Unlike the evidence for Là na Caillich, we’re on firmer ground as far as evidence for ritualised celebrations are concerned for Midsummer’s Eve (or St John’s Eve, Bonfire Night,1 Féill Sheathain,2 Teine Féil’ Eóin,3 or Feaill Eoin4) on June 24th in Scotland,5 or the eve of St John’s
Day in Ireland, on June 23rd.6 The provenance of these celebrations are debatable, however, and once again, as with the other festivals focused around the solstices and equinoxes, the evidence seems to point to there being a strong outside influence in the celebrations.7
Some of the earliest mentions of Midsummer celebrations in Scotland date to the sixteenth century, usually in the context of their being condemned (and then banned) by the Kirk for their perceived pagan associations.8 While the Kirk officially frowned on such traditions, in reality the celebrations persisted well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but notably they were only ever really prevalent in the most heavily Scandinavian or English-influenced areas such as the Lowlands and the north-east parts of Scotland.9
This distribution, along with a similar pattern in Wales, suggests an outside influence is responsible, but looking to Ireland and the Isle of Man complicates the issue, since on the face of it, a strong tradition of Midsummer celebrations is prevalent across both of these countries.10 Evidence for Midsummer celebrations in Ireland can be found as far back as the early fourteenth century,11 although in this case references are specifically to St Peter’s Eve (on June 28th. St Peter’s Day was often celebrated in the same manner as St John’s Eve, possibly providing a ‘second chance’ at outdoor celebrations in cases of bad weather dampening celebrations on the earlier date)12 in less condemnatory tones than those found in Scotland, but notably, the reference from New Ross in 1305 comes from a town of English settlers.13
The fires themselves were a common feature of Midsummer celebrations anywhere, and a fourteenth century description of the fires in Shropshire notes the building of three separate fires:
“’In the worship of St John, men waken at even, and maken three manner of fires: one is clean bones; another is of clean wood and no bones, and is called a wakefire, for men sitteth and wake by it; the third is made of bones and wood, and is called St John’s fire.’ The stench of the burning bones…was thought to drive away dragons.”14
Bones are sometimes mentioned in Scottish contexts, and there is also an element of some sort of mourning or funerary rites involved in the surviving descriptions, which suggest a common origin. In Scandinavian Midsummer rites, the bonfires were supposed to represent the funeral pyre of Baldr and mistletoe was gathered at this time.15 Certain ritual elements may echo this custom in Gaelic contexts, as shall be seen; otherwise, the strong overlap in the customs found at Bealltainn and Midsummer celebrations suggests a shift in focus from Bealltainn to Midsummer festivities over time. According to Joyce, some parts of Ireland celebrated the bonfires on May 1st, while others celebrated on June 24th.16 This was perhaps due to the Anglicisation of the ritual year (under whose influence the old Gaelic festivals would presumably have been less favoured compared to the big festivals in the English calendar), but also ecclesiastical influence, with the increasing popularity of St John, to whom the day was dedicated and the shifting of focus away from perveived ‘pagan rites’ that were inherent at Bealltainn. By the nineteenth century, Midsummer celebrations could be found across most of Europe and even parts of north-west Africa.17 With the Gàidhealtachd’s much more insular attitudes, both socially and religiously in many parts, the resistance to adopting such non-native festivities may be explained.
The fires in Scotland
As has been noted, the customs and traditions associated with Midsummer in Scotland were largely confined to the Lowlands and the north and east of Scotland – the most heavily Scandinavian and English-influenced areas – but most especially the Northern Isles can be seen as the stronghold of the tradition.18 Given the shifting of traditions away from pagan connotations, it’s no surprise to find a huge overlap between these customs and traditions with those found at Bealltainn.19
Celebrations began on the evening of the Feast of St John the Baptist (June 24th), and the main focal point of the festivities was the bonfire, although the accompanying rites were more solemnly observed in the north than in the Lowlands, where the emphasis was on fun and festiveness.20 These were generally lit after sunset – which at this time of year would have been very late indeed,21 and around the fire there was food (such as gudebread)22 and drink to be had, along with dancing and the leaping of flames, and the subsequent taking of the fire back to the homestead.23
On Orkney, according to a minister writing in the eighteenth century, the peats for the fire were provided by those whose horses had suffered disease, or been gelded, during the year, with the livestock then being led sunwise around the flames.24 The bonfires were lit “on the most conspicuous place of the parish, commonly facing the south,”25 suggesting a natural communal focus, since presumably this position would allow the fire to be seen from the most homesteads in the area (and so they would get the benefit of the flames), while the southerly situation probably provided the best opportunity for the smoke to waft over the maximum amount of fields in the area.26
In some bonfires a bone was thrown or placed into it, and this was invariably explained as being symbolic of the animal that would previously have been sacrificed to the fire, or else the bone was representative of a man who was made a martyr (although no one appears to have remembered much more in the way of detail).27 This could perhaps be seen as evidence of an echo of Scandinavian influence, with Baldr’s associations with the day.
Branches of birch were collected and hung over the doorways for protection,28 and torches of heather or furze were lit from the main fire and taken back to the homestead by the head of the house, where he would then go round the field sunwise three times to bless the crops, cabbage and kail and ensure a good harvest.29 The same was done around the byre to bless the cattle and safeguard them against disease or casting calves. Meanwhile, the young men and boys remained at the bonfire, where they waited for the flames to die down before leaping them and then heading home at sunrise.30
The fishermen of Shetland would gather on Midsummer’s Eve for the Fisherman’s Foy, and give a toast to the sea and the crops to ensure a good catch and a good catch. Each man would take a turn to toast, and say, “Lord! Open the mouth of the grey fish, and haud thy hand about the corn.”31
Midsummer’s Eve was also a time when witches and fairies were supposed to be at their most potent and active. Care was taken not to give out any dairy produce, to ensure the profit did not leave the house with it.32 But while there were inherent dangers of the season, this power also had an upside in that collecting particular herbs, especially those for healing or protection, were considered to be at their most potent. St John’s Wort was especially looked for, some of which might be hung in the house and outhouses for protection against thunder and evil influences, while some more could be burned in the bonfire or put in the fields.33
Carmichael gives several charms that were used for the picking of St John’s Wort – or St Columba’s Plant, as it was also known – and notes that it was at its most potent when the plant was discovered accidentally rather than purposely looked for:
“Plantlet of Columba,
Without seeking, without searching,
Plantlet of Columba,
Under my arm forever!…”34
With its protective properties, the plant was often sewn into the bodices and vests so that it would sit beneath the left armpit of the wearer, thus ensuring no harm should come to them from the likes of witchcraft or the Good Folk, and neither should they be afflicted by the evil eye or the second sight.
Fern seeds were also sought after, since it was considered to have similarly potent and protective properties:
“Only on Midsummer Eve,’ it is said, ‘can it be gathered from the wondrous night-seeding fern. On that one night it ripens from twelve to one, and then it falls and disappears instantly…It has the wonderful property of making people invisible.”35
Elderberries gathered at Midsummer were said to offer protection from witchcraft, but also bestowed magical powers on those who gathered it.36
The fires in Ireland
The evidence for Ireland is much more abundant than in Scotland, and as one might expect, it follows the same lines; bonfires and blessings of livestock and crops with blazing bushes, along with more specific customs such as the gathering of St John’s Wort.
In addition to all of this were the patterns – religious gatherings that were often focused on the hillsides, loughs and holy wells. These were often as notorious for their faction fighting as they were renowned for the votive rounds that were made by the pilgrims in attendance, or the accompanying dancing, drinking, eating, games and other kinds of amusements. The pattern of Glendalough, is said to have been “…an unsafe locality unless a stipendiary magistrate and about 100 police could keep the combatants, the Byrnes, Tools and Farrells, etc, separate.”37 Such gatherings were eventually banned by the church in the nineteenth century, as much for the violence and drunken debauchery that came to be associated with them, as for the perceived pagan vestiges that clung to them, all though stripped down versions of them did manage to survive in certain parts.38
The bonfires were usually communal affairs for the whole village, except in extremely remote areas where farms would tend to their own fires.39 Exceptions were also made if there had been a recent death in the family; in this case, no fires were lit, no rites were carried out, at home or at the communal bonfire40 – presumably, with the death being so recent, the family were still tainted by it themselves, and risked spreading such ill fortune to the community if they took part. Otherwise, failure to observe and take part in the rites was sure to invite disease on the crops, and disaster for the harvest.41
In the lead up to the festivities, fuel for the main bonfire was often collected from door to door in the village. Since it was considered unlucky (and just plain mean) to refuse to contribute anything, the village bonfire was usually well-fed in this respect, with peats and firewood, and even old bits of furniture and other kinds of inflammable rubbish (even tyres, more recently), and ended up so large that a ladder was required to finish off piling the fuel up on top. Children would also go round gathering sticks and brambles and anything else they could find to contribute to the pile.42
The main bonfire was lit as the sun set, and this task often fell to a wise old man of the village, who would light it with a traditional prayer for the occasion:
“In onóir do Dhia agus do Naomh Eoin, agus chun toraidh agus chun taibhe ar ár gcur agus ar ár saothar in ainm an Athar agus an Mhic agus an Spirid Naoimh, Amen. ’In the honour of God and of St John, to the fruitfulness and profit of our planting and our work, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.’ ”43
After the bonfire was lit, holy water was then sprinkled about the fire and into the flames for blessing. In some parts this was done by the man who lit the fire, but in County Cork it was often a child who was given this job.44 With the formalities over, the festivities would begin, with music, singing, dancing, food and drink, games, story-telling, competitions, and amusements. In some parts of Ireland, it was common to set up a craebh, a large wooden pole that formed a centre point for the gathering, and a place where dancing competitions were held, with gingerbread being given as prizes for the men, and garters for the women.45 It is tempting to see such a practice as being a sort of artificial bile.
In Connaught, ‘goody’ bread (white bread, bought specially from the baker) was often the only food on offer, soaked in sweetened and spiced hot milk (the milk having been stolen from a neighbour’s cow, a lot of the time). This treat was cooked up in a large pot, heated on the main bonfire, or a smaller one made specifically for cooking.46
This main bonfire was usually situated on a spot where the wind would carry the smoke over the main crops in the area, so they’d get the benefit of the protective qualities of the bonfire.47 Lady Wilde gives a good description of the festivities as the flames died down:
“When the fire has burned down to a red glow the young men strip to the waist and leap over or through the flames; this is done backwards and forwards several times, and he who braves the greatest blaze is considered the victor over the powers of evil, and is greeted with tremendous applause. When the fire burns still lower, the young girls leap the flame, and those who leap clean over three times back and forward will be certain of a speedy marriage and good luck in after life, with many children. The married women then walk through the lines of the burning embers; and when the fire is nearly burnt and trampled down, the yearling cattle are driven through the hot ashes, and their back is singed with a lighted hazel twig. These hazel rods are kept safely afterwards, being considered of immense power to drive the cattle to and from the watering places. As the fire diminishes the shouting grows fainter, and the song and the dance commence; while professional story-tellers narrate tales of fairy-land, or of the good old times long ago, when the kings and princes of Ireland dwelt amongst their own people, and there was food to eat and wine to drink for all corners to the feast at the king’s house.”48
The jumping of the bonfire in particular was of great importance, not just for luck and marriage, but also for health.49 The ashes in particular were seen to have strong healing properties, and when collected from the bonfire and stored for use, a little of the ash could be mixed with water and drunk to cure general ailments, or else used as a wash for cuts, wounds, sores, and the like.50 In this vein, Hedderman (writing with characteristic exasperation at such ridiculous superstitions),describes a case where a young man suffers with a badly septic finger. While Hedderman remonstrates the young man about keeping such wounds clean to prevent infection, the young man’s father has a different opinion:
“His father, who was sitting in a chair in the corner, got up, and shaking a closed fist, with a dozen loud imprecations, exclaimed, ‘I knew it would be like this; he did not take in a red coal from the fire on St John’s night.’”51
The dying coals or embers were put to good use in the field, byre, barn and house as well. In addition to healing, keeping some of the ashes in the house was supposed to be good for luck, or ensuring a gentle crossing over for the elderly. Some of the ashes or embers might also be put into the hearth as well,52 and in newly built houses, a shovel was taken to the fire and part of it was taken to the new house so that the first fire in it would be lit from the St John’s bonfire, to ensure luck and prosperity to the inhabitants.53
In the field, the ashes or dying embers were thrown into each corner to bless the crops and ensure a bountiful harvest, or else a bush or bundle of reeds might be lit and taken round the boundaries instead, carried through the fields, or thrown into the crops.54 The torch could be taken around the house, byre and dairy as well, and in some counties (such as County Clare), the burning torch was touched to the cattle to ensure healthy calves. The ashes or embers from the fire placed in the dairy to ensure luck and plenty of milk and butter, as well as to protect against witchcraft. A charred stick might also be brought from the fire, and used to mark a cross at the door and on the churning equipment.55
In Munster, the torches were made of bunches of hay and straw, tied to poles, lit, and then processed about the hill – Cnoc Áine – where the main bonfire was lit. The procession was populated entirely by the men, and led by a member of the Quinlan family, according to Fitzgerald.56 The torches – cliars – were taken around the summit of the hill and then down to the fields, and through the cattle. Several sources speak of this as being a sort of funeral procession for Áine, the tutelary goddess of the region, carried out in remembrance of her, and in the same spirit as the Good Folk, who are said to process in the same manner.57 Once again, such associations are reminiscent of the funerary rites to Baldr, but also, perhaps, evoke half-remembered associations of the funerary rites held in honour of tutelary deities like Tailtiu at Lùnastal, which were not far off at this point.
Before heading to the main bonfire, households would often light a fire in the farmyard as a focus for protective rites and blessings to be carried out. These fires were usually on a much smaller scale than the grand affairs of the ‘big bonfires’, “usually no more than one or two furze bushes, or a little heap of twigs, or a sod or two of blazing turf from the kitchen hearth.”58 Being small, the fire was not expected to last long, and it wasn’t encouraged to once the rites had been finished and everyone was free to head to the main event.59 The rites were similar to those found at the big bonfire – a blessing was made in God’s name, and holy water was sprinkled about the house, the farm building, livestock, crops, and those in attendance.60
While the ashes were supposed to have healing properties, several plants were considered to be particularly potent, as in Scotland. St John’s Wort was looked for, as was mugwort in County Cork and County Waterford, although there was a certain leeway in the timing of its picking that probably accommodated bad weather and the time difference between New Style and Old Style Dates. Anytime between Midsummer and July 4th).61 The juice of the St John’s Wort was then boiled and drank as a preventative against illness.62
The fires in Man
The Isle of Man gives us some very important examples of festival rites at Midsummer, showing both the influences of Norse and Gaelic culture. While the fires were lit and the cattle and fields were blessed with furze (or gorse) torches as elsewhere, and mugwort was collected as a preventative against witchcraft,63 some distinctive differences can be found in the form of the rents, or offerings, that were made to Manannán at this time.
Manannán has long been associated with the Isle of Man, and tradition makes him the first king of the island – a benevolent and peaceful leader, if a pagan. A sixteenth century description of the island has this to say of him:
“Manann MacLer, the first Man that had Mann, or ever was ruler of Mann, and the Land was named after him, and he reigned many years and was a Paynim, and kept by necromancy the Land of Mann under mists, and if he dreaded any enemies, he would make one man to seem an hundred by his art magick. And he never had any farm of the Comons, but each one to bring a certain quantity of green Rushes on Midsummer Eve, some to a place called Warfield,64 and some to a place called Man, and yet is so called.”65
A sixteenth century poem has almost the exact same thing to say on the matter, and a seventeenth century writer, James Chaloner, repeats similar sentiments in his A Short Treatise on the Isle of Man.66 Moore, writing in the nineteenth century, notes that a farm near to one of the sites where the rents were made still grew an abundance of rushes in his day,67 so presumably this was a well-established custom, although I have found no first hand accounts describing it as yet. At Barrule, Rhys noted that the site was visited at other times of the year, notably the first Sunday of the harvest, and evidence of offerings being made at a nearby well were in abundance, including bent pins and buttons.68
Although there appears to be some confusion, in some sources, over whether it was meadow grass or rushes that were given, the consensus appears to err in favour of rushes;69 not only are they appropriate in terms of where they grow – near water, fresh or salt – rushes are associated with another custom associated with the Midsummer rites held in his name. This is the Tynwald Court, held on a hill near St John’s Chapel on the island, where everyone would gather to hear the laws and ordinances that were to be enacted. On the approach to the hill, the path was strewn with green rushes.70
Such are the strong associations with Manannán on this day – on the eve of the festival of St John the Baptist, no less – it only reinforces the associations of the god and the saint as noted elsewhere, in the offerings to Shony.71
While there are many similarities with Bealltainn, and probable outside influences along the way, Midsummer is certainly a festival in its own right as well. In amongst all of the rites – the fires, the blessings, the processions, and so on – was a strong sense of looking towards safeguarding the harvest, and the continuing health of the livestock (but most especially, the cattle). By this point in the agricultural calendar, the crops would be growing strong, and in the next month or so, would start to ripen. The coming weeks would be crucial to the success of the harvest, and so it was only natural to look towards that point, when the potential for the crop was now plainly apparent, and take steps to try and prevent disaster. Likewise, with the pastoral calendar looking towards getting the cows into calf, if they weren’t already, the successful fertilisation of the cows, and then birth of the calves, was also paramount in farmer’s mind.
At such a turning point in the solar calendar, people were facing one of the busiest periods in their year, as well as the gradual decline of daylight in which much of that work could be done. The bonfires may have been seen to recognise this turning of the sun, as MacCulloch suggests, but more than anything, the protective qualities of the fires themselves were most emphasised. First and foremost, Midsummer’s Eve was about protecting the crops; without much to celebrate in terms of immediate abundance, as the harvest celebrations later would, and Bealltainn did in terms of marking the summer dairying season, the Midsummer’s Eve celebrations were, on the one hand, decidedly foward-looking, whilst on the other, marked a brief pause in the labour before the real struggle began.
The coming weeks would more than likely have been a struggle for many households, since the previous year’s supplies of potatoes, wheat, oats, barley, or rye, would have diminished significantly – run out, even if the previous year had been particularly bad. July was known as ‘Hungry July’ or Iúl an Ghorta in Ireland,72 in reference to this struggle, and sometimes desperate measures would have to be taken. In the face of such a prospect, the Midsummer’s Eve celebrations surely gave a little hope and optimism.
1 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p134.
2 In Gaelic (Scots Gaelic), Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p556.
3 In Irish, Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p134.
4 In Manx, Moore, Folklore of the Isle of Man, 1891, p119.
5 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p556.
6 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p137.
7 MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1911, p257-258.
8 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, 317-318.
9 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, 319; McNeill, The Silver Branch Volume II, 1959, p86.
10 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, 319.
11 In an ecclesiastical sense, the holy day was well established as early as the ninth century, however. See Stokes, The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee, Félire Oengusso Céli dé, 1905, p142: “[June 24] John the Baptist’s royal nativity, if thou hast attended diligently, at the removal without disgrace of John the son (of Zebedee) to Ephesus.”
12 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, p312.
13 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, p312; p319-320.
14 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, p312.
15 Fraser, The Golden Bough, p676.
16 Joyce, A smaller social history of Ancient Ireland, 1906, p123.
17 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, 312.
18 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume II, 1959, p90.
19 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume II, 1959, p92.
20 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, p318.
21 In fact, in the most northerly parts of Scotland it never really gets properly dark around the time of the summer solstice. McNeill describes sunset in these parts as “hardly more than a gloaming.” McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume II, 1959, p89.
22 Gudebread refers to any sort of festival baked goods such as shortbread, sweetie-scones and festival bannocks, or simply a quality loaf of white bread bought from the bakers (which would have been considered a rare treat for many, at the time). McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume II, 1959, p89.
23 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume II, 1959, p91.
24 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume II, 1959, p90.
25 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume II, 1959, p91.
26 Thistelton-Dyer notes that this was the case in the choice of siting the bonfires on Man, Thistelton-Dyer, British Popular Customs, 1911, p316.
27 Thistelton-Dyer notes that this was the case in the choice of siting the bonfires on Man, Thistelton-Dyer, British Popular Customs, 1911, p316.
28 Napier, Folk Lore, or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p117; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume II, 1959, p89.
29 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, p318.
30 Spence, Shetland Folklore, 1899, p90; Napier, Folk Lore, or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p117; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume II, 1959, p91.
31 County Folklore – Orkney and Shetland, p195.
32 Spence, Shetland Folklore, 1899, p139.
33 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume II, 1959, p88.
34 Carmichael, Ortha nan Gàidheal: Carmina Gadelica Volume II, 1900, p101. Charm 167.
35 Carmichael, Ortha nan Gàidheal: Carmina Gadelica Volume II, 1900, p101. Charm 167.
36 Carmichael, Ortha nan Gàidheal: Carmina Gadelica Volume II, 1900, p101. Charm 167.
37 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p263-264.
38 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p264.
39 Ó Súillebháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p71.
40 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p145.
41 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p134-136.
42 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p138.
43 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p139.
44 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p142.
45 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p151-152.
46 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p151-152.
47 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p145.
48 Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, 1887, p214-215.
49 Ó hÓgáin, Irish Superstitions, 1995, …
50 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p147.
51 Hedderman, Glimpses of my Life in Arran, 1917, p95.
52 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p147.
53 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p135-136.
54 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p145.
55 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p146.
56 Dames, Mythic Ireland, 1992, p63-64.
57 See ‘Mannanaan Mac Lir’ in Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, ii, 1896, p366-367. Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p153; Dames, Mythic Ireland, 1992, p63-64.
58 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p144.
59 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p145.
60 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p142.
61 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p147-148.
62 Ó Súillebháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p71.
63 Train, History of the Isle of Man Vol II, 1845, p120. See also Thistelton-Dyer, British Popular Customs, 1911, p316.
64 This is now known as south Barrule. Moore, The Folklore of the Isle of Man, 1891, p5-6.
65 The Supposed True Chronicle, originally 16th century, found in Parr, An Abstract of the Laws, Customs and Ordnances of the Isle of Man, 1867, p6.
66 (1656) Reprinted in 1863, see the online edition.
67 Moore, The Folklore of the Isle of Man, 1891, p5-6.
68 Rhys, Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, 1901, Chapter 4.
69 MacQuarrie, The Waves of Manannán, 1997, p294.
70 MacQuarrie, The Waves of Manannán, 1997, p294.
71 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p590-591.
72 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p165.