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We are delighted to hear that a Celtic Studies course will be offered at the secondary school level in the Toronto District School Board. One purpose of our publication, Fairs and Frolics: Scottish Communities at Work and Play, was to show how Scottish domestic pastimes and entertainment were closely connected with their day to day chores and working life. Many of the folk customs in rural Scotland three centuries ago were rooted in pagan traditions practised by celtic peoples.  Several of the key dates on the Scottish calendar reflected much-earlier celtic cultural holidays. Please refer to our Glossary and to Feudalism.


Their way of living and their industry have a mutual influence.[i]

Rev. Robert Duncan, Dundonald Parish, Ayrshire, 1792


Rural Scotland, ca 1700: Social and Economic Background

            Social and economic activities for the lower class rural Scot in the early eighteenth century were generally limited to the area surrounding the farming settlement -- or "fermtoun" -- of which he or she was a part. The tenants, cottars, labourers and dairy maids were all engaged in the cooperative and primitive farming practices that then prevailed. Each family held a plot of ground in exchange for services that they provided to the person immediately above them in the late Feudal socio-economic hierarchy. For most, economic activity was at the subsistence level. The commercial approach to agriculture was just beginning to take root in several particular -- and exceptional -- communities. Burgh life was somewhat more advanced with its more varied economic activity and regular markets.

            Leisure time activities of long-standing custom permitted the lower class rural folk to overlook their living conditions -- conditions which we now consider wretched.[ii] Every occasion in the religious and agricultural calendars and every personal milestone was seized as an opportunity for merrymaking. Evening entertainments were supplemented by the festivities associated with local fairs, baptisms, weddings and funerals.


The Harvest Home

            The harvest involved the participation of many -- farmers, weavers, other tradesmen and women of the fermtoun and the neighbourhood. At the conclusion of the harvest, all joined in the dancing and merriment of the "Harvest Home" or "Kirn" -- or "Meal an' Ale".

We finished the cutting of the corn this morning. As we are to have our Meal and Ale tonight my Father went down to the Brewery of Boffa and brought up a little anchor of whisky, so that we are making preparations for the blow up.[iii]


Evening Entertainment in the Fermtoun

            The cooperative system of agriculture had many parallels on the entertainment side of rural life. "Rockings" were a combination of evening dancing, drinking and work. The women brought their "rocks" and "reels" or distaffs and spindles and performed their operations on wool and flax. To the rhythm of the work the merriment went round.[iv] Even after the spinning wheel had replaced the "rock", these work-parties continued to be called "rockings".[v] In his "Epistle to J. Lapraik", Burns described these work-parties:

On Fasten-e'en we had a rockin',
To ca' the crack and weave our stockin';
And there was muckle fun and jokin',
Ye need na doubt;
At length we had a hearty yokin',
At 'sang about'.


Regulations Against Amusements at Home

            The customary amusements of the rural folk -- dancing and drinking in particular -- conflicted with the objectives of the Church and Burgh Councils. Both bodies regulated against many of the amusements that were so important to the lower classes. To some extent, the religious leaders were probably concerned about a potential connection between merrymaking and witchcraft.

            In the early-mid seventeenth century, a "secret society" of "Gysarts" became notorious for their frolics in the Upper Ward of Lanarkshire. Evidently, men dressed as women and women dressed as men danced together in a "most unseemly way".[vi] William Weir, "pyper to the gysarts of Lesmahago" was summoned before the Presbytery twice in 1626 for providing the music at such events.[vii]

            In 1660 Lanark Burgh Council decreed:

The baillies and counsell takin into consideratioun the sin befoir God, and the abussis that hes bein formerlie and of lait comitit within this burgh by peples interteining of pyperis in promiscuis danceing, men and women togither, not onllie in the day tyme bot in the night; for remeid quhairof the baillies and counsell statuts and ordeanes that no persone with this burgh suffer any pyper to play at thair houssis or yairds in tyme coming, under the paine of fourtie shilling ilk persone.[viii]

            The Church continued to criticize certain assemblies of people in private dwelling houses well into the eighteenth century. In 1740, Old Cumnock Parish Church officials used rather harsh terms to describe some alleged wrong-doers:

There being a flagrant report that Marion McCowan in this Town entertains bad company and that... she kept some lewd women in her house drinking with men of bad characters through the day and lodged them at night...

            At her hearing, Marion was "told that the Session would use their influence with the civil magistrate to take due course by her".[ix]



            While there was drinking at baptisms, there was even more at weddings. The custom of "riding the broose" was widely practised in Old Cumnock, Ayrshire, until the early nineteenth century. Following the wedding, the young folk raced on horseback to the future home of the newlyweds. Waiting there, the mother of the bridegoom entrusted the winner with a bottle of wine or whiskey which was then rushed back to the wedding party. The crowd then toasted the happy couple.[x]

            "Penny weddings" were also commonly practised in Scotland. Every guest donated one shilling Scots -- that is, one penny Sterling -- to discharge the expenses of the supper, the drink and the fiddler. Any balance remaining was presented to the couple as a wedding gift.[xi] The drinking and "promiscuous dancing" at weddings which so annoyed the Kirk was probably accompanied by some degree of brawling and profanity[xii] -- at least in the view of the Church.

Compeared Jas. Nicoll and his wife Marion Weir, in Burnhouse, for gathering so many people to their wedding; and there abuses were committed. The Session finds the bride innocent, and therefore passes her, and ordains the said James to be rebuked the next Lord's day, conform to the Synod's Act against gathering multitudes of persons to penny weddings, which occasions the committing of abuses.[xiii]

            It was not uncommon for the wrong-doers to ignore the orders of the Session. The Nicoll affair was discussed at Presbytery three weeks later, on August 12, 1702, when it was reported that "he refusing to obey the sentence of the session, the Presbytrie appoints him to be summoned to compear before them against their next meeting".[xiv]



            During the eighteenth century, funerals were another excuse for a boisterous get-together of hundreds of country people. English officers observed that "a Scots funeral to be merrier than an English wedding"[xv]. By May 5, 1800, the excessive drinking at funerals in Old Cumnock had stirred 82 of the local folk to subscribe to a "Covenant of Householders Regarding the Method of Conducting Funerals":

We, Subscribers, being in or near to the village of Cumnock, taking into our serious consideration that, by the present method of conducting burials among us, much time is misspent and money thrown away, and that by entertainments given at many of them the Living are injured and the Dead in many cases dishonoured; and being convinced that a reform is necessary, have agreed and do by our respective subscriptions hereto annexed agree, bind and oblige ourselves to the Rules or Articles following, viz:

1          That none of us shall give any general or public entertainment either immediately before or after the Burial of our friends, and that, exclusive of the members of our family and those connected with the chief mourner by blood or relationship, we will not invite any number exceeding 12 to partake of the refreshment that may be provided suitable to the occasion, which we hereby agree shall not exceed 3 glasses of wine, or where this cannot be purchased, one glass of spirituous liquors, and bread proportioned...[xvi]

             Evidently, the old custom was so strong in the Parish that the first subscriber to feel death in his house pleaded with the Committee to allow him abandon his oath -- his request was refused.

            The notion of extending invitations to limited numbers of only the closest of acquaintances was probably relatively new. James McCowan in Auchanbeg, Lesmahagow Parish, received a letter [xvii] dated October 1, 1819:

The favour of your company here [Blackwood, Lesmahagow] on Wednesday the 6th Inst. at 12 o'clock noon to attend the Funeral of James Whiteford, my Father in law, from this to the place of Interment in Lesmahagow Churchyard

will much oblige
Your humble Servent
John Black

Mrs. McOwan is also requested to attend the funeral.

            The precise specifications for the Whiteford funeral -- "12 o'clock noon" and "from this to the place of interment" -- seem to contrast sharply with the older practice of feasting and drinking for several days.



            The themes of community solidarity and boisterous merry-making come through also in the old Church festivals and their, sometimes, paganish rituals. The drinking associated with contemporary New Year's Eve parties has its roots in Hogmanay:

The sternest precisian, the veriest churl, was bound to be jolly on Hogmanay. Even an elder of the Church might get drunk on that occasion without damage to his reputation.[xviii]

Ministers too were occasionally caught participating in the parties of their rural parishioners:

This being the day for private censure in the Presbytery, all were approven, excepting onely Mr. Hugh Campbell in Muirkirk, who was said to be sometimes guilty of drunkeness, and of too frequently meddling in secular affairs and country trysts.[xix]

            Community effort and occupations in Morayshire were important considerations on Fastern's E'en or Shrove Tuesday. All present assisted with the preparation of the "Sautie Bannock", into which were mixed "unconsidered trifles". The girl who ultimately drew the button out of her portion would marry a tailor; the girl who found the nail would marry a blacksmith; the piece of straw, a farmer and so on.[xx]

            Fastern's E'en in Jedburgh, Roxburghshire, was a traditional occasion for the game of "Jethart Ba'". The men from above the Mercat Cross played against those from below. That the game was rather wild is evident in a 1704 ruling from Town Council forbidding "the tossing and throwing up of the football at Fastern's E'en within the streets of the burgh". This manner of play had "many times tended to the great prejudice of the inhabitants ... there have been sometymes both old and young near lost their lives thereby".[xxi]

            Hallowe'en Fires were lit at dusk for two principal purposes: to destroy witches and other forces of evil and to serve as a focus for festivity. Sometimes fights would break out between groups of rival revellers, the object being to destroy the other's fire.[xxii]

[i]               Statistical Account, Dundonald Parish, Ayrshire, 1792, (p. 178).

[ii]               See, for example: Graham, Social Life of Scotland, p. 186-7; Rampini, Moray and Nairn, p. 305-315.

[iii]              Diary of George Gall, Oldtown, Atherb, Aberdeenshire, Aug. 27, 1868, as quoted by Fenton in Scottish Country Life, p. 70.

[iv]              See Scottish History Society, "Memories of Ayrshire" (p. 288) by Rev. John Mitchell.

[v]               Graham, Social Life, p. 186.

[vi]              Robertson, Lanark, p. 92, 381.

[vii]             Greenshields, Lesmahagow, p. 149, transcriptions of the Presbytery Records.

[viii]             Royal Burgh of Lanark, p. 177.

[ix]              Kirk Session Minutes of Old Cumnock, Ayrshire, Nov. 30, 1740 and Feb. 22, 1741, CH 2/81/2.

[x]               Warrick, Old Cumnock, p. 309.

[xi]              Warrick, Old Cumnock, p. 310-311.

[xii]             Graham, Social Life, p. 187, 327.

[xiii]             Greenshields, Lesmahagow, p. 142, extracts from the Kirk Session Records, July 19, 1702.

[xiv]             Greenshields, Lesmahagow, p. 161-2.

[xv]             Graham, Social Life, p. 54.

[xvi]             Warrick, Old Cumnock, p. 314-5. Rev. Warrick had been provided with the document by William McCowan, an industrialist in Whitehaven, England, and grandson of one of the subscribers.

[xvii]            D.A. McCowan collection.

[xviii]           Rampini, Moray and Nairn, p. 326.

[xix]             March 24, 1691. The Presbytery of Ayr, 1581-1981, p. 14.

[xx]             Rampini, Moray and Nairn, p. 323. See also Hole, British Folk Customs, p. 180.

[xxi]             Hole, British Folk Customs, p. 114.

[xxii]            Hole, British Folk Customs, p. 88.


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