Gaelic month of May

The month of May, in Gaelic An Cèitean or more usually A’Mhàigh, means the beginning of summer, and favourable weather. According to Malcolm MacLennan’s Gaelic Dictionary, before the Roman calendar was fully in use in Scotland this referred to the dates from 19th April through 12th May.

Beltane, Gaelic Bealltainn from the Old Irish meaning ‘the fires of Bel’ was a Celtic celebration held on the night which begins the first day of May. In ancient Irish legend, Bel was the sun god of the ancient Milesians, Goidelic Celts from Spain who seized Ireland from the Partholonians. Bel was honoured at Beltane as a god of life, and was depicted as a solar deity. At Beltane, household and forge fires were extinguished and new fires were created, possibly using the rays of the sun. This ‘clean’ new fire was then carried to re-kindle all the hearths in the township. Continue reading...

In Scotland, cattle were driven between two Beltane bonfires, in hopes of ensuring their health and fertility. Early May was also the usual date for driving cattle and sheep away from in-bye fields where crops had been sown, up to the summer shielings or to outlying pasture on higher ground for the summer grazing. This seasonal transhumance was recorded in Martin Martin’s accounts of the time, and right through the mid eighteenth century records of land use in Islay (Caldwell, Islay, the Land of the Lordship, 2008) it is frequently mentioned.

Also often referred to in traditional Gaelic song, the summer move to the shielings seems to have been regarded by the people as something of a working holiday, looked forward to or remembered as a time for enjoyment and romance. Often the women, young people and children would stay for some time in the basic shelters of the hill shielings, avoiding the need to walk back and forth daily between the home and the hill ground. The circular shape of the stone and turf bases of shielings can still be seen in places on Islay’s hill ground. Certainly there would have been plenty of work for the women and children to do at the sheiling, with the animals to be watched and tended; shepherding ewes and lambs and the morning and evening milking of cows and goats, then making butter and cheeses to save for essential winter food.

This story was published with kind permission of the Ileach local newspaper.

Tag: gaelic history shieling