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St. Swithin's Day

"St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain na mair"

~ Traditional

"Mares' tails and mackerel scales make lofty ships to carry low sails!" Is there a "mackerel" or "buttermilk" sky above in your part of the world today? If so, there may be rain in your future. July 15th, St. Swithin's Day, is a traditional weather prediction day, with a traditional rhyming verse suggesting that if it rains today, one should expect 40 more days of rain thereafter! The common terms "mackerel sky" or "buttermilk sky" describe the distinctive rows of cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds which form an undulating, rippling pattern similar in appearance to fish scales or curdled buttermilk. This distinctive pattern appears almost exclusively ahead of a warm front and is a reliable forecaster for a change in the weather! Forecasting folklore for this day has its origins in the story of St. Swithin, the bishop of Winchester from 852 to 862. At his request he was buried in the churchyard, where rain and the steps of passersbys might fall on his grave. According to legend, after his body was moved inside the cathedral on July 15, 971, a great storm ensued, leading to the expectation of continuing rain on this day. Whether the weather, may you get the rain or the drier skies that you prefer. 🌧️☀️☔

St. Swithin is the patron saint of weather, known best for the British weather lore proverb, which says that if it rains on St. Swithun's day, 15 July, it will rain for 40 days.

"St Swithun's day if thou dost rain

For forty days it will remain

St Swithun's day if thou be fair

For forty days 'twill rain nae mare"

There is thought to be a scientific basis to the weather pattern behind the legend of St. Swithun's day.  Around the middle of July, the jet stream settles into a pattern which, in the majority of years, holds reasonably steady until the end of August. When the jet stream lies north of the British Isles then continental high pressure is able to move in; when it lies across or south of the British Isles, Arctic air and Atlantic weather systems predominate.

 

By designer Carol A.L. Martin, the Mackerel Sky tartan evokes the colors of a sunrise buttermilk sky.

A mackerel sky is a common term for a sky with rows of cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds displaying an undulating, rippling pattern similar in appearance to fish scales; this is caused by high altitude atmospheric waves.

Cirrocumulus appears almost exclusively with cirrus some way ahead of a warm front and is a reliable forecaster that the weather is about to change.


The old rhyme:

"Mackerel sky, not twenty-four hours dry" and

"Mares' tails and mackerel scales make lofty ships to carry low sails"


both refer to this long-recognized phenomenon.

This cloud pattern is also sometimes known as a buttermilk sky, particularly the early cirrocumulus stage, in reference to the clouds' "curdled" appearance.

 

In France it is sometimes called a ciel moutonné (fleecy sky); in Spain a cielo empedrado (cobbled sky); and in Germany it is known as Schäfchenwolken (sheep clouds).

Click the picture below for more spectacular photography from  Chip Phillips Photography including this mackerel sky reflected in Lake Trillium, Oregon, at sunrise.