Thanks to the work Maire MacNeill, Lùnastal is probably one of the most well-documented Quarter Days in the Gaelic calendar. Her Festival of Lughnasa is the reference par excellence for any aspiring reconstructionist, folklorist or Celticist (though mainly coming from an Irish perspective), but there are plenty of other sources to draw from and hopefully this page will pull together some of the most salient points. Needless to say, given the wealth of information provided by MacNeill alone, this page can never be as comprehensive as her book and as with anything it’s well worth doing your own research.
My aim here is to give an outline of Lùnastal from its earliest documented references in historical and mythological sources, before going on to look at the customs and beliefs associated with it in Ireland and Scotland:
In the simplest terms, Lùnastal marked the start of autumn and the beginning of the harvest season. It ushered in a welcome end to hunger and heralded a time of great abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables and grains ripe for the reaping – or so one would hope – and so it became a celebration of the first fruits of the season.
There was very much a social aspect to the festival, perhaps allowing some relaxation and socialising before the hard work of the harvest began. The festival was historically the time of one of the chief assemblies in Ireland, which were supposed to be held by kings and attended by the people of the túath. Here, legal business was done, livestock, food and other goods were bought and sold, and festivities were held with games, horse races, feasting, drinking, story-telling and music.1 There is also evidence, from the Dindshenchas and the surviving lore, that suggests there were commemorative rituals performed at this time.2
In later years the assemblies lost their legal and political aspects (except for the fact that the rents were still due) and became commercial fairs, retaining the markets, games and festivities, and then later still retaining only the more festive aspects.3 The markets provided the opportunity for the folk to sell their wares, in order to make their money to pay the rents; what once would have been a secondary association of the main religious and socio-political aspects of the festival became the main focus.4 Couples could join together in trial marriages as well at this time, which could be dissolved the following Bealltainn without any legal recriminations for either party involved if things didn’t work out – if no children were produced, for example;5 wages were given to the woman for her service during the marriage, and no grounds were needed to be given for the divorce.6 Given the fact that peace was supposed to be maintained during the festival, however, men were only allowed to seek out their first wife (since polygamy was allowed under early Irish law) – otherwise frictions and fighting could break out with competition between men as well as established wives and prospective ones.7
Underlying the festivities were the usual mixture of hope and fear, of subtle, supernatural dangers and threats, and the desire to safeguard against them. In Ireland, a great feast of all the various fruits, vegetables and crops that were to be had was prepared, communities gathered together on hilltops or near lakes or rivers for games and races, dancing and bilberry picking. In Scotland, less evidence of the great communal gatherings has survived, but similar feasts were held, along with the games and races, drinking and music, and in both places animals – invariably horses or cattle – were sained in one way or another to protect them in the coming year.
While most sources that have been collected point to Lùnastal as being very much a Gaelic festival, there is evidence from Gaul that a similar sort of holy day may have been celebrated on the continent. Lugdunum, capital of the Roman province of Gallia Lugdunensis and in the territory of the Gaulish Segusiavi tribe, is thought to derive the first part of its name from the Gaulish god Lugus. During the reign of Augustus, around 10BC, the emperor instituted a festival day at the Temple of the Three Gauls in the provincial capital (which was dedicated to state worship), in an apparent attempt at transferring or equating an existing Gaulish festival – which may be marked on the Coligny calendar – onto a state festival.8
If Lugus was associated with the same roles as Lugh was in early medieval Irish literature (notably with the harvest and aspects of sovereignty), Augustus’ efforts make a lot of sense. In associating himself with an already existing festival, in a month he renamed after himself, he evidently hoped to assert his own power over the province through religious practice by implying some sort of connection between himself and the deity who shared the same festival date.
Whether the festival was celebrated more widely throughout Gaul and even Britain at this period in time is impossible to say, but the timing and the association with Lugus, whose name is cognate with the Irish god Lugh, is surely no coincidence. It’s also worth noting that the Anglo-Saxon festival of Lammas is likely to have been adopted from existing Brythonic practice, according to some scholars.9
Across Ireland and Scotland, Lùnastal was known by many names. In Ireland, we have records of Lugnasad, Lúnasa, Bron Trogain (‘earth’s sorrowing in autumn’),10 Lewy’s Fair, Puck Fairs, Domnach Chrom Dubh (Crom Dubh’s Sunday), and Garlic, Garland, Bilberry, Hill or Height Sunday, or Domhnach Deireannach (Last Sunday).11 In Scotland, it appears to have simply been known as Lùnastal or Lammas Day.
Many of these names are descriptive of the customs or mythological beings associated with the festival, and the fact that many of them are explicitly named as falling on a Sunday (the last Sunday in July before Lùnastal itself) is important. Danaher suggests that the shift of much of the festivities to the Sunday was due to two reasons – firstly that because of the busy period in preparing for the harvest, along with the possibly unpredictable weather, work days were too important to give up. As Sunday would have been a day of rest anyway, it made sense to hold celebrations then. Secondly, the change in calendar from Julian to Gregorian divorced the festivities from the ‘proper’ date and so the customs survived in a secular sense, separate from their Quarter Day origins,12 and so many of these practises lost the anchor of tradition that kept them being observed for their particular purpose, year after year. Without good reason, much was simply lost. In Scotland this was further compounded by the fact that while most festivals shifted with the calendar to their New Style dates, the new law that ushered in the new calendar made specific exceptions for fairs, marts and markets. These were meant to be held on their ‘natural’ date according to the Old Style calendar.13
MacNeill argues that originally the dating of the festival may have fallen at a particular phase of the moon rather than the beginning of the month:
“The lunar connexion may be revealed in the term ‘luan’ used in ‘aidchi luain in Lugnasaid’, and in ‘Luain Loga Lugnasa’…’Luan’ in these expressions is more likely to mean ‘the new moon, the first day of the month’ than ‘Monday’, as it is sometimes translated.”14
Bealltainn was referred to in similar terms in Irish, and comparatively speaking if we look to Cornwall, MacNeill notes that the Fair of Morvah was still celebrated at the first new moon in August (or the second new moon after the summer solstice, as it would have been in pre-Christian times).15 Given that this date could vary widely if reckoned by the moon, rather than the sun, it’s possible that the festival may have taken on a more symbolic tone of celebrating the harvest and the first fruits in anticipation, rather than in actuality, and this is often seen in modern records from Scotland in particular.16
Cormac’s Glossary, probably written towards the end of the ninth century AD, defines the festival as:
“Lughnasad, i.e. the násad of Lugh son of Ethle i.e. an assembly held by him at the beginning of the harvest each year at the coming of Lughnasa. Násad is a name for games or an assembly.”17
While Cormac’s etymologies are often somewhat…imaginative…there does seem to be some weight to what he says here – the associations of the festival with Lugh are strong in the myths and lore. Of all the festivals, Lùnastal is the only one to bear the name of a deity (in the Old Irish forms of the names), and the reason for Lugh’s intimate associations with the festival can be found in the tale from the Mythological Cycle known as Cath Maige Tuired (The Second Battle of Mag Tured).
Although set around the time of Samhainn, the tale shows how Lugh played his part in the defeat of the Fomoire at the hands of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Having come face to face with Bres, former king and now captive of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Bres begs for his life and offers Lugh an abundance of crops and milk, no matter the season. Unimpressed, Lugh refuses the offer and replies that all he needs to know is when to plow, when to sow, and when to reap. Bres willingly gives him his wisdom on the matter and from then on the Tuatha Dé Danann were able to be self-sufficient.18
For his part in all this Lugh became indelibly associated with Lùnastal, since this was the time when the barley and wheat harvests would have begun in early medieval Ireland.19 However, in terms of local lore and traditions associated with the festival across Ireland, Lugh is almost entirely absent from mention. Instead, it is Patrick who gains some prominence, in some parts coming up against the figure of Crom Dubh, the ‘Dark Bent One’.20 Crom Dubh, unlike Patrick, even manages to lend his name to the festival in some parts of Ireland, where it was known as Domhnach Crom Dubh. In north-east Limerick we have the name Black Stoop Sunday, which appears to be a fairly literal translation of the Gaelic.21
Crom Dubh is not known anywhere in the myths, but he may have links with the names Coirpre, Cairbre and Cormac, since the epithet, ‘Crom’ is often associated with them, or else we see ‘Cormac Dubh’, rather than Crom in the literature.22 It’s hard to say whether this is simply coincidence, or meaningful, however, when taken at face value.
The tales involving Crom Dubh generally involves at least two motifs: a bull (which may or may not be killed, butchered, skinned and eaten and then resuscitated by some means or another, providing hints of a ritualistic sacrifice, perhaps),23 and a struggle between Crom Dubh and another figure – usually Patrick:
“Tradition represents Crom Dubh as the pagan potentate, dominant in the land until the coming of a missionary (most often St Patrick). The legends portray him as a territorial lord, sometimes endow him with magical powers, and, in a few instances, explicitly call him a false god (dia bréige). He is overcome by the superior power of Christianity over Paganism which tradition claims to commemorate ever since of Domhnach Crom Dubh.”24
As MacNeill would have it, Patrick takes the place of Lugh, as the victor in the tale, and Crom Dubh is clearly a god: “…he appears to be a farmers’ god, with the farmers’ concern for live-stock and crops, and the farmer’s reluctance to part with his goods.”25 This in turn makes some sense of the fact that Lugh, traditionally associated with light, being pitted against a god whose name means Dark Bent One, and comparison may be drawn with the idea of sunny and gloomy or rainy weather – one being beneficial to the harvest and the other, obviously, very much not. As MacNeill notes, this fact isn’t explicitly mentioned in the tales,26 but there is lore relating to the weather during the harvest in both Ireland and Scotland that sees the rain as being a good or bad sign depending on the location.27 Additionally, in one tale relating to Crom Dubh, he receives baptism (and therefore salvation) but only after spending buried up to his neck with only his head above ground, during which time there was a terrible storm.28
On the one hand, tantalising comparison could be drawn between the idea of Lugh and Crom Dubh originally being in competition with each other, and the episode between Lugh and Bres in Cath Maige Tuired. Is Crom Dubh a folk memory of symbology now lost, interpreted and reinterpreted into a more palatable Christian framework for the age? It could be argue that Patrick’s triumph over Crom Dubh simply provides a neat story to show the triumph of Christianity over Paganism, and at such a time of a celebration that has such pagan roots, no wonder it gained a focus. But then again, MacNeill suggests:
“…the dominant theme of Lughnasa is the struggle between two gods, one of whom, Crom Dubh, is a hill-dweller, owner of a bull and of a granary, corn-bringer and cultivator, feast-giver, ruler of elements, owner of a baleful light, a possessor and a conserver of his possessions. His opponent, Lugh…is a newcomer, a travellers, clever, with superior power or skill, able to enlist the help of a giant, owner of a marvellous horse, a dispossessor, and annexer of the other’s goods for his followers, a winner of meat and corn.”29
The association of Lugh with Patrick isn’t such a stretch, then. Nor would the idea that Crom Dubh might be associated with any number of gods from the myths, all of whom would have been as providers in some way or another – the Dagda, Elcmar, Balor, Cormac, for example.30
Legally, according to the legal text Críth Gablach, Lùnastal was supposed to be the day on which the king held a great assembly, or óenach, for his túath,31 and there are mentions of fairs being held at Crúachain (in Connacht), Carman (in Leinster), Ráith Ua nEchach (of the Éogonacht Raithlind), Raigne (of the Osraige) and Colmán Lann Ela (of the Uí Cheinnselaig).32 The chief assembly was held at Tailltenn, presided over by the king of Tara (or, the Uí Néill), and while this was supposed to be attended by all the kings of Ireland, this was never likely to have been the reality – as the idea of the king of Tara being the high-king of Ireland never became reality either.33
There is great debate as to how often this should have taken place – yearly, every three years, once in a king’s reign, and so on…While Cormac’s Glossary states clearly that the king was meant to hold an assembly every August, the Dindshenchas poem on the fair of Carmun (a fair possibly held somewhere around Kildare) mentions that it was only held every three years,34 as the poem on the fair of Laigin also states.35 Binchy, for his part, shows that according to the annals the assemblies were only ever held sporadically from the late 900s onwards, in spite of the dire consequences that were supposed to befall those who failed to attend, and concludes that (by this time at least) most kings would have held only one assembly during their reign as a means of consolidating their political power.36 Kelly, on the other hand, suggests they were originally held annually, and it was only under exceptional circumstances that an óenach was missed until the Viking attacks began and disrupted much of the political order of Ireland.37
Lugh is said to have inaugurated the fair of Tailltenn in honour of his foster-mother, Tailtiu, who was a queen of the Fir Bolg38 – the race who brought the concept of kingship to Ireland, according the the Lebor Gabála Érenn. That the assemblies were a time for legal and political matters to be settled – where rents and dues were calculated, but also, significantly, where the king’s subjects would come to formally recognise his authority39 and offerings were probably made to ensure a good harvest – makes the association of Tailtiu very apt in this light. Being the chief assembly of Ireland, the most powerful kings were then associated with the ancestors of the kingship itself.
However, other women also figure in the legends recorded of other sites where the local assemblies were commonly held. A common theme with all of these is that the sites were chosen to commemorate the women’s deaths, usually under tragic circumstances. While Lugh’s foster-mother, Tailtiu, is the best known (she died after her monumental efforts at clearing plains – giving her the link to agriculture and pastoral farming as well – and so perhaps this fact may have been associated in some way with the clearing and preparing of the site by the people on behalf of the king40), the Dindshenchas poem for Carmun also tells us that the fair was held as a funeral games. And so:
“The portrayal of a funerary monument at an assembly site as the burial place of a king may be inspired by the desire of a later socio-political élite to demonstrate the royal status and antiquity of the óenach. In addition, the association assembly sites with prehistoric funerary monuments may have been intended to make explicit the genealogical ties between the (alleged) occupant of a tomb and his (alleged) successor, the present king who now presides over the óenach. In this way, the legitimacy of both the óenach and the king presiding over it is promoted by conveying the immemorial and mystical aura of the assembly and the kingship.”41
It seems, then, that there may have been hints of some sort of ancestral connection with the choice of location for the assemblies – either by direct association with a pre-historic (and pre-Celtic) tomb or earthwork,42 or else by local legend as shown by the Dindshenchas for Tailtiu or Carman, for example. It is easy to point to later traditions where the garlands made by young unmarried girls were often hung in the church graveyards at the start of the dancing that usually marked the end of the festival: “Rites in honour of the dead seem to have marked the old Lammas festival, so that again we notice the association of ancestral spirits with the fertility of farm and family.”43
While the óenach may be defined as an assembly – and a political as much as a social one, at that – the term also refers to that of a reunion.44 Therefore it seems that one of the underlying purposes of the assembly was primarily for the king to bring together his people in order to demonstrate and reaffirm their loyalty to him, and Aitchison notes that legally, “…attendance at an over-king’s ‘house of ale-feasting’ and óenach are classed together,” and that, “…the act of entering a king’s house constitutes a symbolic act of submission.”45 To refuse to attend a king’s assembly would therefore be an act of rebellion and defiance, which would naturally incur serious consequences and so, as the Rees brothers put it: “Assemblies…represent both a return to the original unity and the re-creation of order.”46
In this respect then, the festivities of the occasion were not just political, but would symbolically reflect the king’s hospitality and generosity; the celebration of a good harvest would reflect his just and rightful rule over his people, and so would justify the people’s submission to his authority. Not surprisingly then, peace was also a sacred condition of the assembly, as the Dindshenchas on Carmun illustrates:
1. Suing, harsh levying of debts,
satirising, quarrelling, misconduct,
is not dared during the races
absconding with a deposit, nor distraint.47
Likewise, the Dindshenchas for Tailtiu echoes the same:
“A fair without sin, without fraud, without reproach, without insult, without contention, without seizure, without theft, without redemption: No man going into the seats of the women, nor woman into the seats of the men, shining fair, but each in due order by rank in his place in the high Fair. Unbroken truce of the fair and while through Erin and Alba alike, while men went in and came out without any rude hostility. Corn and milk in every stead, peace and fair weather for its sake, were granted to the heathen tribes of the Greeks for maintaining of justice.”48
With the gathering of many different túatha at the larger assemblies, which would have been organised by the more important and influential kings of the region, these conditions could only give the added advantage of ensuring at least a nominal harmony to the proceedings while inevitable rivalries between different groups were put aside for the sake of the ceremonies. Presumably all bets were off once the assembly was over…At the very least, the somewhat touchy subjects of tithes and dues, along with political disputes that would be mediated by the king, could be worked out without the resort to violence to illustrate one’s disagreement with what might be seen as an unfair price (honour-price or rent) to pay.
Ultimately the assemblies at Lùnastal not only ensured the continuing order and well-being of the tuath, it renewed it as well.
The later accounts of Lùnastal in Ireland links it strongly with the start of the harvest and the gathering of the first fruits; in fact it was so strongly associated with it, that it was considered by many to be improper for any corn to be cut, or potatoes dug up, before Lùnastal began.49
Since the start of the harvest was the over-riding theme of the festival it was considered to be incredibly ill-omened if one went hungry during the celebrations. A hearty meal was supposed to ensure that the coming year was free from hunger, whereas a frugal feast foretold want.50 In a time when everyone depended on what the fields could provide for them, it was a considerably worrying time as much as it was a joyous one if the summer had been bad for the crops. In spite of the jollity associated with the day, then, it was often foreshadowed by the worry that the harvest might not be enough to see the family through until the next year’s harvest.
Before the potato became the staple food of the Irish diet, it is likely that the first grains were harvested from the fields, which were then prepared for making the meal or flour from which porridge or bread could be made as the celebratory dish. Danaher notes that where there were survivals of this practice, the crops were supposed to be reaped in the morning and cooked or baked before the evening – much like the harvest practices found in Scotland.51
Other traditions associated with the crops may hint at older practises being preserved – in County Tipperary, tithes of the first sheaf harvested were buried at the Rock of Barnane, and in various places a tenth of the harvest was left for the fairies. Rather than the offerings being made in the fields where the crops themselves were harvested, they were taken to the heights where the gatherings took place. This was because, MacNeill suggests: “It was on them that the offering could best be made if the god dwelt on high. In itself, it is interesting that the offering of tithes should be made not near the corn-plots but on a height, often as we know, a hill-summit which it would take several hours to climb. The deity was conceived of as having his home on the hill – indeed in the hill.”52
Or perhaps, more to the point, her home on the hill, given the fact that the plain was generally associated with a local goddess, probably associated with the sovereignty of the people of the area.
These hillside gatherings fell out of favour for a number of reasons – not just that times changed and therefore so did needs (the passing of the dependence on the pastoral economy, for example, with increasing industrialisation and urbanisation and the shift in focus away from rural life) – but also the fact that as the political and religious aspects began to lessen in focus, and the more social and commercial aspects increased in focus, the potential for violence increased also. Certainly this was widely reported across Ireland and was a common reason for the gatherings to be banned..53 In 1845, the Parliamentary Gazetteer condemned the Donnybrook Fair in unequivocal terms:
“’During the week, beginning on the 26th August, is held the notorious Donnybrook Fair, professedly for the sale of horses and black cattle, but really for vulgar dissipation, and formerly for criminal outrage and the most revolting debauchery. It was for generations a perfect prodigy of moral horrors – a concentration of disgrace upon, not Ireland alone, but civilised Europe. It far surpassed all other fairs in the multitude and grossness of its disgusting incidents of vice; and, in general, it exhibited such continuous scenes of riot, bloodshed, debauchery and brutality, as only the coarsest taste and the most hardened heart could witness without painful.’ This was by day; ‘the orgies of the night may be better imagined than described.’”54
In this way even the commercial aspects of the fair were eroded, and so the focus came to be increasingly on the first fruits; the social aspects came to be increasingly the preserve of the younger folk, who could still manage the long hikes to the high places where the gatherings had traditionally taken place, and took the opportunity to do some courting, dancing, drinking and showing off manly feats of strength and skill in the games and sports.55
Later, with the importance of the potato becoming firmly established in tradition, these were the main crop to be harvested and then cooked as the crops had been before them. They were invariably served mashed with butter and milk, often with plenty of garlic added (a custom which leant itself to one of the names for the festival – Garlic Sunday), and onions and shredded cabbage as optional extras (to make colcannon). Depending on the household’s means, the potatoes might be accompanied by fish, chicken, goose or bacon.56
In some villages the preparation of the feast was carried out by the whole community, as MacNeill shows in an example from Co. Mayo:
“Long ago, the people of the district, young and old, gathered into the largest house in the village where a great feast was held. The new potatoes were dug for the first time and each family brought some to the house selected. Five or six began to peel the potatoes while a few more were busy making wooden spoons. Those spoons were made out of a piece of timber and were shaped somewhat like a tiny shovel. When the potatoes were boiled, another party for some garlic which they chopped finely and mixed with the ‘cally’ or the mashed potatoes. Then all sat down and partook of a hearty meal.”57
In addition, it was believed that if anyone didn’t take part in the custom, they would be struck down by an illness in the coming year. Even when the crops were not yet ripe, a portion was taken to make the main dish of the celebratory meal.58
A similar idea was attached to the swimming of cattle in pools, lakes or rivers in some parts of Ireland – with an early source from 1682 commenting, “they think no beast will live the whole year thro’ unless they be thus drenched.” One hundred and fifty years later, another source records a similar practice with horses,59 which was also practised in parts of Scotland (see below). Freshly churned butter was often thrown into the water as an offering to protect the milk supply of the cows in the coming year – although the Clad Ime (lump of butter), as it was known, didn’t have to be very big. Spancels and halters were also thrown in (at the horse swimmings).60
Nerys Patterson suggests that this practice had something to do with the weaning of foals, since the swimming of the horses would cause the foals to lose the scent of their mothers and so encourage an abrupt weaning. Patterson further suggests that far from providing simple entertainment, the horse races that took place would help to establish the value of the foals by showing the quality of stock they came from.61 Such was the importance of these races that the early Irish laws specify a full fine against anyone who failed to restore a horse to its owner in time to make it to the races.62 Cock-fighting and bull-baiting were also associated with the fairs, although there does not seem to have been the same connections with antiquity as the horse racing did.63
Along with the grains or potatoes, fruits were picked, too. Later customs incorporated currants, strawberries, and gooseberries being harvested from the garden, along with wild raspberries
that were generally still available at this time of the year. The most enduring custom, however, was that of the bilberry-picking from the nearby hills or woods,64 and the fact that they were harvested from the wild is perhaps significant:
“The people, we presume, made the offering of corn on the hill and in reciprocity there was provided for them another kind of first fruits, the small dark-blue bilberries growing wild on the hillside.”65
A feast of food and drink was often taken by those who went to pick the fruits – young men would show off their skills through games and sports such as weight-throwing and hurling, while young girls would make garlands of wild flowers; drinking and dancing took place along with the eating in the evening.66 In some parts of Ireland (like Donegal), flowers were worn by everyone who were going to go up the hill, and once at the top the flowers were buried in a specially dug pit to signify that summer was now ended. By the time of recording these customs were expressly the preserve of the young, unmarried folk.67
The tale of Angus and Bride tells us that when Beira was trying to hold onto her grip of winter over the land, and stop the two lovers from being together, she borrowed three days of good weather from the month of August and swapped them with three days of cold, wet weather from February.68 This idea was preserved in the saying:
“Tri láithean de’n Iuchar ‘s an Fhaoileach ’S tri láithean de’n Fhaoileach ‘s an Iuchar.
(Three days of Iuchar in Fhaoileach And three days of Faoileach in Iuchar.)”69
In addition to this, MacNeill notes that the period of Iuchar started 15 days before Lùnastal, and ended 15 days after it, which may relate to a forgotten lunar timing in determining its start (as mentioned above).70
It seems evident that the kirk made great efforts to stamp out the practices associated with Lùnastal – felt to be utterly pagan – and by and large they seem to have succeeded, since very little survives even into relatively modern times that is specifically associated with the festival. What did survive seems to have been very localised and not necessarily specific to August 1st, but rather the date of the harvest. If we look to the practice of the Moilean Mhoire that was made on August 15th, the Feast of St Mary, from the first grains picked from the fields and dried by the sun for threshing and then grinding, from which the bannock was then made, we may see evidence of the bonnach Lunastain having shifted (or being duplicated) to an important date in the Church calendar (or else remaining at roughly the same time as Lùnastal would have been celebrated before the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendar). According to Carmichael the bonnach Lunastain was accompanied by individual cakes – known as Luinean for men and Luineag for women.71 In the south of Scotland McNeill notes that oatcakes were made before the fire, then crumbled into a pot with butter and “made into a sort of pottage” called Butter Brughtins72 – so presumably quite a rich and stodgy accompaniment to the main dish if it wasn’t all mixed in and stewed together for a time.
While the emphasis of the festival bannocks isn’t found in Ireland at all, the general elements of the celebrations remain the same between the two countries – the social and commercial aspects, and emphasis on the harvest goods and so forth. It’s notable, however, that one of the most consistent and widespread customs associated with the festival in Ireland does not appear to have been emphasised in Scotland. MacNeill, and all the other sources I’ve seen, make no mention of bilberry picking in Scotland as part of the festivities, although the fruit was picked from July onwards (as it became available, depending on the weather that season and the locale), and in the Highlands they were often served in milk, made into preserves or tarts, and used in dyes and medicines (especially for diarrhoea).73
Otherwise, it does appear that as in Ireland, handfastings – temporary marriages – were often contracted at the Lammas fairs between couples who would then live together for a year and a day before deciding whether or not to formalise it with a church wedding or to go their separate ways.
“In 1609 the ‘Statutes of Icolmkill [Iona] announced the abolition of handfast marriages in the Highlands, in an effort to bring all of Scotland under the control of the Scottish Parliament. The custom was eventually wiped out with more than a little help from the church, yet it probably existed in the first place because of the scarcity of clergy in rural communities.”74
In Ireland the marriages were contracted until the following Bealltainn, however (see above).
While the Lammas fairs and hilltop gatherings themselves seem to have died out quite early, and were widely condemned by the church as promoting immoral behaviour, the condemnations do at least give us an insight into where the gatherings took place. The Minister of Ruthven writes of a gathering at a chapel and well in the parish of Dipple, in 1656, and in 1634 the Synod of Elgin, “regrated unto the Synod that there were four Sundry Sabbaths wherein many of the lowse people of the Presbytery, especially of the parishes of Aberlour and Inveravon, convened at a well in Kilmaihly called Tapper Donigh, where there was nothing but abuse and profauction of the Sabbath.”75
As with the other Quarter Days, remnants of bonfires being lit to mark the day can be seen, with mention of ‘the Tannel’, being lit in some parts of Scotland. Preparations for the Tannel were made in advance, with lads going around the parish with horns, pipers and dancing to coax donations of fuel for the fire from members of the parish.76
One of the only certain hilltop gatherings recorded, according to MacNeill, was held in Mid-Lothian, and included one of the most peculiar customs associated with the day. Writing in 1792 of a custom practised just six miles west of Edinburgh more than 30 years beforehand, James Anderson gives an account of what took place in order to preserve it for posterity: Here the herds would spend weeks preparing for the festival by building large towers (known as Lammas towers) at meeting places near the centre of the district. Opposing factions would concentrate on building their tower, starting as much as a month in advance but only really putting the work in to finish it a few days beforehand. They were made out of stones and sods of earth, and could reach as high as eight feet tall – sometimes more – before the day, at which point they were topped with a flag made from a table cloth decorated with ribbon.
Since opposing factions would sometimes try to sabotage their rivals’ tower, great care was taken to guard the tower once it was started; defacement or destruction of the tower was considered to be a great shame and disgrace on the district. At Lùnastal the herds of the district would gather at the tower, and after a breakfast of bread and cheese the rival factions would march to meet each other (assuming the group wasn’t surprised by the rivals mid-breakfast, that is…). Horns and pipes were played, and colours were flown as the herds marched, headed by a Captain. Upon meeting, both sides would demand that the other should lower their colours. Unless one side was clearly outnumbered, this usually ended up with both sides refusing and resorting to blows. The losers would march for a time behind the victors, and then the two groups would go their separate ways and head to the main town or village.
By noon, if no attack seemed likely the group would take down their colours and move on to the nearest town or large village, where everyone would come out to meet them and games would take place. Races were held and prizes were won – ribbons, garters or a knife – and eventually it would all wind down before sunset.77
Another hilltop fair was to be found on the Isle of Mull, which attracted folk from all across the Western Isles, the Lowlands and even Ireland. The fair lasted for a week and people camped on the hill, “where droll adventures often occurred.”78
Lùnastal generally marked the time at which the cattle were brought down from their summer pastures in Scotland, and this was the cause of great celebration. Mothers would make small cheeses for their children – probably a crowdie-type with caraway added to it (as it was often added to cheese and oatcakes for festive occasions), so a soft cheese that wouldn’t keep for very long – and this was supposed to be for good luck. Along with the cheese (the freshly made crowdie, or in some parts it was the cheese saved from Bealltainn), butter was also churned for the evening feast.79
At Inverkeithing, John Simson tells us in the late nineteenth century, the herd boys would prepare for the festival by leaving aside a field for a good while in advance, which the cows were then allowed to graze on the morning of the festival. This was called the ‘Lammas bite’, and the abundance of grass meant the cows could eat as much grass in a morning as they normally would in a whole day.80 No doubt this would yield extra milk, and it would help ensure that the quarter was begun with a good abundance of white produce, which would be seen as a good sign.
The fishermen of Orkney and Shetland came together to celebrate the end of the white-fishing season at this time as well, before starting work on bringing in the harvest. Here a great feast – the Lammas Foy – marked the focus of the festivities, and McNeill lists scones, oatcakes, burstin brönies, butter, eggs, reisted (smoked) ham and vivda (meat unsalted and wind-dried), along with Dutch kroogs as the types of food on offer.
After the eating came the drinking, fortune telling by the spae-wife, with toasts given to good health, songs sung and riddles told by everyone present. MacNeill notes that one of the toasts commonly given combined both the harvest of the field and the harvest of the sea into its blessing: “Gude haad His hand ower da corn, an’ open da mooth ‘o da gray fish!”81 Given the fact that it was a Quarter Day, however, and the trows would therefore be active, dancing was frowned upon because it would attract unwanted attention.82
Not surprisingly for a Quarter Day, saining rites figured heavily at Lùnastal. There was the usual prohibition on giving or lending anything from the house on the day,83 and on the eve, cattle were protected by having tar daubed on their ears and tails, and red or blue thread was also woven into their tails. Charms were said at their udders to preserve their milk, and a ball of their hair (known in Gaelic as a rolag) was put into the milk pail the following morning – or else the following Thursday – and F. Marian McNeill mentions that in at least one case: “a man called MacSymon, a native of Tiree, used to give to all who came to him a little bag of plants, sewn up, to be kept in the cream jug during the ensuing year.”84 In addition to all this, fire was carried around the vessels (crogain) in which the butter or milk was to be kept, in order to sain them for the coming quarter.85
Houses and byres were also sained with the sop seille – ‘the spittle wisp’ – a piece of straw dipped in water that had been spat in (or had been transferred into a container from the well via the mouth), or else had come into contact with silver or gold.86
Horses appear to have been sained as well, by immersing them in water – a practice also found in parts of Ireland as has been seen. John Dalyell writes: “In July 1647, the kirk-session of St Cuthberts resolved on intimating publicly, ‘that non gae to Leith on lamb-mes-day, nor tak their horses to be washed that day in the sea.’”87
These rites of water weren’t limited to animals alone, as the many wells and lochs associated with healing properties – especially for ‘lunacy’ – that were visited during this time attest. The practice of visiting the island at Loch Maree has already been mentioned elsewhere, and while this was carried out later in the month, on August 25th, the associations with Lùnastal appear to be unmistakable. This is reinforced by the fact that the rites associated with the visit to the island involved the slaughter of a bull, followed by a sunwise turn around the chapel.88 The killing of the bull is reminiscent of the bull sacrifice found in some of the Irish legends associated with Crom Dubh, noted above.
St Fillan’s Well, at Strathfillan, and another well dedicated to the same saint at Dunfillan were visited on August 1st, for the purpose of curing lunacy. The well at Dunfillan was situated at the foot of the hill, with a rock situated at the summit, known as St Fillan’s Chair, that was meant to cure rheumatism. Its hilly situation may be significant in that it is certainly reminiscent of the hillside assemblies in Ireland and those leftover in Scotland.89 The well was visited at both Bealltainn and Lùnastal, and:
“The health seekers walked or were carried thrice round the spring from east to west, following the course of the sun. The next part of the ritual consisted in the use of the water for drinking and washing, in throwing a white stone on the saint’s cairn, near the spring, and in leaving a rag as an offering before departing. In 1791 not fewer than seventy persons visited the spot at the dates mentioned [May 1st and August 1st].”90
The waters of Loch Manaar, Sutherland, were also considered to be quite potent and were often visited on the Monday after the Quarter Days for their healing properties, with the warmer weather for Bealltainn and Lùnastal attracting the most visitors. Here the patient was taken into the middle of the loch by boat at sunset, after being bound and half-starved for a day in preparation. They were dunked in the loch and then given dry clothes to change into, and the patient was then taken home.91
An early name for Lùnastal, given by Emer in the tale The Wooing of Emer, is Brón Trogain, which is glossed as ‘earth’s sorrowing in autumn.’92 It’s not clear what the earth may be sorrowful about, but this ninth century triad might offer a clue:
Trí bróin ata ferr fáilti: brón tréoit oc ithe messa, brón guirt apaig, brón feda fo mess .
Three sorrows which are better than joy: the sorrow of a herd of pigs eating acorns, the sorrow of a ripe cornfield, the sorrow of a tree in fruit.93
Kelly suggests that here the sorrow is the impression given by the corn as it bends over in the fields, heavy and ripe for harvesting, and as the trees and bushes hang low as they are laden with fruit that are ripe for the 94 From the analysis of pig bones found in Iron Age ritual contexts, we know that given their age at the time of slaughtering, they would have been killed at a time that is likely to have coincided with Lùnastal,95 although more likely the focus was fattening them up for Samhainn, and pork continued to be a central dish in festive celebrations according to the early Irish sources as well.96 The sorrowful image of the crops and trees, and the impending slaughter of the pigs, then, echoed the joy of the celebrations and the prospect of plenty to come with the harvest, followed by the dark and bleak prospect of winter when most of the cattle would run dry of milk.
Another ninth century triad tells us:
Trí bairr for Érinn: bar dés 7 barr scoth 7 barr mesa
Three abundances in Ireland: an abundance of ears of corn, and abundance of flowers, and an abundance of fruit.97
All three elements have been seen to be celebrated in the survivals of Lùnastal celebrations – more so in Ireland than Scotland, though presumably this is because of the strength of the survivals in Ireland compared to its Scottish relative. Flowers were used for decoration or offerings, fruit and vegetables were picked or dug up and provided the main dishes for the celebratory feast along with porridge, bread or bannocks made from the freshly harvested and dried grains.
Originally the celebrations were part of a legally sanctioned assembly organised by the king and attended by his subjects. Legal and political issues were discussed under the auspices of a sacred peace, ancestors were commemorated in some way, and the harvest was celebrated. Games and races were held, and markets gave the opportunity for sellers to offer their wares. The survival of tales and rites involving the sacrifice (and sometimes subsequent resurrection) of a bull in both Ireland and Scotland suggests that this was carried out as part of the original religious rites for the occasion. Underlying all of this was an affirmation – or re-affirmation – of the king’s authority. Symbolically, his power was reinforced through the assembly, since peace, justice, generosity and a good harvest for the people was a sign of the king’s just and rightful reign.98
With the coming of Christianity (and then the Vikings) providing the impetus for social, cultural and religious change, the assemblies seem to have fallen out of favour and their political focus came to be worn away. Instead, the focus of the gatherings came to be (primarily) commercial and social, but then for the most part even these came to be abandoned. Even without the hilltop or lakeside gatherings, other traditions still survived. What was once a community affair became more focused on the home farm – from the focus on the king and renewing pledges of allegiance to him, with underlying religious themes, the festival became a commercial fair for the community and drawing customers from further afield, and then to the focus on one’s own harvest. As with so many festivals, many of the customs were retained by the younger folk, at some remove from their origin.
Finally, as MacNeill puts it so poetically (and given her contribution to the subject, it is only fitting to finish with her):
“Generation after generation, our country-people met once a year at this festival on the hills, made the customary rounds, picked bilberries and wild flowers, danced and fell in love, raced and wrestled, competed in tests of strength and agility, joined in the routine fights, met old friends and exchanged news, heard old stories from the elders and grew to know the landmarks. They upheld the custom until finally they became it recorders.”99
1 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, 1997, p459; Jaski, Early Irish Kingship and Succession, 2000, p50-51.
2 Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen, 1994, p142.
3 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p255.
4 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p288-289.
5 Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen, 1994, p138.
6 Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen, 1994, p145.
7 Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen, 1994, p145.
8 Fishwick, The Imperial Cult in the Latin West: Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire, 1987, Vol 1.1, pp97-103; MacNeill, 1962, p418-419; Venceslas Kruta, ‘Celtic Religion’ in Moscati, The Celts, 1991, p502-503.
9 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p1.
10 Kinsella, The Tàin, 1969, p27.
11 Danaher, The Year In Ireland, 1972, p166; Paterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen, 1994, p143; MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962.
12 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p166.
13 MacNeiil, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p22.
14 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p16.
15 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p16; p419.
16 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p419.
17 “Lugnasad .i. násad Loga maic Ethlend .i. aonach nofertha lais im thatite foghmair in gach bliadhain im thoidecht Lugnasad. Cluiche nó aonach, is do’ is ainm násad.” MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p3.
18 See Cath Maige Tuired, translated by Elizabeth Gray. It is perhaps significant that the Fomoire’s appearance in Irish myth, according to Lebor Gabala Erenn, coincides with the introduction of agriculture to Ireland and mythologically, in this sense, the Fomoire themselves could be seen as being symptomatic of the lands displeasure over the inhabitants attempts at ‘taming’ it. It is only when Lugh gains the vital piece of information of how best to plow, sow and reap from Bres, and the Fomoire as a whole are subsequently defeated that they disappear from the Mythological Cycle. It is perhaps significant that the Tuatha De Danann, when the Sons of Míl come on the scene, that they initially take on a similarly combative role and try to force the Milesians out by causing their crops and milk to fail, forcing the Milesians into coming to the agreement that Ireland would be split in half – the Tuatha De Danann getting all that was below ground (notably where the crops grow from…) and the Milesians above.
19 Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen, 1994, p141.
20 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p28; p409.
21 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p28.
22 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p415.
23 “The folk legends of the origin of the festival speak amply of a bull which belonged to the pagan and which, in some legends, was itself a pagan power. In the last chapter it was suggested that the legend of the resuscitated bull may have been derived from the custom of sacrificinf a bull at the festival, with possibly a parade of the stuffed effigy of the bull afterwards, or the substitution of a young bull to take the slain bull’s place. Important in this connection is the fact that at three of the main sites the actual scene of the bull legend is not the hill-summit but a place at the foot – e.g. Aghagower…” MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p423.
24 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p28.
25 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p409-410.
26 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p410.
27 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p421.
28 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p394.
29 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p416.
30 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p416.
31 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, 1997, p458.
32 Jaski, Early Irish Kingship and Succession, 2000, p53.
33 See Binchy, ‘The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara’.
34 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, p459.
35 Binchy, ‘The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara,’ p125.
36 Binchy, ‘The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara,’ p125.
37 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, 1997, p458.
39 See Aitchison, Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval Ireland: Monuments, Cosmology and the Past, 1994, p62ff.
40 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, 1997, p458.
41 Yes, the whole book reads like that (just in case you were wondering). Aitchison, Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval Ireland: Monuments, Cosmology and the Past, 1994, p141.
42 Binchy, ‘The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara’, p124.
43 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p276.
44 Aitchison, Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval Ireland: Monuments, Cosmology and the Past, 1994, p62.
45 Aitchison, Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval Ireland: Monuments, Cosmology and the Past, 1994, p64.
46 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p143.
49 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p167.
50 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p56.
51 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p167.
52 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p421.
53 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p254.
54 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p255-256.
55 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p257.
56 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p53; p55.
57 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p58.
58 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p167.
59 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p243-244.
60 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p275; Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths in Ireland, Volume I, 1902, p282; Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, pp142-143.
61 Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen, 1994, p144.
62 Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen, 1994, p142.
63 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p262.
64 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p168.
65 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p421.
66 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p169.
67 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p143.
68 MacKenzie, Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend.
69 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p357.
70 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p16.
71 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume I, 1900, p211.
72 McNeill, The Scots Kitchen, 1929, p205.
73 Lightfoot, Flora Scotica, 1777, p201.
74 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p108.
75 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p357.
76 McNeill, The Silver Bough, Volume 2, 1959, p98.
77 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p369-372; MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p307-308.
78 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p675. This is given as an addendum to the section on Scottish practices in the main book, where she claimed that the Mid-Lothian Lammas towers were the only known example of a hilltop gathering recorded.
79 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume II, 1959, p98.
80 Simson, Reminiscences of childhood at Inverkeithing, or Life at a lazaretto, 1882.
81 In other words: “God had his hand over the corn, and opened the mouth of the grey fish!” MacNeill The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p363.
82 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume II, 1959, p97.
83 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p356.
84 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume II, 1959, p97-98.
85 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2000, p557.
86 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2000, p137; p392.
87 Dalyell, The Darker Superstitions of Scotland, 1834, p88. See also MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p7; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume II, 1959, p101.
88 Beith, Healing Threads, 1995, p87.
89 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p368.
90 MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p81-82.
91 MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p250.
92 Kinsella, The Táin, 1969, p27; Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, 1991, p176.
93 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, 1997, p237.
94 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, 1997, p237.
95 Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts, 1997, p197.
96 “Pigs were sometimes killed as sucklings (comlachtaid) for immediate consumption. More commonly, however, they were well fattened up before slaughter. Thus the lupait – apparently a feamle pig of six to eight months – is said to have been regularly killed at Martinmas, I.i. November 11th. It is defined in an early legal gloss as a banb samna, ‘young pig of November.’ Kelly, Early Irish Farming, 1997, p85.
97 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, 1997, p237.
98 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, 1997, p460.
99 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p428.