T R A D I T I O N S   O F   T H E   N O R T H E R N   C E L T S
    




The Traditions of the Northern Celts
Peter N. Williams, Ph. D.

Island Culture

Islands have a special place in Celtic mythology. Over again in Celtic writings, folk beliefs, burial customs and religious sculpture appears the idea of an Elysium, "a land of youth." In Gaelic, this is known as Tir nan Og ; in Welsh as Afallon (Avalon or Apple Island). This, "the Isle of the Blessed" is a special place, always located to the west, beckoning to all but visited only by a select few. It is an island free from storms and tempests, cold and ice, pestilence and disease, or scorching heat. It is blessed by eternal spring, abundant, always-present harvests, full of flowering trees and delicious fruit. It is a place we long for, a longing expressed in Gaelic as ionndrainn in Welsh by hiraeth. It is a longing expressed unashamedly today by the Welsh, Irish and Scottish in their songs and ballads in whichever part of the world they happen to be.

The whole island of mainland Britain had an aura of the supernatural for both Greek and Roman. To the latter, it was known as Insula Sacra (The Sacred Isle). The Roman writer Demetrius visited Britain in the first century B.C.; he described sacred isles "full of awesome gloom," as lying off the western coast. He reported that some of these uninhabited isles were named after local gods or heroes. And it was to the islands of Britain that the people of Amorica (Brittany) were alleged to have conducted the souls of the dead. Nine Celtic priestesses (druidesses) with magical powers were said to live on the Ile de Sein, off the Brittany coast. Farther north, off the mainland of Scotland, the Hebrides were believed to be the haunt of demons, shunned by mankind in their misty, gloomy atmosphere.

 

Holy Wells

Not only islands were regarded as sacred. Britain is full of holywells, many of them in Scotland. It seems that well worship was an integral part of the Celtic religion. Gods and goddesses were thought to dwell in or near wells and springs, which they owned and over which they appointed nymphs or other supernatural creatures as guardians. The magic of wells is one of the most enduring and persistent beliefs of Celtic faith. Their waters could quiet storms at sea, cure diseases and lameness, help the blind to see, the crippled to walk, aid the lovers in their quest for happiness, curse the enemy or the unwelcome neighbor, cure barrenness or toothache, help ensure a successful harvest.

Offerings were regularly made to these wells. Iona contained at least three sacred wells: the Well of the North Wind, where sailors brought offering to conjure up a favorable north wind; the Well of the South Wind, no longer found; and the Well of the Age, with the power to revigorate the old and bring about healing. In some instances, expensive pins or brooches were offered to fertility wells. Hazelnuts and twigs (ever present in Britain) were placed in wells to cure a toothache. White quartz pebbles (called fairy firestones) were offered to quell storms at sea and to bring home the sailors.

At many wells, an offering of a human skull would cure epilepsy and other illnesses. Severed heads were placed into some wells to mingle with the water to increase its potency or fertility. On special occasions in many areas, wells were decorated with garlands of flowers in a ceremony called “well-dressing” that are still very much alive today. In a tradition that mingles Celtic and Christian practices, some women leave their homes early on May Day to gather wild flowers or bunches of greenery to offer to the wells in their village. In connection with the ceremony, fetes and carnivals also take place. Well dressing has become an important ritual in many villages in rural Britain.

The hot springs at Bath, southwestern England, are known the world over; they seem to have been entirely secular. Perhaps the most famous holywell in Britain is that dedicated to St. Winifred in Holywell, North Wales, but in Scotland there are many wells that, like the one at Holywell, were converted into places of Christian worship from their pagan, Celtic origins. Bar Hill is one of these. Located in the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde, the hill has the remains of a Celtic fortified enclosure as well as those of a Roman fort that was part of the Antonine Wall built in the first century A.D. Within the fort is a sacred well in which many votive offerings have been found. The whole site may have been a center of druid religious practices. To the Romans, it may have been the Medionemeton (Central Sanctuary) mentioned by an anonymous seventh century cleric who listed countries, towns and rivers of the known world in the time of the Roman Empire. Not too far from the 18th century battlefield of Culloden is St. Mary's Well, locally renowned for its healing powers. Many sick visitors come to drink the waters of the spring, leaving behind rags which are placed on nearby tree branches as votive offerings or to signify their cures by casting off the old.

Tradition tells us that Burghead is the place "near Inverness" where St. Columba visited Brude mac Maelchon in the sixth century (rather than Craig Phadraig at Inverness itself). Representations of the Pictish bull were found on several stones here, and Bailey's Well is found in a chamber excavated from the rock. In addition to its importance to the Celtic peoples, the well "monumental in scale and character," may have been used as an early Christian baptistry. As far as the bull symbol is concerned, a tradition survives in the sacred Isle of Loch Maree in Wester Ross.

Inis Maree is the Isle of Maelrubha, who most certainly supplanted a pagan deity for whom offerings were made right up to the mid-18th century. The annual ceremony that now takes place on the little island has three aspects: it is connected with the Lammas or Lughnasa (First fruit) Feast, associated with cures for madness and involves the sacrifice of a bull and the worship of bulls. The bull or ram-horned god is one of the recurring themes of Celtic iconography. The Celtic peoples were unique in their preference for choosing animals they saw in their everyday lives to represent their gods; all their animals could be gods in disguise, especially the bull.

In 1656, the Scottish Presbytery condemned the "abominable and heathenish" practices that took place on August 25, the day of St. Mourie (well dressing also formed part of the ceremonies). The island was formerly known as Eilean a Mhor Righ (Island of the Great King) and its festival is closely connected to the Irish Lughnasa, which also featured animal sacrifice. As late as 1778 bull killings on the island were still being condemned by the Scottish Church while cures for luncacy were affected at the sacred well into the mid 19th century.

In 1919, during restoration work at St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, in Orkney, a box was discovered containing the relics of Magnus, which had managed to escape the despoliation of the Reformation. The Norsemen had conquered Orkney in the ninth century and the island had become a Scandinavian settlement. It was Christianized two centuries later and one of its early rulers, the son of an earl of Orkney became venerated as a saint a short time after his death. Magnus' relics were believed to have miraculous healing powers and his burial place, in the cathedral built by the Norwegian Rognavald, became an important center of pilgrimage.

Outer Hebrides

While much of the Celtic traditions are no longer extant at Orkney (though the Up-Helly-Aa survives as a reminder of the Viking occupation), it is a different matter in the Outer Hebrides. It is here that the remote, archaic, Celtic world endures. It is here that the ancient Gaelic language survives in a kind of cultural and ecological oasis where the people work the soil, fish the waters and weave their cloth in traditional ways. It is here, too, that we still find the villagers meeting together to sing their ancient songs and spend the long, dark winter nights in the tigh-cheilidh (meeting-house or house ef entertanment) under the spell of the seanachadh, the teller of tales.

Religion has played a major part in the direction that some of the traditions have been handed down. The Outer Hebrides is Protestant from the Butt of Lewis to the middle of Benbecula and Catholic southwards as far as Barra Head and the outlying inhabited islands. A detailed description of these traditions has been faithfully set down by Ann Ross, who grew up on North Uist in the home of the Ferguson family of Carinish. Dr. Ross expresses her gratitude that the church of today "has ceased to wage war against the secular life of the islands." As in Wales, it is in the rendition of the great Protestant hymns that some of the finest singing on the islands is found. And, in those northern regions, some of the ancient, pagan-related traditions are still hanging on, zealously guarded in a few proud families, despite centuries of relentless persecution. We are reminded of the Wood family of Gypsies in North Wales who, as church outsiders, preserved so much of Welsh music (and the Romany language) for posterity.

The Gaelic language binds all these traditions together. The Bible was translated into Gaelic in 1801, long after Culloden and in many areas too late to become the book from which generations of schoolchildren would learn to read and write (as in much of Wales, for example). But, on the islands of the Hebrides, the language survived and today strenuous efforts are being taken to keep it and the traditions associated with it alive.

In the more southern, Catholic islands, though the priests were loyal to Roma and their faith, they were more sympathetic to the preservation of the ancient lore and legends, helping to foster what Ross calls "a sweetness and soft dignity" to balance "the proud archaism of the northern traditions." It was the priests, in fact, who played a vital role in noting and recording the proverbs, folk-sayings, legends, songs and customs, a role they supplemented by helping and encouraging others to do the same. Thus, we have a blending of traditions associated with the Catholic saints and those connected with the perhaps more-shadowy pagan deities.

Dr. Ross provides the examples of Brigit being revered as the patroness of birth and the childbed, protectress of the stock as well as the midwife of Mary. Columba, the most-loved of the male saints, is called upon in many of the invocations (achaine), used to describe the travails of life on these windswept, rocky islands. It was in the southern islands that the venerated hero, the pagan priest, the early churchman and the local gossip could all co-exist and be naturally accommodated in the spiritual life of the island people.

This Celtic predilection for religion and the bonding of the new faith with the old is beautifully summed up by Alexander Carmichael who evocatively captures the whole spirit of the Catholic Hebrides:

Roman Catholicism prevails in Benbecula, South Uist, and Barra, and in their dedicatory hymn the people of these islands invoke, besides the Trinity, St. Michael of the three-cornered shield and flaming sword, patron of the horses; St. Columba of the holy deeds, guardian of their cattle; Bride of the clustering hair, the foster- mother of Christ; and the golden-haired Virgin, mother of the White Lamb. As the people intone their prayers on the lonely hill-side, literally in the wilderness, the music of their evensong floats over glen and dell, loch and stream, and is echoed from corrie and cliff till it is lost on the soft evening air.
However, not all the songs are connected with faith. Many have to do with the routine chores of everyday life, those songs that made labor less burdensome, and one of the richest features of the Gaelic folk tradition is the repertoire of these rowing, reaping, milking and churning songs. And, of course, there are the indescribably lovely lullabies. Perhaps the most important group of songs in the entire tradition are those connected with "waulking" or shrinking by hand the tweed to make it proof against the northern weather. These songs, the drain luadhaidh have remained, even after the heavy work of "waulking" was replaced by electric looms. In them are preserved some of the most ancient historical and mythological material providing a wealth of information on the traditional life of the Highlands that would otherwise have been lost forever. They include ballads, fairy tales, clan lore, songs of love and battle and purely local stories about the idiosyncrasies of purely local characters.

Though the communal task of kneading the heavy cloth by the strong hands, or sometimes by the bare feet of the women (after it had been soaked in a vat of hot, stale urine), has now been replaced by modern machinery, the "waulking songs" remain. The rhythmic movements of the task were accompanied by the voice of the leader who sang the narrative, with the team, seated around the large worktable, taking up the refrain. The whole process was unique in Western Europe, an extraordinary experience that helped preserve so many rare aspects of the folk tradition.

 

Scottish Calendar Festivals

Only a century ago, the ancient Celtic seasonal festivals were still a vital part of the life of many Highland communities. In some areas, they still exist, though vestigially; and in other areas, there have been recent attempts at revival as part of the resurgence of interest in the Gaelic language. Capricious nature always needed propitiating; its malevolent forces had to be tamed; good harvests had to be called into being from the land and the seas; healthy livestock had to be produced; even the weather could be bribed to remain favorable when important work was needed on the land. There was also the need to celebrate successful harvests, to relieve the monotony of long, winter nights, and to enjoy the fellowship to be found in seasonal rituals. These festivals came to be enjoyed during the four quarters of the Celtic year: Earrach, spring; Sambradh, summer; Foghara, harvest; and Geambradh, winter. To these, of course, we have to add the Christian festival of Nollaig, Christmas.

Nollaig, Christmas

The celebration of Nollaig was never the most important festival in the Highland calendar, though today's commercialization may seem to make it so. Up until the end of the last century, Christmas chants were still very numerous, but only a few survive today. It was customary for the boys of the village, the Gillean Nollaig, Christmas lads, to perform the ceremonies attendant on the chants. On Christmas Eve, chanting the old songs, these boys would go from house to house and from village to village, dressed in long, white shirts and wearing tall white hats. They would enter a house and lift up any child found there. If no child was present, an imitation child, Cristean, the little Christ took its place. The child was placed on specially consecrated male lambskin and then carried round the fire in the "sunwise" direction, the boys keeping up their rhythmic chant. Afterwards, offerings were made to the baby and the lads were given food and drink prior to the start of a feast in which all participated.

On the island of Lismore, one custom surviving until the middle of the 19th century, involved domestic animals, for each farm animal was given a special breakfast on Christmas morning consisting of a sheaf of corn. The tradition was known as Nollaig do Spreidh. Sheaves of oats were also fastened to high poles near the houses. In Breadalbane, the cows were believed to go down on their knees in their shippons on Christmas Eve (a belief also widely held in Wales that survives even today in some rural districts). Another Highland belief was that all bees would leave their hives at three o' clock on Christmas morning, only to return immediately.

Oidhche Chealluinn, New Year's Eve.

More important than Christmas in the lives of the Highlanders and the Islanders was Hogmanay, New Year's Eve; for many, it still is. Europe's biggest New Year's Eve Party is now spent in Edinburgh. Much of the goings-on involve fires and light; processions include a Fire procession, a torch light parade and a Fire Festival. Many of the ceremonies involve hints of the old pre-Christian rituals and sacrifices, often hard to spot amidst all the ceremony and gaiety, but present nonetheless. In the rural villages, for more centuries than can be remembered, the people went round the houses carrying dried cow hides, continuously chanting special rhymes as they beat the skins with sticks and struck the walls of the houses with clubs. In this way, the evil spirits were kept at bay for another year. Even the hide itself was used as a talisman against evil, for the caisean-uchd, the loose flap of the cow's neck was singed in the fire and presented to each family member to small as a charm. The chants contained many repetitions, all pleading for good luck for the family, their goods, the animals or the crops. Another way was to ensure that no woman should enter the house first during this day, and of course, first footing, to prevent any being other than a dark stranger from being the first to enter the house, was widely practiced.

At individual houses, the Hogmanay Poem, Duan Challuinn, would be recited. One of these would be recited outside the house, describing the ritual of approaching and entering the dwelling. Another was sung inside, when the "Hogmanay Hide" was beaten. Regional variations did not disguise the basic pagan forms of the ancient ceremony. One of "the Hogmanay Lads" who took part in these nighttime rituals covered himself with the hide of a bull with the horns and hooves still attached. The other boys would strike at him with their sticks in mock battles that often took place on the flat edge of the thatched roof of the cottage. And all the while, the Gaelic chant was repeated, increasing in intensity. At its end, the house and its occupants were blessed, the cowhide once more being singed to bestow purity. In some areas, juniper was burned before the cattle to protect them; in others, they were sprinkled with urine for the same purpose.

As in Wales, where many New Year's Eve ceremonies survived into this century, in the Highlands there was much drinking of Wassail and much eating of specially prepared foods. The processions went three times sunwise round every house in the village, beating on the house walls and chanting. At no door was hospitality refused, and the oatmeal, bread and cheese were always accompanied by a dram of whisky. The smelling of the animal skin (it could be that of a goat or sheep as well as a cowhide), was the focal point of the ceremony. Houses were decorated with a profusion of holly, always effective in keeping off the evil fairy folk and often boys were whipped with the plant to endure their longevity (The custom is only too similar to those in Wales, where the servant girls had their bare arms and legs whipped with sprigs of holly).

An important food item was cheese, and at New Year, a special cheese was prepared. A slice of this cheese was preserved, being of special virtue if it had a hole through it. Anyone lost during the oncoming year would only have to look through this hole to find his way (how he found his way from the misty mountain to the cheese was not worthy of consideration for the true believer). As in other Celtic countries, much of the ritual and attendant game playing were concerned with finding a future spouse. The pipes were played; the fire was kept lit all night long; only a friend could approach the sacred blaze. In addition, candles were kept burning through the night.

Another name for the New Year's Eve festival was Oidhche Choinnle, Candlemas. A lighted candle was a sure way of keeping away an evil spirit. Special incantations accompanied the refueling of the fire, which had to be kept alight or evil would fall upon the household. When the flames were finally damped down, a solemn ritual accompanied the "smooring" (smothering) of the peat which would stay barely lit until morning. One rhyme called upon the "Sacred Three" to save the house and household.

If a neighbor's fire had gone out, it was extreme bad luck to give fire from one's own house to them; not only would the act bring death to the family within the year, but it would also empower the black witches to take away the produce from the cattle. The sacred nature of fire in the cold, damp and windy Highlands and islands of countries situated in high latitudes can be readily understood. All domestic comforts depended on the fire being able to be rekindled in the morning. Fuel was scarce and expensive; peat had to be carefully kept dry. Sometimes it needed a wee bit of help from the benevolent powers of the night. Often those powers had taken on Christian names and forms, but the ceremonies that invoked them were a direct link with the Celtic, pagan past.

St. Brigid (St. Bride's Day)

One important festival in particular that clearly shows the absorption of ancient Celtic traditions into the Christian calendar is La Feill Bhride, St. Bride's Day. Not only has the pagan goddess Brigit (or Bride) become a Christian saint, however, in the Hebrides, she is regarded as the midwife of the Virgin Mary. St. Bride's Day takes place on February 1st, the date of the great Celtic feast of Imbolc, that celebrates the lactation of the ewes. Throughout the Highlands, elaborate rituals accompanied the adoration of St. Brigit, the daughter of the good Irish god, the Deagh Dia. It is Brigit who gave her name to the powerful confederacy of northern British tribes the Brigantes with which the Roman armies had so much trouble. Brigid was all-powerful, a kind of Celtic Minerva. She was transformed into St. Brigit of Kildare, but retained her association with the land and domestic animals. At Kildare, a perpetual fire was attended by nine virgins.

As midwife to the mother of Christ, Brigit was sought by Highland women in childbirth to give them a safe and easy delivery. On her feast day, a complex and elaborate ceremony took place that involved the reciting of her genealogy (sloinntearachd), always a Celtic passion and the singing of special hymns. Legend has Brigit placing three drops of spring water on the Christ child's brow and she is known as "the foster mother of Christ." In the Highlands, the tradition of fosterage was deeply rooted. The bond between foster-mother and child is almost closer than that of parent and child. When a woman was in labour, the midwife would place here nads on the door jams and beg Bride to enter by chanting a short rhyme. The midwife would also place three drops of spring water on the brow of the newborn.

On St. Bride's Day, it was customary for all the girls of the village to make corn dollies. These would then be dressed and decorated with shells and flowers. To represent the Star shining over Bethlehem, one particularly beautiful shell was placed over the heart of the dolly, who was named Brideag, "little Bride or Brigit." The girls had to wear white dresses with their hair unbound. They would carry their doll to each household where it was presented with a gift and obeisance made to her. Special cakes, or bannocks, were baked and presented to the image. The village boys would then appear, humble ask to honor Bride after which the merry-making would begin until dawn, when everyone would form a circle and sing a special hymn in honor of Bride as foster mother to Christ.

The goddess Bride presided over the various seasons of the year. Her magic white wand brought life back to the earth after the dead months of winter. On Uist, the flocks were dedicated to her on February 1st. On Barra, lots were cast for the fishing grounds on Bride's Day. Following a ceremony honoring the saint, the men would cast their lots for the fishing banks at the Church door. Sadly, many of these are no longer remembered, even in the remote islands. Other traditions connected with the saint also disappeared before the beginning of this century.

St. Columba's Day

One of the best-loved of all the Celtic saints was Columba, whose day was celebrated throughout the Highlands on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter. St. Columba's Day (Diardaoin Chaluim-Chille) was celebrated in a variety of ways throughout the Highlands where it was looked upon as a day of good luck, especially for setting out on a journey. On the eve of the festival, a bannock of oats or rye was baked containing a silver coin; the cake was roasted on a special fire built of oak, yew or rowan (all sacred woods). On Mauday Thursday, the cake was divided among the children and the lucky finder of the silver coin was given the major share of the crop of lambs for the year. On Lewis, even up to the beginning of this century, offerings of ale were made to a sea-god, now obscure, called Shony. The ale was poured into the sea at midnight before the Eve of Maundy Thursday, accompanied by a ritual chanting and the inevitable merry-making.

Easter Sunday

Di-Domhnuich-caisg, Easter Sunday, was a very special day, for this day all the food so carefully saved for so long, the eggs, milk, meal or flour was made into pancakes a food that could be totally consumed without waste. Eggs were also dyed and rolled before being eaten. At Easter, too, many invocations and special rites accompanied the annual marking of the lambs, an occasion thought to be fraught with potential evil and danger. The marking was never done on a Friday, nor was any blood drawn from the animals on that day.

Beltain, May Day

Beltain was sacred to the god Belinus, whose cult formerly spread throughout Europe. Beltain was thus one of the most ancient and widespread of all Celtic Calendar festivals. A great Celtic king, Cunobelinus, had reigned over the Catuvellauni in much of southern Britain just before the arrival of the Romans armies in 43 A.D. It is believed that the mythological king in the story of Lludd and Llefelys in the medieval Welsh tales known as the Mabinogion is a folk memory of Belinus. His festival took place on May 1st and there are many rituals throughout Wales and Scotland today that bear vestiges of the earlier celebrations, many of which were connected with the rites of purification. In ancient times, cattle were driven between two fires to protect them from both natural and supernatural evil. Sacrifices were made to Belinus, cakes of oatmeal replacing animals. In my own boyhood in North Wales, children used to smear their faces with soot from the chimney and dress up in old rags to go from door to door, banging ash staves and singing an obscure rhyme for which they would be rewarded with small gifts.

The survival of such activities in many areas of Britain well into this century is remarkable. During the author's stay at Llanbedr-Pont-Stephan in Wales during the 1990's, he happened to be at the livestock market with a shepherd from East Anglia who, listening to the auctioneer counting in Welsh, in tens, remarked that he used exactly the same counting system to count the sheep in his area of Lincolnshire. This means that the Celtic language, in one form, had survived over 1,400 years of occupation by the Angles and directly contradicts those historians who believe that the native Celts, along with their language, were quickly and ruthlessly exterminated from eastern England.

In the Celtic World, the First of May was the day that the summer grazings (the sheilings) traditionally began and there was always an accompanying ceremony. The flocks were driven to the pastures to the reciting of ancient incantations. The summer huts were repaired, flowers were strewn on the doorposts, songs were sung and a sacrificial lamb killed and eaten. It seems that, just as a newborn child is in need of special blessings to protect it from danger, so the stock (upon which so much depended) had to be guarded against evil. The songs and chants remained in the memories of the herdsmen long after the ceremonies had faded or had been suppressed by the Protestant clergymen as pagan practices.

On May Day, bonfires were lit on the hillsides, but in the households, fires were extinguished so that they could be rekindled from the sacred flame. A large bannock was baked in one of the bonfires with one piece deliberately blackened. The one who received the special slice had to jump through the fire six times in order to avoid the penalty of sacrifice.

Lughnasa, the Games

Another powerful and universal Celtic god was Lugh, whose special day in Scotland is St. Michael's Day, September 29, a day chosen to mark the beginning of the harvest (thus differing from the Irish celebration, held on August 1st.) Nasa means games or assembly, and the festivities, held to ensure a good quality and abundant harvest, occupied a most important place in the Celtic calendar. Originally connected with corn (oat, wheats or barley), it later became extended to cover the potato harvest when that vegetable became a staple crop in both Ireland and Scotland. Early traditions have the festival begun by Lugh to honor his foster-mother Taitiu (we have earlier mentioned the special relationships enjoyed by foster parents and their children in the world of the Celts).

During the cutting of the first crop, the whole family went out to the field dressed in their best clothes to hail the God of the harvest. The father of the family took up a handful of wheat (or whatever was being harvested) and circled it sunwise three times about his head, with the Iolach Buan salutation. The whole strain was then taken up by the family, who gave praise for crops, wool, flocks, health, peace and so on. When the crop was finally cut, the sickles were thrown into the air, and from their positions upon landing, divinations were made as to marriages, sicknesses or even deaths that were to take place before next year's reaping.

St. Michael, the patron saint of the sea, is of special significance to the people of the Highlands. He seems to have taken over some of the attributes of the earlier pagan protectors; for many centuries, he was spoken of as "the god Michael," or even as brian Michael (Brian was one of the three chief gods of pagan Ireland, a son of Danu, the mother goddess). His day was marked on many of the islands by cavalcades of horsemen and a special cake, the Michael's Cake, was baked at night. Much of the day was spent racing the horses along the sands, and it was customary to steal a neighbor's horse the night before, to be returned safely after the race. Pieces of sun-dried seaweed were used in place of whips to spur on the horses, which were ridden without saddles or bridles by their barefoot jockeys.

One person was appointed to guard the crops on St. Michael's Day and to make a circuit of the township on St. Michael's Night. Women gathered wild carrots a few days before the festival on Domhnach Curran, Carrot Sunday. Recitations accompanied the pulling out of the carrots, either by hand or by special mattock. It was considered good luck to find a forked carrot, a symbol of fertility. The festivities also included the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb and the special St. Michael's Cake baked on a lambskin and moistened with sheep's milk. The cake, known as the struan, was baked on a large, flat stone; it had to remain whole during baking or evil would befall the family. It was then taken to church to be blessed.

After the customary feast, generous offerings were given to the poor of the Parish. Whole families would then mount their horses and, singing MIchael the Victorious, make a circuit of St. MIchael's burial ground led by the priest, dressed in white and riding a white horse. The single girls would then present their lovers with a handful of carrots before the day of serious horseracing began. The day's festivities climaxed in the Ceilidh, the place being chosen by the chief piper.

Feill Moire, the Feast of St. Mary

August 15 was the day chosen for the Feast of St. Mary the Great. Wheat is gathered early in the morning to make the bannock called Moilean Moire, the fatling of Mary. Bits of the cake are given to each family member, who then raises the Paean of Mary Mother, who promised to protect them from scath till the day of death. The family then sings, walking sunwise round the fire, embers from which are placed in a pot and taken out to the fields to protect the flocks. The whole ceremony is conducted by the family dressed in their best that sing loudly to invoke the protection of their most beloved saint Mary.

The cutting of the last sheaf is always a special event; in the Highlands, this sheaf is known as the Maiden, A Mhaighdean. In many areas, it is taken into the house and given a place of honor, even today (the custom is being revived in some parts of Wales). On the first day of ploughing the maiden is given as a special treat to the horses (today, when tractors have replaced the horses, the cows are fed the dolly or maiden). Sometimes, the youngest in the family was allowed to cut the maiden (a great honor being accorded the boy or girl who had been chosen).

In some areas, the last sheaf was dressed as a young girl, especially if the harvest had been a good one. In times of a bad harvest, the maiden may have been dressed as an old hag, the Cailleach. The custom may be a remnant of the time when an actual maiden was sacrificed to the god of harvest and her blood sprinkled on the field. In any case, it is a reminder of the dual nature of the Celtic goddess--one young, fair, and favorable to the farmers and herdsmen and the other old, hideous and hostile.

On the island of Skye, and in some of the other western islands, the last sheaf was known as the Bobhar Bhacach, Lame Goat, a term similar to that found in Saint Gall, Switzerland, where it is called the Crooked Goat. It was an unlucky omen, and a farmer who cut the last sheaf on his own field would throw it into the field of his neighbor. To be the last person in the community to finish the harvest invited the scorn of one's neighbors and bad blood resulted in the dumping of the Bobhar into another field. Some crofters would prefer to have their best cow drop dead than to be on the receiving end of a thrown Cailleach, the hag.

Samhain, (New Year's Eve) The Feast of Halloween

It is certain that Samhain, the beginning of the Celtic year, was converted into All-Hallow's Eve by an all-powerful Christian Church. It was originally a pastoral festival observed mainly to assist the powers of growth and fertility, but also to placate the dead, to protect against the forces of evil, and to please the gods by various kinds of sacrifice. Samhain was the end of summer; the herds were brought back from their highland pastures. It also clearly marked the time of the year when the division was most clearly marked between the celebration of the harvest and the dreaded coming of winter.

This was also the time of the year in which the souls of the dead came to revisit their former homes. Thus, it was the day to placate the supernatural powers that controlled the forces of nature. In the Highlands, bonfires were built on the many Bronze Age tumuli known as "Mounds of the Dead" in which local tradition has buried victims of a terrible plague, taken there in a cart pulled by a white horse led by an old hag. The fires were built of whin, a moorland bush, gathered months ahead by the young folk of the village. At the lighting of the huge fires, everyone joined hands to dance round the flames, both sunwise and anti-sunwise. When the flames died down, the boys would have leaping competitions across the embers (a ritual the author remembers from his own boyhood in North Wales). Then it was time for home to engage in apple bobbing or to practice the rites of divination from the reading of tea leaves or the finding of unburnt stones in the dead fires. This was also the time to look for omens concerning marriage, luck, health or death. It was also the one day in the year when the help of the Devil could be invoked for such purposes.

After sunset, youths would run out, carrying blazing torches to circuit the boundaries of their farms to protect the household and its contents from the malevolent forces that abounded in nature, including the fairy folk. In Scotland, a new fire was brought into each household at Samhain from the sacred communal fire. Mischief night in the Hebrides used to cause lots of damage, with gates being removed, carts overturned and animals let loose. In the late 19th century, many were concerned and complained about the destructive activities of the Irish immigrants in New York and Boston on Halloween. It was the activities of the Irish, first frowned upon, and then gradually accepted, that has made Halloween a popular secular ceremony in the U.S. among so many who have no idea as to its Paan, then Christian background.

All-Hallow's Evening is certainly one of the most eagerly awaited, and dreaded festivals of the year -- and that is just as it should be, for the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain mixed both joyful excitement and fearful dread. Many Fundamental Christian families in Britain and North America will not let their children participate in this, the most pagan and colorful of the year's festivals with its eerie Jack o Lanterns (carved from turnips in Scotland, pumpkins in North America). Long celebrated on the night of 1 November and on the following day, Samhain was the time that the gods and spirits of the Celtic Underworld made their presence known to mortals with whom they could mix freely for this short time only.

So much has been lost of Samhain in the mindless pursuits of today's alienated youth, with their insatiable thirst for free goodies, and their equally disorganized parents, ever anxious to vicariously share childhood thrills with their obnoxious offspring, that it is difficult to separate the ancient, meaningful rituals with what goes on today in a wild orgy of Hallmark-inspired ritual and damaging pranks. Yet even today, in the midst of our huge modern cities, and in suburbs in the shadow of our massive shopping malls, rituals are carried out which are the direct descendants of one of the most ancient and revered Celtic festivals.

Back to Celtic World



   Copyright ©1996, 1997, 1998 Britannia Internet Magazine. Design by Unica Multimedia.