Gaelic Festival Vestiges in England
Whit, Galas, Feasts, Wakes, Kakin and Dannikins in the South Pennines
[Recent and current survivals centred on Pennine South Yorkshire, with some pertaining to the South Pennines generally, if not far wider across England, and others only local]
Steve Moxon, October 2019. A Creative Commons copyright applies.
May rites: Whit, galas, feasts, wakes, Castleton Garland Day
The start of the ‘Celtic’ ‘light’ year, Beltane, at May Day (and the five days afterwards, as in ‘Celtic’ festivals), is Christianised as Whit(suntide) — though being moveable, and in he wake of calendrical reforms, it’s not on May 1. Derivation of whit has proved intractable, because it has not been realised that it’s an Anglicisation and rationalisation of Beltane: Gaelic Bealtuinn or Bhealtainn (several variants), meaning ‘bright’ or ‘shining’ ‘fire’, or similar. A usual softening (lenition) over time of the initial b to bh, pronounced ’w’, together with a usual medial letter transposition (already in place in the Scottish Gaelic variant form, beatlainn), likely would produce a change in Anglicisation and rationalisation to Old English hwita, ‘white’, presumably at least in part through whiteness being a character of the festival in the purifying effect of the ritual fire. This moniker was used to replace the name of the Christian Pentecost, apparently when the church realised it had not succeeded in eclipsing the vernacular festival, and decided to co-opt it.
Associated with Whit in the Dark Peak part of Yorkshire as elsewhere were not just the Whit walks (processions) but annual time-immemorial major highly localised festivals, though these typically were displaced even into June. This is through the inauguration in 1660 as a public holiday of the commemoration of the Restoration known as Oak Apple Day, on April 29, supposedly to celebrate King Charles escaping his pursuers by hiding in an oak tree. The oak boughs key to May Day were thus redeployed.
Still extant and highly localised is the annual local Gala, which likewise is a term from Gaelic, with likely a number of co-roots, but chiefly guaillich, ‘walk arm in arm, or hand in hand’ (with the curious closely related guailleach, ‘a band tying the shoulders of dead men’), based in gaol, gaoil, ‘love, fondness; liking; a beloved person’; gaolach, ‘dear, beloved; lovely, affectionate, fond; a beloved person’. Rather than denoting a mass of people together in a march (as might be thought given the Whitsun parades) it’s a male and a female — the May Queen and May King — paired in sexual connection. It encapsulates the fertility rite of the festival. Another root probably is gal, ‘lamentation, weepings’ (from galor, ‘weeping’) — a lamentation for the dead; a wake, in another word. This would be in respect of the mythological ‘old king’ who has died; ritualistically killed to make way for the new one (bringing us back to the curious guailleach, ‘a band tying the shoulders of dead men’). In keeping with this would be gealach, ‘whitenesss’ (white being the original funereal colour, as is still represented in the colour of funeral flowers: black garb is largely in imitation of Queen Victoria, and was a Roman peculiarity, foreign to any ‘Celtic’ peoples). Also, there is Proto-Celtic galā, ‘ability’, and even Old Gaelic (Old Irish) gala, ‘warlike, valour, fury’, reflecting the function of the May festivities: the old ‘May games’ were for determining who would be the new (May) king to join the newly crowned May Queen. The May King & Queen obviously are the symbolic most fertile couple; by ‘sympathetic magic’ the guarantors of the fertility of the land. The May Queen was the major school event at Deepcar, but as recorded in a 1966 film, Deepcar Gala featured not just children’s contests but “adults playing crazy games”. All Deepcar/Stocksbridge ‘Whit Walks’ ended at a designated field for boys’ competitive games, known as the Rag — from rac, pronounced ‘rácgh’, ‘king’, related to urradh / urrach / urrag: ‘power, ability’ / ‘capable, qualified, competent’. ‘Ability’ is in terms of male competitive strength to complement female fertility (youth/beauty), and is obtained by weeding out: purifying (the symbolic function of the fire in the fire festival, of course). This again would be where galaich enters the fray: ‘whiten’, ‘make white’. [The standard etymology of a supposed meaning of ‘showy dress’ is far too recent (17th century) to be right; and that applies also to the word from which it’s derived: Old French, gale, ‘rejoicing’. At best this is itself derivative, not an origin. There are both Goidelic and Brittonic (Welsh) routes to English gala from Proto-Celtic; likely in turn from a Proto-Indo-European word. This could have evolved in some other direction to produce OF gale, but either way it’s a false trail.]
A specific gala of note is the Castleton Garland Day, held on May 29, having been shifted from May Day explicitly to commemorate the Restoration (Oak Apple Day), presumably as elsewhere to take advantage of the designated public holiday, and given the mutual association with oak as key. Hence the Stuart era costumes of the two figures being led at the front of the procession. It no doubt incorporates the ‘rushbearing’ ritual common across England — the ceremony once featured a rush-cart as well as the garland — but ‘rushbearing’ mistakenly has been taken to be the origin. In the vein of the recent over-corrective anti-survivalist academic fashion a la Hutton (The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain), this has been claimed (by Boyes, back in 1993), and that the Castleton ceremony is no older than the late 18th century (as if lack of record or non-survival of record is evidence). Yet ‘rushbearing’ is itself co-option of Mayday. Given the need at one time to cover church floors in rushes (in the times before stone flags were laid, floors were bare earth and cold), then gathering the required rushes could be done by extension of gathering the foliage and flowers for Mayday rites, thereby in effect to co-opt and Christianise a ‘pagan’ celebration, so as to bring the local population more within the ambit of the church and away from the non-Christian religiosity that likely most either felt in parallel with any allegiance to the church, if not that the ‘old ways’ took precedence. Hutton himself conceded, commenting on the ceremony in consideration of Boyes’ analysis: “None the less, it incorporates very accurately one of the last of the frameworks of flowers which descend directly from the ‘Mays’ once carried through the streets of medieval towns”. Boyes’ view is in terms not of the nature of mythology, which concerns the reproductive cycle, but of a supposed economic basis of all social interaction (a Marxian perspective), as revealed in her title: Dressing in the past: The role of costume as an indicator of social dynamics in the Castleton garland ceremony. The whole point of this kind of political-Left distortion is to deny tradition so as to make it seem that a complete reinvention of social relations is feasible, without baggage from the past — human nature — getting in the way of the narrow ideological dream.
The Castleton ceremony combines a procession, with girls in all-white, followed by games for the boys, just as did a Whit Walk, but it is more than this, and much more revealing of origins. A garland is defined as a wreath of flowers and/or leaves that is worn. Ostensibly the French word of unknown etymology, it’s clearly from the same root (or co-root) as has gala: the above-cited Gaelic galor, denoting lamentation for the dead; perhaps reinforced by Gaelic geugan, ‘bough of a tree’ — May celebrations traditionally were centred on the May bush or bough (the notion of a pole was a subsequent import from Europe). The Castleton ceremony is fronted by a man led on horseback known as the king, and behind him, also on horseback, is led the ‘consort’, regarding whom great play has long been made that he is not the queen, and originally was a man “given to making course remarks”, not, as latterly, dressed as a woman. The king’s upper body is completely encased in a beehive-shaped frame covered with oak branches and flowers (the garland) atop of which is a pointedly very separate — not attached and separately made — oak posy known as the queen, which is laid on the town war memorial ahead of the (main) garland of oak branches being hoisted up the church tower to be placed on a pinnacle and left there to decay.
The strange contradictions all make sense with Gaelic derivation. Queen is from Gaelic caoin, ‘weep, lament’, and (according to the Archaeologia Britannica) a funeral elegy; caoineadh, ‘lamenting over the dead, weeping’. It’s from where comes the English word keen(ing). The pronunciation is kween / kween-ah. The queen apparently is the wreath commemorating the death of the (old) king. Consort is from Gaelic connsachair, ’a disputant, a quarrelsome person’: the combatant who kills the (old) king — his brother in many folklores, or even his twin: this stemming from the notion of the old king being usurped by the new king, who in turn becomes the old king to be himself in turn usurped by the new king, and so on, in a merry-go-round where really the king figure is one and the same person seen merely in a different phase of the mythic regenerative cycle. In some folklores the agent of the king’s death is the goddess herself, so here is a source of further confusion, and may account for how the brother / new king might be misconceived as being female. To yet further complicate matters, many of these tales involve revival of the dead king, but this makes perfect sense as concretisation of the regenerative cycle: the old king indeed in effect is revived, as the new king, especially as the new king becomes the old king in time. King is the one naming which is as it seems, being from Gaelic ceann, pronounced with an initial ‘k’, ‘big chief’, literally ‘head’, which of course is the same and original meaning of ‘king’. The ceremony is, therefore, a symbolic funeral for the sacred king (the consort of the goddess) followed by the games to decide his replacement, to join the goddess (who is in the guise of the newly crowned May Queen). The posy atop the garland main represents the dead old king; the new king being symbolised in the garland proper, which in effect is a wreath-in-waiting, as it is placed atop the church initially alive in its green and flowery splendour but then to wither away as it is left in situ.
It seems every place also once had its Feast, if not (as still current in many locales) a Feast Week (usually dedicated to a saint: to the same one as is the local parish church) — presumably a vestige of the five-day length of the major ‘Celtic’ festivals. It’s a curious moniker for what was a fair, not a banquet, latterly in many places transferred to denote an annual travelling funfair. With only places bigger than mere villages able to sustain a commercial funfair, then a Feast mostly survived only in such locales; eg, Penistone, and Deepcar (for Stocksbridge). The timing of fairs in some cases may have shifted further, to mid- or even late summer, so the date shift must have been influenced by factors additional to Oak Apple Day. Feast clearly is from (Scottish) Gaelic fèis, pronounced ‘fesh’, that originally denoted a celebration of the symbolic sovereignty of a king in his ritual marriage to ‘the goddess of the land’. Tellingly, fèis is almost identical to the word feis, meaning ‘sexual intercourse’ (the verbal noun of the Old Irish verb foaid, ‘to spend the night’). This would appear to be related to May fertility rites and the May King. [Neither feast nor fèis are from Latin festivus via Old French festival, as is the eponynous English word, but instead likely evolved in a separate line from the same Proto-Indo-European root as has festivus: dhis, ‘divine, holy’.]
The feast week, in being dedicated to the saint of the local church, provides the connection between the ancient fertility rites and the modern and medieval fair, in that it clearly originated in prayer vigil. Fettart is the Gaelic word denoting weekly prayers of forgiveness by a priest(s) for a deceased person — this presumably a corruption of the original prayers to or on behalf of the patron saint of the particular church, to a way the church could make money from parishioners. The original notion is surely is a Christianisation of practice that the church found best to co-opt rather than to suppress (or failed in attempting to suppress). These prayer vigils very much have the character of a continuation of the ritual lamentation of the death of the mythological ‘old king’ in ancient Spring celebrations. The feast week also survives (or did so until very recently indeed) as the Wakes Weeks common in northern industrial areas. These likewise are recognised to have their origins in prayer vigils, and in name are the same as the Irish funereal wakes for the dead. Wake is presumed to be the English word, and taken to stem from the problem of staying awake in a long vigil! This is ridiculous. It derives from Gaelic umhlachd, ‘homage, salutation, obeisance’. The pronunciation (u’-)ul-achg is an initial sound akin to ‘w’, and the medial consonant, here the ‘l’, as usual will tend to be lost over time.
Kakin or Kay-kay Neet
Warding off the Corra-Chagailt (KOR-a-cha-KEL-jeh)
A Gaelic Tradition in the Hallamshire Hills
The festival at the start of the ‘Celtic’ ‘dark year, beginning November 1, samhain, survived until very recently indeed in the ‘Dark Peak’ hills to the north-west of Sheffield, in Kakin or Cakin Neet. On that evening homes were visited in disguise to chant a strange-starting ditty in return for money. Formerly, pieces of parkin were given; the special cake that even in the 1960s remained in Stocksbridge / Deepcar central to Bonfire Night and the week from Hallowe’en. Likely too, as recorded elsewhere re related customs, there might well have been a play, featuring a ‘hobby horse’. In commentary, it’s usually dubbed ‘Caking Night’, and assumed to concern ‘soul cakes’; but to everyone who took part in, transmitted, or just knew about it in the ‘Midhopedale’ valley, it was ‘Kay-kay Night’.
Full face masks were made, one particular year, I recall, by everyone in our class at Deepcar School specially for the occasion, so it was a pretty ‘official’ business. This was for Kay-kaying, not Mischief Night, about which we were not much bothered, and felt a tad ginger. And anyway, mischiefing didn’t need disguise – unless for emboldment? — just stealth and a quick exit. We did once get chased by the ghostly appearance of a luminescent white shirt wielding a cricket bat (having awoken a baby), but immediate annoyance aside, nobody got any come-uppance later should they have been clocked! The masks were proper papier mâché efforts, built up in layers; so not a task you’d set infants in the expectation of anything other than a big mess. I’d guess, then, that this was at the earliest 1963, in the first year of the juniors, when I’d have just turned eight – the class of the ever community spirited Olwen Firth. [Her promotion of ‘Kay-kaying’ wasn’t because she was a traditionalist. No sooner had Dr Who begun transmission than she used its immediate huge popularity to have us staging ‘Dr Who’ plays.] Mine, if not the others’, was painted a darkish red and had functional slits for the eyes, and, I’m fairly sure, some sort of nose, so surely also a mouth; the whole thing fitting with string such that there would be little possibility of either any portion of the face being visible or of the mask slipping off. It wasn’t scary as such. How much guidance we got as opposed to own imagination, I’ve no idea. It’s hard to see how it could be according to any sort of traditional or standard design. Did we go out several years or just one? Again, I can’t remember. It may be that it was only because we’d made masks that our parents had been thus goaded to pass on the tradition, but I rather think if anything it was the other way round. [How I wish I had kept this piece of living history – well I probably did, but no doubt our mum ‘sided’ it!]
Masking does seem to have been a key feature, albeit less adhered to latterly. Jean Huddlestone (in her book, A Geography of Childhood: An Evocation of Howbrook and Chapeltown in the 1920s/1930s) mentions that the children of Howbrook village at that time (of which she was one) “disguised themselves in odd garment, wore hideous masks”. Ralph Atkinson, 67, told me that when he was eight or nine, he and his friends on the Stubbin, Deepcar, had their cheeks rouged by their mums and then they used chimney soot to otherwise completely blacken their faces, framing their heads and upper bodies in a white sheet. A photo from November 1, 1976, of a pair of Stocksbridge Kay-kayers, shows them to have lots of face-paint if not out-and-out disguise: mainly cheek rouge again. In a highly interesting major survey in 1983 [‘Children’s Halloween Customs in Sheffield’, in Lore and Language 3(9).] Ervin Beck wrote that children “sometimes donned disguise or went around in blackface”. He interviewed a girl called Joanne, aged eleven, from Stannington, who said that her and her friend went out dressed as clowns; whereas Michelle, aged eleven, of Wharncliffe Side, was not herself disguised, but of her fifteen cohorts, a few wore masks and costumes. Mask-wearing is not recalled by many even of the oldest still-surviving generation, but this may be simply the sheer passage of time. Almost every retirement-age Stocksbridge/Deepcar local will readily affirm they took part, but other than that they have little if any memory, other than bits of the song and that they received money – and recall even of such major facets often requires prompting. Masking or not, or the degree of it, seems to depend not just on how long ago, but also the precise geographical location. Disguise may have been retained in some pockets but largely lost in others.
The imperative seemed to us, in 1960s Deepcar, to ensure you could not be identified, though we went only to near-neighbours we knew or knew of, so we weren’t helping ourselves there. Of course, recognising a neighbour’s kid as being the ghoul before you rather would break the illusion the practice created – whatever that was and was for. Some attest, and it’s my recollection too, we were told that if we were recognised then the house-holder would not give us any money (or wasn’t obliged to, at least), though it may be that we just imbibed the sense that masking was a crucial aspect, and then assumed a concrete cost of not playing our part properly. My dad contradicts the money forfeit notion from how he recalls taking part in the custom in Garden Village, Stocksbridge, at the end of the 1930s. A child in that era herself, Jean Huddlestone states that after singing, “… when we were asked in, we stood mute lest our voices betrayed us. If we could not be identified we had earned sixpence. In fact we were always given something.” In citing Huddlestone on ‘Caking Night’, Grenoside local historian Melvyn Jones (in his book, South Yorkshire Yesterday) states that the ‘something’ other than money was parkin – though if this is from Huddlestone it’s from his interviewing her or Mel’s own recollection or research, because it’s not in her book. Some on-line posters to threads about ‘Caking Night’ likewise talk about parkin.
Parkin is the first clue as to what is (was) Kay-kaying and where it came from. There really was something significant about it – not just its being so tasty that as kids we never got sick of it. Parkin was part of a package that made Bonfire Night and all that led up to it bigger for us than Christmas. The special cake was everywhere, and surely had never been restricted to being given out to house callers. In one anecdote, a Midhope schoolmaster in the 19th century received so much of it that he was still eating it come May. An oats, butter & honey (latterly treacle) quite delicious heavy dark cake that got better, in moistening, as it was kept; known in the North of England – especially Yorkshire — and Scotland, parkin supposedly is of unknown etymology. Yet it’s clearly from Old Gaelic (Early Irish) bargen – in later Scottish Gaelic, bairghin – meaning simply ‘cake’. It was never named in terms of soul (which in Gaelic is anam). Rather, it’s curiously close to the Scottish Gaelic pronunciation, ‘sah-vin’, of the name for the ‘Celtic’ new year, samhuin, ‘summer’s end’. This may, then, be a co-root or even the main derivation, rendering parkin rather less banal than mere ‘cake’. Interestingly, one of the local variants of the ‘Caking’ ditty starts with the name Sarah, which again looks like an Anglicisation / rationalisation of ‘sah-vin’.
Only latterly has there been any concept of ‘soul cakes’: after the festivities were co-opted by the Christian Church a millennium ago when it moved its ‘All Souls Day’ from the other side of the calendar to November 2nd (‘Celtic’ ‘New Year’s Day’), rendering the previous night ‘All Hallowes Eve’. No local record is to be found of ‘soul cakes’ in connection with ‘Caking Night’. A Thurlstone man, in his will of 1792, gave annually to the parish poor on All Souls Day “solmon cakes”. These were not cakes but what he termed ‘penny loaves’, and solman surely is ‘soul-mass’: the praying for the souls of the dead to speed them through purgatory. So our Thurlstone cadaver had planned ahead to indulge in church-institutionalised bribing of the poor to perform an annual pray-in for him. However different, though, this ecclesiastical co-option may be from the ancient vernacular custom; with ‘cakes’ being the one feature in common then this may be the basis of talking of Caking Night (Cakin’ Neet). But how could cakes be pivotal, and what is to be made of cake as a verb? It seems to be a rationalisation of the true meaning.
It turns out that Caking indeed is a misnomer. To call the activity ‘caking’ was reported to be firmly rejected by adults still honouring an aspect of it in Stannington (as they did into the 1990s), insisting the night was called Kakin. As near-as-dammit the same moniker, you could be forgiven for seeing it as a slight distortion of ‘caking’, except locals were adamant it had none of that meaning. Not too dissimilarly, to reiterate, in Deepcar and Stocksbridge it has always been ‘Kay-kay night’ – as both the adults around as well as myself and my brother knew it as child partakers in the early to mid 1960s. We never understood it as a reference to any sort of cake, and would have dismissed the suggestion. This was confirmed in the survey by Beck, who concluded that none of the many children doing “kay-kaying” he had interviewed accepted that what they were doing had anything to do with cake. Children also retained the sense of a whole week of linked activity from October 31st to Bonfire Night, revealing their implicit understanding that it was a five-day ‘fire festival’, as were key ‘Celtic’ seasonal celebrations.
The song (if it can be termed so grandly) we sang in Stocksbridge/Deepcar began “Kay kay kay / Kay kay kay” – ‘kay’ in two trios rather than pairs, probably just to fit the tune, which at the beginning was that of (or akin to) Three Blind Mice! Such sophistication melody-wise gave way to something more like a strongly rhythmic chant as the content descended into money-begging doggerel: “hole in mi stockin’, hole in mi shoe / If you haven’t got a penny then an ha’penny will do / If you haven’t got an ha’penny then God bless you”. [Fifty years before, there was an extra line featuring a farthing. That’s inflation for you!]
Most intriguingly, a Stannington resident posted on an internet message-board much of the very same ditty in his own recollection, of when he was aged 10 in 1965, except that the beginning was the evidently less corrupted “Kay-an-ara”. This points to whatever is the name of the custom being multisyllabic, while the ‘kay kay kay’ alternative start suggests main elements beginning k or with a k sound. Both of these aspects appear to be represented in a third different beginning that another contributor to the same message-board gave as being the tradition in his particular locale: ‘Cake cake copper copper / Cake cake copper copper’. Ostensibly seeking alternative food or money ‘reward’, the repeat of the k sounds in rhythm suggests a somewhat deeper meaning.
The name indeed proves key to just what is this fascinating modern survival. If the actual cake itself, parkin, is named in Gaelic after the overall festival, then might not also be named originally in Gaelic the specific custom? This seems still more likely after considering major aspects of the tradition at the opposite end of the calendar – the start of the ‘Celtic’ ‘light’ year, Beltane; May Day and thereabouts: Whit(suntide) – which was manifest hereabouts as annual time-immemorial major highly localised festivals and grand fairs. This last was always known as the Deepcar (or Penistone, etc) Feast, which curious moniker (for what was a fair, not a banquet) clearly is from fèis, pronounced ‘fesh’, a Gaelic word meaning ‘festival’. [It’s obviously not from Latin festivus via Old French festival, as is the eponynous English word.] The annual equally local Gala likewise is a term from Gaelic: seemingly two related roots. Old Gaelic (Old Irish) gala, meaning ‘warlike’, ‘valour’ and ‘fury’, from Proto-Celtic galā, ‘ability’; and gealach, ‘whitenesss’, This gives away the function of the May festivities: the old ‘May games’ were for determining who would be the ‘May King’ alongside the May Queen. The May King & Queen obviously are the symbolic most fertile couple; by ‘sympathetic magic’ the guarantors of the fertility of the land. [The May Queen was the major school event at Deepcar, but as recorded in a 1966 film, Deepcar Gala featured not just children’s contests but “adults playing crazy games”; and all local ‘Whit Walks’ ended at a designated field for boys’ competitive games.] ‘Ability’ is in terms of male competitive strength and female fertility (youth/beauty), and is obtained by weeding out: purifying (the symbolic function of the fire in the fire festival, of course). This is where galaich, enters the fray: ‘whiten’, ‘make white’. Both galā and galaich seem key here; likely inter-related etymologically. [The standard etymology of a supposed meaning of ‘showy dress’ is far too recent (17th century) to be right; and that applies also to the word from which it’s derived: Old French, gale, ‘rejoicing’. At best this is itself derivative, not an origin. There are both Goidelic and Brittonic (Welsh) routes to English gala from Proto-Celtic; likely in turn from a Proto-Indo-European word. This could have evolved in some other direction to produce OF gale, but either way it’s a false trail.]
Of Beltane, the name of the ‘fire festival’ from the Gaelic Bealtuinn or Bhealtainn (several variants), meaning ‘bright’ or ‘shining’ ‘fire’, or something similar: why don’t we use this name? We do. It’s been Anglicised / rationalised to Whit. The Scottish Gaelic common letter-transposed variant form, beatlainn through usual softening (lenition) over time of the initial b (thereby denoted bh) would produce a change in pronunciation and Anglicisation to Late Old English hwita, ‘white’, through the rationalisation that whiteness was the spirit of the festival in the purifying effect of the ritual fire. This moniker was used to replace the name of the Christian Pentecost, presumably when the church realised it had not succeeded in eclipsing the vernacular festival, so decided to co-opt it.
Given the cue of a Gaelic lexicon, Kay-an-ara / Cake cake copper copper / Kay kay kay is unlikely to be (as might first be guessed, and conceivably could be) a drastic corruption of Calan Gaeaf, the name of the Welsh equivalent of Samhain. The names of all associated activity in the Welsh appear completely foreign to anything parallel here in the ‘Dark Peak’. But almost immediately upon perusing details of Samhuin in Scotland, something leaps out. Gaelic corra-chagailt, pronounced KOR-a-cha-KEL-jeh, which to the superseding English tongue would have been a very strange-seeming and non-memorable mouthful. Inevitably, over time, it has been truncated and mangled to the point of vague recognition contemporarily in ‘kay-an-ara’, in the end evidently reducible to just the initial letters of the two main elements, becoming, simply, ‘kay-kay’. Naturally, in some locales a version was likely to emerge where the loss of meaning finally became total, and, in scratching around for some, the chant might become one of ‘cake’, notwithstanding that the ostensible meaning was not intended.
The corra-chagailt is the collective term for ‘evil spirits’ considered to be at large at Samhuin. They were thought to be manifest in the flames of a fire as it is about to go out. Fire was conceived of as the great purifier, but, apparently, as soon as it’s on the wane, the ‘evil’ that otherwise it purges becomes the very stuff of the fire itself. [So often is mythology self-contradictory, it seems to be a hallmark.] Fire was, of course, central to the ‘Celtic’ major festivals: they are termed ‘fire’ festivals. From the communal samhuin bonfire, torches were made to carry on a circuit of the boundaries of each farm and to bring into each house to freshly kindle the hearth; all to ward off ‘evil spirits’. This symbolic renewal of fire countered the fear that ‘old fire’ itself was a conduit for, nay embodiment of ‘evil spirits’. The whole point of the exercise, then, was to keep the corra-chagailt at bay, by fighting fire with fire, as it were.
In the usual atrophy of mythological power, latterly in Scotland fear of the corra-chagailt was relegated to mere children’s fare: notably a way parents scared their young offspring to gain time on their own with each other. “Tha tìde agad a dhol dhan leabaidh mus beir na corrachagan-cagailt ort”, translated is: ‘it’s high time to go to bed before the corrachagan-cagailt catch you!’ And it was the children of a good number of the villages of Hallamshire who performed the Kay Kay / Kakin custom. But this must have been but relatively recently, as adults in Stannington and other places nearby continued a related though different Kakin ritual. Recorded elsewhere as ‘the dumb supper’, likewise on the ‘Celtic’ new year’s eve, it’s a window on the ancient rationale of the practices on this day. In Scotland and Ireland, formerly a place was set at the supper table for the ancestors, for whom food and drink were served, but in complete silence and without looking directly at the place’s chair. In this way, it was thought, the departed were placated. Locally, at Stannington, Dungworth, Loxley (Little Matlock) – and, apparently, also at Oughtibridge – this was enacted as late as the 1990s, not at home but in the pub. As accounts and photos attest, men would be masked, wear fancy dress, and would speak not a word nor make a sound all evening – paralleling what Jean Huddlestone said regarding children ‘Caking’. So was this to avoid identification, or out of respect for the ancestors? This ritual evidently is rooted in the ‘Celtic’ notion that this specific time of year (and as with special places such as bodies of water and caves) the veil between this and the ‘otherworld’ was considered to be thin, enabling communication with those on the other side of the ‘liminal entrance’.
But were these envisaged as the ancestors, or as non-human supernatural beings? Surely it was the latter whom people saw as being in need of placation or propitiation; as betrayed by the ‘dumb supper’ plates set for the ancestors afterwards being taken outside and left for the ‘fairies’ (‘evil spirits’). After all, it’s odd that ancestors would be thought to be angry with their own descendants. Rather, they would be a source of comfort to them, or even provide a sense of protection: there are records of a Samhuin practise of warding off ‘evil spirits’ by parading the skulls of the ancestors.
Isn’t it really that the ancestors would have been easier to conceive of as ghosts – being human, for a start – and, as such, in effect more readily imagined as surrogates of ‘evil spirits’, enabling symbolic communication with them? The actual concern re ancestors surely would be that the wrath of all of them back to time immemorial indeed might be invoked against the one, first, latest link in the progenital chain who was remiss enough to break with the custom. It would not be enough, then, simply to participate yourself: you have to actively pass on the custom to the next generation. Given anyway you have no clue what it’s about and your children won’t mind either way and find it fun, then you may as well get them to enact it and absolve yourself of the trouble. That child participation was for the benefit of adults is shown by Beck’s finding (in his above-cited 1983 survey) of a clear contiguity of adult and child participation, such that where adults had resumed the custom in some form, children desisted; but otherwise the baton had been passed on from adults to their offspring.
Together with the point that real human bodies would have been easier to conceive of as surrogates of ‘evil spirits’, this looks like the role of children here. In donning masks (or, in some recorded local cases, blacking up) kids were ritualistically made into surrogates of ‘evil spirits’, that adults could, albeit only symbolically, directly appease with offerings – pieces of the special rich cake: parkin. Sense is now made of the two consecutive nights: ‘Mischief Night’ is where children as ‘evil spirits’ symbolically do their worst, reminding everyone of the need subsequently to take steps to ward them off when they return the following evening. Not that for hundreds of years now, folk were cognisant of or even had much clue as to what it was all about, even though it’s pretty obvious to anyone who thinks about it.
There was talk locally, I gather, of reviving the custom rather than allow it to be subsumed in the re-imported American ‘trick or treat’ fusion of Caking Neet with Mischief Neet (the previous night, October 31st). This seems to have gone very quiet, however. Would an understanding of its deep antiquity and striking mythological nature help here, or instead have the opposite effect of pointing it up as far too anachronistic? Perhaps many would question the point anyway of resurrecting something that naturally has died out, and thereby cannot truly again be traditional. Another view would be that it would at least enrich the ‘bastardised’ form and help ensure it too doesn’t also face extinction. It might even serve to ‘reconnect’ with a ‘gut’ awareness of the endless ‘regenerative cycle’, once all-pervasive before societal scale and technological change seemingly buried it. The problem is that it took whole communities to perpetuate the practice. It’s not just those performing the rite: it entails most people being receptive to it – ready to open their doors and play their part. Kay-kaying broke down because of a large influx of people from the city or beyond who had never heard of it. Well, everyone knows ‘trick or treat’, so could the old custom somehow be piggy-backed on to what replaced it, to usurp the bundled re-import of our own tradition? After all, ‘trick or treat’ could well be doomed, being a rather brazen protection racket! Reverting to the status quo ante would leave doing the ‘mischief’ to the bold minority, with the rest waiting the 24 hours to then sing a threat-free entreaty. Who knows, but maybe re-separating the ‘treat’ might just do the trick.
An ancient early Spring rite in Bolsterstone & Oughtibridge
Unusually surviving until recently in the hills to the north-west of Sheffield, England, was not just the Cakin night ‘Celtic’ November 1 new year (Samhain) tradition. Another surprising retention — until the early 19th century, according to Sheffield historian, Sydney Oldall Addy (1891) — was a “feast or wake” in Bolsterstone (and Oughtibridge) called Dannikins. Addy didn’t attempt to fathom it, yet it reveals itself to be a major ‘Celtic’ festival on the obverse side of the calendar to Cakin Night.
As with cakin, dannikin appears to be truly ancient in origin, not least in likewise apparently deriving from Gaelic: dannuighim, literally ‘offspring-imparting’, or ‘children-begetting’ — denoting the key feature of spring, of course; fertility — and/or a number of co-roots or alternatives: daonnachdadh (or a grammatical variant), ‘hospitality’ — from duine, ‘a person of manly spirit’; daighneachadh, ‘the act of establishing a ratification, binding, fastening, confirming, founding, establishing, obliging’; deoinich, ‘grant, give consent, vouchsafe’; dean suas cairdeas, ‘to make up friendship’.
[Note Bolsterstone and Oughtibridge (Uhtinabrig, 1161) are almost certainly of Gaelic derivation. Bolsterstone is from baile–an-t-sròn + sròn (duplicated after this became the short form, later Anglicised & rationalised as -stone, then added to the full form as a seeming new suffix), ‘the settlement on the promontory’. Oughtibridge is from oir-thir-na-bruaich, ‘the steep bank at the border’ or ‘the eastern border’. Oir-thir, ‘a border, frontier, the east, an eastern country, the eastern world’, is from Old Gaelic oir-, ‘facing, front, east’, + thear, ‘beyond’, literally ‘facing the horizon’ (or tìr ‘territory’). This is cognate with other languages, as the local historian Addy pointed out in his derivation of this place-name: OE uhte and Norse ótta both mean ‘dawn’. A parallel instance is Oughtershaw in the Yorkshire Dales is right by a major (district) boundary (to the north and east). The reference to a border makes sense as this (the River Don) indeed is the border of Hallamshire, a likely very ancient land division, given hallam is of Gaelic derivation. This derivation trumps the other possibility of ùidh-tigh-na-bruaich, ‘the ford by the house on the river’s edge’.]
That fertility was its basis is clear. An old character once well-known in and around Bolsterstone, Wade Hawley, recollected in interview in 1916 for the Folklore Society, that as a young man he’d heard joking about “running t’ cows to mak ’em drop their calves and mak sure o’ beeastings for custards agen Bolsterstone Dannikins”. Beistings (variously spelt) is colostrum: the first milk after giving birth, recognised for its richness and yellow colour. Its specified use in festivities is obvious symbolism of rebirth after winter.
Dannikins alternatively was known as the Bolsterstone Custard Feast, where custard pies with crusts were eaten in the village centre hard by the church, between it and the pub, around a sycamore dubbed the “custard tree” — now dead but replaced by another for Victoria’s Jubilee. That this was the site of festivities is attested by recorded local talk that “we’ll mak t’ owd custard tree shak at Bolsterstone Dannikins”. The custard naming may have been prompted by its similarity to costard, (etymology unknown), ’apple’, given the latter’s association with fertility (still today, and right back to ‘Celtic’ times). The tree here surely is the traditional May bush, bough or tree, with its symbolic yellow decoration: presumably what became the Maypole with its ribbons to be held by dancers.
[Crowning the May Queen, with her page and attendants, and Maypole dancing, was a big event just down the hill at Deepcar School in the 1960s; as was the related Whit march, with the girls in all-white, to a local spot of ancient mythological significance (the summit of Bocking Hill), to end in competitive boys’ games (originally, surely, to determine the May King). Whit (OE hwita) appears to be a rationalisation / Anglicisation of Gaelic bhealtaine.]
All chimes with the May Day rite cited in 1777 by John Brand (Observations on Popular Antiquities): “A ‘ripast of eggs and milk in the consistence of a custard’ and a ‘cake of oatmeal’ served on a table made from ‘the green sod’ is recorded as taking place in various parts of Perthshire”. Ditto in 1825 by Robert Archibald Armstrong (A Gaelic Dictionary) re the Highlands generally:
“… the young folks of the district … cut a table in the green sod, of a round figure, by cutting a trench in the ground of sufficient circumference to hold the whole company. They kindle a fire, and dress a repast of eggs and milk of the consistency of custard”.
Armstrong goes on to outline (though fancifully embellishes) a rite to a deity “whose favour they meant to implore in rendering the year productive”.
Rather than May Day, however, Dannikins (spread over several days, as usual for ‘Celtic’ festivals), began on March 25, somewhere between the two ‘Celtic’ spring festivals of Beltane (May Day) and Imbolc (February 2, a ‘quarter day’). Being at the spring equinox, this would be apposite as the onset of spring, coinciding with calving, but most importantly it was the major holiday of New Year’s Day, up until the change in 1752 to January 1.
March 25 was New Year’s Day because it’s nine calendar months before December 25 (the date the Church chose, for complex if not arbitrary reasons, as Christ’s birthday), taken to be the conception date — the announcing to Mary she was to bear Christ. Dubbed Holy Thursday, this was a usurpation of its more anciently being known as Lady Day, latterly taken by Christians to be ‘Our Lady’ Mary, but referring to the pan-’Celtic’ deity, Brighid (variously spelt and pronounced). Thus is March 25 very strongly connected to May Day, as confusingly this also was known as Lady Day — supposedly Brighid’s wedding-day. The earlier date was conceived of as the emergence of the goddess in her maiden aspect to replace her winter hag aspect; symbolic of nature coming out of hibernation in renewal.
Clouding matters further — though bolstering that we’re talking ‘Celtic’ tradition — with the centrality of new milk, there is pointed connection with Imbolc, which also concerns new milk, but re lambing rather than calving (though whether in terms of fertility or ‘purification’ is disputed, owing to unclear etymology). If Dannikins or an element of it was a displacement from Imbolc, the calendrical distance may be explicable by Imbolc having arisen in latitudes well to the south of Britain (either in the region from which ‘Celtic’ migration to Britain originated — the Iberian peninsula — or elsewhere in the Mediterranean), where winter starts to give way to spring-like weather much earlier than in Britain.
Confusion is the norm in mythology, given layers of historical modification, and Dannikins is more complicated still in being not just a merry protracted pie-scoff. According to Stocksbridge local historian, Joseph Kenworthy, in a letter of 1898:
“It appears that the people at Wigtwizzle or Broomhead Mill or Fairhurst or Bolsterstone had their separate ‘Dannikins’, or what my informant describes as tea-drinkings, and the people of Wigtwizzle would invite, say, their friends at Bolsterstone to their ‘Dannikin’, and expect to be invited in return to the ‘Dannikin’ at Bolsterstone, perhaps a fortnight after, and so on. They appear to have been social gatherings of kinsfolk and friends.”
Kenworthy’s correspondent, who talked with locals, wrote in Notes & Queries, 1898:
“I was told at Bolsterstone that it was customary for each hamlet to select two or three men out of their number as messengers. These messengers were sent out with invitations to the ’Dannikins’. After such an invitation had been sent out one might have heard a Wigtwizzle man say to a Bolsterstone man, if they chanced to meet, ‘Now you’ll come to our Dannikins’.”
A house-visiting ceremony might be thought to originate in the New Year custom once notable in Northern England, now confined to Scotland, of ‘first-footing’ across the threshold to bring a gift and confer good luck over the coming year. As with Dannikins, this has to be by a male — preferably tall and dark-haired, and in some places a bachelor, in others the sweetheart of a daughter of the household. All indicates coupling and fertility. Anciently there was an Imbolc rite of a symbolic blessing of each household to confer fertility (latterly, by girls in procession carrying Brighid crosses). A capable male crossing the threshold as if to effect fertilisation would neatly complete the symbolism. It looks like first-footing came to be thought of as a New Year custom with the Church’s usurpation of Lady Day and thereafter its consideration as New Year’s Day, for first-footing then to travel along with the date change to January 1.
A caveat is that seeming vestige of prehistoric mythology instead could be early modern fancy or old but merely medieval. However, anti-survivalist notions (as in Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain) are a corrective too far — stemming from Marxian conceptualisation of everything being economic, when mythology, like life, is all about reproduction: the regenerative cycle. Absence of documentation tells us nothing, in that on top of Church hostility vernacular customs were unlikely to be recorded in times when only what was of key official importance made it on to parchment. Those few able to access and use preservable writing materials would have considered themselves above non-Christian folklore, if not fearful of even the slightest contamination by it eliciting witchcraft allegations. Private writings about local curiosities would have been at high risk of being discarded by such as executors, as of no importance or to guard reputation. Major changes, watering-down and (especially) overlap between festival dates and customs are all to be expected. An early-modern origin actually may be lapsed practice that was revived for the very reason that essential connection with ancient origin had not been lost. Complete reinvention would be given away by full intelligibility in modern romanticised terms. Dannikins by this measure is revealingly opaque, in that worrying cows to induce calving just so as to steal their best milk (which is vital for the calf’s immunocompetence), is rather lacking in the decorum of antiquarian fancy!