Category Archives: Scotland

Custom survived: Remembrance Day Poppies

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Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders’ Fields.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae 1915

For 100 years the red poppy has been a poignant sign to remember those which had fallen serving in the British Armed Forces and those linked to it. The Royal British Legion who have the poppy as its trademark

“worn to commemorate the sacrifices of our Armed Forces and to show support to those still serving today”.

From tiny seeds

Soon after McCrae’s powerful poem became popular it inspired Moina Michael who was an American academic, , to construct red silk poppies which she would see in remembrance. These were then brought to England by a French women called Anna Guérin as a traditionally. She wrote in her 1941 Synopsis:

“Field Marshall Haig , the President , called a meeting where I explain the Idea which was adopted immediately , but they had no money in the Treasury to order their Poppies .  It was September and the Armistice day in November.  I offered them to order their Poppies in France for them , so my own responsibility , that they would paid them after . Gladly they accepted my offer .

Sir Francis* went to Paris with me and we made the arrangement , we ordered for 1 million flowers of silk poppies.  Their first National Flanders ‘ Poppy day was an enormous success and it has developed so well , so big that for the past 15 years the ENGLISH EMPIRE was selling 25.000.000 flanders ‘ Poppies on Armistice day , poppies made by the disabled soldiers in a factory near Birmingham.”

Finally when the British Legion as it was then called, formed in 1921, it then made an order for 9 million and then sold them on that year’s Armistice’s Day which developed into Poppy Day raising an incredible £106,000; as they all sold out and the money was used to support the World War One Vets find jobs and homes. In 1921 a Major George Howson set up a factory employing disabled ex-Servicemen to make the poppies. This Poppy Factor still continues this aim.

It is reported in the Aberdeen Journal on 12 November 1921 that: 

“POPPY DAY” IN ABERDEEN.  A regrettable hitch, occasioned by a mistake on the other side of the Channel, and also by the unsettled weather, was accountable for the non-arrival in Aberdeen yesterday of the poppies which were to be sold in the streets on behalf of Earl Haig’s Fund for ex-Service men.  The blood-red poppy is the flower most associated with the campaign in Flanders, and everyone who took part in the devastating battles of Ypres and other war-torn villages and plains of France and Belgium will readily remember the blazing mass of colour which used to brighten the shell-scarred trenches and fields when the poppies were in bloom. 

To make up for the lack of poppies, flags were distributed, and a large staff of willing helpers, ex-Service men, women, and others were early on the streets collecting for the good cause. Although the stock of flags was limited there was no limit to the amount of the contribution, and everyone gave liberally.  Many citizens wore scarlet flowers in their buttonholes as symbolic of the poppy and the sacred nature of the occasion.

On the 11th November 1921, the Dundee Courier recorded:

PREPARING FOR POPPY DAY IN DUNDEE.    Owing to Poppy Day being announced so shortly before the event, Dundee was at first faced with a shortage of “poppies,” but matters have taken a different complexion during the past few days through the efforts of a large number of willing workers in the city. 

The number of poppies sent from France was very much less than the estimated requirements, Edinburgh receiving only 100,000 to serve the whole of Scotland.  It was evident that of these Dundee could get only a small proportion, and Lord Provost Spence accordingly made it known that something would have to be done to make the effort on behalf of ex-service men more of a success by the manufacture of more poppies.

A few years later as a response to the lack of poppies over the border, Earl Haig’s wife established in Edinburgh, the Lady Haig Poppy Factory which continues to independently distribute their versions of the poppy.

The poppies are the main way in which the Royal British Legion raise money. paper and plastic poppies are sold throughout Britain but vary slightly, in England, Wales and Norther Ireland they have two red paper petals with a single green paper leaf and plastic central head and sits on a green plastic stem and until 1994 it stated Haig Fund but now just Poppy appeal. The poppies have four petals and are curled in Scotland.

Poppy Power

The Poppy appeal has become the most successful and highest profile charity in the UK. As a result the scope of the use of flowers has grown considerably being seen not only on lapels but cars, buses, public buildings, magazines and even lamp-posts. The period of which it is worn has also increased. For the first few years after the first world war it was only worn on Armistice Day but now it is common to see the flower appear from late October to the 11th November and quite often for some the whole winter period firmly attached to coats. Sold now at every street corner or event around this time it is now impossible to avoid a seller. The poppy itself has multiplied in its nature no longer just the paper ones but ceramic and metal ones, some being dated and some so heavily bejewelled that fraudsters have sadly muscled in on the money!! Interesting early on in its history a division between the types of poppy was thought to be counterproductive. In a newspaper letter in Hull a seller wrote:

“Sir. Why should there be a distinction between the silk and cotton poppies.  I, one of the many collectors, think it is a very wrong idea. The poor man’s penny, given with a free heart (in many cases it is a struggle to spare) is belittled by the ones who wish their gifts to be advertised … many a working girl and man gave their silver, but asked for no distinction, whilst one with a haughty demeanour asked for a silk poppy.  On being told that our stand had no silk poppy, he replied, “Very well, I will go to another stand where they have the silk flowers. …”

The poppy has entered the art world for example when an installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies each for each solder killed from the British Empire in WWI was set up in 2014 in the Tower of London moat to amazing and poignant affect.

War of the poppies

“presenters and politicians seem to compete in a race to be first – poppies start sprouting in mid-October while the absence of a poppy is interpreted as absence of concern for the war dead, almost as an unpatriotic act of treachery.”

In recent years there have developed a number of controversies. Some have suggested that the compulsory wearing for public figures has been used to give support to current military action. Some people such as newsreader, Jon Snow has called the demand that all public figures where one as ‘poppy fascism’ and others have complained it has become a seasonal “fashion accessory” There has been concerned that a web of lies has been established using the selling of poppies as a way for the Far right to engender hatred of religious minorities who ‘try to ban it’ not that this has ever been proved!

As a response to this there has been a growing development of the white poppy as an alternative. Some appear to have railed against this as a modern anti-British Legion response, thought as disrespectful and some apparently have lost their jobs. However, this poppy was introduced in 1933 and now sold by the Peace Pledge Union which is worn:

“in remembrance of all casualties of war including civilian casualties, and non-British casualties, to stand for peace, and not to glamorize war.”

Despite the White Poppy and a more recent Purple Poppy representing animals lost in conflict increased popularity it is evident that the red Poppy will continue to be a symbol of remembrance for our fallen soldiers..but let’s hope one day it only remembers conflicts long in the past of our memory.

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Custom demised: Hallowe’en offerings of ale to Shony, Isle of Lewis

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Hippocampus (mythology) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In the village of Bragar, on the Isle of Lewis at Hallowe’en was perhaps the British Isles most peculiar custom which involved a sea creature called Shony . The main source is Martin Martin’s Description of the Western Isles (1703):

one of their number was picked to wade into the sea up to his middle, and carrying a cup of ale in his hand, standing still in that posture.

He notes that once in the sea he would cry out with a loud voice saying:

“Shony, I give you this cup of ale, hoping that you’ll be so kind as to send us plenty of sea-ware for enriching our ground for the ensuing year”,

Then the ale was thrown into the sea. John Cameron in the 1900 Gaelic Plants of Scotland adds it was Mulvay church and that it was sanctioned by the Church of Scotland indeed, Thisleton-Dwer 1900 Popular British customs present and past adds that it was

“performed at night and on his return to land the people went to church and put out the candle burning on the altar, then went to the fields where they drank ale and spent the rest of the night dancing and singing.”

When the custom died out is unclear but interestingly Fiona Mcleod in her 1912 Iona tells of a Hebridean nurse who told her about Shony and she adds:

I was amused not long ago to hear a little girl singing, as she ran wading through the foam of a troubled sunlit sea, as it broke on those wonderful white sands of Iona:-
“Shanny, Shanny, Shanny,
Catch my feet and tickle my toes!
And if you can, Shanny, Shanny, Shanny,
I’ll go with you where no one knows!”

It is clear that Shony and Shanny was the same. Interesting it is also the name for a blenny fish! She added that its power was not forgotten:

whose more terrifying way was to clutch boats by the keel and drown the sailors, and make a death necklace of their teeth. An evil Shony; for once he netted a young girl who was swimming in a loch, and when she would not give him her love he tied her to a rock, and to this day her long brown hair may be seen floating in the shallow green wave at the ebb of the tide. One need not name the place!”

Cameron suggests that the Shony was

“Sjone a Scandinavian Neptune. This offering was a relic of pagan worship introduced into the Western Isles by the Norwegians.”

One wonders what Shony’s response is now that it is now regularly celebrated!

Custom survived: The South Queensferry Burryman

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At the time I was performing at the Edinburgh Fringe – but that’s another story – and as a break from the incessant publicity I decided to take myself to find the Burry man. These were the days before the Internet and asking at the Tourist Information in Edinburgh they thought it was some sort of Fringe event..but I thought it is only a few miles out I would try and find it.

The Burryman is perhaps the most bizarre of our customs. A man covered head to toe with burrs with a flowery hat of roses, carnations and chrysanthemums. No skin is visible. Just a slit for the mouth. So much that his humanity appears to stripped for him, from a far he is most alien only a cummerbund adorned with a red lion suggesting he is human. He walks with two smartly dressed attendees, who help him hold onto to two hydrangea filled poles.

I located the Burryman easy enough propped outside of a pub like a rag doll. He appeared to acknowledge me but did not say. A few moments later a man appeared with a glass of something – whisky –  what else? Of course drinking the Whisky was a challenge; he only had a slit for a mouth. A straw was provided and it was steadily consumed..one of many it would appear.

As I followed him around some local children cheered his arrival, others watched from behind their parents more suspiciously. The lack of sound perhaps making it more curious for unlike every other similar custom, there is no associated music, no accordions, no violins, no bagpipers and no Morris!

Burry little clear on the origins

History is silent on its origin. Being linked to the local fair, which although medieval in origin only established a charter in 1687 suggests that it dates from then. Very unlikely I would feel and the two has become coincidentally associated. Some state it has a 900 year origin but it only has a recorded history since 120 odd years ago. Interestingly, the date 1687 was when the town became a burgh – burgh – burr – was this a local joke go on and on?

The Burryman is clearly a very odd folk figure. If there was a list of scary English folk figures he would be up there with the Straw bear and Bartle. Indeed, some believe that was part of its function, a mechanism to ward off evil spirits. One belief is that he is a sacrificial scape goat, much akin to the theory of Burning Bartle and the custom’s date being close to the ancient Lammas it is not difficult to reason with its association with harvest fertility, rebirth and regeneration. Certainly, the lack of speech and painfulness of the whole process suggests sacrifice as Brian Shuel notes in his 1984 Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain:

“It has to be said that by the late afternoon the Burry Man’s attendants were proping him up. Exhausted and full of whisky he was extremely relieved to get back to the Town hall where they stripped him in moments and left him comatose in his underpants for ten minutes before his wife, Julia, managed to prod him back to life. Suddenly he revived and in no time was himself again.”

But why here and why no-where else? Well it was found associated with Scottish fishing communities on the Moray Firth and was used to protect against poor fishing seasons. In Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire in the 1860s and their Burryman was on horseback and travelled through the town with a piper. In Buckie it appears to have been only done in response to a failure of the fishing fleet but curiously it was a Cooper who was wheelbarrowed around the town.  Queensferry is near the Sea so it is understandable it would survive there. But why the burrs? The provision of whisky is said to give the provider good luck; a clever way to ensure a free supply.

See the source image

Burrly able to move

There are many foliage people – Jacks, Straw men etc – but the Burryman has got to be the most strikingly unusual and uncomfortable. He is covered head to toe with sticky flower heads of the burdock. These being collected on the Friday morning before the parade These burrs, of which 11,000 is the average number which cover him, would be almost impossible to bear on a person’s normal clothing so he is covered head to toe in thick longjohns, vest, heavy sweeter and a balaclava which in August must be just as bad as being covered it spikey foliage! The burrs also cause the wearer to walk awkwardly with an open leg gait and arms outstretched which adds to the curious appearance! As if being covered with burrs and wearing a balaclava is not bad enough the Burryman has to walk a seven-mile route which usually takes nine hours!

The whole event begins in the Staghead Hotel at around 7am. The Friday previous the Burryman collects burrs and places them on newspaper make A3 size burr squares their natural Velcro like ability enables them to form ready-made fabrics. Overall 25 are made. The would then be placed on the volunteer and slowly but surely he becomes the Burryman. His first stumbling steps make it to the Town Hall where traditionally he receives his first dram of whisky.

Only locals can be the Burryman and despite the discomfort they are repeat performances one man Alan Reid having the pleasure for 25 years. He was only a few years from retirement when I ‘met’ him in the 1990s. Since 2012 an Andrew Taylor has the honour.

Burrly there!

I spent a couple of hours in the middle of the day which the Burryman, watching as he was greeted with great enthusiasm from pubs, shops, passerbys and a local factory. At lunchtime his attendees arrived at a local pub, where after having some difficulty getting him through the doorway, left him in the hall way again propped against the way – he could not sit down. Half an hour passed and he was still there but appeared like a forgotten rag doll! After a number of drams he looked decidedly jaded, although his foliage had jet to droop! In the bar I managed to speak to renowned custom hunter Doc Rowe and it is great to know Doc has returned regularly ever since. He was particularly amazed when in less than a month later he recognised me at Abbott Bromley at the Horn Dance and the mad search for customs has not stopped since!

With the modernity’s shadow of the Forth Bridge looming over the town, the curious juxtaposition survival of ancient and modern are very clear here. As the bizarre Burry man parades pointlessly around the town – the fair it was associated with long gone – it is evident that the locals need him like they would the whiskey he imbibes or the cars they drive. He is part of the fabric of the community. A mysterious almost mesmerizing old custom, one which would drag people back to see it again. It has been over 20 years since I experience the Burryman and I feel a revisit is long overdue!

Custom demised: Avoid eating Blackberries after Michaelmas Day

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On Michaelmas Day the devil puts his foot on the blackberries.

-Irish Proverb

Across the British isles it was believed and possibly still believed that eating blackberries after the 29th September was deemed a bad idea.

In the Western Antiquary of 1882 it is reported that:

“The belief that it is unlucky to eat blackberries after Michaelmass Day because ‘His Royal Highness’ then tampers with them, still lingers in Exeter and neighbourhood, whilst walking the country around here, a young friend who was with me warned me against picking any blackberries: Because’ said he, grimly ‘it’s past Michaelmass Day and the Devil’s been at ‘em”

F. Newman (1945) in Some Notes on Folk Medicine in the Eastern Counties in Folklore notes:

“The common blackberry is excellent either raw, stewed or as a preserve. Like most fruits with pips, it is a natural bulk food and so relieves constipation. The different varieties of blackberry ripen at varying times during late summer and autumn, but all over Great Britain and Ireland there is a general belief that blackberries must not be eaten after Michaelmas day. There are two Michaelmas days in this country-the ‘new’ quarter-day, September 29th, and ‘old’ Michaelmas, October 11th, which is still recognized over a great part of the Eastern Counties, especially in connection with farm Tenancies. It was believed that after Michaelmas blackberries were unwholesome as ” the Devil has spat on them and they were not gathered later than that date..”

Lizzie Hadley, in the Folklore of Flowers in an 1893 edition of the Journal of Education notes:

“In Scotland it is said that late in the autumn the devil throws his club at the bushes to show that the remaining berries are his.”

It some cases he wipes his club over them or his tail, or in some cases spits or even urinates over them!  Another discouraging piece of folklore is given by Lizzie Hadley, in the Folklore of Flowers in an 1893 edition of the Journal of Education:

“Children who are fond of the blackberry may be interested, but in our times I think will hardly be deterred from eating its luscious fruit by the legends attached to it. ….. Another superstition is that on this day he spits on all the bushes, and if one eats a berry after this time, he, or some member of his family, will die before the year is over”

Why?

Tradition tells us that on Michaelmas, the archangel Michael kicked Satan out of Heaven and he landed on a blackberry bush so annoyed he hit back and decided to prevent them being of use! Although the Scottish account of him wanting them for himself goes against that belief!

F. Newman (1945) in Some Notes on Folk Medicine in the Eastern Counties in Folklore notes:

“ It is true that late in the season blackberries are infested by flies especially if there are near-by cesspools and may cause acute intestinal trouble.”

Of course, the seasonal reason is that this was often the time of the first frosts and here we have a custom belief possibly affected by climate change. More often than not the weather is fine in late September and late frosts do not appear until October, so perhaps those who stuck to the old Michaelmas day were right such as the contributor to a 1909 version of Folk-lore who stated in Worcestershire that:

“All children who either gather or eat blackberries on or after the 11th October will fall into great trouble. It is said that ‘the Devil puts his paw on them’ on that day.”

Custom survived: May Dew collection, Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

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“On May-day in a fairy ring We’ve seen them, round St. Anthon’s spring, Frae grass the caller dew-drops wring, To wet their ein, And water clear as crystal spring, To synd them clean.”

Poet Robert Fergusson

Go to bed or stay up all night?

After experiencing the dizzy delights of Edinburgh’s Beltane I had to make a decision to wait a few hours or go to sleep and wake up early – the sunrise

Now the second decision how long does it take to get to the summit:

The usage of May Dew is a well-know custom across the country but the only place which appears to still entertain it is Edinburgh. An account in:

“At Edinburgh about four o’clock in the morning there is an unusual stir; and a hurrying of gay throngs through the King’s Park to Arthur’s Seat to collect the May-dew. In the course of half an hour the entire hill is a moving mass of all sorts of people. At the summit may be seen a company of bakers and other craftsmen, dressed in kilts, dancing round a maypole. On the more level part is usually an itinerant vendor of whisky, or mountain (not May) dew. These proceedings commence with the daybreak. About six o’clock the appearance of the gentry, toiling up the ascent, becomes the signal for servants to march home; for they know that they must have the house clean and everything in order earlier than usual on May-morning. About eight o’clock the fun is all over; and by nine or ten, were it not for the drunkards who are staggering towards the ‘gude town,’ no one would know that anything particular had taken place.”

Dew you know why?

Peter Opie in his 1964 article for Folklore, Proposals for a Dictionary, Arranged on Historical Principles, of English Traditional Lore did the sterling task of assembling all the information on May Dew and saw four principle themes develop:

“Used a medicament, cosmetic or telling the future. 1602 PLAT Delights for Ladies (1611 H 8 b). Some commend May-dew gathered from Fennell and Celandine, to be most excellent for sore eyes. c. 1691 AUBREY Nat. Hist. Wiltshire (1847, 73). May dewe is a very great dissolvent of many things with the sunne that will not be dissolved any other way: which putts me in mind of the rationality of the method  used by Wm. Gore, of Clapton, Esq., for his gout, which was to walke in the dewe with his shoes pounced; he found benefit by it. I told Mr. Wm. Mullens, of Shoe Lane, Chirurgion, this story, and he sayd this was the very method and way of curing that was used in Oliver Cromwell, Protectour. I808 JAMIESON Scottish Dict. Rude [Northern Scotland]. Great virtue is ascribed to May-dew. Some, who have tender children, particularly on Rude-day [3 May], spread out a cloth to catch the dew, and wet them in it. 1850 Notes & Queries Ist Ser. II 475. They say [Launceston, Corn wall] that a child who is weak in the back may be cured by drawing him over the grass wet with the morning dew. The experiment must be thrice performed, that is, on the mornings of the Ist, 2nd, and 3rd of May. 1883 BURNE Shropshire Folk-Lore 19o. I knew a little idiot boy whose mother (fancying it was weakness of the spine which prevented him from walking) took him into the fields ‘nine mornings running’ to rub his back with May-dew. She explained that the dew had in it all the ‘nature’ of the spring herbs and grasses, and that it was only to be ex pected that it should be wonderfully strengthening. 2. Used as a cosmetic. 1667 PEPYS Diary 28 May. After dinner my wife away down with Jane and W. Hewer to Woolwich, in order to a little ayre and to lie there to-night, and so to gather May-dew to-morrow morning, which Mrs. Turner hath taught her as the only thing in the world to wash her face with; and I am contented with it. 1791 Morning Post 2 May. Yesterday, being the first of May, ac cording to annual and superstitious custom, a number of persons went into the fields and bathed their faces with the dew on the grass, under the idea that it would render them beautiful. [Brand I, 1813, 184.] 1850 Notes & Queries Ist Ser. II 475. The common notion of im proving the complexion by washing the face with the early dew in the fields on the Ist of May extensively prevails in these parts [Launceston, Cornwall]. 1952 Opie Schoolchild MS (458/2/47) Girl 14 Kirkcaldy. On the first of May you wash your face in the dew and have a good complexion all year round. 3. Considered especially efficacious when gathered from hills and/ or before sunrise. 1626 BACON Sylva Sylvarum ? 781. I suppose that he who would  gather the best May-Deaw, for Medicine, should gather it from the Hills.. 4. The rite of gathering or ‘washing’ in May-dew considered auspicious….. c. 1900oo Maclagan MS (BANKS Cal. Cus. II 224). On the first day of May girls went to wash their faces in the dew and wish before sunrise while doing this they name some lad and wish in their own mind that he may become their sweetheart and they get their wish. 1952 Opie Schoolchild MS (476/9/16) Girl 14 Aberdeen. It is said to be lucky to wash your face in the early morning dew on the first of May. 1957 Opie Schoolchild MS (999a/6/3i) Girl ii Penrith. On the first of May you wash your face in the dew and you are supposed to marry the first man you meet.”

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Despite claims that it died out in 1930, there has been reference to it since. For F. Marian McNeill in 1968 notes in ‘The Silver Bough Volume Four that:

“the May dew, in a word, was the ‘holy water’ of the Druids. Those on whom it was sprinkled were assured of health and happiness and, tradition has it, where young women were concerned, of beauty as well, throughout the ensuing year. To this day, all over Scotland numbers of young girls rise before dawn on the first of May and go out to the meadow or hillside to bathe their faces in the dew.”

McNeill (1968) highlights Arthur’s Seat stating that it:

“….is a favourite meeting place, and nearby is St. Anthony’s Well, to which many used to resort to “wish-a-wish” on this auspicious day. This picturesque survival of the old pagan rites, together with the Christian service on the summit of the hill, draws hundreds of people to the site. As dawn approaches, numbers of young girls dally on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, laughing and chattering as they perform the immemorial rite, and are regarded with amused tolerance by the majority of the arrivals as they climb to the summit to join in the Sunrise Service.”

By the 1940s a service had developed on the summit. The 1961 Glasgow Herald of the 2 May  recorded:

“About 1000 people climbed Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, yesterday to take part in the twenty-first May Day sunrise service, and to follow the old tradition of washing their faces in the morning dew.”

Certainly, several photos survive showing women washing their faces taken in the 1960s, in 1963 a 1000 climbed to reach there at 5.18 am and the Scotsman shows various photos in 1965 showing girls washing their face. By the late 80s it was still attracting reporters but numbers had dwindled to hundreds. Was it lost? Undoubtedly, there would be enough people turning up to warrant a commercial exploitation as the Scotsman added in 2008 in an article if you do one thing this week:

“Pop along to the car park near the foot of Arthur’s Seat, by the Palace of Holyroodhouse, at 10am on Thursday and you’ll find therapists from Serenity in the City spa uniting new and old beauty traditions. The first ten people to arrive will get a free ILA energy spray mist gift (worth 35) – and if having a wash in the dew isn’t for you, pop along to the spa for a facial.”

Dew going up?

It would appear that at least knowledge of it still survived. I had combined my visit with attendance to the Beltane fire festival on Carlton Hill which finished at 1! Working out on the map that it would take 1 or so to walk and that dawn was around 5.30 it I set my alarm clock at 3.30!

Arthur’s seat was cloaked in darkness when I arrived but I was not alone. On the way up I noticed St Anthony’s Well marked by a small round stone basin and a large stone.  This was the site also associated with May dew as in 1773 Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson and others later noted above. I peered inside it was dry. Once I had reached the top there was a small group of around 10 people of varying ages. The skies were cloudy but then at that moment the clouds cleared and a red orb could be seen.

Dew want to?

I kept making enquiries and was met by a blank stare. The majority of people on the seat appeared to be tourists of one sort or another me included. Perhaps the custom was extinct? However, a small group of local women I met on the way up, I asked were aware of it and one said I did it last year…but wouldn’t this year as I cannot be sure if it was dew or due to a dog. It seemed an odd rationale and maybe it was tinged with some degree of regret. Did it not work?

What dew looking for? 

Then I saw a lady and her husband walking down from the peak looking towards the floor. When she brushed her hand against some grass I knew what she was up to. I rushed down and she confirmed it…we looked together and there appeared a patch which she rubbed both hands over and then across her cheeks gleefully.

A few moments later I asked another lady and she said she was planning to. I offered to help. Strangely, like everything when you are looking for it you just cannot find it. We looked, inspected, crouched, brushed…no. To be honest there isn’t much grass at the summit. Walking down a bit there was a large patch of grass and mossy…she touched it and excitedly full of glees, said ‘yes here’s some’ then at that point she plunged her hands onto it rubbed it up and down and smiling applied. Her companion, her aunt also obliged. ‘I didn’t do it last year and felt ugly all year’ she said.

All this bizarreness was overlooked by some American tourists fresh over from Utah. I explained to them and they too become eager to find some. First they tried a small patch below the trig point…one said she couldn’t be sure it was wet might be just cold. I said about the patch I’d found and quickly they popped down and jumped into the crevice where the mossy grass lay. ‘This is it…it’s wet’ and duly or should I say dewly did it all over again. Laughing and finding the whole thing amusing and who wouldn’t.

Dew drop!

On the way down I meet a fair number of people going up – most of them attendees of the Carlton Hill event – perhaps it was more tradition just to come up rather than see the dawn!

More bizarrely my eye cast to St. Anthony’s Well it was now full of water. Dew? Mysterious source? Or something emptying the water bottle? Perhaps that had become a tradition in its own right?

So if you are on Arthur’s Seat on May Morning worth a go…it might even work!

Custom demised: Borrowing Days from April

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A widespread tradition across the British Isles and indeed beyond for it is noted in France and Spain are that March borrowed its last three days from April. Brewer’s 1894 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable records:

“March said to Aperill,

I see 3 hoggs (in this case meaning sheep) upon a hill;

And if you’ll lend me dayes 3

I’ll find a way to make them dee (die).

The first o’ them wus wind and weet,

The second o’ them wus snaw and sleet,

The third o’ them wus sic a free

It froze the birds’ nebs to the trees.

When the 3 days were past and gane

The 3 silly hoggs came hirpling (limping) hame.”

Notes and queries of 1852 records:

“The three last days of March are called ‘the Borrowing Days’ in Scotland, on account of their being generally attended with very blustery weather, which inclines people to say that they would wish to borrow three days from the month of April in exchange for the last days of the month of March.”

As noted in an 1852 work North of Ireland:

“Give me (says March) three days of warmth and sunshine for my poor lambs whilst they are yet too tender to bear the roughness of my wind and rain, and you shall have them repaid when the wool is grown.”

However the above account appears at variance to the general believe of the bad weather, as John Brockett’s 1846 Glossary of North Country words records:

“March borrowed of April, three days and they were ill, The one was sleet, the other snow ad third was the worst that e’er did blow.”

It is probable that this association with bad weather begun with the 1548 Complaynt of Scotland which recorded that it ‘froze birds legs to trees’ as such:

“March borrowed of April Three days, and they were ill The one was sleet, the other of snow The third was the worst that e’er did blow.”

The bringing of bad weather may seem a little confusing at first but in Ireland a local legend was established to explain it. It is recorded that the old Brindled Cow or An tSean-bho Riabhach, made the claim that the bad weather of March could not even kill them and so it borrowed three days from April. And the month used these days to kill and skin the poor cow. using these extra days with redoubled fury, killed and skinned the poor old cow. Interestingly this time around it the first days of April which are seen to be unpleasant as a result!

However, I feel that the commentators are missing a point – April is famed for showers – and has a write this the days running up to the 29th are warm and fine, ironically rain and storms came in as the 29th came in…April weather!

Custom demised: Visiting wells and springs at Midsummer

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Many wells and springs were believed to increase in proficiency either Midsummer (Eve or Day). Often such wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton, Northamptonshire or St John’s Well, Shenstone, Staffordshire, whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day.  This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire, Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes in her Lincolnshire folklore that:

“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”

Now a lost site, it is possible and indeed likely that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.

Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:

“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day, By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well; The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”

In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.

These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:

“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”         

Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire

a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s  day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”

Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:

People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”         

When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Nottinhamshire’s Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6)  in an article called  Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:

“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”       

Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.

The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo.  This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.

Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:

“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”

It was suggested that the building was:

“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”

This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. Nowadays if you visit these wells at Midsummer you will find yourself alone…but in a way that may have been the way it had always been.