particularly if it came sadly singing to your window or doorway. For example, in Devon it was thought that if a robin lands upon the roof of a cottage and "utters its plaintive weet", a baby inside was to die.
Hence the folk reverence for robins could well stem from the idea that it would be most unwise indeed to harm a bird that was in touch with, or perhaps is even an agent of, the mysterious forces of fate and destiny. But it has also been suggested that that the reverence for robins is linked to other old folk beliefs, which we shall be exploring in the next few weeks.