May 012017
 

The 1st of May is a global celebration in one guise or other. I’ve already dealt with 2 important celebrations, International Workers’ Day (throughout Europe, Asia, South America, and beyond) http://www.bookofdaystales.com/international-workers-day/  and May Day which is mostly an English custom http://www.bookofdaystales.com/may-daymay-morning/ . It is also Walpurga’s Day which is celebrated in Germanic countries, typically more on the Eve than the day itself http://www.bookofdaystales.com/walpurgas-nightmay-eve/ . Now it’s the turn of Celtic traditions. Beltane was not historically associated with an exact date, but in modern times it has been pegged specifically to May 1.  As always, there’s a great deal of nonsense written about the nature of Beltane historically, with precious little in the way of primary sources to back it up. Romantic, and wishful, speculation always trumps proper historical method, largely because people have a (bad) habit of believing what they want to believe. Having fun in whatever way you want is fine with me.  I’d just prefer that you leave historical justification out of the picture. Here is what is reasonably certain.

In Irish Gaelic, the festival is usually called Lá Bealtaine (“day of Beltane”) while the month of May is Mí Bhealtaine (“month of Beltane”). In Scottish Gaelic, the month is called (An) Cèitean or a’ Mhàigh, and the festival is Latha Bealltainn. Sometimes the older Scottish Gaelic spelling Bealltuinn is used. In modern Scottish Gaelic, Latha Buidhe Bealltainn or Là Buidhe Bealltainn (“the yellow day of Beltane”) is used to describe the first day of May. This term Lá Buidhe Bealtaine is also used in Irish and is translated as “Bright May Day”.

Despite more fanciful etymologies of recent years, it is commonly accepted that the Old Irish word Beltaine is derived from the conjectured archaic Celtic *belo-te(p)niâ, meaning “bright fire”. The element *belo- is probably cognate with the obsolete English word “bale” (as in bale-fire) meaning “white” or “shining.” Middle English “bale” comes from Old English bǣl (“funeral pyre”) which derives from Proto-Germanic *bēlą (“pyre”), from Proto-Indo-European *bʰel- (“to shine; gleam; sparkle”). Old Norse bál is also a cognate and may have been the direct source for the English word via Norse invaders. The most important point from all of this is that Beltane is a FIRE festival.

The best historical documentary evidence of the Celtic celebration of Beltane comes from Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, but something akin to it has been noted in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany. Beltane in pastoral communities is associated with the beginning of the summer season when the animals of the community were driven up into summer pasture. The reverse traditionally occurred on Samhain (~ November 1) when they were driven back down to the village for winter.  Because timing was determined by climate and not by the weather, the exact date varied. In solar terms, Beltane is approximately a cross-quarter day – that is, in Northern latitudes, about halfway between the vernal equinox, and the summer solstice.

There are a number of customs that were once associated with Beltane, many of which died out but were revived in the second half of the 20th century: bonfires, May bushes, visits to holy wells, and house decorating. The Beltane bonfire was probably the most widespread tradition historically, and is the most common today.  There are references to Beltane in Old Irish literature, notably the (perhaps 10th century) glossary Sanas Cormaic and the anonymous, The Wooing of Emer by Cú Chulainn in the 15th or 16th century Tochmarc Emire, where we read:

For the druids used to make two fires with great incantations, and to drive the cattle between them against the plagues, every year.

I don’t trust this statement for one minute. What did early modern chroniclers actually know about druid customs that had died out a millennium earlier? In fact, we know virtually nothing about druids anywhere in the British Isles, but there is no end of idle speculation.  It’s possible also that Beltane bonfires were a conscious revival in the 18th and 19th centuries based on these old MSS, rather than the continuation of an ancient tradition.  In the 19th century, the ritual of driving cattle between two fires was documented in parts of Ireland and Scotland. Sometimes the cattle would be driven around a single bonfire or be made to leap over flames or embers. The people themselves would do likewise. In the Isle of Man, people encouraged the bonfire’s smoke to blow over them and their cattle. Subsequently people would daub themselves with the fire’s ashes and sprinkle it over their crops and livestock. Burning torches from the bonfire would be taken home, where they would be carried around the house or boundary of the farmstead and would be used to re-light the house’s fire which had been doused the night before.

Food could also be cooked at the bonfire. In 1769, Thomas Pennant wrote that, in Perthshire, a caudle made from eggs, butter, oatmeal and milk was cooked on the bonfire. Some of the mixture was poured on the ground as a libation. Everyone present would then take an oatmeal cake, called the bannoch Bealltainn or “Beltane bannock”. A bit of it was offered to the spirits to protect their livestock (one bit to protect the horses, one bit to protect the sheep, and so forth) and a bit was offered to each of the animals that might harm their livestock (one to the fox, one to the eagle, and so forth). Afterwards, they would drink the caudle.

According to several 18th century writers, who may or may not be reliable sources, in parts of Scotland there was another ritual involving the oatmeal cake. The cake would be cut and one of the slices marked with charcoal. The slices would then be put in a bonnet and everyone would take one out while blindfolded. According to one writer, whomever got the marked piece would have to leap through the fire three times. According to another, those present would pretend to throw him into the fire and, for some time afterwards, they would speak of him as if he were dead.

The use of yellow flowers such as primrose, rowan, hawthorn, gorse, hazel, and marsh marigold as garlands was a common Beltane custom, analogous to customs throughout Europe. These were placed at doorways and windows at Beltane in 19th century Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man. Sometimes loose flowers were strewn at the doors and windows and sometimes they were made into bouquets, garlands or crosses and fastened to them. They would also be fastened to cows and equipment for milking and butter making.

The May Bush was a common custom in parts of Ireland until the late 19th century. This was a small tree or branch—typically hawthorn, rowan or sycamore—decorated with bright flowers, ribbons, painted shells, and so forth. There were household May Bushes (which would be placed outside each house) and communal May Bushes (which would be set in a public spot or paraded around the neighborhood). In Dublin and Belfast, May Bushes were brought into town from the countryside and decorated by the whole neighborhood. Each neighborhood competed for the most well-decorated tree. A certain amount of rowdiness associated with this custom led to the May Bush being outlawed in Victorian times. The practice of decorating a May Bush with flowers, ribbons, garlands and bright shells is found among the Gaelic diaspora, most notably in Newfoundland.

May garlands are a part of the Cornish May 1st celebrations in Padstow. On the evening of the Eve of May the town is thoroughly decorated with flowers, green bowers, and bunting. On May 1st there are two processions through town accompanying their ‘Obby ‘Oss – a unique custom of unknown origins. In the early part of the 20th century it was a very obscure event. But it was popularized by folklorists mid-century so that it is now a gargantuan tourist attraction, laden with the usual nonsense about ancient pagan origins despite the fact that the earliest reference to an ‘Obby ‘Oss in Padstow is 1803.

Holy wells were often visited at Beltane, as well as at Imbolc and Lughnasadh. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking “sunwise” (moving from east to west) around the well. They would then leave offerings; typically coins or clooties (cloths). The first water drawn from a well on Beltane was seen as being especially potent, as was Beltane morning dew. It could (theoretically) be rolled in or collected in a jar, left in the sunlight, and then filtered. You might notice my skepticism. Ever tried collecting dew in a jar?

Most Beltane customs died out a long time ago and in many locations traces are seen only in place names and a few landmarks. There are a number of place names in Ireland containing the word Bealtaine, indicating places where Bealtaine festivities may have once been held. It is often Anglicized as Beltany. There are three Beltanys in County Donegal, including the Beltany stone circle, and two in County Tyrone. In County Armagh there is a place called Tamnaghvelton/Tamhnach Bhealtaine (“the Beltane field”). Lisbalting/Lios Bealtaine (“the Beltane ringfort”) is in County Tipperary, while Glasheennabaultina/Glaisín na Bealtaine (“the Beltane stream”) is the name of a stream joining the River Galey in County Limerick.

I suggest that you play around with the idea of oatcakes and caudle on this day since they are so commonly mentioned in old sources. They both come in kaleidoscopic variety in the Celtic world. The traditional Scottish oatcake or bannock was a heavy, flat cake of unleavened barley or oatmeal dough formed into a round or oval shape, then cooked on a griddle or, before the 19th century cooked on a bannock stone, a large, flat, rounded piece of sandstone, placed directly on to a fire, then used as a cooking surface. Most modern bannocks are made with baking powder or baking soda as a leavening agent, giving them a lighter texture.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites the earliest use of the word “caudle” in 1297. The earliest surviving recipe, from 1300–1325, is simply a list of ingredients: wine, wheat starch, raisins, and sugar to “abate the strength of the wine”. In a description of an initiation ceremony at Merton College, Oxford in 1647, caudle is described as a “syrupy gruel with spices and wine or ale added”. Another recipe from the late 14th century has more ingredients and more details on the cooking procedure: “mix breadcrumbs, wine, sugar or honey, and saffron, bring to a boil, then thicken with egg yolks, and sprinkle with salt, sugar, and ginger.” A 15th-century English cookbook includes three caudle recipes: ale or wine is heated and thickened with egg yolks and/or ground almonds, then optionally spiced with sugar, honey, saffron, and/or ginger. This is one version of caudle you can make without much effort. Just be sure to keep an eagle eye on the pot; it burns without much effort also !! This recipe is for one serving, but can easily be multiplied.

Caudle

Ingredients

1 cup milk
1 tbsp oatmeal
2 eggs, beaten
honey
salt
grated fresh nutmeg
whisky or ale

Instructions

Heat the milk in a pan with the oatmeal and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, stirring with a wooden spoon, then turn down the heat and simmer until it starts to thicken.

Whisk in the eggs, plus honey and nutmeg to taste and simmer for about five minutes, constantly stirring to avoid sticking.

Remove from the heat and stir in whisky or ale in the quantity you want. Serve hot (“caudle” means “hot”) in mugs, or, if you prefer, you can pour it over a bannock as a dessert.

Feb 202016
 

OS1

On this date in 1472 Orkney and Shetland were “pawned” to Scotland because Norway, which controlled the islands at the time, was late in paying the dowry of Margaret of Denmark on her betrothal to James III of Scotland. Norway never paid the dowry, so the islands passed permanently to Scotland.

The marriage was arranged by recommendation of the king of France to end the feud between Denmark and Scotland about the taxation of the Hebrides islands, a conflict that raged between 1426 and 1460. Margaret married James in July 1469 (at age 13), at Holyrood Abbey. Her father, King Christian I of Denmark and Norway (the two realms being united at the time under the Kalmar Union), agreed to a considerable dowry. He was in need of cash, however, so eventually he pledged the islands of Orkney and Shetland, which at the time were possessions of the Norwegian crown, as security until the dowry was paid.

os2

Margaret became a popular queen in Scotland and was described as beautiful, gentle, and sensible. Many later historians called her far better qualified to rule than her husband. A story given by her son claims that Margaret was killed by poison given to her by John Ramsay, 1st Lord Bothwell, leader of one of the political factions. However, as Ramsay was favored by the royal family also after the death of the queen, this is considered doubtful and may have been slander, although he did have some knowledge of poisons. During the crisis of 1482 when her husband was deprived of power for several months, Margaret was said to have shown more interest in the welfare of her children than her husband, and this apparently led to an estrangement. Despite later rumors, however, there is no reason to think that the King wished for her death. She died at Stirling Castle on 14 July 1486, and is buried in Cambuskenneth Abbey.

os3

By contrast James III (1451 – 1488), king of Scots from 1460 to 1488 was an unpopular and ineffective monarch owing to his unwillingness to administer justice fairly, a policy of pursuing alliance with the kingdom of England, and a disastrous relationship with nearly all his extended family. His reputation as the first Renaissance monarch in Scotland has sometimes been exaggerated, based on attacks on him in later chronicles for being more interested in such unmanly pursuits as music than hunting, riding and leading his kingdom into war. In fact, the artistic legacy of his reign is slight, especially when compared to that of his successors, James IV and James V. Such evidence as there is consists of portrait coins produced during his reign that display the king in three-quarter profile wearing an imperial crown, the Trinity Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, which was probably not commissioned by the king, and an unusual hexagonal chapel at Restalrig near Edinburgh, perhaps inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

os11

Interestingly, Denmark still has a (dubious) claim to Orkney and Shetland given that the islands were pawned and not given or sold to Scotland.  This claim resurfaced when Scotland was voting recently whether to separate from the United Kingdom, and islanders floated the idea that, should separation occur, they might apply to become part of Denmark.

At the beginning of recorded history the Orkney islands were inhabited by the Picts, whose language was Brythonic (related to Welsh and Cornish). The Ogham script on the Buckquoy spindle-whorl is cited as evidence for the pre-Norse existence of Old Irish in Orkney.

After the Norse occupation in the 8th century the place names of Orkney became almost wholly West Norse. The Norse language evolved into the local Norn, which lingered until the end of the 18th century, when it finally died out. Norn was slowly replaced by the Orcadian dialect of Insular Scots as Orkney passed from Scandinavian to Scottish influence. This dialect is at a low ebb due to the pervasive influences of television, education and the influx of a large number of outsiders. However, attempts are being made by some writers and radio presenters to revitalize it, and the distinctive accent and many dialect words of Norse origin remain in use.

Orkney has a rich folklore and many of the former tales concern trows, an Orcadian form of troll that draws on the islands’ Scandinavian connections. Local customs in the past included marriage ceremonies at the Odin Stone that formed part of the Stones of Stenness.

os10

Shetland’s history is similar. Shetland was colonized by Norsemen in the late 8th and 9th centuries and the fate of the previous indigenous population, presumed to be Picts, is uncertain. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Vikings then used the islands as a base for pirate expeditions against Norway and the coasts of mainland Scotland. In response, Norwegian king Harald Hårfagre (“Harald Fair Hair”) annexed the Northern Isles (comprising Orkney and Shetland) in 875 and Rognvald Eysteinsson received Orkney and Shetland from Harald as an earldom in reparation for the death of his son in battle in Scotland. Some scholars believe that this story is apocryphal and based on the later voyages of Magnus Barelegs. Nonetheless, as the Viking era developed Shetland emerged from the prehistoric period and into the era of written history.

os7

Norn remained stronger in Shetland than in Orkney. A source from 1670 states that there are “only three or four parishes” in Orkney where people speak “Noords or rude Danish” and that they do so “chiefly when they are at their own houses”. Another from 1701 indicates that there were still a few monoglot “Norse” speakers who were capable of speaking “no other thing”, and notes that there were more speakers of the language in Shetland than in Orkney. It was said in 1703 that the people of Shetland generally spoke English, but that “many among them retain the ancient Danish Language”; while in 1750 Orkney-born James Mackenzie wrote that Norn was not yet entirely extinct, being “retained by old people”, who still spoke it among each other.

The last reports of Norn speakers are claimed to be from the 19th century, but it is more likely that the language was dying out in the late 18th. The isolated islands of Foula and Unst are variously claimed as the last refuges of the language in Shetland, where there were people “who could repeat sentences in Norn, probably passages from folk songs or poems, as late as 1893. Walter Sutherland from Skaw in Unst, who died about 1850, has been cited as the last native speaker of the Norn language.

os4

This map shows the languages of Scotland in the 15th century with Scots Gaelic in blue, Scots English in yellow, and Norn in brown (Orkney to the South and Shetland to the north).

Here is the Lord’s Prayer in Shetland Norn recorded in the 1770’s by George Low and published in his A Tour through the Islands of Orkney and Schetland.

Fy vor or er i Chimeri. / Halaght vara nam dit.
La Konungdum din cumma. / La vill din vera guerde
i vrildin sindaeri chimeri. / Gav vus dagh u dagloght brau.
Forgive sindorwara / sin vi forgiva gem ao sinda gainst wus.
Lia wus ik? o vera tempa, / but delivra wus fro adlu idlu.
For do i ir Kongungdum, u puri, u glori, Amen

I am struck forcibly by the large number of cognates with English, showing how closely the old dialects of Scandinavia and northern Germanic regions are related to English.

I feel an affinity to Shetland, even though I have never visited, because my paternal grandmother was a Shetlander. Here she is on her wedding day in Lerwick with my grandfather.

os5

I’ve traced my maternal genealogy extensively because a lot of English records are available (for a price !!) online. However, many Scottish records, including Shetland ones, are not digitized and they are difficult to get hold of, so my paternal line is largely unknown to me. Getting my father’s birth certificate when I wanted to establish that I was British by descent was bad enough. I feel a trip coming on !! (Note to self: buy woolly knickers).

os9

Shetland cooking is rich in seafood, of course, and the local breed of sheep is well known for its special flavor. Local sheep could find some grazing in rocky areas, but were also dependent on seaweed, hence the unique flavor. For simplicity I’ll give a recipe for Shetland bannocks which locals hanker after when they are away from home. There’s nothing special to cooking them; it’s locally sourced ingredients (especially buttermilk) that make the difference. Shetlanders traditionally drank buttermilk or blaand (fermented whey) with dinner. In Cookery for Northern Wives (1925), the classic work on traditional Shetland cooking, Margaret Stout describes making blaand: “This is a refreshing drink made by pouring enough hot water onto buttermilk to make it separate; the curd is drained, pressed and served as Kirnmilk. The whey is allowed to stand until it reaches the fermenting, sparkling stage.”

os8

Shetland Bannocks

Ingredients

1 lb plain flour
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1½ cups (approx.) buttermilk

Stout’s instructions:

Mix the dry ingredients together, make into a soft dough with the buttermilk, just as soft as can be easily handled. Turn on to a floured board.

Roll them like scones and cut or shape into rounds. They can be cooked on a traditional griddle or baked in the oven, known respectively as “top” and “bottom” bannocks. A heavy cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat works fine.