The gathering of oats was significant, oats and wheat provided staple food for beer, bread, porridge, bannocks and food for livestock through the winter. We should also look wider than this to truly understand the spirit of harvest, as harvest season would start in June from wool shearing of sheep, to gathering gorse and bracken for fuel and thatching, coppicing hazel wood for fences, seaweed from the sea and milk and other produce. Our drying racks are already full but for herbalists Lùnastal signifies a change from activities around gathering leaves and flowers to gathering seeds, fruits and roots, as plants start to become dormant. Harvest time will end in late November with fruits, such as apples and roots being gathered at this time. It’s traditional to not to collect any berries after the 10th of October, least the “devil has spat on them”. However, Lùnastal was the time to celebrate the harvest, community and to propitiate and a time of sacrifice and death.
The Corn doll (kern idol)
It was traditional in Scotland that the Cailleach doll would be produced from the wheat harvested from the first field. This corn doll or the Cailleach doll would then be placed in the next field until they had ploughed their’s, and onwards it would go until it ended up in the last farmer’s field ploughed. People didn’t want this doll as if you ended up with it with no one to pass it onto you’d be responsible for housing the Cailleach and looking after her all winter. This was a very bad sign, and placing the doll was done in a drive-by fashion and it was known that folks could even get combative about it. This doll, represents the harvest spirit and was usually ploughed back into the fields in spring harvest around la Fheil Bridghe thus completing the cycle every year. (F Miriam Mcneill, The Silver Bough, 1956)
Beltane wasn’t the only “sexy festival” of the old folk calendar, in fact, Lunastal was probably more so. The marriage fair not only occurred in the Ireland. There are records of similar activities happening in Scotland at Kirkwall and Orkney. In the Stennis Circle, at the holed stone termed by the Vikings the “Stone of Odin”. Lovers would clasp hands through the hole in it and divide a six penny between the two of them were then “wed”. As simple as that. The stone is no longer there but has been commemorated by Sir Walter Scot. The Kirkwall fair was such that the young folk of either sex became paired off, known as Lunastal “brother and sister” and no scandal was attached to any “indiscretions” that might have occurred. This would also have been related to the weaving of gentleman’s favours given as courting gifts.
Some folk would just hook up for the festival and were known as “Lammas brothers and sisters” others might want a more formal arrangement and would handfast at this point and spend time together over the winter season. This is because folks were close to home over the coming months and they would be able to get to know one another and not in the frenetic activity of summer.
There was also a bull sacrificed on this day. Some think this may be a replacement for human sacrifice to the god Crom Dubh. The hide may have been preserved and was used in divination rituals called the Taghairm as recorded by Sir Walter Scott in 1810. The bull hide also makes an appearance again at Hogmanay where it is singed for good luck and the smoke allowed to spread throughout the house. It is interesting to note that the constellation of Taurus disappears is in the sky through March to the start of August and reappears around Lùnastal.
The Burry Man
In South Queensferry, a small town just on the outskirts of Edinburgh, on the Firth of the Forth around Lùnastal the burryman makes an appearance. The outfit consists of burrs from the burdock plant and the suit is made out of these burrs and the person in the costume is covered in them from head to toe. He wonders around the streets of South Queensferry with a head dress of flowers and carrying two staffs. Where he came from and his origins are not really properly understood. Some folks suggest he may be a representation of a harvest spirit or alternatively a “scape goat” figure. Moving through the town to remove the sins of the town and then thrown in the sea and otherwise abused by towns folk. Other people think that he may have been a sacrifice to a sea-god to propitiate and mind the deaths of Lugh. A very clear association with death and water again in Celtic myth.
What Lùnastal means to us
It makes sense for us where we live to honour Lugh at this time and to also honour the harvest. Lugh was an honoured tribal ancestor of the Votadini tribe in East Lothian and we try to do something for them at Taprain hill, their old seat of power before they moved to Edinburgh and to Old wales. Possibly Taprain hill is the home of King Lot, of the Arthurian Myths and many other legends are associated with the place. It’s also covered in wild horses that roam about and keep the grass at a low level and where birds such as the Wren nest and rare plants grow. It’s a truly beautiful setting.
The bodies, tales and physical toil of Votadini tribe are tied directly to the land. They are part of its spirit. Their work created the corpse roads, settlements and cities we have today. They are buried beneath our feet in Cairn and under monoliths, their bodies feeding the ground many years ago. They are all over East Lothian. At times Genius Loci at times something more fleeting. These people and their myths are part of the stories we tell of the land we inhabit and our ancestors. This is why we honour them and who they honoured, especially at this time.
The castle estate also breeds horses. The foals just getting over their colic and older horses being put out to pasture for the last time. The riding of the Marches storms past the castle as well. Where we live the fields are covered in grain for the brewing of whisky at our local distillery, Glenkinchie. So with all this in mind, it’s the most fitting quarter day for us and where we live.
In Edinburgh, Lùnastal brings with it the start of the Edinburgh festival. The population doubles in size from all the visitors who have come to catch shows and spend time drinking and chatting to the wee hours (all the pubs get a late license till 5am). The city is indeed alive with possibility and celebrating, with shows and entertainers performing for free along the royal mile, in Edinburgh’s old town. A lot of the shows are put on after a year of hard work by folks, and in a way, it can be seen as a harvest, as they reap the success or failure of the pundits that come to see them. Finally, scholarly students are handing in their academic work and the universities are on go slow until September.
There’s is a great sense of completion at this time, of things coming full circle as we move into the colder weather. The spirit of this time is one of withdrawal back from the harshness of summer’s heat, a time to slow down and reflect but know there is still work to be done. The association with the West and death is also clear and the colour red. Some suggest red was the colour for the food of the dead and taboo to eat for this reason (Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, Sphere Books, 1974). It also echoes the colour of the red riders that took the dead to Donn’s, the god of the dead, house and the red-eared hounds of the Sidhe. (Anne Franklin, Lughnassa, 2012)
It’s a great time to pause, and take some time for yourself. It’s a chance to celebrate and enjoy where we have reached and what we have done in the past year and reap the rewards of our hard work and celebrate peace. It’s a time to relax, enjoy food with your community and share in abundance with those around you and celebrate your successes whilst enjoying the conversation of good friends and new ones before the winter sets in whilst it’s still warm. It’s also a time where the spirit of death is apparent and coming home to roost.