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"It was upon a Lammas night,
When corn rigs are bonie,
Beneath the moon's unclouded light,
I held awa to Annie"
~The Rigs O' Barley, Robert Burns (1759-1796)
Lammas or Lughnasadh is the first of three traditional ancient celebrations of the harvest. John Barleycorn, the personification of the cereal crops, gives his name to many traditional verses for Lammas. The first cuttings of the grain crops, barley, wheat, oats, and rye were important not only for the upcoming winter, but also to provide the seed necessary to plant the crops the following spring. In times past, many rituals were carried out at Lammas to protect the harvest and the wellbeing of animals, and to keep evil spirits at bay for the next three months. Traditionally, the first sheaf of grain would be ceremonially cut at dawn, winnowed, ground and then baked into a Harvest Loaf which all would share as a sign of thanks. The first barley stalks would be made into beer or ale. And the last sheaf would be kept in the home, often above the family hearth until the next harvest, when it would be returned to the earth. Eat, drink and be merry! Happy Lammas! 🌾 🍞
Lammas Day (1 August) is an traditional harvest festival dating from medieval times in Scotland, marking the beginning of the harvest season and times of plenty by the bringing of the new loaves made from the first crop into church to be blessed.
Many traditions and superstitions surround this festival, which was one of the major Pagan festivals of Celtic origin which split the year into four.
One of the more ancient Lammas rituals in Scotland is that of the Burryman, a tradition still upheld in South Queensferry. A local man or boy, the Burryman, is chosen and covered in burrs from the burdock plant. In this array, he marches through the town, (today only crowned with roses and a Scottish flag) with a staff in each hand, accompanied by ‘two officials, led by a bell-ringer and chanting children who collect money (for luck).’
Fairs and festivals were held all over Scotland at Lammas. One of the biggest Lammas fairs was held at Kirkwall in Orkney. Here, a couple could enter into a temporary union at Lammas and could live together for a year and a day before either entering into a permanent union or separating. Convenient shorter commitments were also entered into with the practice of ‘Lammas brothers and sisters’ who joined together in a sexual partnership for the eleven-day duration of the Lammas fair!
By the end of the twentieth century, just two important Lammas Festivals remained – the St Andrews Fair and Inverkeithing Fair. Both are still held in the present day and include market stalls, food and drinks and entertainment. In bygone days, a Lammas fair would have been a very lively fair with the hiring and firing of servants, the collecting of rental payments and the sale of livestock.
One of the biggest Lammas fairs was at Kirkwall in Orkney. Here, a couple could enter into a temporary union at Lammas and could live together for a year and a day before either entering into a permanent union or separating – a condition known as handfasting. Convenient shorter commitments were also entered into with the practice of ‘Lammas brothers and sisters’ who joined together in a sexual partnership for the eleven-day duration of the Lammas fair!
This tartan by Carol A.L. Martin recalls the colour of a waving wheat field against a clear late summer sky.
For more on Scottish Lammas traditions, click the wheat fields!