Category Archives: Occasional

Custom occasional: Spitting on the Heart of Midlothian, Edinburgh

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Tourists mill to and fro down the Royal Mile passing St Mary’s Kirk may miss an unusual heart shaped mosaic made of stones set into the pavement below them. That is until someone passes raises back their head and lands a big glob of spit upon it and walks off! But why?

The heart together with the brass markers set into the pavement mark the location of the 15th century Tolbooth of Edinburgh, the once administrative centre of the town and also its prison and site of execution.

Spit it out

One possible origin is that it is associated with the Porteous riots of 1736 when Andrew Wilson, a convicted smuggler was publicly hanged and that when his body was cut down against the wishes of the mob a riot ensued. The Lord Provost Captain Porteous called out the guards to deal with them as the mob became violent and began stoning the guards. This then lead to a precipitation of violence which resulted in six people being shot and Porteous being arrested and charged with murder. Testimony differed on whether he was responsible and the people feeling a plot was organised to make him innocent, dragged him from the prison and after some horrendous acts was finally beaten to death. It is said that the stone represented the people’s views on murder of the six people. The tolbooth was immortalised in Water Scott’s 1818 novel ‘Heart of Midlothian’, the year after it was demolished.

I could just spit

The Heart of Midlothian is a heart-shaped mosaic on the pavement of the Royal Mile, which many people spit on in passing, supposedly to bring them good luck.

At first it would appear that understandably those who were or associated with criminals as a form of disdain to show their disgust or ward off evil associated with it. It is said to mark where the death cell was and so looking back as an accused man you would spit although others state it is where the entrance was. By the 20th century it had become associated with good luck as recorded by Florence Marian MacNeil’s 1977 Silver Bough: Scottish folk-lore and folk-belief who recorded that ‘an occasional boy’ would be seen spitting on it.

Even more recently it would appear that Hibernian F.C football team would spit on the stones thinking it was there to demonstrate their hatred of rival team Heart of Midlothian F.C! Indeed a commenter on a Hibernian FC forum suggested they spit for luck for the 1998 Cup final.

However even more recently it has been gum and copper coins deposited there, the later certainly more sanitary. Indeed, a mini documentary does show both confusion of over why it was done and what it represents.

However, the custom continues, as I stood one wet and rainy day on the Royal Mile, a tile red-headed man appeared and drew up some spittle and thrust it down on the heart in front of me…perhaps realising I was a tourist! Interesting, spitting is banned in the city but the heart remains a final sanctuary for the unpleasant act which back in 1967 there was an attempt to ban this ‘filthy act’…however with a tourist conscious city of Edinburgh, even this antisocial custom is worth preserving.

Custom occasional: Hunting the Mallard at All Soul’s College Oxford

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Such elaborate junketing may sound a little odd to anyone unconnected with All Souls . . . But presumably, if Homer may be excused an occasional nod, a Fellow of All Souls may be allowed, once in a hundred years, to play the fool.”

Account from Cosmo Lang’s Biography

Back in 2001 I was invited to see a strange spectacle which by its rarity and unusual description I honestly didn’t believe actually existed, All Soul’s College Hunting the Mallard. Sadly in the end I could not go and missing out in a way cemented by desire some may say obsession to catalogue our curious and colourful customs. Why? Well because the Hunting of the Mallard is the rarest of beasts, as rare as the said Mallard, as it is only done every 100 years.

Interestingly Thistleton-Dyer in his excellent Popular customs past and present 1876 appears unaware of the 100 year cycle recording:

“This day was formerly celebrated in All Souls College, Oxford, in commemoration of the discovery of a very large mallard or drake in a drain, when digging for the foundation of the college ; and though this observance no longer exists, yet on one of the college ” gaudies ” there is sung in memory of the occurrence a very old song called ‘ The swapping, swapping mallard.”

Ducking and diving

As noted above the Mallard has a strong association with this venerable Oxford college; it is their mascot and can be seen on various objects around the college. But how did it all start? 1437 is the date given when during the digging of the college’s foundations the college’s founder Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Clichele, was indecisive of where he should build his college. But during a dream he was told that:

“…a schwoppinge mallarde imprisoned in the sinke or sewere, wele fattened and almost bosten. Sure token of the thrivaunce of his future college”

The location in the dream was next to the church and upon digging where he was directed and could hear in a hole: “horrid strugglinges and flutteringes” reaching in he pulled a duck describe as the size of “a bustarde or an ostridge.” This was a the sign and as the bird flew away the academics who were to become the Fellows of All Souls chased it, caught and then of course ate it! And so immortalised the bird in the college’s history.

When the custom started is unclear but an account by Archbishop Abbott in 1632 is the earliest recording:

“civil men should never so far forget themselves under pretence of a foolish mallard as to do things barbarously unbecoming.”

It may have been thoughts like this which resulted it in being a 100 year cycle!

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Yes Mall’ord

On the night of January 14, 2001, some of Oxford’s most learned fellows could be seen marching around All Souls College behind a wooden duck held aloft on a pole. They were engaged in the bizarre ritual of hunting the mallard that occurs once every 100 years at the College. I was up at Oxford at the time, and one of my tutors was present and so I got the eye-witness account of the matter.

After a commemorative feast the fellows paraded around the College with flaming torches, singing the Mallard Song and led by “Lord Mallard” carried in a sedan chair. They were in search of a legendary mallard that supposedly flew out of the foundations of the college when it was being built.

And so, during the hunt the Lord Mallard is preceded by a man bearing a pole to which a mallard is tied. Originally it was a live bird, by 1901 it had become a dead bird, and by 2001 it was a bird carved from wood. The last mallard ceremony was in 2001 and the next will be held in 2101.

How many hunting the mallards there officially have been is unclear – one presumes six – as little is recorded. The only one to have been documented before the 2001 one was the 1901 custom. The Mallard Lord being Cosmo Gordon Lang, who recalled via J G Lockhart, his biographer:

“I was carried in a chair by four stalwart Fellows – Wilbrahim [First Church Estates Commissioner], Gwyer [later Chief Justice of India], Steel-Maitland [later Minister of Labour] and Fossie Cunliffe – for nearly two hours after midnight round the quadrangles and roofs of the College, with a dead mallard borne in front on a long pole (which I still possess) singing the Mallard Song all the time, preceded by the seniors and followed by the juniors, all of them carrying staves and torches, a scene unimaginable in any place in the world except Oxford, or there in any society except All Souls.”

The account related that in 1901 that:

“The whole strange ceremony had been kept secret; only late workers in the night can have heard the unusual sound, though it is said that Provost McGrath of Queen’s muttered in his sleep, ‘I must send the Torpid down for this noise.”

At the end of the event Lang notes that the dead mallard was thrown on a bonfire to which Lang noted:

“some of the junior fellows could not be restrained from eating portions of its charred flesh”.

Its all quackers!

As the procession hunted the duck the procession would sing the Mallard Song:

The Griffine, Bustard, Turkey & Capon

Lett other hungry Mortalls gape on

And on theire bones with Stomacks fall hard,

But lett All Souls’ Men have ye Mallard.

CHORUS:

Hough the bloud of King Edward,

By ye bloud of King Edward,

It was a swapping, swapping mallard!

Some storys strange are told I trow

By Baker Holinshead and Stow 

Of Cocks & Bulls, & other queire things

That happen’d in ye Reignes of theire Kings.

CHORUS

The Romans once admir’d a gander

More than they did theire best Commander,

Because hee saved, if some don’t foolle us,

The place named from ye Scull of Tolus

CHORUS

The Poets fain’d Jove turn’d a Swan,

But lett them prove it if they can.

To mak’t appeare it’s not att all hard:

Hee was a swapping, swapping mallard.

CHORUS

Hee was swapping all from bill to eye,

Hee was swapping all from wing to thigh;

His swapping tool of generation

Oute swapped all ye wingged Nation.

CHORUS

Then lett us drink and dance a Galliard

in ye Remembrance of ye Mallard,

And as ye Mallard doth in Poole,

Let’s dabble, dive & duck in Boule.

CHORUS”

The song is not restricted to the Mallard and is song at events such as the Gaudy held annually.

Duck soup

In 1801 it was said that a live mallard was chased around, by 1901 it was a dead one on a pole and by 2001:

There will be a wooden mallard duck carried at the head of the procession on a pole.”

The History Girls blogsite accounted that in 2001 Dr Martin Litchfield West was the Mallard Lord it reported:

“Behind Dr West, fortified by the Mallard Feast and dressed in black tie and gowns, marched the other fellows of the college. Among those expected to participate were William Waldegrave and John Redwood, members of the last Conservative Cabinet, and Lord Neill of Bladen, former chairman of the committee for standards in public life and once warden of All Souls. All fellows taking part in the procession are expected to give full voice to the Mallard Song. …There will be 118 people, all fellows or past fellows, carrying torches. We shall go around the college and up the front tower and back again. We will then join the college servants for a lot of drinking and there will be a fireworks display.”

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An account of the custom first hand related to the blogger of the excellent History Girls blogsite notes:

“My tutor gave us the insider’s view of the Great Mallard Chase of 2001. She and the other Fellows partook of a 14 course dinner in the medieval Codrington Library, accompanied by superb wines (All Souls has the best cellar in the country – better than Buckingham Palace). I have reprinted the menu from 1901 below. Dr Martin Litchfield West as the Lord Mallard, and the Fellows sang, much as they have done for hundreds of years, the Mallard Song. The Victorians disapproved of the reference in the song to the Mallard’s “swapping tool of Generation”, mightier than any other in “ye winged Nation” (of birds) and dropped this verse from the song. It was restored in the 2001 ceremony, when the Fellows sat down to the Mallard Centennial Dinner, which did include a duck. When everyone was in an excess of good spirits, four of the younger fellows hoisted the Lord Mallard up in his special sedan chair (the same one used in 1901 – but we’re not sure if it was also used in 1801) and they chased a wooden mallard duck around the quad. In the days before Animal Rights (a very serious consideration in Oxford, given letter bombs to scientists and sabotage of laboratories), they chased a real duck. But this century, for the first time, a fake duck had to do. So, with the Lord Mallard hoisted high in his sedan chair the whole congregation of fellows chased this wood duck around the quadrangle bellowing out the Mallard Song. Now, given that he was not expending any energy and was the centre of attention, the Lord Mallard was anxious to repeat the experience. “Again, again” he cried, and he was carried around the quadrangle again, and then for a third time at his excited urging. But, when he said “Again”, wanting a fourth perambulation, the poor sedan carriers rebelled and dumped him on the ground. Then there were wonderful fireworks, including fireworks in the shape of a mallard. “

Sad to have missed it and not a single photo…ah well here’s to 2101!!

Customs occasional: Denby Dale Pies

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“It was absolutely glorious. It really was lovely. Very, very savoury – the spices that they’d added to it were such that they brought out the full flavour of the meat. It was more like best stewing steak, so well cooked that it was starting to fall and to disintegrate…It wasn’t chewy, but it was easy on the teeth with lots of rich gravy on it.”

BBC Look North talking to David Bostwick of his pie memories of 1988!

Whilst many waited to see the clocks chine 12 or the impact of the Millennium Bug (remember that) on their VHS recorders (remember them!?) I was thinking I wonder if Denby Dale would do a pie this year? A pie, not instantly an exciting prospect, but this was to be one of the famous giant pie, the biggest pies in the world. I searched in vain on-line, remember this was the day of slow dial up and even slower and primitive pages…but after some searching and contacting the local tourist information they confirmed a pie was planned for the first weekend in September. I made a note in the diary.

 Having a finger in every pie.

This rather unassuming Yorkshire village has progressively baked larger pies since 1788, ten now in all, each attracting more and more hungry mouths. Why this village should start the tradition is unclear – although giant baked produce are not exactly common, they are not that rare – but only this village has kept it. The first pie was baked to celebrate George III’s recovery – albeit brief – from his bouts of madness – I suppose making a crazy pie helped.

However, clearly the villages got the taste for giant pies for soon in 1815, twenty chickens and two sheep were used to make a second pie this time to celebrate the victory of Waterloo. The third to celebrate repeal of the Corn Laws in August 29, 1846, at least made sense it lowered the price of wheat products!  This 1846 pie nearly ended in disaster when 15,000 could have perished when the stage collapsed and a mass escape ensued leaving the official cutter trapped inside it!

Half-baked idea?

However, the most famed incident in pie history is recorded for the fourth pie baked to celebrate Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in August 1887. Not learning from the earlier event perhaps the lack of any organization once the pie appeared at Norman park, having been cooked at the White Hart by Halifax bakers led by a London chef, crowds swamped it. Yet as they dug into it, a rather unpleasant smell arose!

“emitted such an intolerable stench that a number of persons were injured in the stampede to escape.”

It transpired that apparently that in the cooking process the meat had gone cold. This combined with dirt on the potatoes and the fact that the pie had sat all day in the sun, had made the dish go seriously off….so much that it was buried in quick – line and never eaten. A local newspaper the Huddersfield Examiner stated that:

“I am astonished how the promoters dare offer the pie for human food.”

They were not to be beaten and on the 3rd of September that year another pie as made and a select 2000 people invited. It was called the Resurrection Pie.

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Pies the limit?

No such cooking problems would affect the 2000 pie which had the state of the art heating mechanisms which ensured that each piece of the pie was kept piping hot. Infact although it had a crust a top, I wondered how much the mechanical dish with its separate compartments, twenty four in all, heated by three kilowatt heating, could be justified with the concept of a giant pie – was this not smaller pies albeit sharing a giant crust?

1896 saw the 50th anniversary since the Corn Law repeal a good reason to use some of that corn for a crust so a sixth pie was constructed using the previous pie dish. However, for the seventh pie, a local brick and tile works made the dish – 16ft long, 5ft deep and 15 inches deep and it was baked in August 1928 to raise money for the local hospital and as such as called the Infirmary Pie which raised £1000 for them and was given to 40,000 recipients. The pie was almost lost, as the dish got stuck in its specially made oven and needed considerable elbow grease from 20 mean and crowbars to extract it. Not only that there were not enough rollers to move the five-ton pie!

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Pie in the sky

The town did not see another pie due to the Second World War and indeed the original dish was melted down to help the war effort. It was not until 1964 when four Royal births in the same year Prince Edward, Lady Helen Windsor, Lady Sarah Armstrong Jones and James Ogilvy was thought worthy of celebration. In an interesting attempt of publicity, the new pie dish was floated down the canal to Denby – it didn’t make far before it sunk! Sadly, this pie would be tinged with sadness as returning for a television show promoting the pie, four of the main organisers were killed in a car crash. Despite the tragedy, the pie went on and was served to 30,000 people. The money made from it and its associated celebrations paid for Denby Dale Pie Hall which was opened in 1972.

1988 could not go by without a pie as it was 2000 years since the original and so on the 3rd September the Bicentenary Pie was baked. For the first time the pie was served over two days with a fantastically impressive 90,000 being served at £1 apiece. The pie entered the Guinness Book of records as the biggest meat and potato pie in the world and the dish sits holding flowers in the village.

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Nice as pie.

So in 2000, the new millennium combined with the 100th birthday of the Queen’s Mother meant that a pie must be made. This time it contained two and a half tons of beef and potatoes, three and half tons of pastry and 36 gallons of bitter. The dish was 40ft by 8ft and 44 inches deep – so big that it was the trailer of a lorry – 70 feet in all.

And what a site this giant pie was. I stood at the end of the long lane and soon it swung into sight. In a parade which one would only see when a giant pie was in town. With it unsurprisingly were the Sheffield Giants, whose towering statue came close to normalising the gigantic crusted creature.

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With much trumpeting and celebration, the pie arrived at the field. Here entry by paid ticket entitled the bearer to a piece of pie, to prevent a scram they were timed and zoned if I remember. Before all that was the ceremonial cutting of the pie. I sneaked in amongst the press back to see the chefs checking on the pie. Huge wafts of heat bellowed out of it and the smell this time fresh and enticing rose majestically out of it. Of course to cut such a Yorkshire icon needed a Yorkshire icon and as such famed cricket umpire Dickie Bird took the honour. He wielded a giant sword – what else to slay a baked beast as this. Raising it with a devilish grin on his face the pastry skin was pieces and steam arose from it. The pastry pierced it was now time to dish up.

 

Sadly being a vegetarian – they didn’t cater for that – I didn’t partake in this meaty masterpiece giving my offering to a hungry looking boy nearby. I asked him his thoughts…’marvellous’ he said.

I searched on-line (more successfully this time) to find if any further pies were planned such as for the Queen’s recent Jubilees or 90th birthday, but it appears some plans were made, no pies were baked up. One hopes that as the souvenir brochure for the 2000 pie, the Chairman noted:

“there are people saying this is the last Denby Dale Pie. The thoughts were expressed also at the time of the 1964 and 1988 events. I do however believe that in a generation or so, hence, some notable event will encourage a group of ‘pie crazy’ villagers to assemble a ‘mammoth’ pie, and thus maintain a tradition which has made the village of Denby Dale famous throughout the world.”

Let us hope that the Queen’s Hundred or a coronation – whichever happens first – will be the impetus. But until then I am glad to have witnessed such a monumental meaty manifestation!

“When word was given a general rush,

Took place to hack and hew it;

The clambered up outside the crust to get their knives into it,

When all at once the crust gave way,

It’s true, I’ll take my davy

And ninety-five poor souls they say

Were drowned in the gravy.”

Custom occasional: Abingdon Bun Throwing

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Abingdon has a custom which has been undertaken rather on and off over 200 years. Principally associated with Royal events its irregularity means that it does not fit the categories on this blog so I have made a new category – custom occasional!

How did this curious custom begin? Abingdon claims its unique. In the way it does of course, but there are other bun throws such as that I recorded at Wath upon Dearne. It may not have started as bun throwing and it is suggested that it may have been a dole probably done to recognise the importance of the event it was associated with. During the 1760 for George III coronation, a John Waite records catching a cake thrown from the Market House. The Borough Minutes of 1831 record that 500 penny cakes distributed. In the Abingdon Herald’s it states that:

500 cakes … were thrown from the tops of houses into the dirt to be scrambled for, in accordance with ancient usage”.

From 1761 until 2016 34 bun throws have been done of these 27 have been for Royal occasions – 8 coronations, 6 jubilees, 5 birthdays, 4 marriages, 2 anniversaries of a marriage and one Royal visit. Other events have been celebrated by buns such as VE Day and its 50th anniversary and the end of the Crimean War or Charter days and even an International Day. In the museum can be seen evidence of the last 17 bun throwings, the earliest being from 1887 Golden Jubilee of Victoria. The museum was closed on the day unfortunately. The number of bun throws appear to have increased in the year, possibly as a result of a wise tourist drive – nothing wrong with that of course!

Bun time for all

I turned up a few hours earlier to see the town preparing. Abingdon is a classic town – a real life Trumpton and as such I expected Trumptonesque activities For of course it was not just bun throwing to keep the crowd happy the organisers had put on some other entertainments. Very Trumptonlike with Town Crier, band and Morris.

One of the attendees was morning about the need for signs for the ingredients of the buns and morning ‘EU regulation’. I smiled wryly…although I noted there wasn’t a sign saying ‘don’t eat the ones on the floor’.

As the crowds begun to assemble, the local band cheerfully entertained them from everything from Hope and Glory to Sex Bomb! As we approached nearer to launch time, it was time for the famed Abingdon Morris Men to appear with their Bull mascot, sword and pewter mug. They enthralled those assembled with their dances and this was a good advert for their more famous Mock Mayor custom the week after. The crowd looked very responsive to them and so no doubt that boded well for the following week!

Whilst this was going on Union Jack flags were enthusiastic delivered through the crowd with children leaping on the opportunity to give them a way and occasionally poke an eye out no doubt.

Then a small procession came to the town hall attended by the Mayor, the town dignitaries, local MP and the winners of a furthest bun throwing competition a few weeks earlier!

The band then struck up the National Anthem and the crowd sung. And yes in the crowd, there was that embarrassing moment where no one remembers the words to the second verse! Then there was a cheer as they turn around and ascended the town hall. A few minutes later they appeared on the roof.

Bun fight

In what appeared an aeon, peppered with false starts teasing the crowd, limbering up and chants of ‘we want buns’, the later could be misinterpreted Versailles style!

“please do not use upturned umbrellas’ You don’t see signs like that everyday do you? But it was clear that one of the greatest aspects of bun throwing is the chance to catch as many as possible. However, there was no unruly scramble, this was genteel Oxfordshire after all.

Then the clock struck 7 and we were off. And some off it was literally raining buns. There was no let off. Over 2500 were being launched and it felt like it. The sky was almost darkened over with buns! Catching them was another matter. One bounced off my shoulder and another with some force hit me squarely on the head ‘ouch’. Some people were clearly having greater luck. A girl behind had about eight and we were only four minutes in! Two children had baseball gloves..very ingenious!

Then I began having luck and soon caught a special celebratory bun with 90 piped onto it. I appeared to be the only one I found one I noticed in the same area, so I did not know how many were being released but I would imagine 90. So if so catching 1 out of 90 out of the 2500 was I suppose a bit of a chance happening. The sound of excitement was getting fever pitch and more and more buns fell from the sky and then 15 minutes in the sky cleared. No more buns. The crowd cheers and began to dispersed. Around me there were lots of grinning children clutching their happy hoards…and off everyone went…roll on the 100th?