In her book Garden in the Hills, Katharine Stewart devotes an essay each to February 1st (St. Brigid’s Day) and February 2nd (Candlemas). Four years ago, I wrote a post covering Imbolc, the start of the pagan year, St. Brigid’s Day, Candlemas and Groundhog’s Day, all of which take place on February 1st and 2nd.
Katharine Smith writes “This [February 1st] is the festival of St. Bride. Her name is the Christianised version of the Celtic goddess of spring – Brighid… The time of Brighid was a celebration of the first signs of returning light and life, after the darkest of the winter was past, a time of creative impulse and energy.” She then goes on to write that, as St. Bride was the saint of milkmaids, she gave the name Bride to her Sanaan goat, “she of the golden eyes and the elegant, capering legs”. “She came into milk about the time of Bride’s day, always giving an adequate supply, on a diet largely composed of natural herbage.” (p. 37)
She wrote, “This year St. Bride’s Day dawns incredibly bright.” We, too, have had some beautiful sunny winter’s days.
At the same time as the sunny days, we have also had a lot of precipitation, rain and snow – 7″ in my rain gauge this month.
Stewart described the walks she took with a friend: “We can take our pick of walks from this particular spot – along the peat-road onto the hill above the tree-line, where the old peat-workings are filled with water now; the old ‘funeral road’, the way that was used to carry the coffins shoulder-high to the horse-drawn hearse waiting at the foot, or along the track to the old crofting settlement where only one house still stands.”
The walks available to me in Glasgow are not so open as the ones she took in Abriachan, but I can easily imagine them. There are peat-roads all over the Highlands, less worked now than in former days. When I first came to this country, I wondered why, in seemingly empty landscapes, you would see stacks of blue and green plastic bags in certain spots. I came to understand that these were recycling feed bags holding the peats that people had laboriously cut, stacked, and dried. The “coffin-road” is familiar to me, too, from my time in Harris. Why a coffin road? It’s because of the geography and the history of the Highlands. During the time of the Clearances, those Highlanders who didn’t emigrate were pushed onto the rockiest, least profitable land, so that the landowners could graze sheep on the best land. The rocky land is so hard that graves cannot be dug, so people had to bury their dead at some distance, where the earth allowed for a graveyard. And the old crofting settlement where only one house still stands – how many ghostly ruined villages does one come across while hill-walking in Scotland? It is a sad and common sight.
Stewart also writes about the supernatural. It’s hard to say whether she believes it’s a possibility or not: “I can understand how people living in these idyllic places… dependent on things beyond their control – gale, snow, flood – could well imagine that there were creatures around which were also beyond their control, beyond their ken. A man from these parts, who became a minister of the church… told me not long ago that, as a young boy sent to herd the cattle in a green place not far below the house, he encountered a small group of ‘fairy folk’. He took the cattle home and went excitedly to tell his mother what he had seen. She promptly gave him a skelping for telling lies. He firmly believed, for the rest of his days, in what he had seen.” (p. 40)
Stewart also touches on adoption and fostering: “Until quite recently the people of the crofts often brought up orphan children along with their own. Fostering had been widely practised in the old days. The chief’s son would often be reared in quite humble homes, thus forging a link between members of the clan.” (40 -41) Now, as an adoptive mother, I find that very fascinating. How different it must have been to live a society where children were to some extent communally reared, and where it was considered important for the clan chief to have experienced the challenges of ordinary life? Compare that to our atomised everyone-for-themselves society, and the placement of a child often in a succession of foster homes, or perhaps with a “forever Mummy and Daddy” – knowing both that it takes a village to raise a child, and that about 50% of non-stepparent adoptions break down?
Stewart’s entry for February 2nd shows the link between Candlemas (the day when church candles were traditionally blessed) and the idea behind Groundhog’s Day. She quotes a rhyme her neighbour used to recite every year:
Candlemas day, gin thou be fair [Candlemas day, if you are fair]
The hauf o’ winter’s to come and mair [Half of winter is to come, and more]
Candlemas day, gin thou be foul [Candlemas day, if you are foul]
The warst o’ winter’s ower at Youl. [The worst of winter was over at Yuletide.]
On the year that Stewart was writing, her Candlemas day was very fair indeed, and she spent a happy time working in the garden. She concludes “It has been a good day, come what may.”
I shall have to see what weather Candlemas Day brings to us tomorrow. In addition to candle-blessing and weather-predicting, at our house it is a day of a bit of celebration: this year, 27 years of Michael’s and my marriage.
Happy February, everyone!