Category Archives: Boundary

Custom demised: Huntingdon Freeman’s Boundary Walk

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Sometimes old customs and ceremonies are very bizarre, confusing and mixed. An account written in the Pall Mall Gazette, September 16th 1892 records a custom was enacted every 15th September.  The custom begun with the whole of the freeman of the borough assembling in the market place in the morning. The paper reports:

“The freeman of the borough of Huntingdon have this week been engaged in the observance of a curious and ancient local custom…The skull of an ox borne on two poles was placed at the head of a procession, and then came the freemen and their sons, a certain number of them bearing spades and other sticks. Three cheers having been given, the procession moves out of the town, and proceeds to the nearest point of the borough boundary, where the skull is lowered. The procession then moved along the boundary line of the borough, the skull being dragged along the line as if it were a plough. The boundary holes were dug afresh, and a boy thrown into each hole and struck with a spade. At a particular point, called Blackstone Leys, refreshments were provided, and the boys competed for prizes.”

In the book by P. H. Ditchfield 1896 Old English Customs still extant notes that:

The skull is then raised aloft, and the procession returns to the market-place, and then disperses after three more cheers have been given. There are no allusions to this strange custom in any of the topographical books of reference, and it is an instance of the strange and curious customs which linger on in the obscure corners of our land.”

Clearly the event was a confused beating of the bounds, especially with the beating of the children and giving of gifts to encourage remembering the boundaries. The skulls suggest a possible older origin when the skull had a more sacred origin perhaps. The Freeman of Huntingdon still exist but this curious and bizarre event no longer exists.

 

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Custom demised: Yarnton Lot Meadows Ceremony, Oxfordshire

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In this quiet Oxfordshire village each July all eyes would be on their meadows. Here survived until fairly recently, a peculiar and potentially ancient custom which would allocate these meadows, called Lot Meadows, according to the drawing of balls – called Mead Balls.

Balls up

These meadows were arranged in 13 lots. There were divided in strips called customary acres which covered as much land as one man could mow in a day or ‘man’s mowth’. The balls represented by these inch in diameter balls, made of cherry or holly wood were inscribed with the name of each lot and of which 4 belonged to the neighbouring Begbroke. The names were thought to represent the names of tenant farmers: Boat, White, Dunn, William, Water Molly, Green, Boulton, Rothe, Gilbert, Harry, Freeman, Walter Jeoffrey and Parry. Traditionally the organisers, called the Meadsmen would proceed to a certain spot in the meadow where the balls were to be draw, but at later times they met at the Grapes Inn in the village.

Here a ball was drawn from the ball and its name proclaimed and as this is done a man would scythe six feet of hay and another would cut the initials of the winner. This was repeated until all the lots were drawn and which point the Meadsman would write down the owners of each strip.  Disputes would occur. A report records that:

“There is a record of one disagreement over trespassing after the lots had been drawn and a fight resulted. This was in 1817, in the reign of George III, and in the ancient warrant for the arrest of the participants the Sheriffs are entreated to keep them safely, so that you may have their Bodies before us at Westminster’. To Westminster they went for their trial and careful record of their expenses they kept, even down to two shillings and ten-pence for the hire of a coach!”

To distinguish the boundary, men would tread up and down the edges and this was ‘running the treads’.

Having a Field Day

The cutting of the meadows themselves developed into a popular intense one-day custom with large quantities of plum puddings and plum pudding being consumed. The day ended with some subsequently rather drunken races for the honour of ‘securing a garland’ which would be proudly displayed in the church.  It was not always good humoured; as riots and one man died as a result in 1817. Consequently, the vicar gave a severe sermon that Sunday and the mowing was spread over three days to even out the alcohol!

Blackballed!

Despite a survival from the Norman conquest and its survival post fatality, numbers dwindled and then in 1978 as a consequence of the area becoming a nature reserve. The balls and the Meadsmen survive however, the latter being a hereditary title should the meadows return to service!  Until then the fields at this time of year are a blaze of local wild flowers and I suppose this can easily replace the loss of an ancient custom.

Custom contrived: Grenoside Traipse

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“The team would go for many miles on foot to perform for the local gentry, calling at all the public houses on the way. Even if they arrived home at 2 or 3 in the morning, they still insisted on their white trousers being washed and pressed for the next day’s outing.”

Harrington Housely 1973 after 51 years of dancing!

Grenoside Sword Dancers are the other surviving Sheffield team, its earliest reference being in 1750. Sheffield was a stronghold of the custom which appears to have arisen as a means to make money for workers in the city’s cutlery industry who were often layed off over Christmas when the companies did their stock taking. This was a means to raise so much needed cash.

Walk this way

Like Wentworth Boxing Day is the famed outing for the Grenoside Sword Dancers, but this is a fairly recent invention for many years the main outing was the traipse – a walking tour of nearby houses. An account of the team visiting one of these houses is recorded in visitation is made by Lady Tweedsmuir of Wortley Hall in her The Lilac and the Rose:

“Before I leave the subject of Wortley, I would like to recall a strange little episode. We children were told that mummers were coming one evening to sing and dance. What that meant we had of course no idea, but we were allowed to sit up later than usual when they came, and that in itself gave us keen pleasure. We assembled in a room with a stone floor. In came a party of men dressed entrancingly in short coats with bright coloured patterns on them, and long dark trousers. Their leader wore a large rabbit-skin cap with a small rabbit’s head in front.

The songs and dances were charming, and the men’s faces interesting and serious. These mummers were the real thing, and their dances were not inscribed on any printed page, but had come down to them from their forebears. Harry Gust, who was married to our cousin, Nina Welby, was there, and he took down songs and stories from one of the mummers. The man was surprised and reluctant, but eventually told him in scraps and fragments something of his own and his friends’ mumming activities.       One of the songs began pleasantly with,

Tantiro Tantiro, the drums they do beat, The trumpets they do sound upon call, Methinks music’s here, some bold captain’s near, March on, my brave soldiers, away!

I remember now Harry Gust’s face alight with interest as he talked to the captain of the mummers. He wrote an article about them in the Pall Mall Gazette, which he was then editing for Waldorf Astor. I do not know if it interested people. It should have, because it was brilliantly written, but the cult of English folk lore had not dawned then on the horizon of the intelligentsia.

I remember in a childish way being interested in the mummers, realising dimly that they came from an alien world, quite different to the ordered and staid mode of life in that staid and orderly household of Wortley Hall, and that they represented something historical, rough, and elemental.”

A large area, well beyond the Parish would be covered on foot. The intention that between Christmas Eve and the end of January, all of the large manor houses and stately homes, like Wortley Hall would be visited, entertained and money would be given. Indeed the largess was considerable an article in the Pall Mall Gazette of 1895 notes each team member could accrue 30 to 35 shillings over the period (which would be a staggering £530 in modern money). One notable visit to Wentworth Woodhouse managed to collect a staggering £25 at Earl Fitzwilliam’s Christmas party – around  a £1000 worth today!!.

After the Great War, the length and duration of the walking tours were less ambitious year by year until in 1937 the outing was restricted to a Boxing Day tour of the large houses of the Parish Whitley Hall, Greno Lodge, Chapeltown Club and the house of a Dr Moles at Ecclesfield, now the Boxing Day event is associated with only one pub – the Harrow! Then after 57 years a walking tour returned in a way, a custom more contrived to give an idea than a true revival – and it’s not surprising considering the distances! On the 8th of January 1994. A much shorter tour around the Parish’s pubs and some private houses but a homage to those great walks of yore.

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (92) Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (193)

At the sharp end

I first found them finishing a set at the ….well they were getting in their cars – not really a walking tour after all I thought. A bit of a shame but then again the members were not spring chickens!! At Stone house farm despite the remote location attracted quite a crowd of curious onlookers all enraptured and perhaps hypnotised by the ins and outs of the dance. Indeed, there was something quite evocative and magical watching and hearing the dancers, especially when their clogs tapped on the stone floor. Douglas Kennedy in his 1949 England’s Dancers records a scene that has little changed:

“…the dance is performed by six men wearing clogs and carrying straight swords. Associated with it is a certain amount of dialogue and a song ‘calling on’ the dancers, sung by the leader, who brandishes a curved sabre and wears a cap of rabbit’s skin, with the head of the animal set in front. The dancers tie the ‘lock’ at the beginning of their performance, the leader (or Captain as he is called) kneels down in the centre, and afterwards the ‘Lock’ has been placed around his neck the swords are drawn. His cap of skin is knocked off in the process and rolls on the ground, looking like a decapitated head.”

Interesting unlike 1949’s observation where:

“the captain himself does not fall down to become the centre of a dramatic resurrection but just slips away from the dance, which continues its course.”

Now a special sheet is laid and the captain comically falls dead and lays in a foetus position as if dead…although his resurrection still does not occur!

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What does the dance mean? One of the commonest explanations is that it has a pagan origin, a celebration of the turning year as this evocative account below recalls:

“The Captain sings a song of bravery and love and the dance proceeds with his symbolic beheading and death. The main part of the dance then starts and immediately the Captain revives and “rises from the dead” to lead the dancers in reviving the spirit of the New Year. The six dancers weave intricate patterns with their swords and equally complicated rhythms with their steel-shod clogs. The dance reaches its climax as the fiddler increases the tempo of the dance whilst the dancers perform a rolling figure. The dancers finally form a tight circle and perform a fervent tattoo on the floor before raising their swords, pointing upwards to the sky and, one hopes, a mid-winter sun.”

However convenient this would be the evidence is difficult to find. But do we need a reason?

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (89)

At the farm I finally met up with fellow folklorist Richard Bradley, we walked back to the Harrow to see the final dance talking of folk customs. As we arrived at the pub the Sword dancers began to arrive – they looked up as the drizzle became to form and become heavier – not sure if we’ll be doing it inside or out one remarked. We retreated inside for a cup of tea, at the other end of the bar the Sword dancers too rested…however we were so engrossed in our conversation that we did not notice that the dancers had gone. Rushing outside we just saw them finish their dance! Oh dear!

 

 

Custom survived: Mollicar Sing

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One minute it was UK null points…and a disappointing result for the Eurovision and the next a whole different musical experience..the Mollicar Sing.

Songs of praise

The origins of the Sing are difficult to find. Group singing in the open is not unique to this small part of Huddersfield, especially at Whitsun, but this would appear to be the oldest and the only one woodland based. Why? The accepted view was that the local choir in 1903 were looking for somewhere peaceful and isolated to practice choose these woods. Were they too noisy? Or did they want to scare the local wildlife? As three locations are chosen over a distance of two miles in the remote wilds behind the urban edifice of Huddersfield, one feels it may be older. The singing in these three prescribed locations is highly suggestive of a rogation activity perhaps. The West Yorkshire Federation of Women’s Institutes recorded in 1996:

“The annual event on Whit Sunday was first held in 1900. It was started by the Zion Chapel, Almondbury, later amalgamated with the Wesleyan church. The work always started at 7.30 am mainly through the Mollicar…with singing of hymns at allotted places through the walks. The woods were there best, with new green folliage and birds in full song. The sing finished about 9am, and in earlier years Mr. and Mrs. Gostridge of Farnley Hey boundary provided the breakfast – ham and eggs for the grown ups and bantam eggs for the children.”

If you go down to the woods today your sure of a big surprise

Given copious notes of the location I thought I wouldn’t get lost…usually one would have associated such instructions for a rave, but this was a more acceptable musical experience, but I did. But in a way that was quite rewarding for I soon found the group’s location by the sound of their voices singing ‘praise ye the Lord’ echoing through the sun soaked woods. Tracing my tracks back I soon discovered the origin of those dulcet sounds in a small field before the woods. They looked a little surprised. I introduced myself. The conductor said Early…no sorry I was late. I’d misheard him he was a Mr. Michael Early…starting at 7.30 a.m on a Sunday morning, a very befitting name for such an antisocial custom you might think..but despite the early morning everyone was very welcoming and full of that Yorkshire vim and vigour other counties can never match it seems! I was given a hymn sheet which included a selection of well known Wesleyan works, some more familiar than others.

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When Whitweek and Late Spring bank holiday coincide may be good for the working folklorist but not for the custom…a lot are on holiday, last year there were around 40 and we’ve even had 100s, I was told, the Sunday I went 15…still they made up for it well, a few joined mid route. They weren’t letting numbers dampen the experience. They sung with all their hearts singing in a gallery fashion at points a mechanism much beloved of the counties carols.

It was interesting to hear that the choir had differing associations, the older ones had only being going a few years it seemed compared to some of the younger ones, two had been all their life it appeared over 60 years attending when babies and every year since which is a remarkable feat.

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Singing from the same hymn sheet

After singing in the outside we moved to the woods walking through broad waves of bright bluebells and the smell of ransoms. In fact in one wood and out into another, the Mollicar, and here in a specific place the group stopped and returned to their repertoire. As the morning I went was a mixture of sunshine and showers it was fortunate we were inside the shelter of the woods when it decided to rain…the sound of the tapping on the leaves creating a sort of polite percussion. When the rain stopped the other sounds of nature become evident. These sounds of the enveloping canopy complimented the chorus..the tweets of nesting birds, the calls of the occasional cuckoo and the wooing of a wood pigeon. Who wouldn’t want to swap the claustrophobic confines of chapel to experience it. Sadly despite one rather bemused dog walker there was little in the way of an audience.

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Song of life

The final singing point affording the group a view which was in the heart of all Huddefieldians..that of Castle HIll. It was shrouded in a glowing mist that morning that gave it an ethereal atmosphere. Here the choir finished off with ‘guide me O thou great Jehovah’ and ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ two I felt confident enough to join in with. Finally a short prayer was given and the Doxology was song the event was over…and the group dispersed to various cars and houses doted around. Sadly as Mr Early noted the breakfasts were a much missed thing of the past.

Whatever your religious view…there’s something life affirming and enriching about experiencing all that nature has and singing thanks for it. There would be no null points from me, full marks. I recommend that as next year is the 200th anniversary of the local Almondbury Methodists it would be great to see the numbers swell…

Custom survived: Wychwood Forest Palm Sunday Walk

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A throng of walkers pass the Wort Well

 

“Walkers enjoy day in ‘Hidden’ forest. Hundreds of ramblers and conservationists converged on the secret Wychwood Forest on Sunday to walk through its leady glades. It was the one day of the year – Palm Sunday – when Lord Rotherwick the owner of the 2150 acre medieval woodlands, allows public access.”

To which I might add just! This is a curious custom where part of the tradition remains, but aspects of it appear to have disappeared. The custom apparently was established to provide access of the local parishes adjacent – Leafield Five Ash, Charlbury and Finstock particularly – for the collection of wood and the visiting of the springs and wells of the estate. It is the latter of which is of considerable interest.

If you go down the woods…..

My aunt and uncle did not live far from this area and I have always been fascinated with this woods and their privacy. Apparently, I was not the only one. Large numbers of visitors could be found wandering the woods; their cars lined the narrow streets around the forest. It was not just for local people. In an excellent article by Roy Townsend on the Finstock Local History Website records the memories of a Mr Pratley of nearby Finstock. He notes the widespread nature of the visitors:

“It was possible to meet people from Cornwall one minute, then a family from Durham a few yards later.”

But why? The name the ‘Secret Forest’ was part of the appeal no doubt. It was a forest which could only be visited on Palm Sunday each year. Any other time of the year it was strictly out of bounds. Everyone loves a mysterious place and getting access to it was part of the allure.

Well wishing…

One of the major reasons for the access on Palm Sunday was for the local community to visit the springs and wells, which were thought to have a healing tradition on the day. A local historian, John Kibble, noted in 1928, recorded that prayers were said at the springs:

“Hast then a wound to heal; The wych doth grieve thee?

Come then unto this welle, It will relieve thee:

Nolie me tangeries, And other maladies”                                                                  

 This was one of the main reasons also why the estate and its curious access tradition fascinated me. Wells and springs were often visited on this date, but this one appeared to have the longest surviving tradition and from some accounts some people still did it. The main aspect of this tradition undertaken was to make Spanish Water, using liquorice, brown sugar or sweets often black peppermints. Mr. Pratley again notes:

“This tradition took place all through the 20th century, and probably before, although the liquorice may have originally come from the root of the plant, rather than being shop bought.”

Three wells can still be found in the estate – the Cyder, the Wort and the Spa or Iron Well. The Wort Well or another lost well called Uzzle were the most popular apparently around them would grow wild liquorice. The name wort derives from healing suggesting its health giving properties. Of the Iron Well, Roy Townsend notes:

“Spanish Liquor is made up with some pieces of hard liquorice with two to three black gobstopper type sweets and white peppermints which were crushed, made up on Saturday night and shaken well on Sunday Morning. You take your bottle with the mixture in down to the well behind the kennels called the Iron Well. If it’s still there behind the fencing. We were forbidden to drink much of it on the way home.”

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The Iron Well

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The Cyder Well

 

A poster in the Finstock Local History website, called Fabulous Flowers notes:

“I remember walking to the Iron Well on Palm Sunday with my great Aunty Vi and Molly and mixing the water with our Spanish liquor. Before the footpath was opened through the Wychwood forrest (sic) as it is know this was the only day you could walk down to the lakes and I remember lots of people doing this.”

The date of this visitation is unclear but this aspect tradition appears close to extinction or is extinct. An account noted that:

a man from Leafield, who used to take his bottle of mixture to the well up until a few years ago.”

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The Cornbury Map showing route directly to Iron Well.

On entering the estate I still noticed that the route outlined still made a bee-line to the Iron Well.  The route had been diverted and I easily found my way in courtesy of a man who did the walk every Palm Sunday. I made my way at first to the Iron Well. I wasn’t convinced to drink the water..it certainly lived up to its name, having a reddy-orange scum on the edges – it didn’t look very appetizing. Entering the park I first made a slight detour to see the Cyder Well, which poured out a considerable flow of clear fresh water. However, I thought I would leave my Spanish water experience to the main well which was associated with the tradition – the Wort well. This was the less impressive of the springs but the easiest to determine the spring source. I lowered my bottle and filled it. Popping in my liquorice and giving it a shake I took a slip…it was refreshing but I could detect no real flavour. However as I progressed back along the path regular sips revealed a more flavoursome experience. By the end it was rather delicious and I regretted not filling more bottles or having more liquorice.

One wonders how old the Palm Sunday access is as Briggs refers to an Easter Monday tradition:

“on Easter Monday the Leafield people maintained, and still believe that they have the right to go into the Wychwood Forest and make Spanish Water which is made from one of the sacred springs in Wychwood Forest. The bottle is then shaken till the liquorice is dissolved. This is believed to be not only a tonic but a sovereign remedy for all kinds of disorders. It is grievance to the Leaford people that Wychwood is now closed to them.”

However, talking to local people they stated that they had had 100s of years of access on the date. In the church at Charlbury, I fortunately met Mrs Fowler. She informed me that visiting wells for Spanish Liquor was still very common up until in the 1980s. She and her husband remembered that a Royston (Dobber) Scroggs, a Cotswold Warden, would stand by the well and tell people the history.  This is no more. Wandering around I watched a number of people on my journey around, of which only one came near to the springs…although they did fill a bottle and drink it. They did not have any liquorice though…Fortunately I did and it tasted rather nice.

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Liquorice dissolving in the water of the Wort Well

 

Cannot see the wood for the trees.

Ironically the popularity of the custom appeared to lead to its decline. An account from 1984 tellingly records:

“And the Council for the Protection of Rural England took it as an opportunity to promote its campaign to have the forest opened all the year around. Walkers and ramblers were asked, and were willing to sign a petition supporting the campaign. They were signing at the rate of 100 an hour.”

And so that signing lead to the opening up of a permanent footpath, from Patch Riding, Finstock, to Waterman’s Lodge, near Charlbury, through the estate in 1990..the one I used to access the permissive path. It may be only one, but like any incision, it allowed greater access and so the mystic began to fade…but not quite yet. It was clear that Palm Sunday I went that a considerable number of local and not so local people were still keen to see the vistas and green swards generally unavailable. The estate covers a considerable area and the footpath only crosses a very small section.

Walk on the wild side

The Palm Sunday Walk is a curious survival but one still under threat. Many years ago the clergy tried to bribe children by offering free crucifixes to keep them in church. Even today a poster to the Finstock History page notes:

“The last time I tried to visit it on a Palm Sunday, the gate which would have given access to the iron well was locked. I suspect it is only ignorance that keeps us out: if the local history society asked, they’d probably let a group in next year.”

But local people are determined to keep the Palm Sunday Walk open. Mr Pratley writes:

“I walk this permanent footpath regularly but also try to do the Palm Sunday walk as often as possible, as that’s still the only day the Five Ash Bottom route is open to the public.”

He remarks he saw few people despite doing a complete circuit! Indeed, when I arrived I found the traditional route sadly blocked and plenty of walkers appearing and then turning around scratching heads and moaning. However, at least access remains whether people take the waters or not…plenty enough people were happy to ensure that the custom of walking the path remained.

However it would be nice to see more Spanish Water drinking. The is especially significant when if you visit many wells you can find the tradition of tying objects, called clooties to the trees, a tradition foreign to many places it is now found.  It would be better to see the revival of more native traditions such as Spanish Water drinking – at this site I can safely vouch for its safety of drinking its water. So if you are in the area please keep the Spanish water alive!

Custom survived: Burning the Clavie

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Burghead is a remote place – both geographically and culturally – never is that more evident than on a cold and blustery evening in the bleak months of January. Never more obvious on a night which is unique to this small seaside town – the night of Burning the Clavie.

Followers of this blog will notice that accounts have yet not gone across the borders: but as this is about British calendar customs I feel it was about time! Timing of course is the key when it comes to Burning of the Clavie; getting the right timing particularly. Customs always undertaken on a set date can be problematic if you don’t live near and when like me, you are planning a 1000 mile round trip – the correct date is essential! The date quoted is the 11th of January – New Year’s Eve Old Style – but this meant that this year the burning fell on a Sunday. A search of the web said that the custom was always on the 11th, but I was more wary. Indeed 90% of entries said so except the excellent Calendar Customs and Wikipedia. So I decided to do some research, a phone call to nearby Elgin Tourist information by both myself and Calendar custom author Averil Shepherd threw up two different answers – yes and no! Finally I rang the Bothy, which was in Burghead – the confirmed it would be the Saturday – therefore the 10th….cannot help think there would be disappointed visitors on the Sunday night.

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Burning desire

I arrived early the town, the supposed 100 mile an hour winds and heavy snow reported to be battering Scotland in the news were not terribly apparent. It was windy yes, but it was also sunny! I have had a desire to visit the town for a number of years primarily for the Clavie but also to visit the unique Burghead well (more of which can be read on my sister blog)

Wandering around the town I bumped into a man carrying wood out of his workshop, seeing my camera he said ‘ we’ll be building the clavier from two, you’re welcome to come along and film if you like.’ Little did I know, this was the Clavie King – Dan Ralph the man charged with organising the building of the Clavie and whose family has had a very long association with the tradition.  This was a very welcome and unexpected piece of serendipity as the making of the Clavie is as significant a part of the custom as the burning.

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I turned up at the allotted time and found a crowded black smith’s shed. Inside were all the members of the Clavie Crew, a group ranging all ages and traditionally restricted to the same families over the generations. The venture started with the sawing of an old barrel into pieces. How little the production had changed as the account resembles that given by Chambers (1869):

A common fir prop, some four feet in length, called the “spoke,” being then procured, a hole is bored through the tub-like machine, that, as we have already said, is to form the basis of the unique structure, and a long nail, made for the purpose, and furnished gratuitously by the village black-smith, unites the two. Curiously enough, no hammer is allowed to drive this nail, which is “sent home” by a smooth stone. The herring-cask is next demolished, and the staves are soon under-going a diminution at both extremities, in order to fit them for their proper position. They are nailed, at intervals of about two inches all round, to the lower edge of the Clavie-barrel, while the other ends are firmly fastened to the spoke, an aperture being left sufficiently large to admit the head of a man.”

The smooth stone of Chambers has indeed survived the 100 years or more since his account and continues to provide it role.  The oldest member was responsible for fusing the barrel to its spike and soon everyone was hammering in the staves through which the carrier placed his head. One of the most charming aspects of the custom being the contributions by all ages of the Clavie Crew; the youngest only a few years old being urged to have ‘a shot’ and indeed one boy was certainly a better hammering than the adults. I was particularly amused when having difficulty securing a nail into the barrel’s metal hoop one of the Clavie crew was ready to use an electric drill..a move quickly prevented with a  face of panic and dismay by the Clavie King and a ‘no, no, no.’ There certainly was a jolly party atmosphere to making the structure, which itself of course was rather perfunctory.

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Fired up

A few hours later the quiet streets of the town were full of people, the pubs bustling and the Bothy open late. Chambers (1869) aptly again notes:

‘By this time the shades of evening have begun to descend, and soon the subdued murmur of the crowd breaks forth into one loud, prolonged cheer, as the youth who was despatched for the fiery peat (for custom says no sulphurous lucifer, no patent congreve dare approach ‘within the sacred precincts of the Clavie) arrives with his glowing charge. The master-builder relieving him of his precious trust, places it within the opening already noticed, where, revived by a hot blast from his powerful lungs, it ignites the surrounding wood and tar, which quickly bursts into a flame….then Clavie-bearer number one, popping his head between the staves, is away with his flaming burden.”

The night begins with the Clavie propped against the wall with a crowd surrounding it waiting in anticipation for the origin of the peat. Traditionally a piece of lit peat taken from the hearth of the oldest house is used. With cries of ‘make way for the peat’ It duly arrived and soon the flame was flickering. The crew added extra pieces of wood to the barrel. Whilst this was going on a member of the crew was getting the crowd excited. Several round of ‘hip hip hooray’ could be heard. Soon the flame had become quite substantial and the Clavie held upon one of the crew’s shoulders was off.

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Ashes to ashes

The Burghead Clavie Burning appears to be the only survival of perhaps a wider spread custom. Fire and New Year is intrinsically linked with a number of locations such as Stonehaven and other boarder locations having fiery celebrations. Despite the earlier origin suggested it appears that the earliest reference was when it was being banned! On 20 January 1689, the church admonished the locals for:

“having made a burning clavie, paying it superstitious worship, and blessing the boats after the old heathen custom”

In 1665 ministers of Duffus district censured fishermen who ‘superstitiously carried fir torches about their boats’ on New Year’s Eve. This clearly did not have the impact it required for an act against clavies was imposed by a 1714 Kirk Session at Inveravon in Banffshire:

“superstitious, idolatrous and sinfule, an abominable heathenish practice”.

MacKinlay in Scottish Lochs and Springs (1893) notes:

“The antiquity of the custom may be inferred from the fact, that two hundred years ago it was called old. At that time lights were carried round the boats in the harbour, and certain other ceremonies were performed, all pointing to a pagan origin. Formerly the custom was in vogue, not only at Burghead, but at most of the fishing villages along the Morayshire coast. The object in every case was the same, viz., the blessing of the boats to ensure a good fishing season.”

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Chambers (1869) notes:

“Formerly, the Clavie was carried in triumph round every vessel in the harbour, and a handful of grain thrown into each, in order to insure success for the coming year; but as this part of the ceremony came to be tedious, it was dropped, and the procession confined to the boundaries of the town.”

Burning question

What is the origin of the name? That has been the great unanswered question. Some believe it comes from Gaelic cliabh for a basket, others clavus a Latin term for huge nail refering to the nail which attached the basket to its post. This Latin origin has been used as a suggestion for its pre-Christian origin but I feel that itself is not evidence. Firstly, that the Romans never got as far and secondly Latin was of course a language used by the Norman court and ecclesiastical communities, although why that would be chosen is unclear unless the church at first sanctioned it…More problematic is the fact that Burghead is not an ancient town – much of it established early 19th century – but clearly translated from elsewhere probably by the fishing communities as suggested above. Furthermore there are some archaic touches since at least the eighteenth century only a stone hammer is used based on a Highland belief that metal should not be used in lighting a sacred fire. Chambers (1869) again gives a lengthy discussion of its possible origin refering to Doorie Hill where the Clavie finishes its journey:

As well might these wild speculators have remarked that Doorie, which may be spelled Durie, sprang from durus, cruel, on account of the bloody ceremony celebrated on its summit. Another opinion has been boldly advanced by one party, to the effect that the Clavie is Scandinavian in origin, being introduced by the Norwegian Vikings, during the short time they held the promontory in the beginning of the eleventh century….Unfortunately, all external evidence being lost, we are compelled to rely entirely on the internal, which we have little hesitation, however, in saying points in an unmistakable manner down through the long vistas of our national history to where the mists of obscurity hang around the Druid worship of our forefathers. It is well known that the elements of fire were often present in Druidical orgies and customs (as witness their cran-tara); while it is universally admitted that the bonfires of May-day and Mid-summer eve, still kept up in different parts of the country, are vestiges of these rites. And why should not the Clavie be so too, seeing that it bears throughout the stamp of a like parentage? The carrying home of the embers, as a protection from the ills of life, as well as other parts of the ceremony, finds a counterpart in the customs of the Druids; and though the time of observance be somewhat different, yet may not the same causes (now unknown ones) that have so greatly modified the Clavie have likewise operated in altering the date, which, after all, occurs at the most solemn part of the Druidical year?”

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No smoke without fire.

Keeping up with the Clavie was a challenge, the crew with its carrier moved at rapid speed…partly due to the belief it was bad luck to drop it. Bad luck and extremely dangerous I would add. As it parade through the crowds, heat bellowing out of it and sparks flying through the crowd. At certain points it did stop however. Here long pieces of charred wood held in the main basket were carefully removed and handed to individuals. These individuals either ran local properties, mainly pubs or were family members of the Clavie Crew. These pieces are thought to be lucky and are kept all year as good luck charms, extra luck being when the Clavie was brought to the doorway.. Reassuringly, little has changed since Chambers (1869) account below:

“As fast as his heavy load will permit him, the bearer hurries along the well-known route, followed by the shouting Burgheadians, the boiling tar meanwhile trickling down in dark sluggish streams all over his back. Nor is the danger of scalding the only one he who essays to carry the Clavie has to confront, since the least stumble is sufficient to destroy his equilibrium. Indeed, this untoward event, at one time looked on as a dire calamity, foretelling disaster to the place, and certain death to the bearer in the course of next year, not unfrequently occurs. Having reached the junction of two streets, the carrier of the Clavie is relieved; and while the change is being effected, firebrands plucked from the barrel are thrown among the crowd, who eagerly scramble for the tarry treasure, the possession of which was of old deemed a sure safeguard against all unlucky contingencies.”

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Chisholm (1911) in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes:

“a lighted piece with which to kindle the New Year’s fire on their cottage hearth. The charcoal of the clavie is collected and is put in pieces up the cottage chimneys, to keep spirits and witches from coming down.”

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After about an hour or so, the Clavie reaches an odd hill, called Doorie Hill, on the edge of the town, which was probably part of the Pictish fort. As I was following closely the Clavie at this point I was fortunate to get close to it being carried up and following watched as they mounted it to a small stone altar:

“Being now firmly seated on its throne, fresh fuel is heaped on the Clavie, while, to make the fire burn the brighter, a barrel with the ends knocked out is placed on the top. Cheer after cheer rises from the crowd below, as the efforts made to increase the blaze are crowned with success.”

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Again very little has changed. Despite the ferocious winds which had developed the Clavie Crew took great delight in dousing the Clavie with bottle after bottle of petrol. The Clavie would belch out a great orange flame in anger and the crowd would indeed cheer. I was told that because of the wind, they were being cautious. As I looked at the ground a few feet away engulfed in flame..and me a few paces from the petrol supply, I thought what was it like on a quiet night.

After about 40 minutes of feeding this flame, the Clavie King with his distinctive flame proof fisherman’s like hat climbed it to break bits off to distribute amongst the crowd. Upon seeing me I was happy to say I was given a piece which I quickly wrapped in my damp cloth, dampened in the cold waters of the Burghead well earlier..I thought it appropriate..However, it wasn’t damp enough and I soon noticed it was smouldering and glowing, and it was hot! I dropped it sadly it broke a little. Would that now provide bad luck?

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Soon after this the Clavie creaked and fell to the ground, much of its body broken apart and distributed or else turn to ashes. As it fell the assembled crowd turned to each other and wished ‘happy new year’ for this as I stress was really the start of their year.

This new year atmosphere continued for much of the night in the pubs and the Bothy, as the thousands who assembled to see the Clavie found respite from the cold and snow in their celebrations. They’d be some sore heads the next day. Good job it would be Sunday.

As I left Burghead on my homeward journey I realised how privileged I had been to witness this unique custom in this remote part of Britain..and my Clavie piece? It already managed to save me money…I turned up to go around Elgin Catherdral and was let in for free!!

Custom survived: Broughton Tin Can Band

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Broughton (pronounced Browton) Tin Can band is a unique survival. Every year on the Monday morning – that is 12 midnight (accounts always say Sunday night but call me a pedant it’s not strictly is it) – villagers carry pans, metal dustbin lids, spoons, sticks, forks, spanners and anything that clangs, dongs, thumps or beats. It is not organised, planned or ordered but it happens every year. It has been going on as far as we know for 300 years. Why?  Read on.

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One man band

The Tin Can band had been on my radar for many years and finally I decided to see for myself what it was all about. I arrived in Broughton – streets dressed for Christmas but not a soul to be seen along its streets. I headed for the Red Lion, which advertised itself as the pre-Tin Band location and in the back of the pub were the carol singers, the nucleus of the said ‘band’. It appeared I was not the only one here to experience this curious custom for sitting at the table were two other researchers who can come to make a film and make sound recordings. Soon another visitor turned up guided in by the pub’s landlord as here’s another one of your lot! It was quite interesting that many of the attendees appeared quite surprised that anyone knew of it – I added that virtually every general folklore book has it mentioned which surprised them even more! Some interestingly, seemed reluctant to be filmed as well – hence why I blurred some faces!

Strike up the band!

Leaving at the pub at 11.50 giving me a few moments to walk to the church as we walked we debated whether it was at the church porch or at the bottom of the gates…I said it was more likely considering how dark the grounds of the church was that the gates seemed a sensible location.  It was the gates. The first to arrive were some seven youths. Now usually upon seeing some teenagers holding spanners and crowbars at midnight down a lane I would keep quiet (or run the other way!). However, they seemed genuine enough and keen to get involved. Was this everyone? Fortunately not as soon a larger group of older people arrived carrying their pans, metal trays, whistles and spoons some suspiciously looking like they had come from the nearby pub!

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Just before twelve a shadowy figure could be seen coming down the church path his cloak fluttering in the wind – it was the vicar Canon Revd Brian Withington. I thought he might have appeared to give some sort of disapproving sermon but fortunately not, the complete opposite he was there to give his blessing. On the BBC 4 documentary he does go onto disclose that he had joined, justifying if it was to drive out evil that was okay! This was a feature of the custom I was unaware of! Furthermore it was good to see the event advertised in the church’s newsletter. As soon as the church’s clock chimed twelve he read the Collect for Advent:

“Alrighty God give us Grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your son Jesus Christ came to visit us with great humility and in the last day he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead we may rise to the life immortal to him who liveth and reigneth with the holy ghost. Now and ever Amen.”

Then as his force rose to the occasion he called out:

“So put away all that is evil tonight as you go around the village as you make a racket.”

At this point ironically perhaps the heaven’s opened and heavy rain began to fall..this was no discouragement for the assembled ‘band’ who shock and rattled, whistled, honked, yelled and cried at message from the vicar. They then maked their way off bashing, smashing, whacking, hooting and whistling down the streets. The route took the main streets of the town; Church Street, Glebe Avenue, High Street and Gate Lane bringing a curious cacophony for these quiet streets.

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Band on the run

The Broughton Tin Can Band has had as rough a journey as the music.  It has always been controversial and complaints from the usual suspects resulted in 1929 that the Parish council appeared to have set about trying to stop what they saw as an undated and clearly anti-social practice noting that:

“Notice is hearby given that at a meeting at Broughton Parish council given on September 17th 1929, it was resolved that the practice of the Beating of Tin Kettles and the noise created thereby on Broughton streets must cease and will not be allowed.”

This thus would make it an arrestable offence! The police were called in and it is said appeared to have enjoyed the event much I am sure to the Parish’s chagrin. Finally they were forced to issue arrests and fined fifty-four people. However, as the village was still supported by the villagers and a dance was held which paid for the fines! Some elderly people still live in the village apparently proudly displaying their fines! The following year the police presence was reduced and fewer arrests and soon it appears to have returned to normal. Local people have been victims Mr Stamper notes that when they first moved there they had their metal dustbin lid taken…but a visit to the police station the next day found all the lost metal dust bin lids laying on the lawn for collection!

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Bandwagon jumping?

This has not been the only time. Three years ago it was close to be stopped but as John Stamper relates that there were enough people in the village who would be very upset it had. This was probably as a result of some undesirable elements joining the throng. The Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph 2007 notes:

However, last year the fun was marred by anti-social behaviour which saw vandals damaging street lights, signposts and garden fences. Police were called to the event after a series of incidents.”

These appear to have been people from outside the village and indeed the youths of our throng did seem to spend more time hitting lamp-posts and pins then what they were carrying. They appeared to get admonished for this but again as John Stamper notes again on a BBC4 Lives in the Landscape:

 “Once hour a year not going to kill anyone!”

And they generally grow up, more on or get girl-friends. Furthermore, in an essence this sort of ‘vandal’ behaviour is surely part of the appeal of the custom and it needs young blood to keep it going and if they get some sort of pleasure out of bashing bins and rattling railings…that’s the point of it! They all good humoured with it and importantly stopped when everyone else did.

Breaking band

Then back at the church the ‘band’ retired for the year…the group all linking arms to sing Auld Lang Syne…or at least the verse everyone knows and they disappeared into the darkness – presumably to bed! The rain then stopped. My companions remarked that that was what you got when you are trying to cast out evil spirits. And spookily according to folklorist Doc Rowe the same happened the year before!

What are the origins of this custom?

Unsurprisingly for such as anti-social custom its history is a little lacking. The custom is most often linked to the principle of ‘rough music’ which was an ad hoc custom undertaken by villagers to drive out an undesirable – a wife beater or philander – a tradition most recently seen during a mock funeral for Margaret Thatcher in Goldthorpe Yorkshire. The focus on this ire is said to be gypsies. However, as one local questioned in the BBC4 documentary that it could not be for gypsies as there were some in the locale! The other equally plausible theory is that it was used to drive out evil spirits. However, the two are not mutually exclusive as gypsies were through to cast spells and brought about evil.

One rarely made association is that the event is staged near what would have been Old St Andrew’s Day or Tander’s Day. This was a feast day particularly celebrated by lace makers, of which there were a number in Northamptonshire. Furthermore, Thomas Sternberg of Dialect and Folklore of Northamptonshire collected the following account from the mid 1880s which looks significant:

“Tander – of the numerous red-letter days which diversified the lives of our ancestors, this is the only one which has survived to our own times in anything like its pristine manner…Drinking and feasting prevail in a riotous extent. Towards evening the sober villagers appear to have suddenly smitten with a violent taste for masquerading. Women may be seen walking about in male attire, while men and boys donned the female dress, and visit each other’s cottages, drinking hot ‘eldern wine’; the staple beverage of the season.”

Since this account the custom has died out. However it is interesting to speculate that the Broughton Tin Can Band may have arisen this way. The association with St Andrew is supported by the fact that the church is dedicated to the saint and so the village would have celebrated the day as a patronal day. Furthermore there certainly were lace makers in the 1800s in the village according to the census, but it is not clear how many. I did not see any ‘men and boys donned the female dress’ but there were quite a few’ Women may be seen walking about in male attire’ well trousers anyhow!

Band aid

Whatever the truthful origins of the custom it is something the village must preserve. The group were keen to have it continue and wondered how they could ensure it preserved. Hopefully this small contribution There will always been those who disagree with it but being so unique it needs to be kept. However, understandably a custom which is set on midnight in December on a Sunday night-Monday morning might not have any takers. Numbers have waved over the years from the 100s said to have attended years back down to one lone drummer in the war years. When I attended there were 22. The greatest risk to the custom is not the complainers but like many customs apathy! So if you are reading this blog post and live near Broughton, nothing to do on Sunday night, have tin pan and will travel…don’t forget first Sunday after the 12th December.