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The Scots Week-End
The Caledonian Calendar

The days gang by wi' tentless speed


THE Scots are, broadly speaking, a Celtic people with a strong Scandinavian leaven, and their festivals derive from both sources.

In ancient Europe there were two methods of dividing the year. The non-Celtic peoples divided it in accordance with the solstices and the equinoxes, their two chief festivals being held at Midsummer and at Midwinter or Yule, as our Scandinavian forebears called it. The Celtic peoples, on the other hand, divided it in accordance with the entry of the seasons, their principal festivals being at Beltane (May 1st) and Hallowmas (November 1st), or, more strictly, Hallowe'en. This division of the year was natural to a people at a pastoral stage of development, for at Beltane the cattle went out to their summer pastures and at Hallowmas they returned to the fold. (The two systems were not mutually exclusive, the non-Celtic nations, for example, kept Walpurgis Night, and there was a ritual gathering of the mistletoe by the Druids, or Celtic priests, at the time of the summer and winter solstices.) The minor Celtic festivals were St. Bride's Day and Lammas, which fell on February 1st and August 1st respectively. "At four termes in the zeir," we read in the old records, "viz., Alhalowmas, Candilmas, Beltan, and Lambmes"; and though the dates have been slightly dislocated by the reform of the Calendar, the Scottish Quarter Days still follow the ancient division of the Celtic peoples, while in England they follow the non-Celtic usage.

The principal festivals in modern Scotland are Beltane, now merged with Midsummer, which is celebrated principally in the Common Ridings of the Border burghs; Hallowe'en, which is the great children's festival throughout the country; and Yule, which, owing to prejudices of the Kirk, does not now mean Christmas but "the hinner end" of the old Yule, embracing Hogmanay and Ne'er Day. Auld Handsel Monday, the "boxing-day" of the domestic servant and the farm labourer, is now virtually extinct.


The Festival of Spring. Originally dedicated to a Celtic goddess of that name, later re-dedicated to St. Bride of Kildare. Bride ruled from Candlemas to Hallowmas. The winter quarter, from Hallowmas to Candlemas, was presided over by the Cailleach, or Auld Wife, who raised the winter storms.

In the Hebrides, on St. Bride's Eve, the girls of the townland tied a sheaf of corn in the semblance of a woman, decked it with shells, crystals, and the first spring flowers, and carried it from house to house, singing their processional song, Bride Bhoideach, Beauteous Bride. Oblations of cakes, cheese, etc., were made, and with these the girls repaired to a house agreed upon and made a feast, at which the lads joined them, the figure of Bride being set up in their midst.

In every house Bride's bed was prepared, in which the sheaf was ceremoniously laid and left till dawn, with a wand of birch, broom or other sacred wood beside her.

The sheaf represents the spirit of vegetation, and in various parts of Scotland Bride still reappears at the Kirn, or Harvest Home, as "The Maiden"-the last sheaf cut in the harvest field-which is decorated with ribbons, brought home in procession and hung up prominently at the Harvest Supper. When cut after Hallowe'en the sheaf is known as the cailleach or clyack.

Candlemas and Fastern's E'en have both affiliations with the pagan festival of Bride. Until recent years, Candlemas was a general school holiday. A Candlemas King and Queen were crowned, cakes and sweets were distributed, in the afternoon "the ba' " was played, and in the evening there was "the Candlemas Bleeze" - usually a whin-bush set ablaze-which is a relic of the sacred bonfire of the Druids.

On Fastern's E'en the matrimonial brose (containing a ring) is eaten, the sauty bannocks ceremonially prepared and a bit put by "to dream on", and fortunes are spaed, usually by dropping the white of an egg into a wine-glassful of water and studying the shape it assumes.


Druidism, which was still the official religion of Scotland in the sixth century, was a form of sun-worship peculiar to the Celtic peoples. At Beltane and Hallowe'en, on the hill-tops, the Druids lit great bonfires in honour of the sun and performed curious rites for protection and purification, and to promote fertility in man, beast and field. The Beltane fires were lit at dawn, the Hallowe'en fires at dusk. Arthur's Seat, in Edinburgh; Tinto Tap, near Lanark; and Kinnoull Hill, near Perth, are among the many traditional sites. Though the two festivals had many features in common, they differed a good deal in character. By Beltane, the seed had already been committed to the ground; by Hallowmas, the crops were already "inned". The one was in essence a Day of Supplication for a good harvest, and the other a Harvest Thanksgiving.

On Hallowe'en, too, the spirits of the departed were believed to revisit their old homes. It was the last day of the Celtic year and the whole other-world was upset. The fairies were "out" and all sorts of uncanny creatures were released for the night. Witches and warlocks cleaved the air on broom-sticks or galloped along the road on tabby-cats transformed into coal-black steeds, and it was dangerous to go out after dark, unless protected by fire lit at the sacred flame. It was a season of omens and auguries, and glimpses of the future could be obtained, especially by those who had "The Sight".

In the young folk's festival of to-day many of the old divination rites survive as parlour games-Burning the Nuts, The Three Luggies and The Hidden Charms. "Dookin' for Aipples" is in all probability an ancient Druidic rite symbolising the passing through water to Avalon, apple-land, the land of the immortals. We are told that Thomas the Rhymer and the Fairy Queen, on their way to Elfland, "waded through rivers abune the knee".

Syne they cam' on to a gairden grene.
An' she pu'd an aipple frae a tree.
"Tak' this for thy wages, True Thomas;
It will gie thee tongue that can never lee."

The hazel-nut used in the divination rites symbolises "the magic tree that wizards loved" as the source of all wisdom, the grotesque masks of the guisers represent the uncanny creatures of the other-world who are supposed to be at large on this night; whilst the bonfires, the turnip lanterns and the "can'le in a custock" are the last traces of the fire-rites with which our forefathers worshipped the Unknown God, whom they believed to be enthroned in the hub of the sun's golden wheel.

The Beltane and Hallowe'en bonfires have blazed across the centuries in an unbroken chain, up to our own time, but they have gradually descended from the hill-tops to the village knoll. There are plenty of people still alive who have rolled their Beltane bannocks down some Highland hill, but it is in the Border burghs that the "Feast of Summer Come Again" is best commemorated. The bonfires appear to have died out; but the distribution of oak-leaves (the sacred tree of the Druids) at Hawick and the visit to the Moat at dawn are relics of the days of Druidism.

Until Scotland became industrialised, Yule was the one recognised holiday season in the year. The full celebration lasted from Yule E'en to Twelfth Night, but servants and labourers usually had to content themselves with "the hinner end". All routine work was discarded; the whole house was cleaned and polished, and all sorts of gudebread prepared. Shortbread and Black Bun remain the pièces de résistance on the Hogmanay dresser or sideboard. The Yule Ale was brewed in advance, and the Yule bread proper baked on Yule E'en between sunset and dawn-originally in honour of the Nativity. On Yule morning, everybody, gentle and simple, breakfasted on Yule Brose, which was made with rich stock instead of water. Those who could not afford a goose for dinner had a slice from the Yule Mart. During the Daft Days (as the period of jollity was called) the guisers were out. The White Boys of Yule, as they were called, were quite different from the Hallowe'en Guisers. They went about in white shirts, tall paper caps, false beards and masks-all but one of their number, who wore black-and performed their play, The Goloshins. The Yuie Boys are the Scottish equivalent of the English Mummers.


Hogmanay, or New Year's Eve, and its ritual call for no description. It shows no signs of falling into decay. There is, however, a regrettable laxity in the way that "first-footing" is carried out nowadays. For real luck the "first-foot" must be a dark man, who is a bona fide visitor and not merely one of the company who is sent outside just before midnight in order to come in again on the last stroke. And New Year toast should be given in these traditional terms:

Weel may ye a' be,
Ill may ye ne'er see,
Here's to the King
An' the gude companie.

The ancient Scandinavian fire-rites, other than the burning of the Yule-log, have very nearly died out. The most notable survivals are the Burning of the Clavie at Burghead, and the magnificent pageant of Up-helly-a (the Norse Uphalieday) in Lerwick.

National Festivals

Jan. 1 Ne'er Day (New Year's Day).
  Auld Handsel Monday (First Monday of the New Year, O.S.).
Jan. 6 Uphalieday (Twelfth Night). The Daft Days end.
Jan. 25 Burns Night.
Feb. 1 St. Bride's Day, or Candlemas E'en.
Feb. 2 Candlemas (Scottish Quarter Day).
Feb. 14 St. Valentine's Day.
March Fastern's E'en (Shrove Tuesday) (movable).
April 11 Gowkin' Day (All Fool's Day).
April Pasch (Easter) (movable).
May 1 Beltane.
May 15 Whitsun (approx. Old Beltane) (Scottish Quarter Day).
June 9 St. Columba's Day.
June 23 Midsummer Eve.
June 24 Midsummer. The Battle of Bannockburn.
Aug. 1 Lammas (Scottish Quarter Day).
Sept. 29 Michaelmas.
Oct. 31 Hallowe'en.
Nov. 1 Hallowmas.
Nov. 11 Martinmas (Old Hallowe'en) (Scottish Quarter Day).
Nov. 30 Anermas, or St. Andrew's Day.
Dec. 25 Yule. The Daft Days begin.
Dec. 31 Hogmanay.

Principal Local Festivals



Jan. Burghead - The Burning of the Clavie
  Lerwick - Up-helly-a


Feb. Jedburgh - The Candlemas Ba'
  St. Andrews - Kate Kennedy Day


June Peebles - Beltane Festival
  Hawick - Common Riding
  Galashiels - Common Riding
  Selkirk - Common Riding
  Lanark - Lanimer Day
  Dumfries - Guid Nychburris Day
(third week) Linlithgow - Common Riding
  Kilbarchan - Lilias Day
July Lauder - Common Riding
  Musselburgh - Common Riding
(last week) Langholm - Common Riding


Aug. St. Andrews Lammas Fair
(second week)
Annan - Common Riding


Nov. Edinburgh - Hallowfair


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