Tag Archives: folklore

Custom survived: Brent Harvest Home, Somerset

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As cars thunder by on the busy M5 or more closely slope by as hereabouts its notoriously poor traffic, the little village of East Brent at the end of August celebrates the harvest. In most villages across the country Harvest festivals reign supreme as the communities big if rather sombre thanksgiving a contrast to often debauched Harvest celebrations of yore…East Brent’s harvest home, one of a small group of traditional celebrations you could say sits between the two…how close to the second depending on how much alcohol is in the summer puddings!

Feast for the eyes

East Brent is also the oldest surviving Harvest Home, having been started in 1857 by the then archdeacon George Denison, then  held on the 3rd of September as a holiday for workers. He described as:

“in 1857 my Churchwarden, Mr. John Higgs, a constant communicant and near and dear friend, came to me to suggest having every year a harvest home at East Brent. I entered into the proposal immediately and heartily. It had long appeared to me that we wanted recognised holidays for the working-men, women and children; and here was a step in that direction, specially recommended by one of its leading features, that it was not only a holiday for all classes alike, but a holiday which all classes kept and enjoyed, in close contact with one another. The proposal was generally welcomed as soon as made, and we held our first harvest home Sept. 3rd, 1857. At that time there was, I believe, northing of the kind in this part of England. The East Brent harvest home has become a Somerset institution; and although it has long ceased to retain all its original character in respect of gathering together here many chief people on the harvest home day who came to see what we were about, and whether it would be good to follow suit at home, it has retained, and more than retained, it has increased all its original popularity; and I am enabled to say, having watched everyone of them from year to year – with rare intervals every year has had its harvest home, beginning with 1857 – that each one has been an improvement upon its predecessor. The original scheme has in all its substance remained intact. Alterations have come in matters of details. I have read and heard of, and have seen other schemes of harvest home arrangement; but of no one which was, I think, so good as our own.”

An attendee described it thus:

“How they poured in, one after another, an endless string. Huge joints of meat decked with flowers, large banners on the walls, and plum puddings by the dozen. How the meat went, and then the puddings. And so the dinner was over. Waistcoats strained, then sweat poured down, the cider was quaffed, and they were happy!”

This was the men’s celebration, the women had a separate one. An account states:

“The ladies had their meal the following day and it was very different. The next evening the school-room was again filled, but this time it was by the poor women to partake of tea, when bread and butter, cake, ham, tea, and other good things were soon made use of in a truly interesting manner.”

This first Harvest Home attracted 300 for dinner and 500 for tea, but soon over the years the celebration lengthened to four days and attracted 6000 people. However over the years it has lost the days, the formality of man and women separate dinning and in a way its true function. Few people directly work on the land and so this is celebration of agriculture rather than a thanksgiving feast!

The Weston Mercury recalled that in 1859:

“ a capacious tent erected in the grounds adjoining the Vicarage, was decorated with appropriate designs, mottoes and emblems, which included: ‘Long life to our worthy Vicar and to his benevolent Lady;’’G. Reed, Esq., Lord of the Manor of East Brent, and Burnham’s Benefactor;’ and ‘G.Reed, Esq., the friend of the Poor.’  The large company included the Bishop of the Diocese, Members of Parliament, the principal parishioners, and clergy and gentry for the neighbourhood. The rich plum puddings and the immense loaf, for which East Brent harvest home has always been famous, figured in the menu.”

More of those plum puddings in a moment!

Feastive fun!

Over the years it has lost it’s purpose in thanking the workers during the harvest and has become more of a celebration to agriculture and various village activies Muriel Walker in her Old Somerset customs describes the scene in 1984 regarding what needed to be done before the great day:

“after some months of planning the villagers start a busy work on the Monday with s waiters meeting, there are luncheon tickets to deal with as the repast is no longer free. Later in three week enormous ivy ropes are made the menfolk having gathered the required ivy) to go the entire length of the marquee in which the meals are served. Hoops and banners are hung around and still later in the high table is decorated with corn and flowers. The president who happens to be the vicar has he privilege of having his chair decorated as well.

On the day itself, the women turn up as early as before seven o’clock in the morning to lay the tables, make salads and do other preparatory work.

Following a procession, led by the band, and a church service, the main meal is eaten. The men, kit seems, still do the meat carving. Afternoon teas follow in due course with sports, fancy dress and a tug o war.”

She noted that the remaining food was auctioned the following day, although now it is done in the afternoon.

 Harvest Bestival

In the 150th anniversary booklet,  Rita Thomas (nee Poole), stated:

“I heard the talk but couldn’t imagine what a Harvest Home was like; but anything happening in a village in 1957 had to be worth a try. My first job was to sell centenary programmes at 6d each. This meant a half day off work, which was great! I got more involved as the years went by, doing all sorts of jobs, laying tables, washing china, trimming ivy ropes, flowers for the high table, making hoops and banners. For example:- ‘many hands make light work’, ‘eat, drink and be merry’, ‘make hay while the sun shines’, ‘the best in the west’, ‘1973 the year of the tree’ and many others.

We try to keep the event as traditional as possible but have also streamlined some jobs to make use of modern ways to save time. It is still a traditional feast day which starts with a church service at St Mary’s followed by lunch in the marquee which includes the procession of 90 Christmas puddings, a 120lb cheddar cheese and a 6′ x 2′ harvest loaf. The ladies carry the puddings to the marquee from the village hall and the men carry the bread and cheese.”

Oh and them Puddings before the feast officially begins. Waiting by the marquee you see a joyous procession of puddings! Yes those puddings that culturally appear restricted to Christmas but you would like to have them at other times well here you can and why not. They glint held high by their makes – only women I note pity as I can do a mean pudding too! The harvest loaf carried proudly on the shoulders of six male bearers is similarly an impressive piece of culinary art and finally the cheeses – not all Cheddar one would note but I think some Stinking Bishop was there too!

The account continues:

“The lunch is followed by the toast to ‘agriculture and kindred industries’ proposed by a guest speaker and someone else replies. A second toast is made to ‘the visitors and helpers’ and a response to this. The prizes for decorated hoops and baskets are then awarded followed by an auction of any surplus food. During the afternoon, tea is served, and there is a fancy dress competition followed by sports, so quite a busy day. In the evening we have various bands, a disco, licensed bar, funfair etc.”

Little has changed. Today tickets are £18 and it starts at noon, a religious service is held at 12.30 for 15 minutes and then luncheon is had. Tea is served from 4.30 followed by free children’s entertainment and sports for all. The bar closes at 8.45 so it is not a late one but it certainly is a packed one.  Although this is very much a local event with access to the marquee ticket only one can still experience the festive nature of the day when this tiny Somerset village keeps up its proud tradition and thanks is given as a great feast is undertaken!

 

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Custom demised: Visiting St. Helen’s Wells on St. Helen’s Feast Day

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After St. Mary or Our Lady, the greatest number of Holy wells across Britain are dedicated to St. Helen. St. Helen, the mother of the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity is a complex folklore figure and authorities have placed her birth at Colchester Essex where there is a well and chapel dedicated to her. It is reported that at Rushton Spencer in Staffordshire, processions were associated with the date 18th August, St. Helen’s Feast Day. Baines notes in his 1836 History of the County of Lancashire:

“Dr. Kuerden, in the middle of the seventeenth century, describing one in the parish of Brindle, says: ‘To it the vulgar neighbouring people of the Red Letter do much resort with pretended devotion, on each year upon St. Ellin’s Day, where and when, out of a foolish ceremony, they offer, or throw into the well, pins, which, there being left, may be seen a long time after by any visitor of that fountain.’”

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The Med. Mvi Kalend notes a similar custom was he states:

“observed some years ago by the visitors of St. Helen’s well in Sefton, but more in accordance with an indent ractice than from any devotion to the saint”

At Walton, near Weatherby, Yorkshire, villagers would also visit their St. Helen’s well whose water was said to be effective as a cure for many ailments on this day. A story is told that once the infamous highwayman Swift Nick Nevison was on St. Helen’s Day, found having fallen asleep after drinking from the well, but still alluded capture after an ill attempted capture attempt by some local youths!

Hatfield’s St Helen’s well – rags tied after a service at the well although now not on St Helen’s day!

In Great Hatfield, Yorkshire, there St. Helen’s Well was restored on the 18th August in 1995 and since then on or near the feast day, a service is held at the well. Perhaps not the same as the times of old, and although no one betakes of the water it clearly has become an important part of the spiritual landscape of the community.

Custom demised: Crabbing the Parson, Clent, Worcestershire

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A.M Protheroe and T. E. Jones in their Scraps of English folklore X in Folklore record in the Worcestershire village of Clent:

“The strange annual custom of ” crabbing the parson ” was followed on ” Wake Sunday ” at St. Kenelm’s, the wake being held on the first Sunday after July 28th, or St. Kenelm’s Day. The custom was discontinued more than a hundred years ago, and in the St. Kenelm’s of to-day seems to be quite forgotten.”

John Noake in his 1848 The Rambler in Worcestershire, or, Stray Notes on Churches and Congregations relates comically that:

“The last clergyman but one who was subjected to this process was a somewhat eccentric gentleman named Lee. He had been chaplain to a man-of-war, and was a jovial old fellow in his way, who could enter into the spirit of the thing. My informant well recollects the worthy divine, after partaking of dinner at the solitary house near the church, quietly quitting the table when the time for performing the service drew nigh, reconnoitering the angles of the building, and each “buttress and coign of vantage” behind which it was reasonable to suppose the enemy would be posted, and watching for a favourable opportunity, he would start forth at his best walking pace (he scorned to run) to reach the church. Around him, thick and fast, fell from ready hands a shower of crabs, not a few telling with fearful emphasis on his burly person, amid the intense merriment of the rustic assailants; but the distance is small; he reaches the old porch, and the storm is over.”

However, not always did the vicar join in the fun as Noake continues:

“Another informant, a man of Clent, states that he has seen the late incumbent, the Rev. John Todd, frequently run the gauntlet, and that on one occasion there were two sacks of crabs, each containing at least three bushels, emptied in the church field, besides large store of other missiles provided by other parties; and it also appears that some of the more wanton not unfrequently threw sticks, stakes, &c., which probably led to the suppression of the practice.”

Sadly, the author is probably correct and like many customs which tread the line between violence and fun it did disappear, but why did it exist. Noake again gives a reason:

“The custom of crabbing the parson is said to have arisen on this wise. ‘Long, long ago,’ an incumbent of Frankley, to which St. Kenelm’s was attached, was accustomed, through horrid, deep-rutted, miry roads, occasionally to wend his way to the sequestered depository of the remains of the murdered Saint King, to perform divine service. It was his wont to carry creature comforts with him, which he discussed at a lone farmhouse near the scene of his pastoral duties. On one occasion, whether the pastor’s wallet was badly furnished, or his stomach more than usually keen, tradition sayeth not, but having eat up his own provision, he was tempted (after he had donned his sacerdotal habit, and in the absence of the good dame) to pry into the secrets of a huge pot in which was simmering the savoury dinner the lady had provided for her household; among the rest, dumplings formed no inconsiderable portion of the contents; whether they were Norfolk or apple dumplings is not mentioned, but the story runs that our parson poached sundry of them, hissing hot, from the cauldron, and hearing the footsteps of his hostess, he, with great dexterity, deposited them in the ample sleeves of his surplice; she, however, was wide awake to her loss, and closely following the parson to the church, by her presence prevented him from disposing of them, and to avoid her accusation (‘a guilty conscience needs no accuser’) he forthwith entered the reading desk and began to read the service, John Clerk beneath making the responses. Ere long a dumpling slips out of the parson’s sleeve, and falls plump on sleek John’s head; he looks up with astonishment, but having ascertained that his reverence is not labouring under the effects of an emetic (‘vomits’ they called them in those days), John took the matter in good part, and proceeded with the service; by and bye, however, John’s pate receives a second visitation, to which he, with upturned eyes and ready tongue, responded, ‘Two can play at that, master!’ and suiting the action to the word, he forthwith began pelting the parson with crabs, a store of which he had gathered, intending to take them home in his pocket to foment the sprained leg of his jade of a horse; and so well did the clerk play his part that the parson soon decamped, amid the jeers of the old dame, and the laughter of the few persons who were in attendance; and in commemoration of this event (so saith the legend), ‘crabbing the parson’ has been practised on the wake Sunday from that time till a very recent period.”

Perhaps, but one cannot feel they may be a connection between the church’s association with the martyred king and perhaps it was done as a type of atonement or originally a scape goat was used transferring to the parson over time. We may never really know but rest assured the vicar is safe on the 28th July every year….unless one of us lies in wait!

 

 

Custom survived: Arundel’s Corpus Christi Carpet of Flowers

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Sitting high above the town of Arundel forming a skyline with its equally impressive neighbouring Castle, is the Catholic Cathedral. The site is impressive enough but go inside around the date of Corpus Christi and you will see a unique spectacle. A carpet that leads between the aisles towards the High Altar, the oldest such carpet in Britain.

Swept over the carpet

Corpus Christi Carpets of flowers are often outside displays and ca be found across Catholic southern countries such as Spain and Italy. The most famous carpet of flowers is in the town of Genzano near Rome and it is said that Duke Henry saw this whilst on holiday close by. So impressed was he that he decided to encourage the custom at Arundel in 1877. Originally these flowers were picked from the Duke’s garden being picked on the morning of the feast by his estate workers. Nowadays, the demand to see the flowers has resulted in it being lad earlier in the week to allow more visitors to see it. Indeed the visitors swell the Cathedral during the days and it is full with people leaning over pews to get a greater look or contorting, bending and standing in curious ways to get the best photo.

Do tread on the carpet

The reason for the carpet is like other carpets to be walked over. To the lay person’s eyes this seems a terrible thing to do the hours. Corpus Christi (the body of Christ) is a Catholic feast day which celebrates the ritual of the Eucharist on the eighth Thursday after Easter. As a feast it was lately adopted in the Christian faith in the 13th century and did not survive into the Reformation, returning to England with the Catholic faith. In the ceremony, the importance of the Sacred Host representing the body is emphasised by the use of a carpet of finery. Despite shocked faces it is intended they walk on it – despite taking two days to lay!

Carpet bagging

The custom looked in peril when in the mid-1950s, the Norfolk Estate begun to reduce its ground staff, but the headteacher of Tortington Park Girls School offered to supply flowers. Her school gardeners and some pupils would then help lay the carpet. However, when in 1969 the school closed the carpet again seemed in peril! Fortunately, in 1970 the Cathedral stepped in and since ladies from the parish obtain the flowers from nurseries, supplemented by donations from local people’s gardens.

Each year the carpet boasts a different design often taken from the focus the church is given by the Papal authority. However notable special events are recorded such as the celebration in 1990, the silver jubilee of the formation of a new diocese of Arundel and Brighton back in 1965 and 150th anniversary of Saint Bernadette’s apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes.

Laying the carpet

The flowers have their stems removed so they can lie flush to the ground, are sorted in colours and shades. An evergreen foliage background is used. Originally the carpet was 98 foot long going right up to the altar but now it has lost five feet to enable visitors to walk around the carpet.

The designs are lined out in chalk on a black paper and templates are used to outline the more intricate shapes used and maintain the symmetry as the flowers are laid.

Flowery procession

Of course, it is not just the carpet but the full celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi, a festival of prayer, sacrament, song, procession as well as the flowers.

The climax being the solemn High Mass. When I attended this mass, the Cathedral was full with no space hardly to sit. Those non-Catholics rather lost in ritual awaited for the moment. Then at the end of this mass that the Blessed sacrament is carried down and over the carpet by the Bishop. It’s a shame they have to walk on it could be overheard from behind but after all that was the reason for it.

The procession then makes its way outside where a special canopy awaits. For many years this processional canopy was that presented by Henry XVth Duke of Norfolk and was first used in 1883. Now a more modern but no less splendid one is used. Beneath this canopy the Host in its golden monstrance is carried.

This procession is led by a cross bearer followed by a banner of the Sacred Heart. This is followed by girls dressed in white carrying posies and then boys carrying sprays of flowers and wearing sashes. Once the petal strewers walked backwards in respect and reverence now the girls do, often those who have had their first Holy Communion.

All along the route speakers are affixed to the walls and the voices of the priest back in the cathedral can be heard as they continue the mass, everyone is the town is enveloped in the ceremony.

In the procession banners are proudly carried which show Blessed sacrament, Mary Mother of Jesus and depict saints associated with the church as well as local parish organisations. Amongst them Knights of the order of chivalry and of the Papal order of Gregory XVI. These include the Order of the Knights of Malta wearing black cloaks with white Maltese crosses who walk nearest the sacrament, the Knights of St Gregory in green, and the Knights of Holy Sepulchre white caped with red Jerusalem cross. Once the procession has travelled down the street it enters the castle and around the gardens to assembly in the quadrangle of the castle. Here there is the continuation of the Mass, here the people gathered are blessed by the sacred host. After the Benediction the congregation leave the castle and process back to the cathedral. Back at the cathedral a second Benediction is celebrated with the Sacred Host is transferred to the Cathedral’s finest monstrance, a wedding gift to Henry Duke of Norfolk in 1904 and apparently every Catholic contributed 1d to its purchase. The mass is long, longer than some could cope with and many had disappeared after the castle benediction – the carpet now looking a little worse after its second trampling – it’ll soon be swept away for next year!

Custom revived: Winster Morris and Winster Wakes

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This is it and that is it and this is Morris dancing

Think Morris, think Cotswolds perhaps, however Derbyshire has a long tradition and Winster is without doubt the oldest traditional team in the county which survives, Tideswell’s team although mentioned in the late 1700 appears to have vanished. Winster also does not fit into the other types not boarder nor clog, molly or Cotswold. Winster of course have many interesting customs, its pancake race and the Guisers, which themselves are made up of Morris team members.

It was 1863 when Morris groups are first mentioned in the town and it is believed that they were well established by then. Renowned English Folk Music enthusiast Cecil Sharp visited the town in 1908 to record the dances in his Morris Book Part 3 1924. The team then wore white shirt and trousers, with cross-belts with rosettes, black shoes and bells. They continue to do so. The team consists of 16 dancers, rather than the traditional six, who split into two files of eight and an unusual four characters. This is a unique feature.

Another unique feature is its nature of its dance which consists of processional and stationary dances: The Processional, The Blue-Eyed Stranger, The Morris Reel, The Morris Gallop and The Morris March.  The most famed the Gallop is now performed by Morris teams across the world.

Dancing in and out of time

However, despite surviving until 1908, its demise was just around the corner and as men went to fight in the First World War the dancing disappeared. However, it was revived in the 1920s and could be seen throughout the county at fetes but again another war happened of course and the Morris died out. It was revived however in 1951 on the back of Festival of Britain by the headmaster of Winster School, George Noton, and as such the Morris team was made up by school boys. The revival lasted 4 years. It was revived again in 1977 on the back of the Silver Jubilee, but apparently lapsed and the modern team dates from 1979.

In 2008 the team decided to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Cecil Sharp’s visit called ‘Look Sharp’. The Derbyshire Times recorded that involved a that was a re-enactment of Sharp’s arrival in Winster by an actor Steve Tomlin. He arrived by steam train at Darley Dale and took a pony and trap to the town. The Times noted:

“On Saturday there will be a “mass morris” when more than 100 dancers from as far away as Oxfordshire and Essex will get together on Winster’s Main Street to dance. Six teams will also tour at least eight Peak District villages on their way to Winster.”

Wake up

The Winster Morris today are one of the main features of the town’s Wake week – a unsurprisingly week-long celebration of the town which originated from the patronal festival connected with the church.

On their day of dance is the best time to see this team and see its unique featured characters. These traditional characters were a King (in a military uniform), Queen (a man dressed in Victorian dress), Jester and a Witch (another man dressed in black). These survive today. The later two go around entertaining the crowd, although I could not see what the King did another than march around looking ceremonial which he did very well.

The event started with a procession in which the Winster team and their invited team, the equally fascinating Ock Street Morris with the freshly appointed Mock Mayor. However the main attraction are the Winster team who on the bright summer’s day are radiant as they jump and skip in and out of each other to the sound of the music. The Morris Gallop is the set piece of course and to watch this classic piece of folk dance in its natural home is a privilege.

“This is it and that is it

And this is Morris dancing

The Piper fell and broke his neck

and said it was a chancer

 

you don’t know and I don’t know

what fun we had at Brampton,

a roasted pig and a cuddle duck,

and a pudding in a lantern.”

 

 

 

Custom demised: Midsummer Fire Cartwheel rolling

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Cartwheeling Leusdon, Devon. From The Country Life book of old English customs. by Roy Christian

Rolling a flaming wheel into a stream or river down a hill may seem an oddly dangerous enterprise but it was one which was undertaken until recent times across Britain on the eve of St. John the Baptist otherwise known as Midsummer Eve. An account from the 1820s from South Glamorgan reported in 1909 by Marie Trevelyan in her Folklore and folk stories of Wales. It notes that:

People conveyed trusses of straw to the top of the hill, where men and youths waited for the contributions. Women and Girls were stationed at the bottom of the hill. Then a large cart wheel was thickly swathed with straw and not an inch of wood was left in sight. A pole was inserted through the centre of the wheel, so that the long ends extended about a yard on each side. If any straw remained, it was made up into torches at the top of tall sticks. At a given signal the wheel was lighted and set rolling downhill. If the fire-wheel went out before it reached the bottom of the hill, a very poor harvest was promised. If it kept lighted all the way down, and continued blazing for a long time, the harvest would be exceptionally abundant. Loud cheers and shouts accompanied the progress of the wheel.”

Ancient origins

In the fourth-century Acts of the Martyr St. Vincent there is a description how in Aquitane, south-western France pagans rolled a flaming wheel towards a river and the charred remains were reassembled in their Sky God temple.

Widespread custom

The custom was also undertaken in Devon. At Buckfastleigh in the mid 1850s, aptly Bonfire Hill was the location and the wheel was moved down the hill using sticks by the use of sticks. Like South Glamorgan, if it reached the stream the village would have a good year.  In the village of Leusdon it was done until recent. Eric Hemery in his 1983 High Dartmoor book records:

An old custom on Mil Tor was the ‘Rolling of the Wagon Wheels’ on Midsummer Day: discontinued in the war years, it was revised for a time during the late 1950s, since which it has again lapsed. The aim was that the wheels should reach the river, but so rock-strewn is the six-hundred foot slope that few ever did. In consequence, the old iron tyres of long-rotted wheels lie about Miltor Wood – some now encircling the trees.

At point this custom died out to be revived in 1962 but now streamers were added to give a flame effect. Without the added spectacle of fire danger it doubtless seemed even more pointless indeed Roy Christian notes in his Old English Customs

“Within the last few years the villagers of Leusdon, in Devon, have abandoned their ancient and apparently pointless practice of rolling a cartwheel down the slopes of Mel Tor on the eve of St. John the Baptists Day. Preservationists may deplore the end of his and other customs but artificial respiration will no keep them alive. A custom will only survive if a spontaneous desire by a  large body of folk to keep it going”

Yet, as the online

Minutes of Widdecombe on the Moor Parish council note:

Leusdon Church 150th Anniversary: We were informed that Leusdon Church will celebrate its 150th Anniversary of its dedication on 28th April 2013. It is understood that the church was dedicated in 1863 and its patron Saint is St John the Baptist. It was noted that historically on the Eve of St John the Baptist Day 24th June, there was held the ‘cartwheel rolling’ ceremony at Meltor. Will this be revived in 2013?”

I don’t think it was sadly

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!