Category Archives: Private

Custom contrived: Matlock Raft Race, Derbyshire

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Matlock Bath is justly proud of its Venetian carnival but there is another aquatic antic which is less genteel and shows the other side of the town a more raucous one. On Boxing Day crowds line, many prepared with deckchairs and pack lunches to watch below and indeed interact with the bizarre array of rafters below, as they speed or drift passed.

Draft idea or not

Local tradition tells that in 1961 a group of divers finding little they could do over the cold winter months decided it would be a good idea to come up with a fun charity event. Obviously picking Boxing Day as a day associated with wacky races and sports in general they set about organizing their first raft race. From the first year it was a huge success with people entering from all over the country with over 100 rafts taking part. Over the years the event has become more and more popular and as befits a calendar custom more and more bizarre!

Like most races its impossible to see beginning in end and most spectators simply watch for them as they flow and often rush down river, over the weir, often creating some hilarity depending on the seaworthiness of the raft and then to Cromford meadows at the finishing line.

Raft of ideas

With around 50 rafts there was a great array of oddness. There is a prize for the best dressed raft and it did not disappoint. Dressed in their obligatory helmets and floating devices for safety reason can be seen super heroes, men in drag, cartoon characters, there was a real attempt to make a show of it. The rafts were pretty amazing too and a considerable amount of effort had gone into them. The most amazing were the cut down cars, in particular in a mini, which sadly in its appearance stuck in the water would have been seen in the 2019 floods thereabouts. An account in the Matlock Mercury published on Saturday 29 December 2012 put it well:

In a show of bravery and sheer madness the intrepid rafters dressed up as members of the Muppets and Santa Claus, furiously paddling Minis through the rapids to the delight of spectators.”

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Raft of missiles

The custom is not the most popular amongst certain quarters. Huge crowds had assembled overlooking the river cheering and waving.  Along the path by the river signs proclaim:

“No Eggs No Plastic bags”

This is reference to one of the strangest aspects of the custom, the throwing of objects at the rafts. As if navigating yourself down a river on a cold day in December was not enough the tradition of throwing eggs and flour at the participants has developed. When I arrived the whole walkway had become a slippery morass of flour and egg like some pancake making disaster. Crowds cheered as they pelted the contestants with flour bombs made on flour wrapped in clingfilm – hence the concern that these would affect the wildlife – a point I could not disagree with. Indeed, this aspect of the custom is one which would bring it close to closure I feel. One person on the bank had a whole bag full of pre-wrapped flour bundles, there must have been hundreds.

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On the Derbyshire Dales website in 2017 the following pleas were made, with Paul Reeves, Environment Officer at the Environment Agency, saying :

“We realise the Matlock Raft Race is an important social event for the area, which attracts a large number of local residents as well as visitors from further afield, has a positive impact on the local economy, and raises funds for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

“However, we are appealing to spectators to consider the environment by not throwing flour-filled plastic bags or other objects at the raft racers and into the water this year.

“If plastic or paper bags enter the watercourse, they pose a real threat to wildlife both locally and further afield. Last year there were sightings of water birds trying to eat floating flour-filled bags, and the deadly impact of plastics on river and sea life is well known and currently in the news.”

Councillor Lewis Rose OBE, Leader of Derbyshire Dales District Council, said:

“The Boxing Day raft race has become something of a tradition here in the Derbyshire Dales and long may it continue. However, we absolutely support the Environment Agency’s plea to spectators to refrain from activities that threaten the environment and wildlife, as well as littering our waterways and streets.”

It made no effect as I saw in 2018!

Of course the rafters do not just idly pass by and let this rain of missiles happen. No they are prepared. Many carry super-soakers and some even water cannons. A number protect themselves with umbrellas. The crowd at times can get thoroughly wet and flour covered and one wonders how this all started. Did the rafters start the war or the onlookers felt the need to get involved. It is all hilarious stuff and a cheer goes out if a hit on the raft results in a participant covered in flour – but they were soon to hit back.

I watched as a cloud of flour fell over the edge to coat a superhero below soon to be greeting the assailant with a rapid fire of the water cannon. I passed a family covered head to toe in flour who had been caught in the crossfire. They were as happy as can be. But it is messy stuff. Unpopular and from the mess and litter one could see why but it would be a shame to see one of the best aspects of the custom disappear due to a lack of lateral thinking.

Recent events with flooding meant that the Raft Race was cancelled for the first time perhaps ever. One is concerned that the gentile folk of Matlock Bath do not use its temporary cancellation as a permanent one

On their website it was clear how popular the custom is:

Social media activity around the cancellation was outstanding (the cancellation post reached over 20,000 people and shared by 1,500 people), it is clear that the event is well loved and appreciated by individuals and families, some travelling from far afield to take part and see the event.”

On the website the organised discussed its cancellation. It seemed that there were genuine reasons for the cancellation following the terrible 2019 floodings. However it did seem a shame in a year when Matlock’s river had become a threat not a gift not to allow something which would have seen it in a positive light. However I feel we will once again be covered in plumes of flower and soaked to the skin when it returns in 2020.

Custom survived: Penny for the Guy

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A few years back I was in discussion with someone and the topic of Penny for the Guy arose. At that moment we both realised that we had not seen this once very common customs for decades. Indeed, it was so common perhaps it was less commonly reported by folklorists being so ubiquitous. There are a wide range of accounts. In the 1974 Folklore of Staffordshire by Jon Raven records:

“During the nineteenth century the children made their collection for the Guy and would sing the following ditty:

“Pray a hapenny for a taper

An a hapenny for a match,

An a happeny for a faggot

An another for a match

Pray gee us for some money

For crackers and powder

To charge all our canons

An mack them sound louder

Pray gee us a jacket

To dress Guy the infernal

Of a fire eternal.”

In the 1976 Folklore of the Welsh borders Jacqueline Simpson records:

“Gangs of children roaming the streets demanding pennies”.

The decline is also hinted by Doris Barker in her 1977 Folklore of Hertfordshire states:

“Groups of children – no longer just the poor – many with paper mache masks instead of the soot blacken faces customary in many places until the middle of this century, still go from door to door in villages and towns with traditional Guys asking ‘Penny for the Guy’ – with inflation expecting more -for money to buy fireworks and sometimes for charities.”

The decline is perhaps first noted by Enid Porter in their 1974 Folklore of East Anglia:

“Still celebrated with bonfires fireworks and making of Guys, though the children who take round their guys or stand with them on street corners, seldom chant the old rhymes.”

In the 1976 Folklore of Warwickshire Roy Palmer notes:

“By the 1920s the groups of children going around wealthier homes were usually asking for pennies to buy commercially produced fireworks.”

I personally remember it in the late 70s and through the 80s but cannot recollect it after that but apparently the tradition was surviving.  For example records of it still continuing in some areas can be found, as a Dave (Notts Breamer) notes in a angler’s forum:

“… I saw 2 kids outside Asda today, they had a tin full of money, its a dying game, but those that do bother to do it, earn a fortune.”

This suggested a siting in Nottinghamshire well at least in 2011 and as an ASDA but which one? Looking for a custom such as this is without the preverbal ‘needle in a haystack’. Where? What time? What day? Etc Etc?

Penny for your thoughts

The difficulty of finding such a custom combined with a desire to discover whether it was still extant somewhere made me turn to the 21st century solution. The internet and a blog. Therefore I set up the PennyfortheGuy sighting page to solicit from members of the public.

The site went live in 2013 and the first reports came in. They asked for a description, where it happened, the age of the children and response of the public. It started with a rather positive one!

In early Nov 2012 or 2013 I was with my dad and we saw some kids with a “Penny for the Guy” near the local Co-Op store in York Parade shops in north Tonbridge. My Dad remarked he’d not seen this type of thing for years. Cant remember the exact details exactly – jeans and jumper+hat?
Geographical location: York Parade, Tonbridge, Kent, TN10
Age of children: 12-13?
Response of public: none
Date and time: afternoon, early Nov
Length of time observed: just in passing”

And one rather negative one:

Description of Guy: unfortunately not a good story! we went to local pub Saturday night and around 10 pm 2 girls came in and the barman asked what they were doing “toilet” one said “OK be quick” said barman. But instead of going to the toilet they went round pub asking for Penny for the Guy but all they had was a normal baby type Doll. The barman asked them to leave and also asked where their parents were but all he got was abuse, the girl with the doll was around 12 years the other around 10 years. Is this a sign of the times???
Geographical location:Nottingham Old Basford
Age of children: 12 years & 10 years
Response of public: horrified
Date and time: 10pm Saturday 19th October 2013
Length of time observed: 10-15 minutes

Time: October 23, 2013 at 11:05 am

Then the following year a report from Bristol, Stockport, Stoke on Trent, Wigan and Manchester the later suggesting that it was not a dying custom at all if anything is to go by from the less than enthusiastic entry

“Geographical location I.e where in the UK?: Manchester
Description of Guy: Countless crap ones, usually in wheelbarrows being wheeled to my front door or dumped outside shops and petrol stations, with accompanying urchin children begging for loose change.It’s not a dying tradition. It’s annoying.
Age of children: 7-15
Response of public: usually abusive
Date and time: later than they should be out
Length of time observed: anytime between halloween and bonfire night”

Then in 2018 I received a report from fellow folklorist and author Richard Bradley. His report reading:

“Geographical location I.e where in the UK?: Morrisons Supermarket, Hillsborough, Sheffield Description of Guy: Consisted of a stuffed black child’s hoodie and grey trousers with tied-off arms and legs, its face being a mass-produced Halloween mask (a skull wearing shades and red teeth). Asked makers if they were going to burn it on a bonfire and they said they were. Age of children: 3 young lads, would estimate around 9 or 10 Response of public: Indifference from majority; great excitement from me! Date and time: 30th October 2018 12:50pm. I asked if they knew of any other Penny for the Guys and they said outside Southey [Green] Co-Op there was one where the makers had used a large teddy bear for the body and dressed and stuffed it.”

Dying of Guying

It was clear that from the reports the custom was still alive but in decline. A series of theories have been put forward or could be suggested for its decline and disappearance some mine some others.

Theory 1: The inability to buy fireworks – This is seen as one of the commonest reasons for the decline mainly because this is cited as a reason children did so. Although there is no firm evidence that this was exclusively all that the money was used for and it does seem unlikely that it would stop the custom. Certainly the children interviewed had no concern over how to use their money and one could argue it could still be given to parents to buy fireworks

Theory 2: The rise of Hallowe’en trick or treat. This is often seen as the main reason for the decline. Why would children make something and spend hours collecting money when they can get free sweets and sometimes money by dressing up and going around houses on one night? However, versions of trick or treat have existed side by side with making Penny for the Guy and indeed in a way they both involve for the diligent student effort. Indeed one could argue that putting a mask on some newspaper filled clothes involves less effort than dressing up or sourcing a costume. Similarly, the collection is different – sweets versus money – Money could be considered more useful especially when potentially large volumes can be collected.

Theory 3: Stranger danger. Increasing concerns from the 1970s onwards of the risk of children from members of the public has influenced the custom no doubt, with rightfully concerned parents preventing children in having the freedom previous generations enjoyed. This has combined with an increasing toxification of children as ‘gangs’. However, children still assembly in groups from aged 11 onwards – ages which have been reported as doing Penny for the Guy – so this in itself in some areas cannot be a major factor

Theory 4: Anti-begging – any cursory examination of a parental forum post on this subject such as Mumsnet would indicate that many see it as begging and this being now not acceptable. Of course the custom is, but this cannot be seen as a major influence in areas of low incomes and in a way this is a class driven view which probably always existed and indeed was espoused by parents when I was younger.

Theory 5: Rise in affluence. The general rise in average income and in particular its effect on pocket money would certainly have reduced the impetus for students and thus the number that would entertain the idea of Penny for the Guy

Theory 6: Other entertainments. With all manner of games have kept children indoors in and in many cases have replaced face to face communication

Theory 7: Lack of back garden bonfires and street fires. The smallness of new estates, increasing lack of waste ground and a push to encourage families to attend civic firework ceremonies means less domestic ones and less demand for Guys.

To summarise I feel that the rise in general affluence, lack of private bonfires (giving the Guy a raison d’etre), stranger danger and distraction of other entertainments has had an effect. Therefore the custom should survive I areas where there are low incomes and large areas as well as a close knit community.

Looking for a Guy

It would seem that from this research (as of 2019) via the PennyfortheGuysightings site that Guy strongholds could possibly be are Sheffield, Cheadle/Manchester and Stoke on Trent. The Sheffield report by fellow folklorist Richard Bradley suggested multiple Guys but the city was the only place where academic research had been undertaken by Ervin Beck in 1984 in Children’s Guy Fawkes Customs in Sheffield in Folklore 95:

“Among the schoolchildren sampled, about 23% made Guy Fawkes figures in 1981, with eleven-year-olds showing the most involvement (32% active). Thirteen-year-olds at Bradfield and eight-year-olds at Wisewood were the most active (52%). Hallam- Tapton students showed least involvement at 17%-a figure that would be even lower had fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds been included in the sample there. In both the Wisewood-Wisewood and Bolsterstone-Bradfield systems, interest remains surprisingly steady from early years until the Sixth Form, when participation in the custom falls off entirely. In 1981 children made their guys as early as October 10 and as late as the morning of November 5. Many made them a few days before Hallowe’en. Tracy, 12, made hers two weeks before November 5 and continued to improve it during the days leading up to Bonfire Night.”

Therefore it seemed to be a good place to try and search out these surviving Penny for the Guy. I decided to pick a weekday in the school holidays which fortunately was close to Guy Fawkes Night, close enough I feel for any Guy makers to make good of the potential. My first arrival at Hillsborough Morrisons was unsuccessful there was no sign of a Guy as people busily went around their shopping. It looked an ideal location however. I then travelled to Southey Green a smaller settlement but again no luck. However, I was not put off so I decided to travel around the area. Then passing a small shopping strip I did a doubletake. There was a Penny for the Guy attended by four children. After all this time I could not believe it. I quickly went over to them. I could not believe it after 20 plus years there were some children doing Penny for the Guy. This was no folk revival but genuine folk custom naturally undertaken as had done so for a generations.

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The group appeared to be loosely organised with an older boy around 12 being in charge. The Guy was laid against the wall of the post office outside where the boys were situated, and had a white V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes Mask suggesting the boys knew their heritage! I spoke with them at length and they explained why they were doing it and that they intended to throw it on one of their parents backyard bonfires.

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So why had it survived in this area of Sheffield? I spoke to a women who was curious why I was interested in the boys. She was naturally suspicious but once I had allayed her fears that I was not a risk to the boys she discussed why. She said that it was a close knit community everyone knew everyone in this area of Sheffield despite being pure urban city it had a village mentality. This certainly benefited its survival. No one would be annoyed by the custom as they knew the kids and the kids would be polite as they knew they were known by the community. I spoke to the children again and they said that the previous year they had made £60 which they spent on games for their Playstations. Thus destroying the theory that the belief that Hallowe’en giving free sweets trumped the Penny for the Guy monetarily. Even whilst I was there one of the group was speculating to accumulate by one of the boys who was taking some of his cash to buy another mask to set up another group. Indeed, the women who spoke to me said the groups increased after dark and there were at least three groups on this small area of five or six groups. Indeed, another boy turned up whilst I was there interested what I was doing and when he found out took to some bins behind the arcades were he had his retired Guy and another he was working on. Three Guys after 20 years! The general descriptions of the Guys was that they were made of tracksuits sown together and filled with newspaper. The arms and legs tied closed with tape, the top had a hoddie which enabled it to be filled with newspaper and a mask stuck inside it or over it – both I was informed had been used for Hallowe’en beforehand or in the past . They were not as varied as described again by Ervin Beck in 1984 in Children’s Guy Fawkes Customs in Sheffield in Folklore 95:

The simplest guy constructed by children in the 1981 survey belonged to Rachel, 9, who put a cardboard box with the figure of a man painted on it on top of her bonfire. But the typical guy was built around a pair of Mum’s discarded tights, stuffed with paper, clothed in someone’s tattered trousers and jumper and topped with a head made of a paper or plastic bag with a face drawn on it with a felt-tip pen. Depending on whose old clothes were used, the figure was either adult- or child-sized, with the smaller size apparently predominating. On top often sat an old bowler, top hat, ‘crash’ hat, ‘pompom’ hat, safari hat or paper party hat. Only two wigs were reported, one made of a dishcloth, the other of cassette tape in all its tangled, unwound glory. Masks sometimes replaced felt-tip pen in supplying features on the bag heads. Discarded footballs were also favourite materials to use for the guy’s head, as were turnips (Whistler’s ‘mangel-wurzel’). Penelope, 16, painted her turnip with felt-tip pen; Nicola, 12, stuck a carrot nose on her turnip head. Carl, 13, used the pumpkin lantern he had earlier used for Hallowe’en trick-or-treat.”

The boys said of another group they knew of but there was not anyone there however it showed this was indeed a thriving area for the custom. Indeed, it was pretty clear these kids were not doing for tradition although generous passers by did recall that they had done so themselves in the area – they were doing it for cash. When money is involved folk customs can suffer but when they make money they obviously can survive. So it is clear that in areas with a strong community and dare I say it economically less well off Penny for the Guy will survive as my theory beforehand suggested. I am sure it will survive for a long period in these areas with its only threat being the fabric of those communities. Change may come and it may survive. But until then on the streets of some parts of Sheffield can still be heard:.

“Penny for the Guy”

Inflation had not yet hit it I add!

Custom demised: Cob Coaling

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Image result for "cob coalin'""“We come a Cob-coaling for Bonfire time,

Your coal and your money we hope to enjoy.

Fal-a-dee, fal-a-die, fal-a-diddly-i-do-day.

For down in yon’ cellar there’s an owd umberella

And up on yon’ cornish there’s an owd pepperpot.

Pepperpot! Pepperpot! Morning ’till night.

If you give us nowt, we’ll steal nowt and bid you good night.

Up a ladder, down a wall, a cob o’coal would save us all.

If you don’t have a penny a ha’penny will do.

If you don’t have a ha’penny, then God bless you.

We knock at your knocker and ring at your bell

To see what you’ll give us for singing so well.

So goes a short song sung in this case by south Lancashire children as they went around collecting wood for the fire and any money they could for fireworks.  The custom appears to have restricted to around the Lancashire and Yorkshire areas, the former unsurprisingly a coal area and each area would have different versions. On the East of the M60 blog some variants are suggested by commenters to a post on Cob coaling. A Peter Swarbrick notes:

“I lived in Denton during the 40’s and 50’s when Halloween was a Scottish custom that we had nothing to do with. When we went calling, the words to our song were as follows: We come a cob calling for bonfire plot
There’s nowt in yon corner but an old pepper pot Fol der ee, fol der ee, fol der ee dum dy day, Guy Guy Guy stick him in the eye Tie him to a lamp post And there let him die Christmas is coming The geese are getting fat, Please put a penny in the old man’s hat. If you haven’t got a penny A ha’penny will do If you haven’t got a ha’penny Then god bless you.”

Interesting to note a link with Christmas showing the creeping early intervention of the custom is no new thing perhaps. Also on the blog a Duncan Graham similarly notes:

“In Hyde we used to sing We’ve come a cob coaling, cob coaling, cob coaling. We’ve come a cob coaling for bonfire night. Good tidings we bring to your your king, We’ve come a cob coaling for bonfire night.”

Also a Rob Standing also notes that:

“The last two lines are new to me, but otherwise the song is identical to what we sang in Hathershaw, Oldham in the early 1960’s, except we sang ‘If you give us owt, we’ll steal nowt and bid you good night.
Small but crucial change (and slightly threatening in retrospect) which makes more sense.”

It appears to have surprised until the late 1970s and early 80s. It is possible that it survived into the 1990s as it is mentioned by Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan’s 1993 maypoles, martyrs and mayhem on the 21st October saying :

“in the weeks leading up to November the 5th bonfires have to be built. Nicking gates is not the way to win a neighbour’s affections; and so it was that the organised fuel collecting tradition was born. Cob Coaling was the North’s version of this. It survives around Stalybridge and Dunkinfield, just east of Manchester. Children go from door to door sing cob-coaling songs and asking for lumps of wood as well as money for fireworks. The cob coaling song has the complex and erudite chorus:

“We’ve come a cob-coaling, cob coaling, cob coaling, We’ve come a cob coaling for Bonfire night.”

Sadly despite the memorable song it appears to have died out. The death of cob coaling would appear to have been the same factors that have been claimed to have caused the demise of Penny for the Guy the growth of modern estates with reduced area for bonfires combined with the restrictions on the sale of fireworks. Today cob-coaling is fondly remembered by over 40s and a few folk singers. Although it may survive in some areas you never know!

Custom survived: Halloween Apple bobbin

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Long before we were seeing hoards of children traipsing the street dressed up as ghosts, goblins and ghouls, children would be found inside with their heads down in water. Why? For many people apple bobbing was Hallowe’en and indeed for many it still is a fun part.

At first glance these parties appear to be influenced by American popular culture and certainly have been growing in popularity since the 1970s and 80s. Indeed Enid Porter in their 1974 Folklore of East Anglia suggests so by stating:

“East Anglia has no long-established customs observed at Hallowe’en, 31 October. Of recent years, however, probably due to the ever increasing interest in witchcraft, parties are often held in private homes and clubs and societies in which some old Halloween games such as bobbing for apples in a pail of water are played.” 

This would appear in line with the growth of Trick or Treat however this would be wrong.  For in Nella Last’s wartime diary she records parties in the 1920s and 30s, pre-war family:

“Hallowe’en 31 October 1939…my towels all in a drawer and not in a wet heaps in the garage where everybody would have been ducking for apples.”

Indeed in Stamford, a correspondent in Maureen Sutton’s 1996 A Lincolnshire Calendar records in 1940:

“At school we would stop lessons. A large bowl would be filled with cold water in which the teacher would float the apples. We’d have to have our hands behind our backs. Three or four of us would get round the bowl and we’d try to bite and retrieve the apple floating in the water, while at the same time the teacher would gleefully dunk our heads in it.”

  1. S Burne records that an extract from an old notebook records:

“Malvern, Ist November, 1888. Colonel C.- G.- tells me that when he was a boy, I suppose about 1845-48, he stayed in a Denbighshire farmhouse, where the sons (young men) stripped to the waist and ‘bobbed’ for apples in a tub of water on All Saints Eve. They urged him to join them, in the presence of the full family circle, and laughed at his modest scruples.”

In fact Owen’s Account of the Bards, preserved in Sir R. Hoare’s Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales (vol. ii. p. 315), provides more evidence of the ancient origin of the custom:

“The autumnal tire kindled in North Wales on the eve of the 1st of November is attended by many ceremonies, such as running through the fire and smoke, each casting a stone into the fire, and all running off at the conclusion, to escape from the black short-tailed sow ; then supping upon parsnips, nuts, and apples ; catching at an apple suspended by a string, -with the mouth alone, and the same by an apple in a tub of water.”

The presence of the names for Hallowe’en as Duck in Newcastle or Apple or Dookie Apple Night in Swansea, ‘Apple and candle night’ in Pontypool, ‘Bob apple’ or ‘crab apple Night’ in Durham. Opie and Opie (1956) Folklore of Children record that:

“like most British games the games on Hallowe’en give the onlookers splendid entertainment, but demand fortitude on the part of the players.”

Image may contain: one or more people and foodThey describe the method as follows:

“Duck Apple. A large bowl or tub is filled with cold water (sometimes soapy water) and a number of apples floated in it. One or two players a time get down on their knees and, with their hands behind their backs (not infrequently tied behind their backs) try to get hold of one of the apples with their teeth ‘when they have done this they must lift the apple out of the basin. If they do this they may eat it.” In Monmouthshire, as the game begins the children shout gleefully: Crab Apple Night is my delight. If you take a bite of the apple nothing will happen to you, but, exults the 11 year old ‘if you miss, your head goes into the water with a splash’ ”

Variants of the game exist with Forking for apples, using a fork or Bob Apple or Snap Apple being on the line.

Silver RavenWolf  in his 1999 Hallowe’en links the custom to the Roman invasion of Britain where she states that they brought with them their deity Pomona and her sacred apple tree. It is said that during the annual celebration, young unmarried people would use it as a way to determine who was next to marry and indeed it is recorded in the 1800s a maiden would place the apple under a pillow to dream of this future husband. However, the first custom is mentioned by Charles Vallencey in his 1789 book Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis as occurring in Ireland. An Irish origin seems more likely than a Roman one

Whether Roman or Irish it is good to see amongst all the pointless plastic and pumpkins it remains and is even features amongst the Youtube influencer generation.

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 demised: Nativity of the Virgin Mary Boar’s Hunt, Grimsby, Lincolnshire

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The town of Grimsby has three boars on its crest you may ask why?

The origin comes from when the town was surrounded by wild woods and when boars were common in these areas. The tradition having two parts the main part being the presentation of a boar’s head. T. F. Thistleton Dwyer British Popular customs present and past (1975) notes:

“An old tradition existing within the town of Grimsby asserts that every burgess at his admission to the freedom of the borough anciently presented to the mayor a boar’s head, or an equivalent in money when the animal could not be procured.”

Indeed, an 1828 copy of The Gentlemen’s Magazine states that the Mayor of Grimsby would have three boars heads at the table at his feast. Part of the tradition would be to hunt, for it is also recorded that:

“The lord, too, of the adjacent manor of Bradley, it seems, was obliged by his tenure to keep a supply of these animals in his wood for the entertainment of the mayor and burgesses, and an annual hunting match was officially proclaimed on some particular day after the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. In the midst of these extensive woods the sport was carried on, and seldom did the assembled train fail to bring down a leash of noble boars, which were designed for a public entertainment on the following day. At this feast the newly-elected mayor took his seat at the head of the table, which contained the whole body corporate and the principal gentlemen of the town and neighbourhood.”

When did this custom begin? The coat of arms is 17th century but it may go back to a Viking or Saxon tradition. Interestingly, the last boar in England was said to have hunted in Bradley which may have been for the Mayor of Grimsby.

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.