Meeting Report: Festivity in South-West Scotland in the 18th and 19th Centuries

1 February 2013
John Burnett (National Museums of Scotland)

John Burnett, a Cambridge graduate, who spent 26 years from 1986 working for the National Museum of Scotland mainly as a specialist on how the ordinary Scot lived his life, was the speaker at the beginning of February. The subject chosen was Festivity in South-West Scotland in the 18th and 19th Centuries, an aspect of his historical research in retirement, for which local newspapers and local poetry help to serve as sources of information. Sadly, he finds, it is hard to discover when customs arose and reports mention happenings, but carry little detail about what people actually did before 1900.

Festivity almost anywhere in Europe starts from the Christian calendar of the Middle Ages. Scotland has been singularly at variance in this respect. The secular calendar provided the impetus for Scottish festivity, probably because religious festivals were suppressed by the Reformers and were to some extent associated with the Roman Catholic Church.

The late Professor Sandy Fenton, a noted linguist, in the 1950s had the skills to compare how people lived and went about their daily lives in various European countries. He was associated with thirteen volumes of studies from the School of Ethnology (to be found in the Ewart Library), the fourteenth of which is about to appear. A series of regional studies in Scotland, following his example, are planned. The vanguard study is being conducted in Dumfries and Galloway and John's talk is the basis of his chapter for the forthcoming publication.

The holiday on New Year's Day, the biggest of the year, provided a reason for celebration. First-footing starts to appear when cheap whisky became available at the end of the 18th Century. It emerges that there was a custom, recorded in Edinburgh and Dumfries, of it being permissible for a man to grab any woman he met and kiss her on New Year's Day. There is evidence of socialising involving tea, scones and dancing being organised in village halls. Such simplicity in merrymaking is in marked contrast to city life, where, for instance, the environs of the Tron Kirk in Edinburgh attracted huge crowds to assemble for the fun of the day.

1890 was quite a year. New Year's Day fell on a Wednesday, but strangely in Dumfries New Year's Day was celebrated on the Thursday, which was market day. As the Town Council advised that pubs be closed and one third obeyed, it was reported that there was little evidence of drunkenneess. "Questionable," said John. The fact that William Ewart Gladstone, had reached the age of 80 provided a reason for the biggest holiday of that year. Temperance movements were strong at this time: in Dalbeattie, for example, we find the Flute Band of The Independant Order of Rechabites playing on the streets.

Michaelmas, 29th September, fell around harvest time, which was very labour-intensive in the days before mechanisation. Such an intermix of people allowed courtships to take place: Robert Burns at the age of 16 fell in love with 'Handsome Nell' while harvesting. Before the 1740s there was always a risk of famine and therefore, once the harvest was in, the harvest kirn was celebrated round the last sheaf. The Dumfries Weekly Magazine in 1825 describes older women chatting in the background while young women danced; there was singing; whisky and a cold collation, perhaps of oatcakes and cheese, was on offer.

Halloween inspired several local poets. John Mayne's poem had some influence on that of Robert Burns. The blind Dumfries poet, James Fisher, was born in 1759 like Burns; the two of them seemed to prefer country girls in their simple, everyday attire. Janet Little, a milkmaid, also born in 1759 — near Ecclefechan — associated the event, as did Burns, with the supernatural and folks trying to discover their fate:

At Halloween, when fairy sprites
Perform their mystic gambols,
When ilka witch her neebour greets,
On their nocturnal rambles;
When elves at midnight-hour are seen,
Near hollow caverns sportin,
Then lads an' lasses aft convene,
In hopes to ken their fortune,
By freets that night. (Little)

"For mony a ane has gotten a fright,
An' liv'd an' died deleerit, On sic a night. (Burns)

There was feasting at Martinmas, 11th November, because beef animals, which could not be taken through the winter, would be slaughtered.

Shooting competitions were popular at New Year. Kirkcudbright and Dumfries each have similar Siller Guns: the former dates from 1587 and, while there is no definite date for the latter, it is thought to have been introduced around the same time. The story that James VI donated it is unlikely to be true. By the middle of the 18th century the competition was held on the king's birthday, especially during the reign of George III. John Mayne's poem, The Siller Gun, is his best. The competition in Dumfries is expertly captured pictorially in two detailed scenes by Thomas Stothard RA in collaboration with R.H Cromek, engraver. One shows the incorporated trades on the Whitesands and the other one shows the competition taking place at Maidenbower. Prizes were awarded. At Lockerbie another 1890 event involved the hotels — The Crown, The King's Arms and the Black Bull — organising such a competition. No need to say what form the prizes took!

Fairs, of which the Glasgow Fair was the greatest, were growing in popularity as there was entertainment on the fringes. The Keltonhill Fair outside Castle Douglas has given rise to the saying, when describing a rumbustious event: "It was like Keltonhill Fair!" There is a poem, The Fair by Robert Shennan (c1782–1866) of Kirkpatrick Durham, which describes cooperware being sold, as well as seeds, cloth, fruit, and confectionary. Dancing took place. Meanwhile pickpockets were circulating. Apart from New Year such a fair was the only other holiday for country folk.

In 1794, thanks to events in France, patriotism was in the air. The Duke of Queensberry arrived in Dumfries. The magistrates and Town Council, the seven incorporated trades, the Volunteers, dipping their flags, paraded past him. Barrels of porter, freely available in the streets, allowed the people to drink his health. The Duke threw money into the crowds and gave the incorporated trades £25 to drink his health. A remarkably lavish and costly occasion!

Dumfries, like other towns and cities, entered into celebration of St Crispin's Day, 25th October, in 1813 and 1818 when an elaborate procession took place in the town, thought to be emulating the Lord Mayor's celebrations in London and demonstrating national unity.

History records at length the exploits of kings and generals. In contrast, John Burnett considers that it is important to look at what ordinary folk were doing.