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The Fires of Midsummer

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 0 comments

Midsummer, the point that marks the turning of the year as the days begin to shorten is the source of many different kinds of ritual and celebration all over Scotland. The festival itself is primarily a Celtic fire festival traditionally celebrated on either the 23rd or 24th of June, although the longest day actually falls on the 21st. Its importance to our ancestors is evident in the large number of stone circles and other ancient monuments are aligned to the sunrise on this day.

Midsummer fires were still a common phenomenon well into the 18th century, especially in rural areas where traditional beliefs could co-exist with Christianity seemingly without conflict.  After Christianity became widely adopted in Britain, the festival became known as St John’s day and was still celebrated as an important day, the birthday of St John the Baptist but in many parts of the country the old ways would still be clung to.

Although the exact customs varied there was a common theme – that of blessing the crops and beasts of the land with fire, generally by walking them around the fire in a sun-wise direction. It was also customary for people to jump high through the fires, folklore suggesting that the height reached by the most athletic jumper, would be the height of that year’s harvest.

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Celebrations began on the evening of the Feast of St John the Baptist (June 24th), and the main focal point of the festivities was the bonfire, although the accompanying rites were more solemnly observed in the north than in the Lowlands, where the emphasis was on fun and festiveness. These were generally lit after sunset – which at this time of year would have been very late indeed and around the fire there was food and drink to be had, along with dancing (actively discouraged by the church)

In some bonfires a bone was thrown or ritually placed into it, symbolic of the animal that would previously have been sacrificed to appease the sun god. Branches of birch were collected and hung over the doorways for protection, and torches of heather were lit from the main fire and taken back to the homestead by the head of the house, where he would then go round the field sunwise three times to bless the crops and ensure a good harvest. The same was done around the byre to bless the cattle and safeguard them against disease. Meanwhile, the young men and boys remained at the bonfire, where they waited for the flames to die down before leaping them and then heading home at sunrise.

Orkney is one of the places that clinged to the old traditions the longest with Johnsmas celebrations a common practice until the mid-19th century. Here the peats for the fire were provided by those whose horses had suffered disease, or been gelded, during the year, with the livestock then being led sunwise around the flames. Blazing heather was carried into byres and, where possible, among the cattle to help ensure procreation. In the preceding century, people were also in the habit of circling their houses and fields with blazing torches.

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In many Lowland areas the “Common Riding” Festivals incorporated many of the same aspects and customs, and are also staggered throughout the summer season.   Part of the Summer Solstice ritual was to walk the sacred paths, reinforcing boundaries both spiritual and physical.  “Riding the Bounds” forms an important part of Common Riding customs to this day and forms the centrepiece of the Peebles Beltane festival held on the 25 June this year.

The Eve of St. John has special magical significance and was used by Sir Walter Scott as the title, and theme, for one of his poems. He invented a legend in which the lady of Smailholm Tower, near Kelso, keeps vigil by the midnight fires three nights in a row and is visited by her lover. When her husband returns from battle, she learns he slew that lover on the first night, and she has been entertained by a very physical ghost.

Traditionally, this summer solstice period fell between the planting and harvesting of crops, leaving people who worked the land time to relax. This is why June became the traditional month for weddings. The first (or only) full moon in June was called the ‘honey moon’ because many believed it was the best time to take honey from beehives.

Herbs and flowers were also traditionally gathered on this day and often placed under a pillow in the hope of important dreams, especially dreams about future lovers. Love was a common theme in midsummer festivals with paired sweethearts leaping over bonfires hand in hand or throwing flowers across the flames to each other. In one somewhat convoluted (or maybe desperate) ritual girls could take home a partly burned peat from the midsummer fire, extinguish it in a tub of urine, place it above the door lintel and wait till next morning. When the peat was then broken open, a fibre would show the hair colour of the girl’s future husband.

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St John’s Eve was seen as a time when the veil between this world and the next was thin, and when powerful forces were abroad. Vigils were often held during the night and it was said that if you spent a night at a sacred site during Midsummer Eve, you would gain the powers of a bard, on the down side you could also end up utterly mad, dead, or be spirited away by the fairies. Uamh Tom a’ Mhor a 40 yard long cave on the slopes of Schiehallion, the geographical centre of Scotland has been positively identified by some as the actual entrance to the otherworld. Those venturing into it to join the annual fairy shindig on midsummers evening may find themselves staying longer than they bargained for with local legends telling of unlucky travellers being waylaid for up to 30 years.

For many the most identifiable midsummer image is that of neo pagans and standing stones, but it is worth remembering that every generation has its own beliefs and customs, some die out forever, some are revived and adapted for the modern world and some never leave us. Midsummer bonfires are somehow elemental, a reminder of our pagan past and an important way of remembering the superstitious days when survival was dependent on good harvests and healthy cattle.

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