***The article was too big to fit all on one page so I’ve had to split it up. The introduction, background and Scottish evidence is given on this page, with the Irish evidence in part two.***
Bealltainn marks the beginning of the summer season and it traditionally heralded the start of grazing the cattle and sheep on the fresh grass in the hill pastures; from a long, dark winter spent mostly indoors, the beginning of summer marked the start of outdoor activities, looking after sheep that roamed the hills, herding and milking the cows, making butter and cheeses and so on.1
With the move to the summer pastures, up on the hills, the day was marked by a variety of festivities such as the great procession, the lighting of the bonfires (which were used to ritually cleanse and protect the livestock and the people), decorating the home with flowers and ‘May bushes’, cooking special meals and observing particular superstitions and ceremonies. Since dairy produce was so vital to pastoral economies like Scotland and Ireland – especially in the months leading up to the harvest – the festivities were generally aimed at protecting and ensuring a plentiful supply of milk, butter and cheese for the coming year.2 Bealltainn was also accompanied by the renewal of rents between tenants and landlords, and the payment of tithes, along with fairs to secure work.3
Many of the rites were also concerned with the reinforcing and redefining of boundaries – either within the physical space of the house or the farmland (such as the doorways, windows, and then field boundaries). These boundaries, liminal spaces of neither one place or another, were considered to be under particular threat by the supernatural forces that were believed to be at large on the eve of Bealltainn itself, and without the proper protection witches or evil spirits could enter and have away with the prosperity and produce of the household.4
Unlike today (in a large part of the western world, at least), the failure of the crops or milk supply in any community would have had a very serious and immediate impact indeed; the failure of the crops, disease of livestock or failure of the milk to come would have been devastating either in combination or on their own. Famine was a very real threat and the surviving lore associated with everyday activities such as milking, churning butter and making cheese, the making of the bannocks and the traditional preparation of the Bealltainn feast of a freshly killed male lamb “without spot or blemish”5 is testament to this.
Transhumance is no longer practiced in Ireland, Scotland, and Man, except in one notable instance (as far as it’s been reported…). While many of the traditions associated with Bealltainn are obviously influenced by, or rooted in, this way of life and may not necessarily be relevant to the way most of us live today, this doesn’t mean that they’re irrelevant. Where we may not be able to replicate, we can adapt. So it’s with this in mind that we can look at the historical evidence and work from there.
The ceremonies we find described in the historical sources often varied slightly on a local level, but at their core a remarkable consistency can be seen between the descriptions of festivities in Ireland, Scotland and Man – from the earliest references to it, up to the modern day survivals. Sanas Chormaic “Cormac’s Glossary”, is an Irish text which dates to around 900CE and contains the earliest reference to the festival:
“BIL from Bial i.e. an idol god, unde beltine ‘May day’ i.e. fire of Bel.
…In H. 2. 16 col. 93 Bil .i. obiel .i. dia idaltoicteg [?] saide conataithe tene ina anmaim i taiti samraid dogves 7 doaightís cethrai eter in da thenid (‘a fire was kindled in his name at the beginning of summer always and cattle were driven between the two fires’). – Ed.”6
Under the entry for ‘Belltaine’ we are told:
BELLTAINE ‘May day’ i.e. bil-tene, i.e. lucky fire, i.e. two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle [as a safeguard] against the diseases of each year to those fires [in marg.] they used to drive the cattle between them.7
In addition to the eleventh century tale The Wooing of Emer, which mentions Bealltainn as ‘summer’s beginning,’8 mention should be made of the seventh century Life of St Patrick, written by Muirchú. Here we are told that Patrick, in his attempts to convert the pagan king Loegaire mac Néill, lit the Paschal fires before Loegaire was able to at Tara, as part of some pagan rites that fell on the same day. A ninth century Life of Saint Patrick tells us that all fires were supposed to have been extinguished and then relit from the fire at Tara, sounding very similar to the rites of Bealltainn, and this has led to some scholars9 assuming that this was the festival being referred to. Francis Byrne sees this as an effort by the Christian authors to deliberately put the two festivals together – Christian and pagan – in an effort to create a neat symbolic episode showing the triumph of Christianity and Patrick.10 However, Easter would never fall so late as to coincide with Bealltainn and Binchy concludes (in greater detail than Byrne) that the association is false, including the mention of a feast being held at Tara at this time.11
As we have seen, Cormac’s Glossary gives the meaning of the name as “the fire of Bel”, relating it to the god Baal (given as ‘Bial‘ in the text).12 Many scholars argue that the etymology of Bealltainn relating to Baal owes more to the scribe’s familiarity with a god who is notably found in the Bible than any related Irish deity, but there are several notable Celtic deities that incorporate the suffix “bel” in their name, such as Belenus from Gaul and Beli of Wales. Perhaps a more likely explanation, as Stokes and Macbain suggested towards the end of the nineteenth century, is that Bealltainn incorporates the two words bel, “bright”, and teine, “fire” – i.e. “bright fire.”13
Another etymology suggests that rather than -tene, “fire”, the second element of the word is –dine, meaning newborn cattle, thus referring to the calves that were sacrificed the Bel.14 Irish legal commentary refers to Bealltainn as being the start of the calving season – lulgachus Beltaine, or ‘May calving’15 – which could lend credence to the suggestion, but with the overwhelming fiery focal point to the ceremonies from the earliest sources onwards, the most obvious explanation is the one that’s most likely to be correct.
One final etymology that has been put forward is by Henri-Marie D’Arbois Juvainille, who suggested that Bealltainn contains the genitive form of beltu – “dying” – which would make the word cognate with Giltine, a Lithuanian goddess of death. This argument could therefore help to back up the argument that Bealltainn does refer to a particular Irish deity, but this would suggest that such a god would presumably also have connotations of death like their Lithuanian counterpart.16 As MacCulloch points out, however, the festival is not about death but propitiating life and plenty, which casts doubt on Juvainille’s theory.17
The evidence in Scotland
Transhumance and the fires in Scotland
Although the weather might still have been a little on the unpredictable side in early May – especially in the more northerly parts of Scotland – there came a point when the sheep and cattle would have to be moved to the hills to take advantage of the new grass that was available. There was a trade-off to be had between risking losing some livestock to bad weather and enduring the miserable cold and wet of a late start to the summer and getting to the hills while the fields were starting to grow again, so that the cattle could condition the fields and discourage the undesirable plants and weeds from gaining too much of a hold amongst the grass.
The move to the uplands would be marked by the bothies being repaired beforehand to make sure they were habitable, and then a great procession would take place with the whole community making the journey to the fresh pastures all together. Generally speaking, the men would have stayed in the lowlands, tending the fields and the crops, or else went out to sea for fishing over the summer, while women and children stayed in bothies on the hills with the livestock until all hands were needed for the harvest. Some women would probably have stayed behind with the men to cook and look after those who were unable to make the journey to the hills or do much work in the fields, but otherwise the division of labour was fairly set.18
The idea of this great procession being fixed at May Day is emphasised by antiquarians and scholars such as Alexander Carmichael in his Carmina Gadelica, John Gregorson Campbell and F. Marian McNeill. As Carmichael puts it, “This is the day of migrating, bho baile gu beinn (from townland to moorland), from winter homestead to summer shieling.”19 McNeill also paints a neat symmetrical picture of the seasons:
“At Bealltainn the flocks and herds went out to their summer pastures; at Hallowmas, they returned to the fold. By Bealltainn, the seed had been committed to the ground; by Hallowmas the crops were already inned. Thus Bealltainn may be regarded as a Day of Supplication, when a blessing was invoked on hunter and herdsman, on cattle and crops, and Hallowmas a Day of Thanksgiving for the safe return of the wanderers and the renewal of the food supply.”20
As fixed and poetic as this sounds, however, it seems to have been just that; a poetic truth rather than a reality. Given the often unpredictable climate and the importance of giving cows access to fresh grass in order to ensure the quality of their milk – and therefore the abundance of dairy produce such as butter and cheese – Ronald Black’s more recent studies have concluded that the summer grazing started as soon as weather allowed. In a year where there was an early summer, the shieling season might therefore start as early as March and end sometime around September. A poorer summer season might mean a later start to grazing, and an earlier finish to it. Carmichael’s later work also seems to bear this out, since in 1884 he wrote that the summer grazing started sometime “early in June”, suggesting a fair amount of flexibility in the date.21
In rural areas, then, it might be assumed that the traditions associated with the start of the shieling season would be enacted on whatever day was chosen, rather than the “actual”, fixed date of May Day. Either way, though, whenever the move to the summer pastures was made, the day usually began early, before sunrise, when the whole community would gather their family, their belongings (as needed), and their various herds and flocks, and would walk in procession (triall) up a hill. Carmichael remarks that the sheep would lead, followed by cattle (in order of age), goats and then horses. On the way up the hill, everyone would great each other and pass on blessings to ensure luck and prosperity in the coming year.22
Songs would also be sung as the herds and flocks were taken to the hills, some of which Alexander Carmichael recorded in Carmina Gadelica. One such song, An Saodachadh – “The Driving”, shows the primary dangers that the shepherds and herders would be concerned with in looking safeguarding their livestock:
The protection of Odhran the dun be yours,
The protection of Brigit the Nurse be yours,
The protection of Mary the Virgin be yours,
In marshes and in rocky ground,
In marshes and in rocky ground.
The keeping of Ciaran the swart be yours,
The keeping of Brianan the yellow be yours,
The keeping of Diarmaid the brown be yours,
A-sauntering the meadows,
A-sauntering the meadows.
The safeguard of Fionn mac Cumhall be yours,
The safeguard of Cormac the shapely be yours,
The safeguard of Conn and Cumhall be yours
From wolf and from bird-flock
From wolf and bird-flock.
The sanctuary of Colum Cille be yours,
The sanctuary of Maol Ruibhe be yours,
The sanctuary of the milking maid be yours,
To seek and search for you,
To seek and search for you.
The encircling of Maol Odhrain be yours,
The encircling of Maol Oighe be yours,
The encircling of Maol Domhnaich be yours,
To protect you and to herd you,
To protect you and to herd you.
The shield of the king of the Fiann be yours
The shield of the king of the sun be yours
The shield of the king of the stars be yours
In jeopardy and distress,
In jeopardy and distress.
The sheltering of the king of kings be yours,
The sheltering of Jesus Christ be yours,
The sheltering of the Spirit of healing be yours,
From evil deed and quarrel,
From evil dog and red dog.23
These concerns are again seen in the rites of the day, with livestock and land being sained to protect against unseen dangers, and offerings being made to keep predators away. The fires mentioned in Cormac’s Glossary were a common feature of both Irish and Scottish festivities, but most records of them survive as anecdotes and memories of a tradition that had already died out, or else had not been witnessed first hand by the author.
The earliest detailed Scottish description of Bealltainn fires can be found in Thomas Pennant’s A Tour of Scotland (1776), where he relates the Bealltainn rites as told to him by an acquaintance:
“On the first of May, the herdsmen of every village hold their Bel-tein, a rural sacrifice. They cut a square trench on the ground, leaving the turf in the middle; on that they make a fire of wood, on which they dress a large caudle of eggs, butter, oatmeal and milk; and bring, besides the ingredients of the caudle, plenty of beer and whisky, for each of the company must contribute something. The rites begin with spilling some of the caudle on the ground, by way of libation: on that every one takes a cake of oatmeal, upon which are raised nine square knobs, each are dedicated to some particular being, the supposed preserver of their flocks and herds or to some particular animal, the real destroyer of them: each then turns his face to the fire, breaks off a knob, and flinging it over his shoulders says ‘This I give to thee, preserve thou my horses; this to thee, preserve thou my sheep’; and so on. After that, they use the same ceremony to the noxious animals: ‘This I give to thee, O Fox! Spare thou my lambs; this to thee, O hooded Crow! this, O Eagle!’ When the ceremony is over, they dine on the caudle.”24
Writing nearly fifty years later than Pennant, W. G. Stewart tells us that to begin the festivities:
“The shepherds purified their flocks with the smoke of sulphur, juniper, boxwood, rosemary &c. They then made a large fire round which they danced, and offered to the goddess milk, cheese, eggs, &c. holding their faces towards the east and uttering ejaculations peculiar to the occasion”25
Sources of this age rarely give references as to where they got their information from, unless giving a direct quote, so it’s difficult to ascertain the accuracy of Stewart’s claims regarding the ingredients used in purifying the sheep, since there was often a tendency to fill bits in from sources that would be considered out of context. Juniper is known to have been used in saining rites at other times, however, so there seems to be no reason to doubt him.
Other sources agree with these descriptions of the fires, and it is John Ramsay of Ochtertyre, a friend of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, who gives the fullest description of a Bealltainn celebration:
“…But since the decline of superstition, it has been celebrated by the people of each hamlet on some hill or rising ground around which their cattle were pasturing. Thither the young folks repaired in the morning, and cut a trench, on the summit of which a seat of turf was formed for the company. And in the middle a pile of wood or other fuel was placed, which of old they kindled with tein-eigin—i.e., forced-fire or need-fire. Although, for many years past, they have been contented with common fire, yet we shall now describe the process, because it will hereafter appear that recourse is still had to the tein-eigin upon extraordinary emergencies.
“The night before, all the fires in the country were carefully extinguished, and next morning the materials for exciting this sacred fire were prepared. The most primitive method seems to be that which was used in the islands of Skye, Mull, and Tiree. A well-seasoned plank of oak was procured, in the midst of which a hole was bored. A wimble of the same timber was then applied, the end of which they fitted to the hole. But in some parts of the mainland the machinery was different. They used a frame of green wood, of a square form, in the centre of which was an axle-tree. In some places three times three persons, in others three times nine, were required for turning round by turns the axle-tree or wimble. If any of them had been guilty of murder, adultery, theft, or other atrocious crime, it was imagined either that the fire would not kindle, or that it would be devoid of its usual virtue. So soon as any sparks were emitted by means of the violent friction, they applied a species of agaric which grows on old birch-trees, and is very combustible. This fire had the appearance of being immediately derived from heaven, and manifold were the virtues ascribed to it. They esteemed it a preservative against witch-craft, and a sovereign remedy against malignant diseases, both in the human species and in cattle; and by it the strongest poisons were supposed to have their nature changed.
“After kindling the bonfire with the tein-eigin the company prepared their victuals. And as soon as they had finished their meal, they amused themselves a while in singing and dancing round the fire. Towards the close of the entertainment, the person who officiated as master of the feast produced a large cake baked with eggs and scalloped round the edge, called am bonnach beal-tine—i.e., the Beltane cake. It was divided into a number of pieces, and distributed in great form to the company. There was one particular piece which whoever got was called cailleach beal-tine—i.e., the Beltane carline, a term of great reproach. Upon his being known, part of the company laid hold of him and made a show of putting him into the fire; but the majority interposing, he was rescued. And in some places they laid him flat on the ground, making as if they would quarter him. Afterwards, he was pelted with egg-shells, and retained the odious appellation during the whole year. And while the feast was fresh in people’s memory, they affected to speak of the cailleach beal-tine as dead.”26
It was Frazer’s belief (echoed by writers such a McNeill) that such a show was a hangover of human sacrifice, sanitised and only partially understood by the people once Christian sensibilities and practices replaced those of the pre-Christian.27 While it’s possible that the show may have been echoing a sacrifice of some sort, neither Frazer or McNeill offer any hard evidence to support their opinion, other than a somewhat romanticised view of Druidical rites and noble savages. Patterson, who emphasises the role of men in the rites of Bealltainn and Lùnastal, suggests that, “It is likely…that the ‘victim’ served as a representative of the community’s male family heads who attended the ceremonies; men who had liabilities to lords, tithes to pay to their church, and debts to settle with neighbours.”28
In some parts of Scotland lots were cast to see who would have to jump over the bonfire. In Callendar, Perthshire, a piece of bannock was divided up into as many pieces as there were men, and one piece was blackened and then placed in a hat with the others. Whoever got the blackened piece had to jump the fire.29 In some parts of Perthshire, the fire was jumped over seven times; in Shetland the jumping of the fire became more of a competition that was open to any man wanting to participate, with whoever could leap it without injuring himself being considered the best man.30 This leaping, which is also found in Ireland, may reflect a ritual of a kind of sympathetic magic to encourage the crops to grow high.31
Once the communal festivities were finished, the people would take a a flame of the bonfire back to their homes and relight the hearth, symbolically taking the protective qualities of the communal fire into the household. It was customary to ensure that all debts were paid before the festivities began, and anyone with rents owing, or bad debts yet to be resolved, or else those who had been branded thieves or lacking in moral character or generosity might be refused a light, effectively depriving them of the benefits of the rites in the year to come.32
After the hearth had been rekindled, a feast was prepared, which typically included the meat of a male lamb, “without spot or blemish,” that had been killed that day.33 Bannocks and caudle (a type of custard made with a little oatmeal) were also eaten (or else prepared for the morning), one for each member of the family, with a special cheese made of ewe’s milk. The cheese was made with the milk of a ewe after it had been shorn or else the milk from the first day after its lamb had been weaned, and in South Uist, according to Fergus Kelly, the May Day cheese – or mulchag Bhealltainn34 in Gaelic – was made and allowed to mature for a full year before being eaten. It was supposed to be eaten with the bannock before sunset, in order to keep faeries away from the farm for the coming year. Any cheese that was leftover could be kept until Lùnastal according to McNeill.35
The bonfires and their associated festivities seem to have died out by the mid-nineteenth century,36 but MacInlay records several sites where they were known to have taken place, including the hills of Tinto and Dechmont in Lanarkshire. At Dechmont, a large amount of charcoal was uncovered on the hill in the early nineteenth century, covered by a thin layer of loam. Although the fires had already fallen out of use by that time, it was well-known to the locals that this was where the Bealltainn bonfires were lit, who “expressed no surprise at the discovery.”37 Other sites included Arthur’s Seat (near Edinburgh) and Kinnoul Hill, Perthshire, and Stennis.38
As the fires died out, the festivities continued but with more of a focus on the customs found within the home, and some of the customs that were once the preserve of men (or for the most part, men) now fell to the children to keep.39 Many families had their own rituals and traditions associated with the making and consumption of the bannocks. In the sixteenth century, the poet Alexander Scott noted that the bannocks were often eaten by the family as they sat around a fire, usually outdoors (weather permitting, presumably).40 The bannocks were made by the gudewife or else the eldest daughter in the family, and as each bannock was formed it was named for the person it was for, and a blessing of health and prosperity was asked for them. Should the bannock break at any point, this was considered to be an omen of dire portents, even death for the person or the family as a whole.41
Similar traditions involving the bannock being used as a means of divination saw the oatcakes being rolled down hills at Bealltainn in a sort of race:
“Next morning the children are presented each with a bannock, with as much joy as an heir to an estate his title-deeds; and having their pockets well lined with cheese and eggs, to render the entertainment still more sumptuous, they hasten to the place of assignation, to meet the little band assembled on the brow of some sloping hill, to reel their bannocks, and learn their future fate. With hearty greetings they meet, and with their knives make the signs of life and death on their bannocks. These signs are a cross, or the sign of life, on the one side; and a cypher or the sign of death on the other. This being done the bannocks are all arranged in a line and on their edges let down the hill. This process is repeated three times and if the cross most frequently present itself the owner will live to celebrate another Belton day but if the cypher is oftenest uppermost, he is doomed to die of course. This sure prophecy of short life, however, seldom spoils the appetites of the unfortunate short-livers who will handle their knives with as little signs of death as their more fortunate companions. Assembling around a rousing fire of collected heath and brushwood, the ill-fated bannocks are soon demolished, amidst the cheering and jollity of the youthful association.”42
Protecting against the supernatural
As with Samhainn, Bealltainn seems to have contained a certain element of danger, a threat of the supernatural. To the Welsh, who called it Calan Mai, or Clamme, their equivalent of Bealltainn was one of the ysbryd nosau – “spirit nights”.43 As in Scotland, Ireland, and Man, the communal fires that were lit on the hills served the purpose of purifying and protecting the people and their herds from sickness and misfortune. And like Scotland, Ireland, and Man, the elements of supernatural danger that were perceived to be so prevalent on the day were seen to come from witches or faeries.
It was said that witches would stay up all night on Bealltainn eve and would travel around in the form of hares to take the toradh (produce – specifically the toradh of dairy cattle) from their neighbours.44 Faeries would also be abroad trying to do the same and so to protect against them, each household would take a variety of precautions. Farmers would carefully inspect their livestock on Bealltainn to make sure that they had not been interfered with by witches or faeries, who might try to steal the toradh (produce) from the cattle by hiding certain objects under the tails of cows or making away with churning or cheese-making equipment during the night. It was believed that having the butter and cheese made well before sunrise on Bealltainn would help keep the faeries’ attention away from the farm for the rest of the year.45
Naturally, not having to churn at all was the best defence against the faeries, and so it was the safest thing to do all round, but equally the first butter of Bealltainn held a certain potency that made it an excellent ingredient in medicines. Mary Beith records a saying which details a remedy for general purposes: “Is leigheas air gach tinn cneamh agus im a’ Mhàigh; agus òl am fochair siud ‘m bainne ghobhar bàn. (A cure for every patient is garlic and May butter; and drink along with that the milk of white goats.)”46
Rowan or mountain ash (also referred to as wicken), a wood popularly believed to be powerful protection against the evil eye, would be collected and made into wands or crosses tied together with red thread or wool (red was also believed to have protective qualities).47 It was such a popular practice that several rhymes have survived relating to it:
A rowan-tree and a red thread
Gars a’ the witches dance to dead48
Or, only slightly different:
Rowan tree and red threid
Gar the witches tyne their speed49
These charms were then hung in doorways, around the necks of cattle, or tied to their tails, milking and butter-making equipment, to ward off evil influence and disease throughout Ireland and the Highlands and Islands. Rowan woven into the roof was said to protect the house from fire for the year, and when worked into boats it was supposed to provide protection from storms and drowning. A wand or cross of rowan was also put into the midden, since it was believed that this was a popular place for witches to hide, or else they would try to steal the goodness from it:50 A rich midden signified a rich household, and provided a good source of nutrient-rich compost to add to the fields, so naturally this association made it vulnerable.
In some districts it was more popular to use juniper or elder instead of rowan, and sometimes ivy and brambles might also be used in decorating the farmstead, either in addition to (and intertwined with), or in place of, the rowan.51 John Dalyell described the practice:
“Branches of the mountain-ash [rowan], decorated with heath and flowers which had been carried thrice around the fires kindled at Beltane, were reared above their own dwellings, to remain until displaced by those of the succeeding season; or a portion of it cut and peeled, and wound around with a thread, was put on the lintel of the byre, also to avert the influence of an evil eye.”52
Pennant describes something similar, according to James MacInlay:
“’A cross is cut on some sticks, which is dipped in pottage, and the Thursday before Easter one of each placed over the sheep-cot, the stable, or the cow-house. On the first of May they are carried to the hill, where the rites are celebrated, all decked with wild flowers, and after the feast is over, replaced over the spots they were taken from.’ The cross in this case, was, doubtless, made from the wood of the rowan or mountain ash.”53
Likewise, James Napier commented that he had seen houses decked with tree branches and flowers on May Day, as well as horses to the west of Glasgow.54
No no details are given as to what flowers were used, they were more than likely the same as those used in Ireland (see below); the fact that the marsh-marigold, which figures significantly in Irish practice, is known as lus-buidhe Bealltainn55 (‘the yellow flower of Bealltainn’) in Scotland indicates the likelihood of it being made use of in Scottish practise as well.
Branches of rowan were also burnt in the Bealltainn fires, also for its protective qualities, but it seems the fire itself would be made of whatever wood would burn well. F. Marian McNeill notes that in some areas of Scotland a traditional fire was made with nine sacred woods collected by the community. Unfortunately McNeill doesn’t go into specifics except to quote a poem collected by Carmichael that names eight different woods (and perhaps the ninth wood was secret, or has been lost), but which has no explicit connection to Bealltainn noted by Carmichael or any other contemporary reference:
“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.”56
Certainly the woods mentioned are those considered to be ‘lucky’ and so they may have been used (unlucky woods were always avoided), but not necessarily always together. McNeill also suggests elder, holly, and apple as appropriate woods to be used, and suggests the ash mentioned in the poem is mountain ash/rowan.57
Another means of protecting the house at Bealltainn (and Lùnastal) in Scotland was the sop seile (literally translating as ‘a spittle wisp’). This was a piece of straw dipped in ‘menstruum’ – water that had been in contact with gold or silver, or else had been spat in – hence the name. Care was then taken to sprinkle the doorposts and then sprinkle deiseal around the house as well. The sop seile was also used to protect cows from the evil eye,58 but it shouldn’t be confused with the sop seilbhe, the ‘possesion wisp’, which was also performed at Bealltainn (as well as other times, when necessary). This was a piece of heather or fodder that was burnt around the boundaries of an area of land that somebody intended to claim for themselves. This was a legal way of ensuring a farmer could protect his rights in claiming the land, especially when there was competition for it. Whoever burnt the sop seilbhe first was also protected by the law.59
Holy Wells and Healing
Practices associated with water were also a significant feature of Bealltainn festivities and James MacInlay notes that May was the busiest occasion for visiting holy wells, springs or lochs in order to get the benefit of the waters, for healing or for good luck, preferably well before sunrise but.60 At this time the benefits of the water were thought to be at their most powerful, and although many of the wells were considered to be at their most effective on any of the Quarter Days, Bealltainn was perhaps the most popular because of the warmer weather.
In some places the wells were not visited until the first Sunday or Monday in May rather than the day of Bealltainn itself,61 but whatever the case there were certain solemn rites associated with approaching it. Generally it was considered vital that the well should be approached in absolute silence, with the person being barefoot and barelegged. On reaching the well, the person walked around it deiseal three times and then silvered it, usually by throwing a silver coin in. After this, they drank from the well whilst contemplating their wish, and then as they left it was traditional to leave a rag, pin or piece of cloth on the nearest tree (which was also considered as having some of the powers associated with the well). In doing this, “he cast off his cares or ills, and anyone who stole or removed a rag fell heir to all the troubles of its original possessor.”62 On top of it all, it was best for the visitor to be far out of sight of the well before the sun came up, but in many areas the vast amount of pilgrims resulted in fairs being held nearby which resulted in much revelry, gossip and drinking that lasted well into the day.
Morning dew (again collected before sunrise) was considered to have similar properties. Campbell records that dew would be gathered by women using a rope, made of the long hair from Highland cattle’s tails, by dragging it through the grass to collect the moisture. As they did this, a charm would be sung to ensure a plentiful supply of milk for the year ahead:
“Bainne an te so shios, bainne an te so shuas, ‘nam ghogan mhor fhein.”
Milk of this one above, milk of that one below, into my own big pail.63
The dew might also be gathered for more cosmetic purposes. It was said that if a girl washed her face in the morning dew at Bealltainn, she would have a fair complexion and it would help prevent freckles, sunburn and wrinkles:
“On May day in a fairy ring,
We’ve seen them round St Anthon’s spring,
Frae grass the caller dew to wring,
To wet their een;
And water clear as crystal spring,
To synd them clean.”64
Any girl brave enough might roll naked in the dew as a means of ensuring beauty, but for those who didn’t have such courage, they might walk barefoot through the dewy grass to ensure good-looking feet at least, since it was also believed to be an effective preventative for bunions and corns. Likewise, both men and women could wash their hands in the dew to help keep them facile. Applying a little Bealltainn dew to the eyes each day was said to help keep them looking fresh and well rested, and it was also believed to be a cure for headaches and skin complaints. MacInlay notes that the dew collected from the branches of the hawthorn on May Day would ensure beauty to the unmarried girls who washed their faces in it. The branches were also sometimes brought into the house to guard against witchcraft as well,65 and in some parts of Scotland it was believed that the May dew also served as protection against the evil eye.66
The custom of carrying out these rites before sunrise hints at the fact that the first water drawn on the day was considered to be the most potent. As far as I’ve seen none of the more usual sources mention it, but there is mention of it from 1723 in Fife:
“In May, 1723, the minister informed the Session that Margaret Robertson in Byres of Balmerino had complained to him, that James Paton in Culter ‘had scandalized her in her good name by saying that she went to Nine Wells on the Road-day [I.e. Rood Day, the Invention of the Cross, 3rd May] to take away her neighbour’s milk,’ or, as the charge was afterwards expressed, ‘to get the cream of the water, and to take away her neighbours butter.’”67
The fact that this was said to have taken place on the nearest Christian festival to Bealltainn seems to allow for some shifting from the traditional date to a more acceptably Christian one.
1 Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, 2000, p181.
2 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p272.
3 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p272.
4 Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, 2000, p182.
5 See Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume 1, p191.
6 Stokes, Sanas Cormac (translated by John O’Donovan), 1868, p23.
7 Stokes, Sanas Cormac (translated by John O’Donovan), 1868, p19.
8 See here, for an example. Kinsella gives a more accessible translation in The Táin, p27.
9 Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde, 1887.
10 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, 1973, p64-65.
11 Binchy, ‘Fair of Tailtiu and Feast of Tara,’ p128-131; Hutton agrees with his assessment, see note 7, p472 in The Stations of the Sun, 1996.
12 Stokes, Sanas Cormac (translated by John O’Donovan), 1868, p23.
13 MacBain’s Dictionary.
14 MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1991, p264.
15 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, p41.
16 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p592.
17 MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1991, p264.
18 Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen, 1994, p137.
19 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume 1, p190.
20 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p55.
21 See Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, note 132, p593; Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume 4, 1954, p38.
22 See Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume 1, p190-193.
23 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, song 365, p337.
24 Pennant, A Tour of Scotland, 1776, p110-11.
25 Stewart, The Popular Superstitions And Festive Amusements of the Highlanders of Scotland, 1823, p259.
26 Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1993, p617-618. See also the 1922 edition.
27 Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1993, p617; see McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p55-58.
28 Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen, 1994, p139.
29 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p59.
30 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p60-61.
31 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p274.
32 Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, 2000, p250.
33 See Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume 1, p191.
34 Fergus Kelly, Early Irish Farming, p330.
35 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p68.
36 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p61.
37 MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p285.
38 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p73.
39 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p62.
40 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p68.
41 See Festival Bannocks and Caudle for more details.
42 Stewart, The Popular Superstitions And Festive Amusements of the Highlanders of Scotland, 1823, p261-262.
43 Ross, The Folklore of Wales, 2001, p39; See also Hutton, The Stations of the Sun, 1996, p224.
44 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p174-175.
45 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p553.
46 Beith, Healing Threads, 1995, p176-7.
47 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, 1957, p78.
48 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p177. Tyne means ‘lose’.
49 Polson, Scottish Witchcraft Lore, 1932, p134; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, 1957, p78.
50 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p62-63.
51 Maclagan, Evil Eye in the Western Highlands, 1902, p119-120; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p63. See also McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, 1957, p82.
52 Dalyell, The Darker Superstitions of Scotland, 1834, p9-10; Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, 2000, p182.
53 MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p299.
54 Napier, Folk Lore, or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within This Century, 1879, p112.
56 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, 1957, p84.
57 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, 1957, p84.
58 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p136-137.
59 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p126;p554.
60 MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p297.
61 Dalyell, The Darker Superstitions of Scotland, 1834, p81.
62 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, 1957, p67.
63 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p65.
64 Napier, Folk Lore, or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within This Century, 1879, p114.
65 MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p299-300.
66 Napier, Folk Lore, or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within This Century, 1879, p113.
67 Simpkins et al, County Folklore Volume VII: Fife with some notes on Clackmannan and Kinross-shire, 1914, p16.