01 January 2021
Lammas Day (1 August) celebrated the first harvest of the year as the new loaves were brought into church to be blessed.
The festival of Lammas was celebrated across Europe and marked the beginning of a new season of harvests. The feast was celebrated in Scotland from at least medieval times and was known as the ‘Gule of August’.
In the weeks before harvest, communities were at their highest risk of starving, as stocks from the previous harvest came close to being depleted – Lammas Day heralded the new harvest and hopefully a return to times of plenty. In the Every-Day Book (published in 1838), author William Hone described celebrations held by Edinburgh farmers which included the building of towers, with communities competing to knock down each other’s towers. This was a boisterous and often dangerous contest, at which participants were occasionally killed and often injured.
Lammas is also recognised as one of the four Scottish quarter days; a legal term for a period of time at which contracts could be terminated or renewed and servants could be hired or dismissed. The four dates were traditionally:
- Candlemas (28 February)
- Whitsunday (28 May)
- Lammas (28 August)
- Martinmas (28 November).
Author Margaret Bennett described the most ancient Lammas ritual in Scotland as the Burryman ritual, held in South Queensferry. In this, the Burryman walks the marches of the town, crowned with roses with a staff in each hand and a Scottish flag around his middle. He is accompanied by ‘two officials, led by a bell-ringer and chanting children who collect money (for luck).’
At the end of the 20th century, just two Lammas Fairs remained – at St Andrews and Inverkeithing. Both are still held in the present day and include market stalls, food and drinks. In bygone days, a Lammas fair would have been a very lively affair, with the hiring and firing of servants, the collecting of rental payments and the sale of livestock.
One of the biggest Lammas fairs was at Kirkwall in Orkney – famed for the Telltown marriages which took place at this fair. Here, a couple could enter into a temporary union at Lammas and could live together for a year and a day before either entering into a permanent union or separating – this was known as handfasting. A shorter commitment was entered into with the practice of ‘Lammas brothers and sisters’ who were joined together in a sexual partnership for the eleven-day duration of the Lammas fair.