9 ancient traditions of Spring in Scotland

Today marks the Spring equinox when the sun heads north over the celestial equator to bring a new season of life and light following the long winter months.

There have been many traditions and superstitions linked to Spring in Scotland with many omens of the season said to predict the health of families, crops and livestock for the year ahead.

In Celtic mythology, the spring equinox - or Alban Eiler - was the day that night and day stood equal and the rare balance was seen as a powerful time for magic and nature.

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Seven weird and wonderful Scottish traditions
The Ring of Brodgar on Orkney where a pagan ritual has been held to mark the coming of Spring. PIC: Alessio di Leo/Flickr/Creative Commons.

To harness this unique time of year, many rituals were carried out. From pouring bowls of porridge into the sea to leavings drops of metallic water around the home to ward of evil spirits, here were look at 9 old customs, traditions and tales of Spring.

1. Big Porridge Day

In the Western Isles, a large dish of porridge made with butter and other good ingredients was tipped into the sea in the belief it would draw valuable seaweed ashore.

The Big Porridge Day was held in late Spring or on the Thursday before Easter. Then, it was known as Shore Thursday or Maundy Thursday. The ritual would be at its most effective if carried out on a stormy night.

The Ring of Brodgar on Orkney where a pagan ritual has been held to mark the coming of Spring. PIC: Alessio di Leo/Flickr/Creative Commons.

“The porridge was poured into the sea on every headland where wrack used to come. Next day the harbours were full,” wrote John Gregorson Campbell in The Gaelic Otherworld.

He added: “The meaning of the ceremony seems to have been that by sending the fruit of the land into the sea, the fruit of the sea would come to land.”

2. Saining Straw

A wisp of straw - or sop seile in Gaelic - was used to deposit drops of water that had come into contact with silver or gold, such as a wedding ring, around the house. The ritual was thought to protect the house and its occupants from the evil eye.

In Spring, horses, harnesses and ploughs received a similar treatment before being sent out to the field.

3. Unlucky cuckoo

Superstitions were particularly acute in the Highlands and Islands during Spring, with omens said to readily determine the luck and fortune - or misery and suffering - for the year ahead.

It was considered unlucky to hear the first call of a cuckoo before eating breakfast. Some were said to sleep with a piece of bread under their pillow to avoid the predicament.

4. Good Friday

Such was the serious belief in Christ’s crucifixion, it was held that “on no account whatsoever” should iron be put in the ground on this day, according to Gregorson. Some refused to put iron in the ground on any Friday whatsoever. No ploughing was done, and if a burial was to take place on Good Friday, the digging would be done the day before with the earth settled over a coffin on Good Friday using only a wooden shovel.

5. A bride’s bed

Some regarded the first day of Spring as St Bride’s Day, which fell on February 1. There are some accounts of a sheaf of oats being dressed in woman’s clothes to mark the new season. Others have recalled a bed of birch twigs made by the servants of the house for their mistress. Once prepared, the women would shout “bride, bride, come in your bed is ready.”

On Tiree, cock-fighting was practised on St Bride’s Day and gifts given to the schoolmaster. In the evening, a ball was usually held.

6. Hunt the Gowk

The old name for April Fool’s Day, tricks would be played and lies told on April 1 but the foolery had to finish by noon - or the joke would fall on the tricketer. Hunting the gowk was originally played to send someone on a foolish errand.

7. Preen-tail Day or Tailie Day

More joking would follow when paper tails were attached to the backs of unsuspecting people.

8. Glen Saturday

More recently, Glen Saturday fell on the third Saturday of April in Kilmarnock with notices pinned in shop windows to invite children to pick daffodils at Craufurdland Castle.

Young people would gather in droves to gather “glens” - or daffodils - which grew in large clusters on the lawn at the back of the mansion.

Youngsters were most welcome on the property and would leave with armfuls of the flowers, some which were then sold on by the children for pocket money.

9. Vore Tullye - the Spring Struggle

According to Orkney legend, the Vore Tullye was a fierce battle between the Sea Mither - the life giving summer sea - and Teran, the spirit of winter with the two clashing as one season gave way to the next.

The encounter is said to have lasted for weeks and manifested itself in devastating storms that churned the sea into a boiling froth, according to heritage and folklore site orkneyjar.com.

The Sea Mither would always win the battle, with Teran banished to the sea bed until the Autumnal Equinox, where he would rise and win supremacy once again.