Midsummer, the summer solstice, St Johns mass (the birth of St. John the Baptist), An Fheill Sheathan – all these names recall a festival that is at counterpoint to Yul or Jul. Like the Winter solstice feast the summer solstice, though not ignored by the Gaels and other Celtic people were of much less importance to them than other Europeans. It’s suggested that the Celts didn’t divide their calendar by solstices. The largest traces we have of the solstice celebrations are, unsurprisingly, in Orkney and Shetland where the Scandinavian influences were strongest.
Masons and Masonic lodges in later years also held this time of year as important and may explain in someway, its importance in Wicca via Gardner, a keen Mason. Masons would choose their office bearers for the coming year and walk three times around the cross and then dine together with the newly elected grandmaster. There would be further parades and heraldic banners hoisted as they moved through the streets after the dinner to the Abbey where they would sing songs to Scotland by the buried heart of Robert The Bruce. St. John the Baptist is the patron of the freemasons. (Wade. (1861) History of Melrose Abey.)
The astrological Solstice or Midsummer has not set date, it follows the flow of the year and occurs when the sun is at its zenith astrologically speaking. Johnsmas or An Fheill Sheathan to give it its Gaelic name, however, is a set date occurring on the 24th of June. Occurring after the very significant date of St Columba’s day on the 9th, or second Thursday, in June. Midsummer is a time of liminality for Northern Scots folk but characterised by the seeking of the impossible or the impossible revealed. These tasks were jealously watched over by the Sith, who would thwart mortals getting their hands on such powers. It’s also like all other festivals where people would protect their properties with circumambulations with torches and fires. Some suggest Bealltainn rituals may have migrated to this festival date.
For those that have followed along other posts about the festival we yet again see discussions of Snakes, Cuckoos and Bonfires with the addition of different plants used to protect the house and home, also hunting for mythical things that only appear on this night. However on An Fheill Sheathan, they could be imbued with more powers.
Plants and herbs of An Fheill Sheathan
Protective plants once more come to the fore. Birch branches are hung in boughs over the doors and on village signposts. All herbal simples are considered more powerful if gathered fresh on this night. One such powerful plant is St Johns Wort (hypericum perforatum) or in Gaelic lus Eoin Bhaiste (st johns plant). In the western islands, it’s known as “Achlasan Chalum Chille” (armpit package of Colum Cille (St Columba)). It was and still is very common to carry a charm under the left armpit, as it’s considered close to the heart. St johns wort warded off fevers and kept the Sith from taking away people in their sleep. In the middle ages, the plant was called “fuga daemonum” (demon flight) and given to witches and wizards before torture, it wrung the truth from them. You could also sleep with this yellow flower under your pillow and the saint would come bless you in your sleep. Hung over the door on An Fheill Sheathan with a cross St Johns wort keeps out the devil and other evil spirits. There are a number of incantations and Ranns to this plant. One such is included below. St Johns Wort was picked having not been sought:
The herb of St Columba,
unsought for, unasked for,
Fortunate is he who would get it,
I will cut (pluck) the foliage of prosperity,
as commanded by the high king
wherever it is put up
it will win victory and command homage
(trans. of the Gaelic Soc. of Inverness. Vol XVIII (1891).
The root dug on this day and kept in the house affords protections and luck to the household especially with anything started on An Fheill Sheathan. These practices point to the very special status the plant has, especially on this night.
Other plants mentioned but in a more peculiar fashion are the “night seeding fern”, Elderberries and the Ash tree. On An Fheill Sheathan, the fern not only seeds between the hours of midnight and 1am, but also flowers. If you happen upon this plant and catch the seeds before they touch the ground they have the ability to turn you invisible. However, the Síth (the Scottish fairy folk) were jealous of any humans that might find these powers so gathering the seeds was fraught with dangers. Ferns in general on An Fheill Sheathan or midsummer become symbols of protection, the flower, also if gathered at the same time as the seeds would give you protection against evil influences and help you find buried treasure. The power of ferns live in all species but the seed was most important. However, for those that know botany, it might strike you that the Fern doesn’t have seed or have flowers, preferring to use spores instead to spread itself.
Another tale about magic plants concerns elderberries. Elderberries gathered on this night would also give the eater protection from witchcraft and other magic powers. Again keen foragers and gatherers will know that in Scotland the arrival of the Elder blossom (along with the rain) signifies midsummer and there will be no berries found on any natural trees. Finally, we come to the ash tree, on whose branches witches were enabled to fly through the air. Those who ate of the red buds of the tree were rendered invulnerable to the witches influence. Again foragers, wildcrafters and herbalists among you will realise that the buds of the Ash are now Ash Keys and leaves, but not buds. So these tasks should be impossible to complete unless through some magical or fairy led intervention. Perhaps a journey into the otherworld? It’s interesting to speculate why and how these tales may have served a purpose. To me, these tasks are reminiscent of hunting the Gowk and its associated fools errand but also representative of the miracles of this time for those prepared to take the risk.
Animals of An Fheill Sheathan
It’s interesting to see snakes feature once more, this time as a bringer of potential healing cures and not the evil influence with efforts made to remove them. In some parts of Northern Scotland, at Midsummer, snakes were said to gather together “en mass” and their bodies writhe together, hissing loudly. As they writhed and hissed their spittle would create what is known as a “snake stone” a “Glaine Nathair” or “meall èochd” or a glass ring. Those who held this snake stone will then be fortunate in their undertakings. This stone was believed to also have curative powers over illness and was sought to be dropped into water to be given to man and best. A typical Scottish Charm and described by Pliny
Other creatures said to have curative powers on this day is the frog. A certain bone, when cleaned and dried over a fire on st Johns eve, finely ground and given in food, would bring about desire in people or help folks win the affections of others and settle marital quarrels. What this “certain bone is”, Sir Walter Scott never mentions.
I’ve discussed the Gowk in earlier posts about April’s fools day and La Fheill Brid. The story continues as the cuckoo on midsummer returns to its winter house. It’s not natural for the Cuckoo to be heard past this date but may still be seen. The cuckoo is one of the “7 sleepers”, birds believed to pass the winter underground or in the underworld. Children in Lewis were fond of saying the cuckoo had returned to the lower world – “Tha iad’s an iochdrach‘ about midsummer.
Solstice Bonfires, hills and nudity
A Scottish festival, especially one at midsummer wouldn’t be complete without its fire and dancing. There are many tales of fires being lit highest hills on midsummer in the North of Scotland and an Act was passed in 1581 prohibiting them. Even so, Notes from the Presbytery Records of Inverness and Dingwall from 1655 stated that “the several brethren initmate to their congregationes that they desist of the superstitious abuses used on st Johnes day by burning torches through their barnes, and fyres in thar towns and thaire after fixing thair staicks in thar kailyards“. This demonstrates not only the use of fires but also the walking of the bounds with torches and leaving them in the Kale yards at home to bless them. Peat and wood would be collected from the village and surrounds running up to the night of the solstice so that the fire would burn from sunset to sunrise. Because we have such short nights and the sun doesn’t set far north this would have been easy to do. It also suggested that folks might put a bone in the base of the fire. Reminiscent of the sacrifices of old perhaps? In Stirling, boys between the ages of 10 and 12, used to run naked around a certain natural or artificial circles. The rounded summit of Demyat in the Ochil hills was the favoured place. The Kings Knot int Royal Gardens the other. This practice seems to be relegated to Stirlingshire only.
Boundaries were also commonly walked in the North on this night. Torches were lit from the Baal fires and folks used to walk deosil around their fields to protect them from evil influences and malign spirits. Interestingly, where I live in East Lothian we have the riding of the Marches on or around this date. How old this practice is unclear, but there are mentions of it happening on Samhuinn in Edinburgh that date back to 1477 and stopping in 1718. Interestingly, this practice was reinstated in 1946, June the 8th at the end of world war 2. The riding of the marches is a movable feast, but it’s significant that it used to occur at Samhuinn the great hinge of the year. Sometimes the riding of the Marches also coincides with the midsummer festival. Such as in Peebles, this year, where they are celebrating “Beltane” (i don’t know why it’s called Beltane but it’s their midsummer festival) with the riding of the boundaries in their local area.
The riding of the marches consists of a Lord and Lady of the Ride who ride with the town heraldry and they come from each parish in the district ( i think). They ride around the boundaries of the different districts and towns en masse. Part of the route the East Lothian Ridings take includes the castle where we live. Gathering in the courtyard, they sing songs to one another about the borders of Scotland being safe. A piper accompanies them from the roof of the castle. They eventually end up in the middle of Edinburgh, at the Mercat cross, and pronounce Scotland’s borders safe for another year.
Tairis mentions “Manannan’s Day” as being during Midsummer, but you mention it as being during Michaelmas. Any ideas on how to sort out the date?
Hey, theres just different customs in different areas. The paying the rent to Manannan is a Manx custom that has survived ( the whole island is said to be dedicated to Manannan in some fashion – so hes a bit of a local spirit celebrity). There are different ways across different areas and nothing is really set in stone like that.