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Capturing the Harvest Spirit

Rowan cranks up her favourite folklore books and shares a few harvest traditions and customs.
(Originally published Lammas 1997)

For many pagans, the harvest season which starts at Lughnasa is the most evocative and powerful time of the year. This is the time when thoughts turn towards the culmination of a year's work; for our ancestors it represented the culmination of the year's endeavours in ensuring that they could look forward to enough food to see through the winter - the grain which would provide the following year's bread and beer, the fruit and meat were laid down and stored for the coming months of scarcity. Today few of us will actually rely on what we grow for ourselves and we are more likely feel satisfaction on a practical level when we see the tangible results of the year's endeavours in the form of projects coming ot fruition - exams passed, for example.

Today we tend to celebrate according to a fixed calendar. The calendar on the wall tells us that such a date is 1st August and the pagan calendar tells us that that date is the beginning of the harvest.

Margaret Killip points out that in the Isle of Man the harvest has always been unpredictable and that it was particularly dependent upon the weather. Many was the time, she suggests, when farmers sat in the pews in church listening to a sermon on the harvest being safely gathered in when the reality of a wet and cold summer meant that the grain crop was still standing, unripened, in the fields weeks after the harvest should have officially begun. It is, perhaps, a measure of just how remote most of us are from the changing seasons that we celebrate the seasons and our harvest when our diaries tell us to and not when the grain is clearly ready for cutting or the apples are ready for picking.

What we seem to have lost is the senstitivity to listen to what the landscape is telling us and the flexibility to actually work with the seasons. If so, we have lost more than we can know.

The Idea of Harvest

By far the greatest body of harvest folklore and tradition is connected to the harvesting of grain, whether it be wheat, barley, oats or rye. This should not be surprising, given that whatever grain was grown it provided the staple diet of most people one, whether as bread, beer, porridge or oatcakes.

However, in thinking about harvest we must remember that our ancestors were directly dependent on nature and on the landscape around them for a much greater range of raw materials than purely grain and other foodstuffs. To the grain, fruit and meat harvests should be added many more less obvious, and in some cases purely local, harvests such as the wool gathered during the June and July sheepshearings; the hop-picking of Kent and parts of the Welsh borderland counties; the gorse and bracken gathered on heath and moorland as fuel and thatching materials; the reeds gathered from the reedbeds of the Norfolk and fenland wetlands which were essential roofing and thatching materials in the eastern counties; the shellfish harvests of the eastern coast; and the harvest of coppiced hazel poles from managed woodlands around the country to name just a few of the vast range of other materials which our ancestors gathered as essential ingredients to their everyday lives.

To some extent, modern pagans have lost sight of just how wide-ranging the idea of "harvest" was to our not-so-distant ancestors and also how long the harvest season really was. Starting with the first cut of hay, usually in mid-June, and ending in December with the last crops of apples and with rootcrops and home-grown vegetables, the richness of "harvest" for our ancestors went way beyond the "John Barleycorn-ism" of today's pagan revival. Perhaps we have lost something.

The Harvest Lord

Much of the seasonal work of harvest was carried out by travelling bands of casual labourers who, in East Anglia at least, often announced their arrival at a farm by scraping their scythes on the cobbles of the farm yard. Such bands of workers frequently elected one of themselves to be Harvest Lord who was appointed to speak with potential employers on behalf of all of the gang members to negotiate rates of pay for reaping, carting and stacking of the grain, and general conditions of service. In Hertfordshire, the contract usually provided for each member of the gang to be provided with strong gloves to protect their hands against the thistles to be found amongst the corn.

The contract, once finalised, was sealed by the payment to each member of the gang of 1/- (5p - OK?) and a pint of ale per head. The Lord's role also included leading the line of reapers in the field. He was assisted by a Harvest Queen who was his second in command. Newcomers to the gang were frequently "initiated" by the Lord who scraped a stone on the soles of the newcomer's boots to welcome him into the gang.

The Last Sheaf

The cutting of the last sheaf of corn was the subject of considerable ceremony in many parts of the country. It was variously known as the Mare or the Neck or Nack and was treated with some reverence. The act of the cutting was variously known as "Crying the Mare" or "Cutting the Neck" with a great many local variants upon this. At its most basic, however, was the reluctance to cut the last sheaf in which, it was supposed to be believed, the harvest spirit had retreated and taken refuge. Cutting the last sheaf therefore meant the slaying of the harvest spirit which was a somewhat ambiguous act which was not to be undertaken lightly. Many accounts speak of reapers binding the last sheaf and standing well clear while they took turns to throw their sickles at it from a safe distance until it is finally cut and felled. An 1832 account of Crying the Neck from Devon recorded by a Mrs Bray says:

"When the reapers had finished towards evening the labourers selected some of the best ears of corn from the sheaves; these they tied together and they were called the nack. Sometimes, as it was when I witnessed the custom, this nack was decorated with flowers, twisted with the reed, which gives a gay and fantastic appearance. The reapers then proceed to a high place and there they got, to use their words, to "holla the nack". The man who brings the offering stands in the midst, elevates it, whilst the other labourers form themselves into a circle around him, each holds aloft his hook, and in a moment they all shout as loud as they can "Arnack, Arnack, Arnack! We hav'en, we hav'en, we hav'en!" This is repeated three times and a firkin is handed round between each shout."

Any stranger unlucky enough to wander into the field during reaping in Norfolk or Suffolk could expect to be subjected to "Hollaing Largesse". When this happened, the reapers, holding hands, formed a ring around one of their number who blew a horn and shouted three times "Holla Lar! Holla Lar! Holla Lar-jess!" Those in the circle bend their heads forward and chanted an "o-o-o-o-o" on a low note, then threw back their heads and held a higher "ah-ah-ah-ah" note for as long as they could. The stranger was then expected to hand over money to the reapers.

There was clearly a great deal of competition between the reaping gangs working for the various employers in a locality. In Devon it was recorded that the gangs kept up a form of competitive singing, their voices echoing across the landscape as they worked, with each gang trying to outdo the other and to emphasise how advanced they were with the work. In Devon, when the last sheaf had been cut, the triumphant workers chanted:

"We ha' neck! We ha' neck!
Well a-plowed! Well a-sowed!
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!
Well a-cut! Well a-bound!
Well a zot upon the ground!
We ha' neck! We ha' neck!
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!"
While in Hertfordshire, a eulogy of the Mare was sung three times:

"I have her"
"What have ye?"
"A Mare."
"Whose be she?"
"Farmer ........'s" (Naming the farmer for whom they work)
"Whither will ye send her?"
"To ............." (Naming a local farmer who has not yet finished reaping)

"Master he's got in his corn
Well mawn, well shorn
Ne'er heeled over, ne' stuck fast
Harvest he's come home."

In Shropshire, the reapers would gather in a circle and one of them would shout loudly: "Oyez, oyez, oyez! this is to give notice that Mester A has gen the seck a turn [has stolen a turn on his neighbour] and has sent the old hare into Mester B's standing curn." The would all then bend down, link hands and let out an wild cry of triumph before having a drink to celebrate.

Mrs Leather describes the cutting of the last sheaf in Herefordshire thus:

"At the conclusion of the harvest, before the days of reaping machines, the reapers left a small patch of corn standing. This was tied up into four bunches, 'the four legs of a mare, like', my informant explained. These were again tied at the top. Then the reapers tried to cut off the ears of corn by standing at a certain distace and throwing their sickles at the "mare", holding them by the point to throw. In some places the men stood with their backs to the mare, but this required great skill in throwing the sickle. It sometimes took two hours to accomplish the feat; the man who succeeded sat at one end of the table, opposite the master, at the harvest supper. As for the mare, or last sheaf, it was carefully plaited in a variety of ways ... and hung up in the farmhouse kitchen ... to be kept till the next harvest for luck."

Frequently the strands of the last sheaf were woven into a doll or figure, usually with a female form and known as the Kern Baby in Hampshire and the Kirn Babby in Devon and as A''Mhaighdean, or Maiden, in the Highlands.

The Kern Baby was carried in procession and had pride of place at the Harvest Supper. Sometimes it was ploughed back into the land on Plough Monday in January, whilst in other places it was kept in the kitchen for the following year until it was ceremonially burned at the end of the next season's harvest and its place was taken by that season's Kern Baby. In Devon it was considered extremely unlucky for the Kirn Babby to get wet while being carried to the barn. It it did become wet, the guilty party who was carrying it at the time forfeited any drinks which would otherwise have been due to him or her on arrival at the barn.

In the Highlands it was considered important that the right person should actually cut the Maiden. According to Ross, in Rannoch it was the youngest person in the harvest field, regardless of whether that person was a boy or girl while in Strathtay the farmer himself came to cut it. The Maiden was generally woven into a doll which might be ploughed back into the land when ploughing began again in early spring or it might be fed to the horses when the first load of the following year's harvest was brought to the barn. If the harvest was a good one, the Maiden was woven into a youthful form, but if it was disappointing or poor then the Maiden was woven into the form of the Cailleach or Hag and dressed as an old woman.

In the Hebrides, the Cailleach or Gobhar Bhacach ("Lame Goat") was an ambiguous figure and a farmer who finished his harvesting might sometimes throw it into the fields of a neighbour who had yet to finish. This was apparently regarded as something of an insult and Ross says that violence and bloodshed sometimes erupted as a result. In this manner the Cailleach might be passed from hand to hand as each man finished harvesting, but it was considered extremely unlucky to be the last to finish and therefore to be the one left "holding the baby" (as it were) because it was thought that that family would actually have to house and support the Cailleach throughout the coming winter.

The Last Load

In Wiltshire, the traditional harvest shout was: "Well ploughed! Well sowed! Well harrowed! Well mowed! All safely carted to the barn with nary a load throwed! Hip hip hip hooray!"

The end of the grain harvest was celebrated almost everywhere with a procession from the fields to the barn. At Nuthurst in Sussex, the following account was recorded in 1812 or 1813 by an eyewitness, Mr H P Clark:

"When the last load of corn was to be brought to the stack, the bells were put on the horses and when the last sheaf had been pitched out came the bottle and glass and each drank towards the health of the "Maister" and "Dame"."

A hundred years later in Sussex the custom was virtually unchanged, except that the last load was now just a token of a few layers of sheaves in the wagon. The wagon was decorated with bunting and flags and was drawn by the best horses chosen from all the teams, with each chosen horse being led by the carter from whichever team had provided that particular horse. Everyone else climbed onto that wagon or another cart, or followed on horseback or on foot for the last journey to the barn. At Rottingdean, the last wagon of the harvest went on a pub crawl of the town, stopping outside each of the pubs whose landlords had to provide a free round of drinks for all involved.

In some parts of East Anglia the last load was known as the "Hollerin' Pot" because of the ale with which the reapers were rewarded as soon as it was gathered in or as the "Horkey Load". In any event it was taken from the field to the barn with the Harvest Lord and Lady or a flower-garlanded girl, sitting on top of it. During its journey, water was thrown over it from time to time to defy the worst that the weather may bring thereafter.

The Harvest Supper

The provision of a Harvest Supper (or Horkey Supper, as it was called in the eastern counties) was almost universal, and not only in relation to the grain harvest. As soon as the last load of grain had been brought into the barn, the reapers and other workers were treated to a feast provided by the farmer for whom they had worked. Whitlock says that in Wiltshire, the golden years of the Harvest Supper were during the second half of the 19th century and suggests that they had largely died out by the turn of the century. The suppers seem to have been quite lavish - or at least they seemed so to the farm workers who attended them. Food was plentiful. In Sussex carraway seed cake was traditional and was served to the workers throughout the harvesting because it was believed that the carraway seed provided strength for the workers and also increased their loyalty to their employer, thus ensuring that they could not be enticed away by a neighbouring farmer for higher wages. As well as seed cake, pumpkin pie and large apple turnovers called "brown georges" were served at Sussex harvest suppers.

The drink was even more flowing, as can be gauged from the words of a Wiltshire cornet player at one supper who is recorded as having said: "Thee prop I up somewhere so's I can't vall over and I'll keep playing for ee."

At Hengrave in Suffolk and at other places, a pair of horns, painted and garlanded, were borne around the supper table and placed on the head of the Harvest Lord - apparenly accompanied by coarse songs.

A popular game played in many parts of the country in one form or another was that game called "Turn the Cup Over" in Sussex. The players appointed a chairman who had charge of a bucket of beer and a tall horn tumbler. Each player had to approach the bucket holding either a bowl with the bottom uppermost or a stiff hat with the bowl uppermost. The chairman placed a full tumbler of beer on the bowl or hat. The participant then had to raise the bowl or hat to his lips and drink the ale without touching the tumbler. As he did so, the other players would chant:

"I've bin to Plymouth and I've bin to Dover
I have bin rambling, boys, all the world over,
Over and Over and Over and Over
Drink up your liquor and turn your cup over.
Over and Over and Over and Over
The liquor's drinked up and the cup's turned over."
The drinker had to finish drinking by the end of the fourth line, when he had to toss the empty beaker into the air, quickly turn the bowl or hat over and catch the beaker. If he failed he had to try again - each time of course he became less and less likely to succeed - but increasingly entertaining for the others!

In East Anglia there was a traditional broomstick dance, though the accounts of this seem somewhat confused and it not entirely clear how this worked in practice. According to the description, however, the dancer held a besom in front of him and hopped forward and back, throwing first one leg and then the other over the besom - presumably without falling over.


Once the grain harvest proper and the Harvest Supper was over, the women could begin gleaning, ie scouring the fields for the leftover ears of corn which they could claim and keep for themselves. In many places they elected a Harvest Queen to oversee the gleaning whose role was to ensure that everyone got fair shares. This she did by regulating the start and finish of work either by ringing a handbell or by giving the word when the church bells rang. The Harvest Queen also had the right to initiate newcomers to the gleaning field by tapping the soles of their boots with a stone.

Other Traditions of the Corn

Anne Ross records the festivities which took place in the Scottish Highlands on 15th August which was Là Féill Moire, the feast day of Mary the Great.

"Early in the morning of this day the people go into their fields and pluck ears of corn, generally bere [barley], to make the 'Moilean Moire'. These ears are laid on a rock exposed to the sun, to dry. When dry, they are husked in the hand, winnowed in a fan, ground in a quern, kneaded on a sheepskin, and formed into a bannock, which is called the 'Moilean Moire', "the fatling of Mary". The bannock is toasted before a fire of rowans or some other sacred wood. Then the husbandman breaks the bannock and gives a bit ot his wife and to each of his children, in order according to their ages, and the family raise the 'Iolach Mhoire Mhathàir', "The Paeon of Mary Mother" who promised to shield them, and who did and will shield them from scath dill the day of death. While singing thus, the family walk sunrise round the fire, the father leading, the mother following, and the children following according to age."

In Shetland, much further north, the barley and oats were usually not ready for harvesting until September. As soon as the first corn ripenend a sheaf or two were cut, threshed and winnowed and laid out on the kiln to have the sweat dried out over a slow fire. Next day it was thoroughly dried in a kettle and ground on the handmill to make burstane for the following Sunday's breakfast. A brünnie was prepared for each member of the family. The man of the house had the first tasting and he would ask a blessing up on the house and the harvest.

Also in Shetland, where the sea and its tides were crucial to everyone's life, crofters believed that harvesting of the grain and the October potato crop (as well as the cutting of peats for winter fires) should take place during a waning moon and while the tide was ebbing.

Apples and Cider

In places as far afield as Kent, Somerset, the Vale of Evesham and Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire, apples are a significant crop and have been so for centuries. In Kent and the Vale of Evesham the apples grown are mainly dessert varieties intended for the table, but in the other areas the locals have more sense and turn them into cider.

In Worcestershire and Herefordshire dozens of special varieties of apples were grown which were too high in acidity for eating but which were ideal for cider-making. Of many of these varieties only the names remain - Foxwhelp, Oaken Pin, Cherry Norman, Kingston Black, Redstreak, Badger Whelp, Hagloe and Dymock Red, but some which were heading for extinction are making a something of a comeback as part of a small but growing "real cider" revival.

The harvest stretched from late August through til very early December depending on the variety of apple involved. The apples which had not fallen from the tree or been blown down by the wind were knocked from the tree with ash poles. The apples were gathered, usually by women, and packed into sacks for taking to the presses where the crushed pulp, known as pomace, was then pressed through matting which had once been made of horsehair but later was of coconut fibres. The juice was initially dark and cloudy but later turned golden and was fermented in hugh barrels. The addition of pieces of pork, beef, rabbits or quantities of blood to the brew appear to have been widespread but not universal and provided nitrogen to feed the yeasts. Rats, despite popular tales, were not used! In many parts of Herefordshire it was believed that cider should only be made on the waning moon or it would turn sour.

The scale of farmhouse cider-making can be gauged by the fact that almost 2,000 stone presses remain in Herefordshire alone, though very few indeed are still operational. Until the beginning of World War I, most local farmers parly paid their labourers in cider, the average allowance being 4 pints per day and it was reported that they usually poured a little onto the ground as "a drap to the owd mon". Interestingly, if a communal mug was being used it always circulated sun-wise around the group.

Palmer records that the importance of the cider apple tree in the local economy meant that it was considered very unlucky, even sacriligious, to cut one down, and that as recently as the 1930s farmers would throw cows' afterbirths up into the branches as a fertility charm.

In 1921 the Bishop of Hereford complained about the amount of cider secretly brewed and drunk in the county - a complaint which prompted Punch to publish the following in the style of Housman's A Shropshire Lad and entitled Hell in Herefordshire.

The wild white rose is cankered
Along the Vale of Lugg,
There is poison in the tankard,
There's murder in the mug;
Through all the pleasant valleys
Where stand the palefaced kine
Men raise the devil's chalice
And drink this bitter wine.

Unspeakable carouses
That shame the summer sky
Take place in little houses
That look towards the Wye;
And near the Radnor border
And the dark hill of Wales
Beelzebub is warder
And sorcery prevails.

For spite of church and chapel
Ungodly folk there be
Who pluck the cider apple
From the cider apple tree,
And sqeeze it in their presses
Until the juice runs out,
At various addresses
That no one knows about.

And maddened by the orgies
Of that unholy brew
They slit each other's gorges
From one a.m. till two.
Till Ledbury is a shambles
And in the dirt and mud
Where Leominster sits and gambles
The dice are stained with blood.

But still, if strength suffices
Before my day is done,
I'll go and share the vices
Of Clungunford and Clun,
But watch the red sun sinking
Across the March again
And join the secret drinking
Of outlaws at Presteign.

Beware of farmhouse cider.

Hops were another crop which were locally very important to many communities and which provided seasonal employment for many labourers. They were particularly important in Kent and Herefordshire, Shropshire and parts of Worcestershire, especially the north west corner.

Hop picking started in the middle of August and continued at least into mid-September. Until the 1960s most picking was still done by hand, with local regular labourers being supplemented by urban working class people being taken en-masse into the countryside for the duration of the harvest, and in the case of the hopfields of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire they came from the West Midlands conurbation and from the valleys of south Wales. Many made the journey on trains specially chartered by the farmers - which gives some indication of the scale of the movement of seasonal labourers, while one picker from Birmingham in the 1930s recalled being collected by horse and cart and taken all the way to the hopfields. Once on the farm, they were generally housed in barns which had been cleaned and whitewashed for the occasion, the livestock having been moved elsewhere for the duration of the harvest.

Although the work was remembered to have been quite arduous it was nevertheless remembered very fondly by most of those who were involved, perhaps because for most poor urban people it was the nearest thing they had to a holiday during the year. Given that they had to be available for at least four weeks for the harvest, those with regular or permanent employment probably were not involved in the seasonal work and therefore those who were able to do the work were those whose employment was precarious or seasonal at the best of times. One recalled:

"Lovely in th' 'opyard. Everybody was a-singin'. You sung while you were pullin' the 'ops off. We 'ad sing-songs round the fire. I've ad some good times down th' 'opyards. I 'ardly missed a year. It was the best o' my days".

His sentiments were not unusual, for many of the seasonal workers commented on the camaraderie which arose among the workers. One particular custom, known as "cribbing" was widely observed, though the farmers weren't too keen. It involved male strangers to the hopfields being seized by the women and thrown in to the cribs, which where wooden frames with sacking slung in them into which the hops were thrown. The intruder would then be covered with hops and only released when he had kissed all the women present and given them money for a drink. At the end of the season, unmarried women could expect to be picked up by the men and dumped into the cribs. Sometimes the women retaliated by ganging up on one of the men and throwing him into one of the cribs, occasionally thowing one of their number in on top of him and covering them both with hopbines. There are indications that these hijinks had quite overtly sexual overtones in which the women appear to have taken the lead. It may be that, in this world of casual work, where urban and rural workers met for a few weeks of the year, a certain reversal of gender roles was allowed with the women being allowed much more freedom and licence than they otherwise enjoyed.

As late as the 1950s the celebration of the last load of the harvest was still quite widely observed, for in 1956 the Worcester Journal reported:

"On some farms, the last day of picking had its age-old ceremony of hoisting the last and best pole of hops, saved specially for the occasion. The pullers' caps and hats were decorated with rosettes, dahlias, asters and sprays of hops. Then a procession was formed, making its way to the farmhouse, headed by the busheller beading his metal measure to a drum, and followed by the pole-pullers, sack-holders and the pickers. At the farmhouse a feast was prepared and the farmer and his wife were toasted."

According to Mrs Leather:

"At the conclusion of the hop-picking ..... it was formerly the custom to choose a King and Queen of the Hop-pickers. The head pole-puller, gaily bedecked with ribbons and sprays of hops, walked in front of the last load of hops from the hop-yard. Behind this came the two hop-pickers who were chosen to be King and Queen; the woman wore male clothing, and the man a woman's dress."

There does not appear to have been any particular method of choosing the King and Queen, and their main duties seem to have been to make fun of everyone else, though one participant, speaking in 1908, said of festivities in earlier years: "The man had to be a smock-faced [clean-shaven] one. We chose a young mon that 'ud make a nice gal, like and a smart woman as 'ud make a smart boy". Again, we see evidence for gender reversal (in this instance unambiguous) which presumably either had some significance to those taking part or indicated that this was a slightly "unreal" world in which such boundaries were allowed to become blurred.

Other Harvests

While the grain harvest generally gets most the attention when folklorists write about harvest generally, we must not forget that our ancestors were much more self-sufficient than we are today and were much more heavily dependent than we are on what they could grow, gather or find for themselves. Some of these harvests, such as that of the hazelnut and acorn, seem to have been fairly widespread and have been noted from around the country, while others, such as the harvesting of bracken and gorse were much more localised, depending naturally on the availability of particular materials.

Bracken and gorse were both harvested by local on Berkampstead Common in Hertfordshire starting on 1st September. No cutting was allowed until that date, so the previous evening the would-be harvesters gathered on the Common, waiting for the church bell to toll midnight, whereupon each familly would stake out an area of the Common as their claim. They would return the following morning to start the cutting. The gorse was apparently valued as a source of fuel, especially for use in baking ovens, while the bracken was used for thatching outbuildings and rabbit hutches, and presumably they were gathered and used in most areas where they grew.

Starting in mid-September hazelnuts were gathered widely, and in many areas poorer women and their children would go out to gather acorns which they sold to neighbouring farmers for winter feed for pigs and sheep.

Brambling was also popular in the lanes and hedgerows until 10th October (Old Michaelmas Eve) when it generally stopped. It was believed that on this date the Devil rode about and either stamped or spat on the remaining fruit so that it would rot. In any event, in most years the brambles are well past their best in any case and are rarely worth gathering after this date.

The Blood Harvest

The days leading up to Samhain or until Old Winter's Day (11th October) were the time for the killing of surplus livestock before the winter. Most villagers and rural people kept a pig which was fed during the summer on waste and slops and during the autumn on gleaned grain and other refuse from the harvest. By November, then, not only was the pig at its fattest but the following months would have seen an increasing shortage of fodder for the pig.

Pigs were traditionlly killed by having their throats cut over a large container which caught the blood. Ralph Whitlock reports that his father was a village pig-killer in Wiltshire and that he used to go around the farms with his father for that purpose. The fee at that time was 2/6 (12p) for killing the pig plus the offal, though if the farmer wished to keep the latter for himself then he paid extra cash to the pig-killer. Once dead, the pig was singed all over to burn off the bristles and then hung up from a beam overnight to allow the blood to fully drain. The pig was gutted immediately and the innards would be taken away by the women who would spend much of the night doing whatever was possible to preserve the bits. A few choice pieces, however, were salted down in salt beds and then hung up in the chimney to smoke so that they would keep for the rest of the winter. In Wiltshire it was strongly believed that pigs had to be killed on a waxing moon or the meat would go bad, though Mr Whitlock's father did not subscribe to such superstition.

My mother, who as a child was evacuated to a remote farm near Helmsley on the North Yorkshire Moors for the duration of World War II, told me that the annual killing of the farm pig was carried out in a great social atmosphere. It was customary for men from the various farms to get together and go round each of the farms in turn, spending one evening at each. There they were regaled with plenty of beer and a supper before going out to the barn to kill the pig. The man all grabbed hold of the pig and wrestled it to the floor, sitting on it to keep it still while two of their number actually killed it - one holding a large nail and the other using a sledgehammer to drive it through the pig's skull. Needless to say, Mr Piggy screamed a lot and my mother only watched once. She still ate the bacon, though.

Sheep Fairs

The wool harvest of sheep-shearing was of tremendous importance in many areas of the country. In Wiltshire, sheep were referred to as The Golden Hoof and shepherds were regarded as the aristocracy of farm workers. As a general rule, in areas where mixed farming economies were practiced, stock raising and pastoral farming took precedence over arable and crop-growing activities, so presumably stock was more highly regarded than crops.

On Exmoor in Devon, farmers would drive their sheep to communal shearings in July where they would combine their resources and efforts to get the work done. The work became a focus for celebration and social activities, with the evenings being given over to feasing, music and dancing.

In August, sheep fairs were held in most areas where sheep formed an important part of the economy. In Wiltshire, for example, they were held in Marlborough, Bradford on Avon and Wilton. Some idea of the scale of these events can be gained from the fact that at Wilton alone in the 1860s some 90,000 to 100,000 sheep were sold during a single year's fair. At the Wheatsheaf Inn at Wilton, an annual competition was held by the shepherds to elect one of their number to be King of the Shepherds for a year. It was recorded that a great fight used to break out each year as part of the election process, though what weapons were used is not known.

Autumn Fairs and Land Changes

At Michaelmas in late September it was traditional in some parts of the country for farms and land to change hands with effect from that date, though in other parts, notably Wiltshire, land changed hands at Lady Day in the spring. Wiltshire farm tenancies traditionally allowed for the tenant to take all the produce from the year for which he had paid rent. If land changed hands at Michaelmas, therefore, the new tenant may get the benefit from late crops such as root vegetables and late fruit, so the custom was to wait until the spring equinox when the outgoing tenant could be sure that there was nothing left on the farm and that he was giving nothing away to the newcomer. A complication arose, however, where the outgoing tenant had sown crops before Lady Day; in that event, he could claim the crops resulting from that sowing, even though the new tenant was theoretically in possession of the land and the old tenant may by then have actually left the land. On the other hand, the new tenant took possession of any watermeadows (with their rich grazing) and had use of the sheds and other buildings for sheepshearing.

In any event, Michaelmas was the date at which agricultural employment contracts traditionally ended and workers had to seek new employers if not kept on by their current ones. Late September was therefore the time of the Hiring or Mop Fairs. At these fairs, workers seeking employment would go to stand with many others, holding or wearing some symbol of the work they could do, until they were offered work for the next year. Domestic workers carried a mop, carters carried a whip and so on. This generally made sense as by that time, ie late September, most of the harvest was in and safely stored and farmers could afford to let their long-term employees go to other employers without endangering getting their crops in. In Devon the hiring fairs were called "Giglet Fairs" and the most important were held at Okehampton and Holsworthy. Other Devon fairs at this time of year included Bampton Pony Fair, where the season's foals and ponies were rounded up on Dartmoor for sale, Brent Goose Fair and Barnstaple Fair, the opening of which was heralded by the hoisting of a glove on pole. The latter also included a celebratory stag hunt on Exmoor. Goose fairs were common throughout the country at which geese were gathered prior to being walked all the way to London. In mid-October at Hatfield in Hertfordshire was held St Etheldreda's feast and fair. In later years this became known as St Audrey's Fair and was the centre for selling all sorts of nick-nacks and cheap bits and pieces. In due course the name was corrupted again to "Tawdry Fair" - whence the modern English word "tawdry" meaning cheap and shoddy.

Covens or groups who periodically elect their officers and other functionaries may like to consider whether this time of the year would be an appropriate one at which office could change hands if they wish to reflect the ancient farming and rural patterns of life.

Other Approaches

In the Isle of Man, people participated in a number of traditional activities which were not directly connected with the harvest. On Laa Luanys they habitually congregated on hilltops. Originally this occurred on 1st August itself but it was later shifted to the first Sunday of August as part of the ongoing Christianisation of traditional practices. Eventually the practice was suppressed completely - mainly on the grounds of the indecency and sacriligious nature of what went on. One account of the inhabitants of Kirk Lonan tells of their gathering on the summit of Snaefell where they behaved "very rudely and indecently". It was also traditional to visit any holy wells which were to be found on the chosen route and the continuanance of the ancient water cults appears to have been particularly important at this time.


The Folklore of Sussex - Jacqueline Simpson, Batsford, London 1973
The Folklore of Wiltshire - Ralph Whitlock, Batsford, London 1976
The Folklore of the Isle of Man - Margaret Killip, Batsford, London 1975
The Folklore of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight - Enid Parker, Batsford, London 1974
The Folklore of Devon - Ralph Whitlock, Batsford, London 1977
The Folklore of Hertfordshire - Doris Jones-Barker, Batsford, London
The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands - Anne Ross, Batsford, London 1976
Shetland Folklore - James R Nicholson, Robert Hale, London 1981
The Folklore of Warwickshire - Roy Palmer, Batsford, London 1976
The Folklore of the Welsh Border - Jacqualine Simpson, Batsford, London 1976
The Folklore of Hereford & Worcester - Roy Palmer, Logaston Press 1992
The Folklore of Herefordshire - Ella Mary Leather, Lapridge Publications, Hereford 1973 (Originally published by Jakeman and Carver, Hereford, 1912)