Month of May traditions by Susan Campbell

The month of May, in Gaelic An Ceitean or A’ Mhaigh, means the beginning of summer, favourable weather. According to Malcolm MacLennan’s Gaelic Dictionary, in times before the Roman calendar was fully in use in Scotland this referred to the dates 19th April through 12th May. Beltane, Gaelic Bealltainn from the Old Irish meaning “the fires of Bel” was a Celtic celebration 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 took over 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 fire was created, possibly using the rays of the sun. This ‘clean’ new fire was then carried to re-kindle all the hearths in the township.

In Scotland, cattle were driven between two Beltane bonfires, in hopes of ensuring fertility. Early May was also the usual date for driving the cattle and sheep away from in-bye fields where crops were growing, up to the summer sheilings or to outlying pasture on higher ground for the summer grazing. 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), and also in traditional Gaelic song, the summer move to the shielings seems to have been regarded by the people as somewhat of a working holiday. Often it was the women, young people and children who would stay in the basic shelters of the shielings, avoiding the need to walk back and forth daily between the home and the hill ground. Certainly there was plenty of work there for the women and children to do, with the animals to be tended; shepherding the ewes and lambs, and milking cows and goats for the making of butter and cheeses to save for winter food.

Spring on Islay - Sheep at Kilchiaran Bay

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