Wednesday 1 May 2013

Beltane Bannocks

Beltane is an important day in the Celtic calendar that marks the beginning of summer, and the day is still widely celebrated. Fire was, and is, used as a method of purification and the various practices were outlined in previous May day blog entries (anseo agus anseo).

In Carmina Gadelica there is a note about quarter cakes, bannocks that were smaller than the St Michael's strùan, but it is apparent that the tradition was no longer widespread in the late 19th century.

Throughout the Highlands and Islands special cakes were made on the first day of the quarter. As in the case of the 'struan', a large cake was made for the family and smaller cakes for individual members. So far as can now be ascertained, these cakes were round in form. They were named after their dedications. That baked for the first day of spring was called 'bonnach Bride,' bannock of Bride; that for the first day of summer, 'bonnach Bealltain,' Beltane bannock; that for the first day of autumn, 'bonnach Lunastain,' Lammas bannock; and for the first day of winter, 'bonnach Samhthain,' Hallowtide bannock. The names of the individual cakes were rendered into diminutives to distinguish them from the family cake, while the sex of the person for whom they were intended was indicated by the termination, as 'Bridean,' masculine diminutive, 'Brideag,' feminine diminutive, after Bride; 'Bealltan,' 'Bealltag' after Beltane; 'Luinean,' 'Luineag' after Lammas; and 'Samhnan,' 'Samhnag' after Hallowmas. The people repaired to the fields, glens, and corries to eat their quarter cakes. When eating them, they threw a piece over each shoulder alternately, saying: 'Here to thee, wolf, spare my sheep; there to thee, fox, spare my lambs; here to thee, eagle, spare my goats; there to thee, raven, spare my kids; here to thee, marten, spare my fowls; there to thee, harrier, spare my chickens.'
Baking bannocks over an open fire

In a contribution to Folklore 1895 is a note about Beltane bannocks, and variations on the tradition are noticeable. One description reads as follows:

Bannocks were baked the evening before Beltane, the first day of May (O.S.), and were called Beltane bannocks. They were made of oatmeal in the usual way, but they were washed over or "watered" with a thin batter composed of whipped egg, milk or cream, and a little oatmeal. Before being laid on the "brannithr" (Keith), "branner" (other districts), :ie. gridiron, the upper side was rubbed over with this batter. When the underside was sufficiently baked or "fired," the bannock was turned, and the underside was now rubbed over with the batter. The bannock was then allowed to hang over the fire on the gridiron till fully baked. 

On Beltane about mid-day the young folks, each with a bannock, went to the rocks or high grounds, and rolled them down. If a bannock broke in the rolling, the one to whom it belonged would come to some disaster or die before next Beltane. They ate them, but left a "bittie" to the "cuack" or cuckoo. They carried a piece home, and placed it under the pillow in the sweetheart's name, to find out if dreams would reveal the future as to marriage. Eggs were not used in baking the Baptismal and Christmas bannocks. 
JANET DAVIDSON (aged 8I), Kingussie. 

A second account of the bannocks:

At Achterneed, near Strathpeffer, Ross-shire, on the first day of May the children received each an egg and a cake. With these they went to the hill, as many at times as twenty and thirty in company. They gathered material, formed a bonfire, and roasted the eggs in the ashes. Before placing the egg in the ashes, each child put a mark on it so as to be able to identify it when taken from the ashes. The egg and the cake were eaten. The cake was baked between nine and ten o'clock in the morning. It was kneaded entirely in the hand, and not on a board or table like common cakes. It was "fired" or baked in front of the peat fire on the hearth supported by a stone. After being so baked it was put into the child's hand, and not on any table or dish. It must never be put from the hand except to be baked in front of the fire. If laid on anything it was then nothing more than an ordinary bannock. It was called "tcharnican" (spelt phonetically), because it was made wholly in the hand. The word means " hand-cake." Those now sent were baked by a native of the parish of Fodderty, who is now eighty-three years of age. One of them was baked in my presence. 

Carmichael also notes that traditionally Thursday was considered a lucky day for all enterprises except when Beltane fell on a Thursday:

'D uair is Ciadaoineach an t-Samhain
Is iarganach fir and domhain,
Ach 's meirg is mathair dh' an mhac bhaoth
'D uair is Daorn dh' an Bhealltain.

When the Wednesday is Hallowmas
Restless are the men of the universe;
But woe the mother of the foolish son
When Thursday is the Beltane. 

Better be wary for Beltane 2014!

Carmichael, A. Carmina Gadelica i (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1900-1972) pp. 163.
Carmichael, A. Carmina Gadelica i (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1900-1972) pp. 208-9. 
Goodrich-Freer, A. 'More Folklore from the Hebrides', Folklore, 13:1, (1902), pp. 29-62. 
Gregor, W., Davidson, J., Robertson, Munro, Maclean, G., Farquharson, J. and Macintosh, H. 'Notes on Beltane Cakes', Folklore, 6:1 (1895), pp. 2-5. 


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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]