The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 6/Folk-Lore at Balquhidder


THE following scraps of folk-lore at Balquhidder were collected by me, from personal observation and inquiry, at Balquhidder, Perthshire, in September 1888:—

At Balquhidder, on September 25th, 1888, I witnessed the ceremony of cutting the harvest "Maiden." The farmer, Mr. McLaren, knowing that we were interested in the custom, gave us notice when the cutting of the corn was almost finished and the "Maiden" was about to be made. When we entered the field the oats were all cut, except one small patch and a single slender bunch or sheaf which remained standing by itself uncut amid the cut corn. This bunch or sheaf was to form the "Maiden." First the standing patch was cut down; then an old man grasped the sheaf which was to form the "Maiden" and gave it a twist. It was the regular custom, he said, thus to twist it, and the sheaf should be cut at a single stroke. The youngest girl on the field (a child about four years old) then put her hands on the scythe and, assisted by an unmarried lady present, cut through the sheaf. At this point we left the field. But shortly afterwards I was told that the "Maiden" was being carried home by a small boy, who was hurrahing and kicking up his heels as he ran. I hastened out, but when I met him his demonstrations of joy had subsided, doubtless through shyness, into a very sober walk. Mrs. McLaren kindly made a special "Maiden" for us from part of this last sheaf cut, the remainder of the sheaf being used to make a "Maiden" for the farm. The head of our "Maiden" was formed of a bunch of ears of oats; a broad blue ribdand was tied in a bow under the head, the ends of the bow projecting (to form arms?); a skirt of paper neatly made and cut out in a pattern completed the costume of the "Maiden." I hope to place this "Maiden" in the Antiquarian Museum, Cambridge, and to make it the beginning of a collection of "Maidens," or "clyack sheafs" (see Mr. W. Gregor, in Revue des traditions populaires, October 1888, p. 484, seq.), from all parts of the country where the custom is still observed.

So much for what I saw. Now for what I ascertained about the "Maiden" by inquiry from different inhabitants, particularly Miss McColl and Miss Watt of Kirkton. At harvest the last corn cut on the farm is dressed like a doll and called "the Maiden." It is kept in the farmhouse, generally above the chimney-piece, for a good while, perhaps a year. One old woman stated that she has known people keep the old "Maiden" in the house till the new "Maiden" of the next year is brought in. It is not every house on the farm that has a "Maiden," but only the farm-house itself. The farm on which we witnessed the cutting of the "Maiden" was a small one, and the members of the family sufficed to cut the corn without needing to hire reapers. But on large farms where there are many reapers, a competition takes place as to who shall have the "Maiden." Each reaper is followed by a girl binding the corn as he cuts it. A reaper who wishes the girl who follows him to have the "Maiden" will sometimes leave a little corn uncut and will turn it down, and the girl who is binding the corn behind him will throw a sheaf over it to hide it. At the end of the reaping (which may not be finished for several days), when a rush has been made on the (supposed) last patch standing in order to make the "Maiden" from it, the girl who knows where the corn was turned down and hidden returns to it and cuts it after all the rest has been cut. It is for the girl who follows binding the corn that the reaper turns down the corn; he himself takes no more concern about it. If several have thus concealed uncut corn, the girl who is cunning enough to wait till all the rest have revealed their hidden corn and cut it is successful, for her corn is the last cut and out of it is made the "Maiden." It is supposed to be always the youngest maiden on the field who cuts the "Maiden." Mrs. Stewart, of Immercon, a farm about three miles from the Kirkton of Balquhidder, told my sister that formerly on the evening when the "Maiden" was cut they had what they called a "Kirn," i.e., cream whipped up and eaten with bread or mashed potatoes; in the potatoes were put a ring, thimble, and sixpence for the same purpose of divination as at Hallow e'en. At another farm they used to give the harvesters on this occasion a supper of curds and cream, but this is now replaced by tea. With regard to the "Kirn," the Rev. Mr. Cameron, minister of the parish, told my sister that sometimes the cream is whipped up very stiff and mixed with oatmeal ; into this mixture the ring, thimble, and sixpence are placed. Mrs. McLaren told my mother that some people make arms of straw to the "Maiden." Before leaving the "Maiden" I may add that my mother remembers seeing the "Maiden" at Daldouie, near Glasgow, many years ago, though she is not sure of the name by which the figure went. So far as she remembers, it had a ribband tied round its head and one round its waist ; and the stalks were neatly arranged to represent the skirt of a woman's dress. It was kept hanging on the wall.

Mr. Duff, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, tells me that in his part of Aberdeenshire there is a competition as to who shall have the last sheaf (the clyack sheaf) like that at Balquhidder, but with this difference, that the last corn left standing and hidden is cut by the reaper himself, not, as at Balquhidder, by the girl who followed binding. Mr. Duff adds that he was informed by a perfectly trustworthy authority, that in an English county it was the custom for all the harvesters to worship the last corn in the field by bending the knee and bowing the head to it.

To return to Balquhidder. The old man who assisted at the cutting of the "Maiden" explained a mode of divination by throwing the reaping-hook ever the shoulder, but as he seemed to speak English with difficulty I could not be sure that I fully understood him. He seemed to say that one man took all the reaping-hooks of the reapers in a bundle and threw them over his shoulder three times. The man whose hook stuck in the ground twice would die soon.

Omens were also drawn from the direction in which the hooks fell. At Hallow e'en each house has a bonfire. They do not dance round the fires. The custom is chiefly observed by children. The fires are lighted on any high knoll near the house.

In the churchyard at Balquhidder is a green knoll known to English-speaking people as the Angels' Mount. The Rev. Mr. Cameron told us that "Angels" is here a corruption of the Gaelic aingeal, the name of the knoll being Tom-nan-aingeal, i.e. "the hill of the fires" (aingeal is genitive plural). The tradition is that the Druids kindled their fires on this knoll.

It is unlucky if a hare crosses your path. In setting out on a journey they used to regard the first person they met as ominous of good or bad luck on the journey. Some people were lucky to meet, some unlucky.

When a child was carried out of the house to be baptised, bread and cheese were given by the person who carried the child to the first person met.

In the old ruined church of Balquhidder is an ancient gravestone, said by tradition to be the grave of a Culdee saint. The Rev. Mr. Cameron informed me that formerly at marriages and baptisms the people used to stand barefoot on the gravestone as on holy ground. Some suppose it to be the tombstone of St. Angus.

The Rev. Mr. Kirk, author of The Secret Commonwealth (a work on fairies), and minister of Balquhidder parish about the beginning of the last century, died suddenly; it was thought by the people that he had been carried off by the fairies for revealing their secrets. Once after his death he appeared to a man and said that he (Kirk) would appear at a certain wedding, and that he might be released from fairyland if his friend would throw a knife over his shoulder. He did appear at the wedding as he had foretold, but his friend forgot to throw the knife over his shoulder; so Mr. Kirk is still a prisoner in fairyland. This story was told me by the Rev. Mr. Cameron.

J. G. Frazer.