Monthly Archives: August 2019

Custom survived: South Ronaldsay Festival of the Horse and Boy ploughing, Orkney

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St Margaret at Hope is a settlement which sweeps along its harbour, an important port for the ferry too and from mainland Scotland. I wonder how many passengers are aware of the village’s unique custom – the festival of the horse and boy’s ploughing – really in essence two customs.

Plough a deep furrow

As I arrived boys and their parents were arriving clutching their tiny ploughs. Inside the school other parents feverishly dressed their children to resemble shire horses, perhaps one of the county’s most curious of customs. Outside a crowd gathered entertained by a local band doing their own rendition of ‘Road to’ in a Phoenix Nightseque fashion. At first the boys existed proudly holding their ploughs and sat down on a bench. Then the sound of a piper could be heard flowing out of the school and then sparkling and clanking lined up in front of the ploughboys, ready to be judged.

The aim of the costume is to represent the shire horses which would drive the plough in their ceremonial dress. As such the dress would include a large collar, blinkers and feet decorations. Around their neck was a large heart which would indicate symbolically their name. The costumes are a mixture of old and new, some of the oldest being handed down through generations having real horse red white and blue pompoms and horse hair dating back 50 years ago. The basis of the dress would be the Sunday suit which could be easily adapted to do the job. In a report Moira Budge chairperson of the South Ronaldsay Ploughing Match in The Scotsman :

“We have known of a baker’s family who used cake frills around the feet to look like the feathers of a heavy horse. There was also a newsagent who used the trinkets and brooches that sometimes came with magazines…People just used what they had and the adornments were sewn onto the Sunday suit. In the past it was very basic as it had to be sewn on and taken off again before Sunday…Once people had more money, they could keep a suit aside and the decorations became more fancy. Next year, they would add a bit more.”

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Just horseplay

To ensure the costumes were ready and in their finest condition work would begun back in April I was told, often old broaches and personalised jewellery would be added. Despite their apparent complexity many parts of the costume would be easily made. For example the collar would be made first from cardboard with foam laid on it and them covered in fabric. The backs are almost as decorated as the fronts with gold braiding, necklaces, broaches, tiny mirrors and shining bells perhaps to ‘reflect away’ bad luck. The costumes themselves have a sort of Scandinavian feel about them – perhaps not surprising as Orkney was Norse until the 1400s.

Brian Shuel (1985) National Trust guide to Traditional customs describes it well:

“All the items are profusely decorated literally like the most overloaded Christmas tree, with bells, baubles,, tinsel, beads, rosettes, ribbons, tassles, plastic flowers, cracker novelties and anything else which may come to hand during the several generations it took to being hem to their present advanced state. You could hardly see the girls underneath it all.”

The array of costume differences is quite amazing considering the limited pallet of what this costume could consist of. Some incorporated real horse harness and I was amused to watch one participant chewing on their bit. Girls with long hair would have it platted to mimic that done to the shire horses and fake tails would also be added.

The parade did not last long, soon a massive cloud appeared from nowhere and the brightness which bounced off the bangles and bits disappeared and everyone ran inside. Here dutifully the ‘horses’ stood on their podium and the judging continued. Amusingly like horses, parents administered cold drinks by holding them up to them with draws or feeding their sweets as the ‘horses’ could not hold them themselves as they had fake hooves in some cases. I was very impressed with the stoic nature of the ‘horses’ standing so still under what must be very heavy and hot clothing and conditions. Even the youngest were patient and keen to smile when the cameras looked in their direction. Only one after around an hour of standing decided to have a break. On the announcement of the best dressed and best harness, the winners dutifully stood forward. I spoke to the two judges, who had just that week come from a judging of real horses, said it was difficult to judge the best dressed as it was subjective, but as the harness had to have specific pieces – eg bit, blinkers etc, this was easier as some had forgotten to include some items – no doubt out of comfort!

Plough on

Not only would the horses be judged but careful consideration was made of the ploughs. These ploughs being often family heirlooms and could be nearing 100 years old. The judge carefully examined each running their hand gently along the side, feeling the balance and examining carefully the blades. Then there would write careful notes in their notepad considering the best wooden and metal ploughs. Originally they pretended with a stick with an Ox hoof tied to it. Then a local blacksmith called Bill Hourston made a replica plough in 1920 which clearly caught on and subsequently all the participants had miniature ploughs.

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Ploughed up

When does the custom come from? I have heard it claimed that the dressing of the children as horses has pre-Christian origins being linked to the horse whispering tradition. However, as in many other counties the farmers of the settlement would have ploughing matches, where their skills would be tested and ploughs and horses inspected. Uniquely, however in this part of Orkney perhaps the children looked on and wanted to copy or some farmer worried about the lack of youth uptake in ploughing established it to encourage both the development of ploughing skills and foster a community spirit and good old fashioned competition. Early records of the custom are hard to locate and everyone I spoke to their stated it probably started in the late 1800s. The ploughing match has a common sense origin it was for the ploughmen to teach their sons the technique.

Perhaps as one could not breed miniature horses, the girls would have to get involved and pretend to be the horses. A far more sensible explanation, and so much for the pagan origins claimed by some reporters! Apparently there were similar events held at Burray and Stronsay. That of South Ronaldsay almost died out and the second world war being revived after a ten year hiatus by a local bank manager Norman Williamson and it has continued ever since. It is thought that the girls became involved after World War II, beforehand the horses were younger boys and indeed despite it being stated that the horses were girls there was one boy in attendance which in a way is probably more traditional and less likely to be highlighted as sexist! Always aware of the potential of how bad weather and tourism can stall and feed a custom, in the 1960s it was moved from the children’s Easter holidays to the summer in hope of better weather and more tourists!

God speed the plough

As soon as the ‘horses’ were judged and the dark clouds disappeared everyone jumped into their cars and off to the Sand O’Wright for the ploughing. Originally done inland, at Hope Kailyard, and at some point it was noticed that judging would be easier on the sand. Here earlier two ploughing veterans select an area of sand with minimal stones and the right moisture – too wet nor too dry. They then scrapped off seaweed, measuring the area out with a wooden set to square off the flats. Soon small groups of plough boys were practicing, listening to the sage advice of the adult, themselves retired boy ploughman.

Each boys selects a four square area called a flat each which are numbered and compete for the three categories Champion, Ordinary and under 8s. As the Boys ploughing began to start there was a real look of concentration on the faces of all the boys and a nervous look on their helpers. The boys had 45 minutes to do the plough their lines. I asked what the judges would be looking for. One told me it was for straight and consistent lines in the upward and both downward plough, equal spacing neat and evenness being particularly valued. Indeed, I was impressed how neat they were and it was clear considerable pride was taken in them.

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It was difficult not to be impressed and the way in which children from 5 to 15 got involved with intensity and enthusiasm. I spoke with one of last years’ champion class who was nervous at winning this year and remarked that he was not as neat with his handwriting as he was with the plough.

Sadly the ferry prevented me for attending the whole session and seeing who obtained the best finish and start, the straightest and the evenest. However, as a custom it is without doubt the most successful in providing both a community spirit and a colourful and unusual spectacle.

 

 

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Custom contrived: Blessing Speen’s Lady Well, Berkshire

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“This well is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, after whom the church is also dedicated.  However, the spring around which the well was built is much earlier than the church, and it may have been a sacred spring renowned for healing powers in pre-Christian times.  The present well was constructed in the mediaeval period, and restored in 1902 in celebration of the coronation of Edward VII.”

The wording we have used in recent years to announce the Blessing

Berkshire is not over endowed with calendar customs so when you hear of a new one (new to you that is) it is good. Considering this is associated with a holy well, which hopefully you may be aware I blog about as well (see here in March) even more good to hear. New church customs can be transitory in their nature and sometimes do not survive the enthusiasm of the vicar who often are responsible for re-founding or inventing them. This one although details are scant appears to have survived  a number of vicars.

The Lady’s day

 

Every year the service is done near or at the church’s Patronal Festival, this being the 15th August, which is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The custom has been undertaken for decades however the exact date of its foundation could not be found.

The Newbury Weekly News on the 17th August 2010 stated

“Parishioners of Speen turned out in force on Sunday to continue the traditional blessing of the Lady Well at St. Mary’s church. Around 70 members of the congregation attended. Leading the procession was Rev Canon David Winter, followed by cross-bearer Alan Booth and incense-burner Derek Shailes. Church wardens Jane Burrell and Brian Nobles were also among the procession, which followed the patronal festival service at the church. Around 50 of those who attended also joined for a lunch to mark the blessing of the Lady Well, which is thought to date back before 452 A.D.”

The ceremony begun as noted with a procession following the cross-bearer out of the church and down the lane to the well its a short distance but enough for a decent procession. Here the well is dressed. However, don’t expect Derbyshire style attempts this is a delightful low key affair with posies and bunches of flowers.  The water is not forgotten and it is sprinkled amongst the congregation. Apparently before the last five years, the liturgy was dependent upon whoever was taking the service now it goes as follows:

INTRODUCTION  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. All Amen  Our help is in the name of the Lord, All Who has made heaven and earth.  The Lord be with you. All And also with you.   

PSALM 65 1 Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion:  to you that answer prayer shall vows be paid.

  To you shall all flesh come to confess their sins;  when our misdeeds prevail against us,  you will purge them away.

 Happy are they whom you choose, And draw to your courts to dwell there.  We shall be satisfied with the blessings of your house, even of your holy temple.

 With wonders you will answer us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation, O hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.

 In your strength you set fast the mountains and are girded about with might.

 You still the raging of the seas, the roaring of their waves and the clamour of the peoples.

 Those who dwell at the ends of the earth tremble at your marvels; the gates of the morning and evening sing your praise.

 You visit the earth and water it; you make it very plenteous.

The river of God is full of water; you prepare grain for your people, for so you provide for the earth.

  You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; you soften the ground with showers and bless its increase.

 You crown the year with your goodness, and your paths overflow with plenty.

 May the pastures of the wilderness flow with goodness and the hills be girded with praise.

 May the meadows be clothed with flocks of sheep and the valleys stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing.

 Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit;  as it was in the beginning is now and shall be for ever.  Amen.”

The blessing going as follows:

“BLESSING OF THE WATER   

 As St Francis prayed with great gratitude for Sister Water, so we too come in prayer to God today, full of thanks for the life-sustaining generosity of his wonderful gift of water.     In her mysterious beauty, water causes the desert to bloom.  Each tiny drop among countless thousands of other drops does its work to water seeds and plants, to provide harvests to feed us and all creatures, to quench our burning thirst.     Like the body of the earth, our bodies too are over three-quarters’ water.  We are a water people.  We are a water planet.     O compassionate Creator God, whose spirit breathed over the waters at the dawn of creation, we seek forgiveness for our mindless use of water, we beg for wisdom to understand better how to conserve and cherish water, we ask healing for the ways that we abuse and contaminate water.     And what we ask for the creation around us, we ask too for our inner lives.  We welcome the gentle rain of your grace into our souls.  Come free us from hatred, greed, fear and our lack of love for your gifts to us.  Refresh us and renew us with your living streams of water that we may flow green and moist with life, hope and love for all that you have made.     We make this prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

We bless this well in the name of God, the Father who created us, the Son who redeemed us, and the Spirit who overflows with life within is.  Amen”

Then the following hymn is sung:

“HYMN All creatures of our God and King, Lift up your voice and with us sing: Hallelujah, hallelujah! Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silver moon with softer gleam: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Thou rushing wind that art so strong, Ye clouds that sail in heaven along, O praise Him, hallelujah! Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice, Ye lights of heaven, find a voice: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Thou flowing water, pure and clear, Make music for thy Lord to hear, Hallelujah, hallelujah! Thou fire so masterful and bright, That givest man both warmth and light: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Let all things their Creator bless, And worship Him in humbleness, O praise Him, hallelujah! Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son, And praise the Spirit, Three-in-One: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!”

All in all a great evocative holy well and it is great to see that it is still celebrated by its community.

Church Warden Jane Burrell, and obtained some photos about the annual service which is enacted there each here.

Custom demised: St Bartholomew’s Eve Scholar debate, Smithfield London

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Before schools closed for August, scholars and schoolmasters from the different London schools met at the St. Bartholomew’s’ Priory for disputations on grammar and logic, and wrangled together in verse These were the days when much of the learning was oral  based rather than written and such a debate would really stretch the minds of the student and test their knowledge. John Stow in c1525-1605 Survey of London book recalls that:

“the arguing of the schoolboys about the principles of grammar hath continued even till our time; for I myself, in my youth, have yearly seen, on the Eve of St Bartholomew the Apostle, the scholars of divers grammar schools repair unto the churchyard of St Bartholomew, the Priory in Smithfield, where upon a bank boarded about under a tree.”

He describes the method as:

“one scholar hath stepped up, and there hath opposed and answered till he were by some better scholar  overcome and put down; and then the overcomer taking his place, did like as the first. And in the end, the best opposers and answerers had regards, which I observed not but it made both good schoolmasters, and also good scholars, diligently against such times to prepare themselves for the obtaining of this garland.”

Stow continues to discuss who attended. And it is clear that there was a fair bit of debate and some schools, as today, had a better reputation:

“I remember there repaired to these exercises, amongst others, the masters and scholars of the free schools of St Paul’s in London, of St Peter’s at Westminster, of St Thomas Acon’s hospital, and of St Anthony’s Hospital; whereof the last named commonly presented the best scholars, and had the prize in those days. This Priory of St Bartholomew being surrendered to Henry the Eighth, those disputations of scholars in that place surceased; and was again., only for a year or twain, revived in the cloister of Christ’s Hospital, were the best scholars, then still of St Anthony’s school, howsoever the same be now fallen both in number and estimation, were rewarded with bows and arrows of silver, given them by Sir Martin Bower, goldsmith.”

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Perhaps not surprisingly, the custom also encouraged disputes of a non-scholarly kind which Stow again explained:

“The scholars of Paul’s, meeting with them of St Anthony’s, would call them Anthony’s Pigs, and they again would call the other Pigeons of Paul’s, because many pigeons were bred in St Paul’s church, and St Anthony was always figured with a pig following him; and mindful of the former usage, did for a long season disorderly provoke one another in the open street with “Salve tu quoque, placet mecum disputare?” – “Placet.” And so proceeding from this to questions in grammar, they usually fell from words to blows with their satchels full of books, many times in great heaps, that they troubled the streets and passengers; so that finally they were restrained with the decay of St Anthony’s school.”

Interesting how the use of ‘would you like to debate or discuss?’ became a stimulus for a fight and it appears when it comes to children nothing is new. Indeed, sadly, like a number of school based traditions the reactions of the students curtailed the success of the custom which Stow appears to indicate. The rewards and prizes were not always enough to encourage a positive opinion of the custom:

“The satchels full of books, with which the boys belaboured  one another, really were the weapons that had put an end to the old practice of incessant oral disputation. Schoolmasters and men of learning, years before, had also taken to the thrashing of each other with many books; and books scattered abroad “many times in great heaps” were the remains also of their new way  of controversy. If a man had learning, society no longer made it in any degree necessary for him to go bodily in search of the general public to a Fair, or in search of the educated public to the great hall of a University. Writing was no longer a solemn business, and writing materials were no longer too costly to be delivered over to the herd of schoolboys for habitual use and destruction. Written, instead of spoken exercises, occupied the ‘pigs’ and ‘pigeons’ who ran riot over the remains of a dead system.”

Of course the Reformation was also a final block on the custom and it was never revived. Such great Independent schools still exist in London, they still do Latin of course, but its more book based. Perhaps it would be interested to encourage a more oral based debate again. Time for a revival?