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Old Scottish Customs
Chapter XX

Description of some of the old Druidical customs and their remains—The Ancient Gods of the Britons —The manner of celebrating the Beltein—The first day in May—The Relics of Druidical Worship in Kincardineshire—The day of Baal’s fire—The day of the Fire of Peace—Druidical Sacrifices—May and Hallowe’en observances of Druidical origin— Tinto Hill in Lanarkshire—Remains of Druidical customs at Mouline—In Perthshire—At Cambuslang—Passing children and cattle through the fire.

REFERENCE has been made to the Beltane customs. The once general observances of Beltane or Beltein (the 1st day of May), now rank amongst the things of the past. In former times this festival was observed both in the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland, and dedicated to certain mystic observances connected chiefly with tire and the partaking of certain dishes, such as a particular caudle, some of which was afterwards spilled on the ground by way of libation, a relic no doubt of the more ancient libations to such heathen deities as Odin and Thor. One of the ancient gods of the Britains was Belus or Belinus, identical it is believed with the Assyrian god Bel or Belus; and in all probability from this Pagan deity, comes the Scots term of Beltis, or the 1st day of May. The origin of this once favourite festival is supposed to date from the Druids, who in these isles extinguished all the fires in the district until the tithes were paid. On repayment of these the household fires were rekindled.


On the 1st of May, the herdsmen of every village used formerly to hold their Beltein or usual sacrifice, as follows :—They cut a square trench on the ground, leaving the turf in the middle; on that they made a fire of wood, on which they dressed a caudle of eggs, butter, oatmeal, and milk. Each of the company brought besides the ingredients for making the caudle, plenty of beer and whisky. The rites begun with spilling some of the caudle on the ground by way of libation. That done, every one took a cake of oatmeal upon which were raised knobs, each dedicated to some particular being, the supposed preserver of their flocks and herds, or to some animal, the real destroyer of them. Each person then turned his face to the fire> broke off a knob, and throwing it over his left shoulder, said, “This I give to thee ; preserve thou my horses; this to thee, preserve thou my sheep,” and so on. After this, they used the same ceremony to the noxious animals. “This I give to thee, O fox; spare thou my lambs; this to thee, O hooded crow; this to thee, O eagle.” When the ceremony was over they dined on the caudle; and after the feast was finished, what was left was carefully hidden away by two persons deputed for that purpose; but on the following Sunday the herdsmen reassembled, and finished the remains of the former feast.

On New Year’s day the Highlanders burned juniper before their cattle. A cross was cut on some sticks which were dipped in pottage, and the Thursday before Easter, each of these was placed over the sheep cot, the stable, or the cow-house. On the first of May, these were carried to the hill where the accustomed rites were celebrated, and on the conclusion of the feast they were replaced in their former positions. This custom was originally styled Clou in Beltein, or the split fire of the branch of the rock.

On the summit of the hill of Garnock in Kincardineshire, there are two large cairns, the relics of Druidism, about a mile asunder. The larger is fifty yards in diameter, and must have been a superb structure in its day. It bad been carefully surrounded by a ring of large blocks of freestone. On these the Druidieal or heathen priests are supposed to have lighted great fires at certain seasons of the year in honour of their god Bel, the sun, the same as the Scripture Baal. These fires were lighted and assemblies held at the cairns both for religious and judicial purposes. The fires were supposed to l>e lighted particularly on their two great festivals. The first was termed in Gaelic, La Beiltin, the day of Beil’s fire, i.e., the 1st of May, the beginning of their year, when great rejoicings were held for the return of the new year. Among other ceremonies, putting part of a mixture of meal, milk, and eggs, etc., on a piece of bread, they throw it over the left shoulder, saying each time, “ This is to you, 0 mists and storms, spare our pastures and our corn; this to you, O eagle, spare our lambs and our kids; this is to thee, 0 fox and falcon, spare our poultry.’ The second was La Samhiij, the day of the fire of peace, i.e., the 1st of November. This was the most solemn of all their festivals, when the Druids, it is supposed, meet at the centre cairn to hold rejoicings for finishing the harvest, and to maintain the peace by adjusting every dispute, and deciding every controversy. Then too, all were obliged to extinguish their fires on the preceding evening, and come for a supply of the consecrated fire on the cairns. But of this, no person could obtain any share till he had made every reparation required by the priests. If he was refractory, the sentence of excommunication was pronounced against him, and this was worse far than death. None durst afford him shelter, or fire or food, or any office of humanity, under pain of the same sentence being passed upon themselves.

On these two occasions the Druids offered bloody sacrifices, and their victims consisted not only of beasts but of men. Two fires being kindled, Tolland tells us, that the men and beasts to be sacrificed, were made to pass between these fires by way of consecration. Hence the Gaelic proverb, Edin-da-hin-Veawl, “the jeopardy of Baal,” or between Baal’s two fires, the most dreadful danger from which escape would be miraculous.

In Lanarkshire there is a hill called Tinto, which name denotes the hill of fire, its summit having been in early times either used as an observatory or a place of worship •where Druidieal rites were performed at the Beltane and other festivals. The Beltane, or rural festival on the 1st of May, was long observed in the parish of Mouline. Hallowe'en was kept sacred. As soon as it was dark, a person set fire to a brush or broom, fastened round a pole, and attended by a crowd, ran through the village. He then flung it on the ground and heaped large quantities of combustibles upon it and made a fine blaze. A whole tract when thus illuminated presented a grave spectacle. Formerly the people used to dance and sing round these fires, which were frequently surrounded by circular trenches symbolical of the sun. In Perthshire the fires are still kept up. In some instances when the bonfire begins to bum low, a circle of stones is placed round it, one of which represents each individual present. Should any of these be moved from its original position before next morning, it betokens speedy death to that person. Dechmont Hill, situated in the parish of Cambuslang, was a place where our forefathers lighted the Beltane. In the Statistical Account of Scotland (1848) it is stated that a thick stratum of charcoal wTas discovered underneath a structure of fine loam on the summit of the hill. When the country people saw it they expressed no surprise, as the tradition was familiar to them that it was here where the former inhabitants <if the country had been in the habit of lighting their Beltane.

Tulliebeltane, in Perthshire, signifies the eminence, or rising ground of the fire of Belus.In the neighbourhood is a Druidieal temple of eight upright stones, where it is supposed the fire was formerly kindled. There is also a small temple of the same kind, and in its neighbourhood a well, which is still an object of veneration with the people, who assemble here on Beltane morning to drink of the water and then encircle it nine times. Afterwards in like manner they go round the temple.

In some parts of the Highlands children still roll bannocks down the hill sides to learn their future fate, which cakes on Beltane eve anxious mothers carefully baked. The cakes are fiat and round, having on one side the cross, the sign of life; on the other the cipher, signifying death. Next morning the children assemble on a neighbouring height, place their fateful bannocks in a line, and send them down the slope edge-ways. This is done three times, and should the cross turn up most frequently when the cakes arrive at the foot of the hill, then the owner will live to see another Beltane; but if, on the otlwr hand, the cipher appears, death is to be his portion before the next annual festival.

The custom of passing children and cattle through the fire was long in force in the Western Islands. At the great fire festivals in the Highlands and in Ireland, fathers took their children in their arms and leapt thrice through the flames. Even in the beginning of this century it was customary in some of the more remote districts of the Highlands for the young of both sexes to meet on the moors on the first of May, and, after cutting a round table in the green sward with a trench round it sufficiently large to admit of their encircling it, they kindled a fire in the middle and prepared a mess of eggs and milk, of which all partook.

They then baked oat-cakes, a piece for each present, and one which was burned black. These cakes were afterwards shuffled in a man’s bonnet, and each person blindfolded drew one. Whoever got the black piece had to leap thrice through the flames. The original meaning of this probably was that he became a sacrifice to Baal, and doubtless in old days was actually offered up,—the object of this ceremony being to propitiate the sun-god, and thus secure a good harvest.

In some parts of Perthshire it is still the custom for the cow-herd of the village to go from house to house on May morning, collecting fresh eggs and meal, and then lead the way to some hill top, where a hole is dug and a fire lighted therein; then lots are cast, and he on whom the lot falls must leap seven times over the fire while the young folks dance round in a circle; then they cook their eggs and cakes, and all sit down and partake thereof. In Scotland the Midsummer’s Eve Festival was observed till very recent times. It was customary to kindle great bonfires near the corn fields with burning torches to-secure a blessing on their crops.


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