The dawning of the first day of May, Beltane in Scotland and Ireland, is an ancient time of celebration which has enjoyed a form of revival in recent years, particularly in Edinburgh – although the current pandemic will see major events cancelled. The Edinburgh Beltane Society are holding a virtual celebration, this year.
There were many traditions to mark the dawning of May 1st and the beginning of the new quarter of the year, throughout Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. Fertility looms large, with dancing around May Poles a possible phallic celebration still performed in parts of England. The colour green also features strongly, from the costumes of dancers, to garlands and swags of foliage that would once have graced many a cottage or village lane, to the modern interpretations of the Green Man (and Green Lady).
In the Celtic lands, the celebration is mentioned in very early historical documents, showing the antiquity of the importance of the occasion. Marking the start of summer, or the hope for bounty and plenty, it was also the time of year when cattle were moved out to the summer pastures. Rituals, charms and ceremonies were used to ask for protection of these valuable beasts which were crucial commodities for rural communities. For peoples dependent on the welfare of their livestock, pleasing the divine was essential.
This was the time of year when the sheilings were used for the first time. Sheilings are simply simple summer huts or dwellings adjacent to pasture land, apart from main farm buildings. It is the shieling that gives Galashiels, the largest town where we live, its name. Simply, the sheiling by the Gala Water. The stone remains and turf embankments of abandoned sheilings can still be glimpsed in many parts of Scotland.
Ceremonies involving fire were central to this turning of the year, in many parts, particularly in the Highlands of Scotland. As purifier, one or two bonfires were lit, in between or past which people and their cattle would pass, to symbolise protection and cleansing for the year ahead. Most of these ceremonies were ancient, but dying out at the end of the 18th century, particularly where the Church held a tight grip on the parishioners. The obvious pagan overtones were thought ungodly. Household fires were often extinguished and new fire brought into the home from the Beltane bonfire. Fire features at the heart of the new, reimagined Beltane festivities in Edinburgh and elsewhere.
F. Marian McNeil, in her Scottish Folkore and Belief (1957), noted a Highland charm listed in Alexander Carmichael’s wondrous Carmina Gadelica, which recalled the nine sacred woods that were used to light the fires at Beltane – and Hallowe’en, in pagan times:
Choose the willow of the streams,
Choose the hazel of the rocks,
Choose the alder of the marshes,
Choose the birch of the waterfalls,
Choose the ash of the shade,
Choose the yew of resilience,
choose the elm of the brae,
Choose the oak of the sun.
Beltane, Là Bealltainn, is said to be derived from ‘bright fire‘ in a common-ancestor of the modern Celtic languages. To others, it is derived from the Fire of the God, Bel, Belenus or similar. Regardless, teine is the Scottish Gaelic word for fire. Like the Green Man, the origins and meaning are lost in time, being appropriated by people today in myriad of forms and where is the harm in that? It is, simply, a celebration for people, together in the land.
Carmichael, in Carmina Gadelica, also noted a Beltane Blessing, part of which is repeated here:
BEANNAICH, a Thrianailt fhioir nach gann,
Mi fein, mo cheile agus mo chlann,
Mo chlann mhaoth ’s am mathair chaomh ’n an ceann,
Air chlar chubhr nan raon, air airidh chaon nam beann,
Air chlar chubhr nan raon, air airidh chaon nam beann.
Gach ni na m’ fhardaich, no to ’na m’ shealbh,
Gach buar is barr, gach tan is tealbh,
Bho Oidhche Shamhna chon Oidhche Bheallt,
Piseach maith, agus beannachd mallt,
Bho mhuir, gu muir, agus bun gach allt,
Bho thonn gu tonn, agus bonn gach steallt.
Tri Pears a gabhail sealbh anns gach ni ’na m’ stor,
An Trianailt dhearbha da m’ dhion le coir;
O m’ anam riaraich am briathra Phoil,
Is dion mo chiallain fo sgiath do ghloir,
Dion mo chiallain fo sgiath do ghloir.
BLESS, O Threefold true and bountiful,
Myself, my spouse, and my children,
My tender children and their beloved mother at their head.
On the fragrant plain, on the gay mountain sheiling,
On the fragrant plain, on the gay mountain sheiling.
Everything within my dwelling or in my possession,
All kine and crops, all flocks and corn,
From Hallow Eve to Beltane Eve,
With goodly progress and gentle blessing,
From sea to sea, and every river mouth,
From wave to wave, and base of waterfall.
Be the Three Persons taking possession of all to me belonging,
Be the sure Trinity protecting me in truth;
Oh! satisfy my soul in the words of Paul,
And shield my loved ones beneath the wing of Thy glory,
Shield my loved ones beneath the wing of Thy glory.
Washing your face in the morning dew at sunrise on 1st May was said to bring health and beauty for the coming year (or forever, depending on who you ask!) and is one of the few widely remembered and still observed customs. In Edinburgh, an early hike up to the summit of Arthur’s Seat is the preferred destination for this ritual.
In the Borders, the ancient town of Peebles is mentioned in late medieval writing, as celebrating Beltane. The Maitland Manuscripts, compiled by Sir Richard Maitland in the 16th century, includes a poem called Peblis to the Play. This is a bawdy romp of a poem, in the language of Middle Scots and describes celebrations of May Day in the town. Some academics suggest that the poem is the work of the poetic James I, King of Scots, having witnessed the Beltane celebrations for himself. Others are more inclined to suggest the Makar (court poet), William Dunbar, although King James V has also been seen as a contender. Regardless of the author, the poem gives an insight into medieval life, love and brawling!
At Beltane, when ilk bodie bownis,
To Peblis to the Play,
To heir the singin and the soundis,
The solace, suth to say;
Be firth and forest furth they found,
They graythit tham full gay,
God wait that wald they do that stound,
For it was their Feist Day,
Of Peblis to the Play.
All the wenchis of the west
War up or the cok crew;
For reiling thair micht na man rest,
For garray and for glew.
Ane said my curches ar nocht prest
Than answerit Meg full blew,
To get an hude, I hald it best;
Be Goddis saull that is true,
Of Peblis to the Play.
The poem goes on at some length, and I’ll come back to it more properly in a future blog when hopefully I can do it justice! I love the fact that the annual celebration of the town, which like so many other Border burghs includes a common riding, is still called The Beltane, having been revived in 1897. Sadly, this year, the event will not be taking place.
Other celebrations or rituals for Beltane included visiting holy wells, with folk walking around the well sunwise (never widdershins!), whilst reciting prayers or charms for good health. The truly ancient practice of leaving offering in wells, and also at Clootie Wells and Trees or Coinzie trees, was also common as May 1st dawned. I don’t know whether this happened at the centuries-old Our Lady’s Well, here in Stow – but I would imagine so!
(Left, Our Lady’s Well. Stow; right, a modern clootie tree, Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery, Eskdalemuir)
Water has a long history of association with healing powers and divine assistance, long before Christianity replaced the local Gods. Many pools, lochs and springs still have associations with healing powers or magic, and the practice of throwing coins in wishing wells derives from leaving offerings to the Gods. There are some 600 holy or lucky wells throughout Scotland – from the Well of Youth, on Hirta, St Kilda, to the Saint Margaret’s Well in Edinburgh. Before the arrival of Christianity, many of these pools and wells would have their own deity. Later, they would be associated with the Saints.
Our Lady’s Well in Stow is accessed through some fields, so this year – due to the Covid-19 restrictions – I won’t be wishing or washing there tomorrow at dawn!
Feasting was another integral part of traditional Beltane customs in Scotland until well into the modern age. Beltane Bannocks, cakes, were baked – and cakes or bread featured in the other three quarterly feasts or celebrations of the year. There’s a wonderful recipe here in the Cailleach’s Herbarium for a Betane Bannock. We may not be able to gather together by the fireside this Beltane, but we can maybe try a bannock or two.
Wishing you a safe and well Beltane – wherever you may be.
Merry (virtual) meet!