Dandelion was a celebration of growing, creativity and culture culminating in community harvest festivals across Scotland earlier this September. Ethnologist Mairi McFadyen was involved in researching and sharing some of the folklore and traditions to inspire new tradition-making – she shares some examples from Tobar an Dualchais here.
Many of the traditions associated with harvest across Scotland come from a time when people were far more connected to the land, to the cycle of the seasons, to the patterns of the agricultural year – a time when the whole community would depend upon each other for their well-being and survival.
The older traditions follow the rhythm of the old Gaelic calendar, organised around the solstices and equinoxes by which seasons could be predicted.
Harvest season traditionally began around 1st August with Lunastal or Lammas – a time for gathering in and giving thanks for abundance.
In the past, people had very little access to science – such as weather reports! – and, perhaps unsurprisingly, there were magical beliefs surrounding the harvest.
An ancient and widespread custom across northern Europe was related to the cutting of the ‘last sheaf’ of the crop.
The belief was that the ‘spirit of the corn’ was present in the grain; as the harvest proceeded, this spirit would become concentrated in the remaining crop and the final sheaf to be cut would contain its distilled essence.
In Gaelic tradition, the last sheaf or sguab mu dheireadh would usually be barley or oats, or a mix including rye. Once cut, the sheaf was crafted into a superstitious charm, which could take the form of a simple plait of straws tied up with ribbon, or may be crafted into a corn dolly and even clothed.
The charm was displayed in the home over winter until it was time to start the growing process over again – often it was fed to the birds, horses, or ploughed back into the field to replenish the soil.
As Calum MacLean writes (Scottish Studies, vol. 8, 1964), traditions relating to the last sheaf were found all over Scotland in various forms and with various names.
In Gaelic it was called the maighdean-bhuana (the harvest maiden), the cailleach-bhuaineadh (the old woman of the harvest), or clàidheag, which became the Scots clyack.
In some places it was the youngest female who cut the sheaf; in others it was the oldest person in the community. It was sometimes considered good luck, sometimes bad.
It’s fascinating to listen to the different explanations – for example, the recording of William Forbes speaking to Ann Ross in Highland Perthshire in 1964 (Track ID 75601) or Janet Shaw speaking to Calum Maclean in Jura in 1953 (Track ID 6998).
Different localities had different names for their harvest celebrations. It was often called the ‘Harvest Home,’ but it was also known as a ‘Kirn’, a ‘Meal and Ale,’ a ‘Muckle Supper’ or Deireadh Buana in Gaelic.
These were events in which the the whole community took part and served as a thank you to those who had helped make the harvest successful.
There would be plenty of food and drink, as well as games, divination, music, singing and dancing.
There is a cheerful recording from John MacDonald in Elgin, with an explanation of the last sheaf, a dram and the tune ‘Harvest Home’ played on the melodeon (Track ID 25999).
Calum Maclean interviewed Kate MacRae from Lochalsh about the feasting and dancing at the Fèis Deireadh Bhuana (Track ID 1283).
And in Orkney, Ethel Findlater spoke to Alan Bruford about the ‘Muckle Supper,’ which used to take place in people’s homes before the village halls were built (Track ID 64275): “After the harvest wis all in and they hed their potatoes up and everything ready for the winter, and the cattle all inside, they had a jollification they called the ‘muckle supper.’ And it was just held in the farm house and in the barn…the ones that had been helping them in the harvest time they would all invite…Plenty to eat and plenty of fun. Somebody would maybe sing a song or two…and then they danced ‘til maybe four o’clock in the morning!”
In areas that were predominantly Catholic, harvest festivities were intertwined with Christian Feast Day of Michaelmas celebrated on the 29th of September.
Alexander Carmichael in Carmina Gadelica writes at length about this festivity and shows just how ritualised every aspect of significant days such as this were.
Celebrations included baking the strùan cake, horse-racing and a procession of the area (always deiseil or sunwise), followed by the exchanging of gifts – such as specially harvested wild carrots – and an evening of singing and dancing.
In a recording from 1966, Christina Mackay from South Uist explains that the flour from the first crop of corn went into the strùan cake (Track ID 60570).
For centuries, harvest festivities provided an annual opportunity not just to celebrate the safe securing of the crop, but to celebrate community identity and belonging – to reflect together on the season that had passed and look forward to the one to come.
In a recording from Glenlyon in Perthshire, John Fisher reflects: ‘There was more neighbourliness in these days than what there is now.
Folk weren’t living just for money entirely. It was more community spirit, you know, which you don’t get nowadays.’ (SA1988.20).
A great example of this is the practice of the lovedarg, which means ‘work done for love’ – darg being the Scots for a day’s work.
This took the form of a friendly day’s ploughing, sowing or harvest help given to a neighbour in need. It was significant event in the local community, often celebrated with food and music.
Crucially, the lovedarg was a service given not in exchange for money or even for charity, but in solidarity – what today we might call a form of mutual aid.
Here, John Fisher explains to fieldworker Gary West: “‘A lovedarg – say you had just taken a farm over or had been ill and had fallen behind in your work, all the neighbours would come and plough the ground for you. When we moved into a farm when I was a boy, we had no horses and all the neighbours came – and they ploughed the whole lot…Everything was done…It was kindness itself.”
While this is an example from Scots-speaking Highland Perthshire, the sentiment of the lovedarg was at play in island communities too.
In this recording from Kyles Paible in North Uist, John MacDonald speaks to Eric Cregeen about the different ways in which crofters would help each other, including taking in the harvest (Track ID 18083).
In a recording from Berneray, local Bàrd Baile Catherine Dix tells the story of an old woman in North Uist who woke up to find all her corn had been cut and stooked by the people of Balmartin.
They had seen her out with the scythe in her petticoat, doing the best she could, before she went home and fell asleep in her chair from exhaustion (Track ID 60474).
Like many harvest traditions across the world, these practices and festivities display features of generosity, reciprocity, hospitality, cooperation and careful stewardship of the land.
At their heart is a conviviality and strong sense of community – something that so many of us today have lost.
It would be wrong to fall into nostalgia for ‘the good old days,’ blaming today’s generation for such social fragmentation.
This blinds us to the fact that it is the continuing driving forces of a capitalist economic system – a shift over several decades towards the commercialisation and privatisation of our lives and work – that has eroded our social bonds.
Scientists are telling us that this same extractive economic system is destroying the biosphere that supports life on Earth.
With climate crisis posing a grave threat to our collective future and the shocks of the coronavirus pandemic still reverberating, we need to find ways to rebuild local and community resilience.
For me, this is what Dandelion’s core message of ‘sow, grow, share’ was all about: building community through growing food.
We must remember too that conviviality itself is not commodifiable: gathering together can be a creativity-sparking force for change and renewal.
While today we may not be cutting the last sheaf for the same reasons or in the same fashion, we can re-seed cultural ideas to inspire new traditions for our own time – traditions which, perhaps, contain a germ of transformational change towards a more hopeful future.
With thanks to Dandelion colleagues, fellow creative ethnologists Steve Byrne and Gary West
The website tobarandualchais.co.uk contains some 50,000 oral recordings of songs, music, poetry and factual information made in Scotland and further afield.