Saturday 1 May 2010

May Day

I hope you all remembered to wash your faces in May Day dew this morning, as that is a tradition that is known in Orkney and all over Scotland and one that apparently boosts your looks. None of the staff here bothered because we're all ridiculously good-looking anyway but we saw fit to remind the rest of you.

I hope also that all you single ladies out there remember to set out your fresh buckets of urine, ready to receive a peat from the May Day fire, which you will then fish out in the morning and split open to reveal the colour of your future lover's hair. People actually did this.

May Day, or Beltane is the sun God festival and a celebration of the end of winter and the beginnings of peat cutting and crop planting. 'Bel' or 'Bael' is the old name for the sun god and 'tain' means fire.

May Day was thought to be an indicator of how the crops would fare:

If the wind is in the Sooth

Thir'll be braed for every mooth;

If the wind is in the Aest

There'll be dule for man an' baest;

Sud the wind blas fae the West

The muckle shaeves are ill tae fest;

If the wind comes fae the Nort

Aa' the rigs are tight and short.

It was thought that building great big fires would warm the earth and attract the attention of Bal who would then bless the earth with sun. Up until quite recently, Shetlanders and Orcadians would not cut a single peat until 12th May which was when Beltane was originally celebrated. When the fires were lit, people sensibly leapt through and over the flames.

The image above shows the relationship between Maeshowe, The Ring of Brodgar and The Stones of Stenness. The various alignments between these monuments seemed to tally with the sun festivals; the solstices, the equinoxes, Hallowmas and Beltane.

Most festivals require a feast, or special meal of some kind and there is indeed a Beltane bannock. This bannock was often spread with a mixture of egg, milk and oatmeal which, quite frankly, sounds repulsive.

As regular readers will already know, Orkney Library and Archive fear fire above all other things and we are greatly offended by untasty food. We shall, therefore, be celebrating this ancient festival by eating a twix beside a radiator whilst taking great care not to get crumbs on the documents.

Information taken from:

D31/BBC/7 - Ernest Walker Marwick's Island Calendar

D32/3/22&23 - Magnus Spence notebooks.

The Silver Bough Volumes 1 & 2 by F. Marian McNeill

Illustration taken from County Folklore Volume III, Orkney and Shetland Islands by G. F. Black


  1. This is bloomin Beltaine brilliant. Wish I wrote this well!

  2. This is bloomin Beltaine brilliant!

  3. Thank you Ann and a happy May to you!


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