World Wide Words logo


Pronounced /ˈtɜːɡɪrm/Help with IPA

The big Oxford English Dictionary has more than 100 words for various methods of divination (mostly ending in –mancy). Techniques include inspecting the entrails of animals, studying the appearance of water in a basin or the look of one’s urine, watching the movements of mice, observing the cries of birds, or reading random sentences from a book. Of them all, this one is possibly the weirdest.

When investigating anything historical to do with the Scots, Sir Walter Scott usually pops up. He describes the method in a scornful footnote to his Lady of the Lake:

The Highlanders, like all rude people, had various superstitious modes of inquiring into futurity. One of the most noted was the Taghairm. A person was wrapped up in the skin of a newly-slain bullock, and deposited beside a waterfall, or at the bottom of a precipice, or in some other strange, wild, and unusual situation, where the scenery around him suggested nothing but objects of horror. In this situation, he revolved in his mind the question proposed; and whatever was impressed upon him by his exalted imagination, passed for the inspiration of the disembodied spirits, who haunt these desolate recesses.

The method is well recorded, though with variations in method from place to place. The same name has been applied to a more barbarous custom, in which live black cats were spitted and roasted over a fire, their dying wails supposedly calling a cat-spirit, sometimes called Big Ears, who would grant one favours.

The word, in Scots Gaelic, refers to a summons or invocation.

Page created 12 Jan. 2002

Support World Wide Words and keep this site alive.

Donate by selecting your currency and clicking the button.

Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select a site and click Go!

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved. See the copyright page for notes about linking to and reusing this page. For help in viewing the site, see the technical FAQ. Your comments, corrections and suggestions are always welcome.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL:
Last modified: 12 January 2002.