In the modern world, we spend much of our lives on work that is focused firmly on the material plane, having little time for nature, and even less for spirit. Our relationship with the Divine - if indeed we have one - is reserved for special times or days outside working hours. We find it hard to imagine a way of life where every task is imbued with a sense of the sacred, but part of us yearns for that deeper connection.
Yet only a hundred years ago, the people of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland lived and worked in an easy relationship with the unseen world. In the wild isolated hills, glens, and shores of that country, close cooperation with the Divine and the forces of nature was essential to survival. An intimate awareness of these factors led to the weaving of a complex and beautiful tapestry of daily and seasonal prayers, rituals and ceremonies, traces of which still remain alive in a few isolated areas today.
That we know so much about this culture is through the labor of love of one man: Alexander Carmichael, a Customs and Excise officer who collected and wrote down what he heard and saw as he travelled through Western Scotland from 1855 to 1899. Carmichael created a work known to the non-Gaelic-speaking world by its Latin title, Carmina Gadelica - Gaelic Songs, an extraordinary compilation of prayers, charms and incantations, with detailed annotations of the ritual practices that accompanied them.
The origin of these practices is ancient indeed, dating back to pagan times. Although many of the invocations are directed towards Christian saints and angels, these figures but thinly veil the gods and goddesses whose names they once bore. What is more, these invisible protectors were not merely to be found in church on Sundays, or in a heavenly beyond, but attended life in the field and barn. And every work-filled day was looked upon as one step in the dance of the Sacred Year, the Great Round of days from Samhain to Beltane to Samhain once again.
Whether fishing, farming, spinning wool or milking cows, every task was carried out in a spirit of prayer, despite, or perhaps we should say, because of, the hardships of subsistence living. Yet these invocations and rituals are not dirges of gloomy supplication, but exude a joyfulness that suggests a willing alignment with the rhythm of labour, and a love of family and community we might do well to foster in our modern society.
Many rituals centered around the growing of crops that were their staple diet - usually oats, barley and rye. Three days before sowing-time, the farmer sprinkled the seed in cold, clear water, walking round it sunwise while blessing it in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. As it was sown, the seed was consecrated, and an incantation chanted:
I will go out to sow the seed,
In name of Him who gave it growth;
I will place my front in the wind,
And throw a gracious handful on high....
Every seed will take root in the earth,
As the King of the elements desired,
The braird will come forth with the dew,
It will inhale life from the soft wind.
I will come round with my step,
I will go rightways with the sun,
In name of Ariel and angels nine,
In name of Gabriel and the Apostles kind...
The importance of the sun in these rituals was not due merely to its influence on the crops, but recalls the ancient veneration of the sun as the great life-giver, healer and promoter of fertility throughout the world. Turning "sunwise" or deosil is part of the Celtic lore of sacred direction, which can still be witnessed in Ireland where pilgrims circumambulate holy wells and other shrines in this way. In pagan times, the Celts regarded all of nature as imbued with divinity, and this attitude continued on long after the advent of Christianity: The sun is hailed as "the face of God" who, along with Christ, is also called the King of the Sun and Moon, and other aspects of nature, as in this prayer chanted as the harvested grain was "parched", part of the process for making a quickbread.
Heat, parch my fat seed,
For food for my little child,
In name of Christ, King of the elements,
Who gave us corn and bread and blessing withal ...
Livestock for meat and dairy produce were an important part of the crofter's livelihood. As he took the cattle to pasture in the mornings, the herder would raise his arms in blessing and chant a prayer of protection which Carmichael loved to hear floating sonorously over moorland and lochs. Those invoked to guard the cattle till nightfall were as often pagan heroes and deities as members of the Christian pantheon of saints and angels, for devout Christians though these old Highlanders were, the essence of the old religion clearly lived on in the ancient rites:
The protection of Odhran the dun be yours,
The protection of Brigit the Nurse be yours,
The protection of Mary the Virgin be yours
In marshes and rocky ground,
In marshes and rocky ground.....
The safeguard of Fionn macCumhaill be yours,
The safeguard of Cormac the shapely be yours,
The safeguard of Conn and Cumhall be yours
From wolf and from bird-flock
From wolf and from bird-flock.
These great beings of the unseen world that cared for the lives and fortunes of the crofting families did not inhabit a distant heaven, but attended life in the field and barn. An invocation for churning milk urges the female saints to turn the milk into butter, because the male saints just can't wait for it!
Come thou Brigit, handmaid calm,
Hasten the butter on the cream;
Seest thou impatient Peter yonder
Waiting the buttered bannock white and yellow....
Come, thou Mary Mother mild,
Hasten the butter on the cream;
Seest thou Paul and John and Jesus
Waiting the gracious butter yonder...
Domestic work was likewise performed ritually. One of the most sacred tasks of the house was the tending of the fire at morning and night. The hearth-fire was not only the source of domestic comfort, warm bodies, and cooking but also symbolised the power of the sun brought down to human level as the miraculous power of fire.
So every morning the fire was kindled with invocations to St. Brigid, who was once a Celtic goddess of fire, and covered over at night in a ceremonial manner:
The fire was fuelled with peat as wood is scarce in this part of the country, and was usually kindled in the center of the bare floor in the middle of the croft, and shaped into a circle. Before going to bed, the woman of the house would lovingly and carefully spread the embers over the hearth and divided them into three equal sections, leaving a small heap in the middle. She laid a peat between each section, each one touching the central mound. The first peat was laid down in the name of the God of Life, the second in the name of the God of Peace, and the third in the name of the God of Grace. She then covered the circle with ashes, a process known as "smooring" or "smothering, taking care not to put out the fire, in the name of the Three of Light. The heap of ashes, slightly raised in the centre, was called Tula nan Tri, the Hearth of the Three. When the smooring was complete, the woman closed her eyes, stretched out her hand and softly intoned the lovely invocation:
I will build the hearth
As Mary would build it.
The encompassment of Bride and of Mary
Guarding the hearth, guarding the floor,
Guarding the household all.
Who are they on the lawn without?
Michael the sun-radiant of my trust.
Who are they on the middle of the floor?
John and Peter and Paul.
Who are they by the front of my bed?
Sun-bright Mary and her son.
The mouth of God ordained,
The angel of God proclaimed,
An angel white in charge of the hearth
Till white day shall come to the embers.
An angel white, etc.
The next morning the woman would perform the ceremony of "lifting" the fire, removing the ashes and kindling the flame, all the while praying in a reverent undertone to the great Beings whose presence was so palpably near, that the fire might be blessed to her family and to the glory of God who gave it. This ceremony was performed every day without fail, catching her up in the divine dance of the constant renewal of the flame of life.
The making of cloth, known as calanas, was another domestic task shot through with ceremony. All the materials were consecrated from the wool to the loom.The women would pray that that their web would be even, and that God would "Consecrate the woof and the warp/Of every thread." Carmichael describes listening to Highland women singing the Chant of the Warping with great feeling as they worked. Every now and then, they would stop the song to interject their own thoughts or comments, making the songs their own, recreating them anew for the present times.
By far the richest and most diverse songs arose out of the process known as "waulking", the shrinking of the cloth traditionally carried out by all the women in the community, who would sit around a long trestle, pounding the cloth with their hands and feet, singing rhythmically as thery worked. These waulking songs preserve some of the most ancient remnants of the Celtic culture - ballads, fairy songs, clan lore, songs of love and heroism; plus each area would develop its own repertoire of local anecdotes involving local people, often witty and slily caustic.
Carmichael describes the làn luathadh, or full waulking as an elaborate and beautiful operation that required much experience and knowledge. Three women specialists conducted the whole affair: one to lead the waulking, one the singing, and the third, known as the woman of ceremony, to lead the ....When the cloth was thick, strong and bright, the lively singing became subdued and solemn. The cloth was rolled up and placed on end at the center of the frame, ready to be consecrated. One woman led the ceremony, with two assistants, younger than herself. She lifted the cloth and gave it a turn sunwise "in the name of the Father"; her assistants took it in turn repeating the motion in the name of the Son and Spirit respectively. Then each person who would wear the cloth was mentioned by name and blessed:
May the man of this clothing never be wounded,
May torn he never be;
What time he goes to battle or combat,
May the sanctuary shield of the Lord be his.
Work in the crofting community marched to a circular rhythm. The days of the week and the seasonal cycle led the tune. Some days were more propitious than others for certain tasks; for example Thursday was lucky because it was sacred to Columba, the beloved saint of the Scots, as the rhyme tells:
Thursday the day of kindly Columba,
The day to gather the sheep in the fold,
To set the loom, and put cows with the calves.
This was also the day when sheep were marked, which was done by clipping their ears. It was very unlucky to wait for Friday before doing this or any other task which involved letting blood, because Friday was the day of the Crucifixion. Carmichael reports meeting a blacksmith who never opened his smithy on a Friday, maintaining that "that was the least he could do to honor his Master." And of course, no work was to be done on Sunday. On the island of Uist, women would carefully tie up their loom and suspend a crucifix over it. This was to keep away the brownie, the banshee and other malign spirits from disarranging the thread and the loom.
The changing seasons, ushering in the next steps in the yearly dance, were welcomed with feast-days and merrymaking to acknowledge and give thanks for the ever-turning cycle. Space does not permit us to explore these numerous festivals, but a glance at a few should suffice to give us a sense of the integration of community, earth and spirit in the lives of these people whose lives unfolded to a universal pattern in a way that we, in our fragmented and alienating societies, can scarcely imagine.
We begin with the great Celtic festival of Beltane on the First of May, seen as the first day of summer, which heralded in the long light days with their promise of abundance. This was an ancient fire-festival, and so great bonfires were kindled from the nine sacred woods to reflect back from the earth the power of the sun. Cattle were "sained", or purified by being driven through two fires, in order to protect them both from disease and the power of darkness. A circle of lights in the field at night revealed the path of the torchbearers on their sunwise procession to bless the crops. In the crofts, all hearth-fires were extinguished and relit from the newly-kindled sacred fire.
This was also the time when the summer pasturage known as the "sheilings" began. Women and children led the cattle, sheep and goats up the hills to their summer grazing grounds. Here they lived in small bothies, herding the beasts and seeing to the dairy produce. From time to time the men visited them and there were stories told and songs sung, the youths courted the girls, and this season was looked upon the happiest and best of the entire year.
When Summer had reached its fullness, the harvest festival began. The first of the corn was traditionally reaped on August 1st at Lughnasadh, named after Lugh, the god of light - later known in English as Lammastide, the loaf-mass time. Another great fire festival, the cattle were "sained" between the fires as at Beltane. Old women gave special care to them, putting tar on their tails and ears, tying red or blue thread on their tails and saying incantations at their udders. Sometimes, a special little bag of plants was put in the cream jug for the coming year.
In later times, the customs of this day flowed into the celebration of the Feast of St. Mary, which took place on August 15th. Carmichael describes how in the early morning, the crofters would go into their fields to pick the first fruits of the crops, usually bere. They lay these on a sunny rock to dry, and then husk them by hand, winnow them in a fan, grind them in a quern and knead them on a sheep-skin.The resultant little cake, or bannock is called, "Moilean Moire," the fatling of Mary. It is toasted before a fire made from the sacred rowan wood, and the father of the house ceremoniously breaks into pieces which he gives to his wife and children in turn.The family begins to sing the Iolach Mhoire Mhather, the Paean of Mary Mother, who promised to protect them from all harm.
On the feast day of Mary the fragrant,
Mother of the Shepherd of the flocks,
I cut me a handful of new corn,
I dried it gently in the sun,
I rubbed it sharply from the husk,
With my own palms.
I ground it in a quern on Friday,
I baked it on a fan of sheepskin,
I toasted it to a fire of rowan,
And I shared it round my people.
I went sunways round my dwelling
In the name of Mary Mother,
Who promised to preserve me,
Who did preserve me,
And who will preserve me,
In peace, in flocks,
In righteousness of heart.....
As they sing, they circle the fire, when according to Carmichael:
"... the man puts the embers of the fagot-fire with bits of old iron, into a pot, which he carries sunwise round the outside of his house, sometimes round the steadings and his fields, and his flocks gathered in for the purpose. He is followed without as within by his household, all singing the praise of Mary Mother the while. The scene is striking and picturesque, the family being arrayed in their brightest and singing their best."
But it was at Michelmas, September 29th, that the full harvesting began. Carmichael recorded that "the day the people began to reap the corn was a day of commotion and ceremonial in the townland. The whole family repaired to the field dressed in their best attire to hail the God of the harvest. Laying his bonnet on the ground, the father of the family took up his sickle, and facing the sun, he cut a handful of corn. Putting the handful of corn three times sunwise round his head, the man raised the Iolach Buana, the reaping salutation. The whole family took up the strain and praised the God of the harvest, who gave them corn and bread, food and flocks, wool and clothing, health and strength, and peace and plenty."
At the end of the harvesting there was much feasting and celebration. When all the grain was harvested, a girl or boy - probably once a virgin girl - cut the last sheaf, which was shaped into a Corn Dolly or Maiden and placed with honor in the local church or hung high in the kitchen. A special cake known as the struan was baked and a unblemished lamb slain, echoes, no doubt, of a pagan sacrifice of the first fruits of the year.
In the evening special plays and dances were performed. One of these, known as Cailleach an Dùdain, the "hag of the Mill-dust", was particularly significant, for the dancers, a man and a woman, enacted the seasonal cycle to come. The man held Slachdan Druidheachd, a druid wand, first over his head and then over hers, at which she dropped down as if dead. He then mourned for her, dancing about her body to the changing music. Then he raised his left hand, touched it with the wand, and the hand came alive, and began to move up and down. The man became overjoyed and danced about her. Next he would bring her other arm and her legs to life. The he knelt over her, breathed into her mouth and touched her heart with the wand. She leapt up, fully alive, and both danced joyously.
So was played out the death of the fertile earth in the dark and barren months that were to come. Soon would come Samhain, the next great fire-festival, known to us now as Hallowe'en. The last of the crops would be gathered in, apples picked, and wild nuts gathered in the woods. While Beltane celebrated the promise of fruitfulness, Samhain, on October 31st, solemnized the earth's decay, the time of the dead.
Yet, as the dance predicted, the earth would come alive again in the new year, and would be celebrated by the fourth cross-quarter day of St. Bride on February 1st. On this first day of spring, a sheaf of oats or other grain was fashioned into the shape of a woman, known as the Brideag, whom the young girls carried in procession to each household in the townland, celebrating the return of the fruitful earth and the renewal of the ancient contract between human beings and the Divine.