Saturday, 30 April 2016

Mayday in Scotland

Have you ever washed your face in the early morning dew on May 1st?  This is just one of the traditions surrounding this day when the Mayday dew has the supposed power to improve the complexion or even wash away freckles. I have to confess that a friend and I in our first year of high school agreed we would do this though we waited until we got to the hilly green area above the hockey pitch to pat our face with whatever dew was left! No doubt being the west of Scotland, there would be drops of rain on the grass.

Arthur's Seat - Pixabay
A couple of old books I have mention the tradition being carried out on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and one contains an extract from a letter in 1826 which outlines the custom:

“About five o'clock in the morning there is an unusual stir; a great opening of area gates and ringing of bells, and a gathering of folk of all clans arrayed in all the colours of the rainbow… in the course of half an hour the entire hill is a moving mass of all sorts and sizes. At the summit may be seen a company of bakers and other craftsmen, dressed in kilts, dancing round a Maypole.”

What a fascinating picture it conjures up, though needless to say, it won’t be a sight you'll see today!

In Scotland, Mayday Eve (30th April) is also the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane, from the Gaelic Bealltainn, when bel-fires were traditionally lit on the hill-tops. Edinburgh has revived this tradition when you might be lucky enough to obtain a ticket to watch the torchlight shenanigans, drums and magical procession around Calton Hill which goes on until an hour or so after Mayday arrives.

No doubt we've all used the expression “Never cast a clout till May is out.” Some people think it means don’t cast off too many clothes until the end of May (sensible with our British weather), while others think it means until the May blossom is out, which is another name for Hawthorn.

Hawthorn - Pixabay
Around the UK, various Wells have long been connected to special powers and never more so than on Mayday when they are at their most potent and magical. I love the legend about the Schiehallion, a mountain near Loch Rannoch in Tayside, which is said to contain one of the largest faerie kingdoms. Locals used to visit Schiehallion Well on Mayday with offerings for the occupants. A place I'm aiming to visit one day, as long as I don't disappear with the faeries!
I'm sure you’ll know of other Mayday traditions and legends wherever you live, so please feel free to share them in the comments.


Teresa Ashby said...

Lovely post, Rosemary. I loved the image of you and your friend going to pat your faces with the Mayday dew. I think I need to have a go at that!
The description is lovely of the rainbow colours and all the people taking part, it must have been a wonderful sight.
It is certainly one of those magical times of year :-) xx

Joanna said...

Such a lovely post. Thank you, Rosemary. I loved the image of the bakers dancing round the maypole! Our village has an annual dressing of the Wells on Ascension Day with the letters of the word 'ascension' spelt out in flowers, a stunning sight. xxx

Julia Thorley said...

I have some 'witchy' friends who will be marking Beltane.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks, Teresa - we did that kind of silly thing at that age, although it didn't help with my scattering of freckles!

Thanks, Joanna. The floral dressing of the Wells sound delightful! I love those old traditions.

They would love the torchlight celebration in Edinburgh, Julia, where they'd see all kinds of wacky costumes, or none at all!

Jennifer Young said...

Somehow I missed the fact that it's May Day today (probably because it doesn't feel like it). Too many old traditions are dying out - it's always nice to be reminded. Thanks, Rosemary. :)

Mary Smith said...

Whether the saying refers to the month of May or the hawthorn blossom, I'm not casting any clouts just yet! After days of snow, hailstones, drizzle, sun and more sleet, the weather today settled down to constant downpour.

Joan Fleming said...

When I was a student in Edinburgh, Rosemary, we did climb Arthur's Seat on May Day, but the stipulation was that you had to be at the top by sunrise in order to gain the benefits of washing your face in the dew. We never quite made it in time...

There were no maypoles, and it wasn't particularly colourful as we were all wearing anoraks or similar to cope with the weather.

But it was fun.

Patsy said...

I like my freckles, so I've never risked coming into contact with May Day dew.

Wendy's Writing said...

I would leave a longer comment but I'm off to find some dew to improve my complexion X

Nicola said...

I feel like I need some of that dew this morning :) A lovely post, Rosemary. I haven't slept all weekend due to the festivities of welcoming May. Our village came to life and out door parties raved throughout Saturday and Sunday - non-stop! I didn't participate but heard the music and raucous laughter of the youngsters (yes it appears to be a 'young' festivity). And in the middle of the night on the 30th the young men go to the houses of the young women they fancy and erect a huge branch flowing with ribbons somewhere on the girl's house. There are some lovely traditions.

Have a lovely month of May, Rosemary.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Glad you enjoyed reading about them, Jennifer!

Very wise, Mary - it's raining here but it's supposed to get warm later this week!

It is fun to do that kind of thing, Joan - especially with other people!

Must admit I always liked having a few too, Patsy!

Good luck with finding the dew, Wendy!

Wow - you do celebrate May where you are, Nicola! I like traditions but I'm not so keen on those that keep us awake too long. A good May to you too.

Maggie Craig said...

As you know, Rosemary, I still do wash my face in the May dew, thanks to my mother bringing us up to do this. She said it would make us beautiful! She and another friend of mine also told me of the custom in Inverness of going out on Mayday to the clootie well, not the one at Munlochy, but the one near Culloden battlefield.

People took a picnic but also dipped a cloot or a cloth in the water and applied it as desired or required. I'm not sure if the Culloden well had healing properties, as the Munlochy one is believed to. Visited the Culloden well a few years ago but it seemed a bit stagnant. Munlochy Clootie well is still very much in use, with cloots hanging from the surrounding trees. You're supposed to take an item of clothing from the part of your body that has the ailment or sickness, so there's all sorts there. Quite an eerie place.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks for dropping by to comment, Maggie. Well done for continuing the May dew washing! That's fascinating about the clootie wells - must be some sight at the Munlochy one and I can imagine it will have a particular atmosphere. Good to know some traditions still survive.

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

I hated my freckles as a child and would definitely have washed my face with the May Day dew if I'd had the chance! They're faded somewhat now and I'm not so bothered by them, thankfully.

Rae Cowie said...

Such an interesting post, Rosemary. I'd never considered the link between Beltane and May day. I used to hate the phrase 'never cast a clout till May be oot' as my mum used to quote it when I asked to discard my woollen tights (which I hated) for the freedom of long, white socks (heaven)!

Rosemary Gemmell said...

I think we all detest freckles as children, Debs, but they definitely fade!

Thanks, Rae - I remember my mum quoting it often for various reasons!

Jean Bull said...

It's nice to hear about May Day customs, Rosemary. It's a shame so many aren't observed any longer.


Sorry to hear about the dreich Scottish mayday weather, Rosemary. In contrast, if you wanted to know, we have 90% humidity and 38deg C here and no air-conditioning!

My Nana used to tell me about the May Day dew beauty tip and she said she used to rub it on her face as a young woman. She was also quick to quote the 'n'er cast a clout...'

To me, May has always felt like a month of renewal after a hard UK winter and it has always been my favourite month of the year - far more reliable than April - except that I married in May and that year it was both raining and sleeting on my wedding day.

So this month Trav and I are celebrating our 33rd anniversary - and we are planning to fly to Vegas this weekend to renew our vows at the Graceland Chapel with Elvis!

Janice xx

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks, Jean - I suspect there are lots of traditions I don't know about!

Hi Janice - I'll keep the dreich and you can have the humidity! Happy anniversary when it comes.

Carolb said...

I'm sure my freckles wouldn't have worried about washing them in the dew, as it was usually dried up by the time I was awake. :-)

I believe that the start of May was the time when public coaches (the horse-drawn type) were finally able to travel to towns that were inaccessible during the winter months, and the first journey was celebrated with coach decorated with greenery.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Fascinating - I didn't know that Carol so thanks!