THE Scots are, broadly
speaking, a Celtic people with a strong Scandinavian leaven, and their
festivals derive from both sources.
In ancient Europe there
were two methods of dividing the year. The non-Celtic peoples divided it
in accordance with the solstices and the equinoxes, their two chief
festivals being held at Midsummer and at Midwinter or Yule, as our
Scandinavian forebears called it. The Celtic peoples, on the other hand,
divided it in accordance with the entry of the seasons, their principal
festivals being at Beltane (May 1st) and Hallowmas (November 1st), or,
more strictly, Hallowe'en. This division of the year was natural to a
people at a pastoral stage of development, for at Beltane the cattle went
out to their summer pastures and at Hallowmas they returned to the fold.
(The two systems were not mutually exclusive, the non-Celtic nations, for
example, kept Walpurgis Night, and there was a ritual gathering of the
mistletoe by the Druids, or Celtic priests, at the time of the summer and
winter solstices.) The minor Celtic festivals were St. Bride's Day and
Lammas, which fell on February 1st and August 1st respectively. "At four
termes in the zeir," we read in the old records, "viz., Alhalowmas,
Candilmas, Beltan, and Lambmes"; and though the dates have been slightly
dislocated by the reform of the Calendar, the Scottish Quarter Days still
follow the ancient division of the Celtic peoples, while in England they
follow the non-Celtic usage.
The principal festivals in
modern Scotland are Beltane, now merged with Midsummer, which is
celebrated principally in the Common Ridings of the Border burghs;
Hallowe'en, which is the great children's festival throughout the country;
and Yule, which, owing to prejudices of the Kirk, does not now mean
Christmas but "the hinner end" of the old Yule, embracing Hogmanay and
Ne'er Day. Auld Handsel Monday, the "boxing-day" of the domestic servant
and the farm labourer, is now virtually extinct.
ST. BRIDE'S DAY
The Festival of Spring.
Originally dedicated to a Celtic goddess of that name, later re-dedicated
to St. Bride of Kildare. Bride ruled from Candlemas to Hallowmas. The
winter quarter, from Hallowmas to Candlemas, was presided over by the
Cailleach, or Auld Wife, who raised the winter storms.
In the Hebrides, on St.
Bride's Eve, the girls of the townland tied a sheaf of corn in the
semblance of a woman, decked it with shells, crystals, and the first
spring flowers, and carried it from house to house, singing their
processional song, Bride Bhoideach, Beauteous Bride. Oblations of
cakes, cheese, etc., were made, and with these the girls repaired to a
house agreed upon and made a feast, at which the lads joined them, the
figure of Bride being set up in their midst.
In every house Bride's bed
was prepared, in which the sheaf was ceremoniously laid and left till
dawn, with a wand of birch, broom or other sacred wood beside her.
The sheaf represents the
spirit of vegetation, and in various parts of Scotland Bride still
reappears at the Kirn, or Harvest Home, as "The Maiden"-the last sheaf cut
in the harvest field-which is decorated with ribbons, brought home in
procession and hung up prominently at the Harvest Supper. When cut after
Hallowe'en the sheaf is known as the cailleach or clyack.
Candlemas and Fastern's
E'en have both affiliations with the pagan festival of Bride. Until recent
years, Candlemas was a general school holiday. A Candlemas King and Queen
were crowned, cakes and sweets were distributed, in the afternoon "the ba'
" was played, and in the evening there was "the Candlemas Bleeze" -
usually a whin-bush set ablaze-which is a relic of the sacred bonfire of
On Fastern's E'en the
matrimonial brose (containing a ring) is eaten, the sauty bannocks
ceremonially prepared and a bit put by "to dream on", and fortunes are
spaed, usually by dropping the white of an egg into a wine-glassful of
water and studying the shape it assumes.
BELTANE AND HALLOWE'EN
Druidism, which was still
the official religion of Scotland in the sixth century, was a form of
sun-worship peculiar to the Celtic peoples. At Beltane and Hallowe'en, on
the hill-tops, the Druids lit great bonfires in honour of the sun and
performed curious rites for protection and purification, and to promote
fertility in man, beast and field. The Beltane fires were lit at dawn, the
Hallowe'en fires at dusk. Arthur's Seat, in Edinburgh; Tinto Tap, near
Lanark; and Kinnoull Hill, near Perth, are among the many traditional
sites. Though the two festivals had many features in common, they differed
a good deal in character. By Beltane, the seed had already been committed
to the ground; by Hallowmas, the crops were already "inned". The one was
in essence a Day of Supplication for a good harvest, and the other a
On Hallowe'en, too, the
spirits of the departed were believed to revisit their old homes. It was
the last day of the Celtic year and the whole other-world was upset. The
fairies were "out" and all sorts of uncanny creatures were released for
the night. Witches and warlocks cleaved the air on broom-sticks or
galloped along the road on tabby-cats transformed into coal-black steeds,
and it was dangerous to go out after dark, unless protected by fire lit at
the sacred flame. It was a season of omens and auguries, and glimpses of
the future could be obtained, especially by those who had "The Sight".
In the young folk's
festival of to-day many of the old divination rites survive as parlour
games-Burning the Nuts, The Three Luggies and The Hidden Charms. "Dookin'
for Aipples" is in all probability an ancient Druidic rite symbolising the
passing through water to Avalon, apple-land, the land of the immortals. We
are told that Thomas the Rhymer and the Fairy Queen, on their way to
Elfland, "waded through rivers abune the knee".
Syne they cam' on to a
An' she pu'd an aipple frae a tree.
"Tak' this for thy wages, True Thomas;
It will gie thee tongue that can never lee."
The hazel-nut used in the
divination rites symbolises "the magic tree that wizards loved" as the
source of all wisdom, the grotesque masks of the guisers represent the
uncanny creatures of the other-world who are supposed to be at large on
this night; whilst the bonfires, the turnip lanterns and the "can'le in a
custock" are the last traces of the fire-rites with which our forefathers
worshipped the Unknown God, whom they believed to be enthroned in the hub
of the sun's golden wheel.
The Beltane and Hallowe'en
bonfires have blazed across the centuries in an unbroken chain, up to our
own time, but they have gradually descended from the hill-tops to the
village knoll. There are plenty of people still alive who have rolled
their Beltane bannocks down some Highland hill, but it is in the Border
burghs that the "Feast of Summer Come Again" is best commemorated. The
bonfires appear to have died out; but the distribution of oak-leaves (the
sacred tree of the Druids) at Hawick and the visit to the Moat at dawn are
relics of the days of Druidism.
Until Scotland became
industrialised, Yule was the one recognised holiday season in the year.
The full celebration lasted from Yule E'en to Twelfth Night, but servants
and labourers usually had to content themselves with "the hinner end". All
routine work was discarded; the whole house was cleaned and polished, and
all sorts of gudebread prepared. Shortbread and Black Bun remain the
pièces de résistance on the Hogmanay dresser or sideboard. The Yule
Ale was brewed in advance, and the Yule bread proper baked on Yule E'en
between sunset and dawn-originally in honour of the Nativity. On Yule
morning, everybody, gentle and simple, breakfasted on Yule Brose, which
was made with rich stock instead of water. Those who could not afford a
goose for dinner had a slice from the Yule Mart. During the Daft Days (as
the period of jollity was called) the guisers were out. The White Boys of
Yule, as they were called, were quite different from the Hallowe'en
Guisers. They went about in white shirts, tall paper caps, false beards
and masks-all but one of their number, who wore black-and performed their
play, The Goloshins. The Yuie Boys are the Scottish equivalent of
the English Mummers.
Hogmanay, or New Year's
Eve, and its ritual call for no description. It shows no signs of falling
into decay. There is, however, a regrettable laxity in the way that
"first-footing" is carried out nowadays. For real luck the "first-foot"
must be a dark man, who is a bona fide visitor and not merely one
of the company who is sent outside just before midnight in order to come
in again on the last stroke. And New Year toast should be given in these
Weel may ye a'
Ill may ye ne'er see,
Here's to the King
An' the gude companie.
The ancient Scandinavian
fire-rites, other than the burning of the Yule-log, have very nearly died
out. The most notable survivals are the Burning of the Clavie at Burghead,
and the magnificent pageant of Up-helly-a (the Norse Uphalieday) in
Ne'er Day (New Year's Day).
Auld Handsel Monday (First Monday of
the New Year, O.S.).
Uphalieday (Twelfth Night). The Daft
St. Bride's Day, or Candlemas E'en.
Candlemas (Scottish Quarter Day).
St. Valentine's Day.
Fastern's E'en (Shrove Tuesday)
Gowkin' Day (All Fool's Day).
Pasch (Easter) (movable).
Whitsun (approx. Old Beltane)
(Scottish Quarter Day).
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