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Tag: Scottish Gaelic and Hebridean Mythology (Page 3 of 5)

Scottish Wedding Customs, Part 3

Scottish Gown
Pic: MDV Weddings
In the last part of our series on Scottish Wedding customs courtesy of Scot Clans Weddings, we continue on the subject of Wedding Preparations.


The Wedding Sark

The ‘Wedding Sark’ was a gift from bride to bridegroom of the wedding shirt. The groom in turn was to pay for her wedding dress.

The Providan

Before the marriage took place the young women were busy getting the future bride’s ‘providen’ ready for her future home. One or more days were given to the ‘Thiggan’ of wool from her friends and neighbours.

The Feet Washing

On the night before the wedding, or sometimes the Contrack night, friends and family would gather at one of the parents houses to celebrate the upcomming marriage. The food was plain, perhaps some dried fish and tatties, and there was much teasing and merriment. Part of the night’s entertainment was the ‘feet washing,’ where the bride’s shoes and stockings were removed and her feet washed, when clean her feet were then smeared in soot or shoe blackening. The victim always struggled but in the end always succumbed. To this day young men on their stag nights are often given a similar treatment.

The Wedding Invites or ‘The Biddin’

‘The Biddin’ was when virtually the whole community were given a spoken invitation to attend the wedding. This was done by the best man and maid, and the worst man and the worst maid.

The Wedding Clothes

After ‘The Biddin’ the wedding clothes were chosen, the bride was more likely to choose a coloured dress than the now traditional white one. Popular in past times was a Paisley Shawl or a Paisley patterned dress.

The bride was usually dressed by her maids and every article of dress must be new. The bridal dress was on no account be worn before it was required. Something borrowed must be worn; a ring was accounted of the most virtue.

So goes the saying: ‘Something old something new, something borrowed something blue’.

Signs and Omens

There were many signs and omens and customs which had to be attended to before marriage. On no account must the bride and groom meet on the marriage day till they meet on the bride-stool. Such a meeting would have brought on a series of calamities.

Wedding Ceremonial

Old style marriage was a community affair. Sometimes the population of a fishing village, sometimes the inhabitants of a rural district. Marriage was a ceremony with which all were concerned. The wedding was a day of public celebration. It would appear that in the customs of the Germanic peoples (Anglo-Saxon) who came to be the dominant cultural group in Lowland Scotland, marriage had three separate components:

The first of these was the ‘bewedding’ where ‘weds’ (Old English ‘weddian’ = to pledge, Germanic, ‘wadhjam’ = a pledge) or surety was given by the bridegroom to the bride’s father in the form of pledges or gifts. To recognise that this had taken place to everyone’s agreement pierced stones (rings) were exchange.

The second component was the giving away of the bride to the bridegroom by the bride’s father. This was conducted as a separate ceremony and was concluded by ‘hand-faestung’ – the joining of hands to seal the contract.

The third part of the marriage was the bridal (Old English ‘bryd ealu’ = brides ale drinking).

Wedding Line-up

There is a common misconception that handfasting was a trial marriage this was not the case. Until 1940 in Scottish Civil Law contract by consent constituted a valid marriage as did marriage by habit and repute. There were however early enactments which tried to force handfast marriages to be regularised in Church.

In the North East of Scotland up until the end of the 19th Century the following custom prevailed. The day would begin by the arrival of the guests at an early hour, those invited by the bride at her home and those invited by the bridegroom at his. Breakfast would be served consisting of oatmeal porridge. After breakfast it was not unusual for all to join in dancing till the hour of going to church came. At the appointed time, if the marriage was to be in the Kirk, two men called ‘sens’ were dispatched from the house of the bridegroom to demand the bride. On making their appearance a volley of fire-arms met them. When they came up to the door of the brides’ home they asked;
“Does (Jenny) bide here?”
“Aye, what dae ye want wi her?”
“We want her for (Jock)”
“Bit ye winna get her’,
“Bit we’ll tak her’.
“Will ye come in, an taste a moothfu o’a dram till we see about it?’

And so the sens entered the house and get possession of the bride.

The Bridal – Or The Penny Wedding

In Lowland Scotland the celebration of the union of man and woman has always been attended by a ‘bridal’. This is an old Anglo Saxon word and consists of two words co-joined; BRYD meaning bride or woman and EALO meaning ale or beer. Thus the bridal is a brides drinking party.

In the past Lowland Scots weddings were called ‘Penny Bridals’ or ‘Siller Bridals’. There is a great deal of information on them gathered by folklore researchers in the 18th and 19th Centuries. It is difficult to say when Penny Bridals began. They were certainly the most important occasions for singing, dancing and festivities and were immensely popular. They were attended by whole communities, as many as two hundred participants being not uncommon. It seems that invitations, although given were not specifically required and everyone attending was expected to contribute, hence the name ‘Penny Bridal’.

The bridal would be held in a barn when the marriage was at the farm. In villages the guests were at times divided into parties and feast spread over several houses. Sometimes a ‘change house’ or inn would be used and if the weather were amenable the event would be held on ‘the green’.

The custom at a bridal was to treat everyone as equal and no-one was turned away. At the feast the bride was placed at the seat of honour, the head of the table. The guests arranged themselves according to their fancy. The bridegroom did not take his seat at the table. His duty was to serve and look after the guests.


By the standards of the time the feast was abundant. The first course would be milk broth made of barley; the second, barley broth made from beef mutton or fowls; the third course consisted of rounds of beef, legs of mutton and fowls by the dozen served with loaves and oatcakes. Last came the puddings swimming in cream. Home brewed ale flowed in abundance from first to last. When the tables were cleared big bottles of whisky were brought in and punch made up from them in wooden punch bowls. The cups were filled and handed round and the toasting commenced. First the health of the bride and groom was proposed. Round after round were drunk, each to a toast or sentiment. This would be the time to begin the singing. Songs humorous, bawdy, cautionary and moral.

The Beddan

The beddan was the closing event. The bride would attempt to retire but as soon as she was missed there would be a general rush to the bridal chamber, which was burst open and filled in an instant to perform the ceremony of ‘Beddin the Bride’. After the bride was put into bed a bottle of whisky and some bread and cheese was handed to her. She gave each a dram and a piece of bread and cheese. Her left stocking was then taken off and she had to throw it over her left shoulder amongst the guests. It was then fought for by those in the room. The one who won was to be the first of that company to be married next. This practice must be forerunner of the tradition of the bride throwing her bouquet.

Gretna Green

Gretna Green is famed the world over for it’s association with eloping couples and romantic weddings, but the reasons for it’s fame are less to do with Scotland and more to do with the formerly more onerous English Laws of marriage. Because of many abuses of marriage in England by bigamists and opportunists seducing young wealthy girls the Church and aristocratic establishment persuaded the Law Lords of England to formalise and control those ‘irregular’ marriages.

Lord Hardwick’s Marriage Act of 1754 made several new regulations. Amongst the most significant were that if a couple wished to marry they not only had to marry in Church, but also had to be over 21 unless they had the consent of their parents. Lord Hardwicks Act did not apply in Scotland where the legal age was (and still is) 16. A legal and binding marriage could be made in Scotland by declaring before two witnesses. The result, when the Act came into force, was the immediate flight of young lovers who wished to be married against their parents wishes to Scotland. And Gretna, along with Lamberton and Coldstream became favoured locations for these quick marriages.

Thanks again to Scot Clans Weddings for their information: Scottish Wedding Resource for traditional and modern scottish weddings. Help in all aspects from buying kilt outfits to decorations – all their products are made in Scotland.


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Scottish Wedding Customs, Part 2

Scottish Wedding
Pic: MDV Weddings
This  is  the follow-on post about Scottish Weddding customs couresy of Scot Clans Weddings.


Tocher or Dowry

The offer of material wealth as an aid to courtship is found in several old songs such as:

Jocky said to Jenny, Jenny wilt thou do it?
Ne’er a fit quo Jenny, for a my tocher good
For a my tocher good, I winna marry thee
E’ens ye like quo Jocky, ye may let it be
I hae gowd and gear, I hae land enough
I hae seven good owsen ganging in a pleugh
Ganging in a pleugh and linking ower the lee
And gin ye winna tak me I can let ye be.

Pledges or sutries and the luckenbooth

To formalise the promise of marriage or betrothal an exchange of love tokens was given. This was usually silver, and something like a divided sixpence or in the poorer class by the exchange of spoons. The idea of silver as a betrothal token was taken a step further in the late 17th Century by the introduction of Luckenbooth Brooches. These were small in size and were principally made of silver, frequently engraved and occasionally enriched with garnets, crystals and coloured glass. They derived their name from the Luckenbooths, a narrow range of buildings close to St Giles Church in Edinburgh where many of the jewellers and silversmiths of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had their booths. The Luckenbooth Brooch took on the form of two hearts intertwined. This custom pathed the way for the giving of engagement rings in the 19th Century. Luckenbooths are also pinned to a babies shawl to give good luck.

The Luckenbooths


Trial marriages are not a new invention. To the couple unsure of their compatability, the old custom of handfasting proved popular. Handfasting has a long tradition, being traced back to the 1500s. In its earliest form it was like an engagement, an expressed intention of becoming man and wife by the physical act of placing ‘hands on fist’. From that it developed into a trial marriage which was to last for one year and one day. When that time was up the couple were then obliged to get married properly or to make the decision to go their separate ways, no stigma being attached.There is a practical reason for handfasting. A lot of Scottish communities were based on crofting and fishing. There was a need for wives to produce sons to help with the work. Handfasting allowed an exploration of fertility. Any child produced during the handfasting time was considered legitimate. If the marriage did not go ahead it looked like the child became the responsibility of the partner opposing the marriage.

Carrot Sunday or Dumhnach Curran

The wild carrot has long borne a symbolic reputation for human fruitfulness in the Gaelic world and, in the West Highlands particularly, the Sunday before St Michael’s Day, which falls on 29 September, was known as Carrot Sunday, or Dumhnach Curran. On that day girls would present their intended husbands small bunches of carrots tied with a red ribbon. When St Michael’s Day arrived, it was given over to dances and celebrations.


Choosing The Day

The time chosen for the marriage was important. June has always been the most popular and May was a month to be avoided as the proverb ‘Marry in May and rue the day.’ The moon was also an important consideration, it was a good omen if it was increasing in size, while a waning moon is a bad omen for the bride’s future happiness:

A growing moon and a flowing tide
Fortune smiles on a happy bride.

The marriage day was usually a weekday, rarely a Saturday and never on the Sabbath. The choices have been put into verse are contradictory, as the following will show:

Monday for health / Monday for wealth
Tuesday for wealth / Tuesday for health
Wednesday best day at all / Wednesday no luck at all
Thursday for curses
Friday for crosses / Friday for losses
Saturday no luck at all / Saturday best day of all

The Biddin and The Banns

When the date of the marriage was fixed, it was and still is necessary to put in the banns or ‘the notification to the minister to proclaim banns of marriage. This was variously called ‘the Contrack night’ or ‘the beuckin night’. The bridegroom, if at all possible, presented himself at the home of the bride along with a few friends. Accompanied by the brides father or other relative, the young man went to the session clerk to give in the name, for proclamation or as it was called ‘to lay down the pawns’.

An intended marriage would be announced informally by the local children singing the following:

Braw news is come to town
Braw news is carried
Braw news is come to town
Jennys to be married

First she got the kail pot
Syne she got the ladle
Syne she got a dainty wean
And syne she got a cradle

We give grateful thanks to Scot Clans Weddings for this information and urge you to consider their site for your own wedding needs. You can read more from these wonderful folks later in our schedule.


You can also now download a Celtic Myth Podshow App from the iTunes store. This is the most convenient and reliable way to access the Celtic Myth Podshow on your iPhone or iPod Touch. You’re always connected to the latest episode, and our App users have access to exclusive bonus content, just touch and play! To find out more visit the iTunes Store or our Descripition Page.

If you come to the site and listen or listen from one of our players – have you considered subscribing? It’s easy and you automatically get the episodes on your computer when they come out. If you’re unsure about the whole RSS/Subscribing thing take a look at our Help page.

Shapeshifting in Celtic Myth by Kenneth R. White

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Pic:  Blodeuwedd -Christopher Williams (1873-1934)

The theme of shapeshifting is found in Celtic myth regardless of the specific country one invesigates. Thoughout my studies of Celtic lore I have found that there were very specific reasons or circumstances for shapeshifting.

The theme of shapeshifting is found in Celtic myth regardless of the specific country one invesigates. Thoughout my studies of Celtic lore I have found that there were very specific reasons or circumstances for shapeshifting. These reasons fall into at least four different categories, they are punishment, survival, protection or as a means to facilitate rebirth. Sometimes a story will fall into more than one of these categories, such as the Welsh story of Llew Llaw Gyffes.

Shapeshifting for Survival and Rebirth

In the Welsh story of Taliesin, who as Gwion Bach, transforms himself into various animal shapes to escape the wrath of the goddess Ceridwen. Gwion transforms himself into a hare, a fish, a bird and finally a grain of wheat. Ceridwen in an attempt to catch him also transforms herself. She becomes a greyhound, an otter, a falcon and a hen. It is as a hen that she finally catches Gwion, who is at this stage a grain of wheat, she swallows Gwion and by so doing becomes pregnant and eventually gives birth to Taliesin.

The story of Taliesin has many similarities with the Irish story of Tuan mac Cairill. Tuan is the great-granson of Partholon who was the leader of one of the five invading races of Ireland. Tuan is the lone survivor of this race and lives out many lives on the island as a stag, a boar, a hawk and finally as a salmon. It is as a salmon that he is caught by a fisherman and served to the wife of Cairill. The lady becomes pregnant and gives birth to Tuan. The similarity of these two myths strikes home when we understand that both Tuan and Taliesin had full memories of their previous lives as humans. In both cases, their second lives as a human were both brought about by a woman eating them and becoming pregnant. This theme too echoes throughout Celtic myth.

There is a common misconception concerning these two myths which I wish to clarify. One may think that these two stories relate to reincarnation. That is not accurate, in both instances the main characters maintain their identities in every form. John and Caitlin Matthews have provided us with some insight into the Celtic view of stories of this type. They quote Cormac’s Glossary which gives an definition of transmigration, which in the Gaelic is tuirgin. "a birth that passes from every nature into another… a transitory birth which has traversed all nature from Adam and goes through every wonderful time down to the world’s doom." The Matthews’ go on to explain that these "transitory births" often traverse the realms of animals while the subjects retain their original memories and intelligence. But not only do they retain their original memories, they also retain the knowledge and experiences of their lives as animals. Therefore, it could be said that the act of transformation granted them knowledge they wouldn’t otherwise be able to attain.

Sometimes, the shapeshifter undergoes the change in order to survive some great disaster. And this sometimes goes hand in hand with the rebirth senario, but not always.

We can look at the story of Llew for an example of transformation following a personal disaster. After Blodeuwedd and her lover attempt to kill Llew, he is transformed into the shape of an eagle. Gwydion find him perched on a tree, decomposing flesh falling from him, which is eaten by a sow. Gwydion then uses his Druidic wand to transform Llew back to his human shape. As a punishment for her treacherous ways, Gwydion transforms Blodeuwedd into an owl.

There are many more instances of rebirth and survival in the manner described above. In fact, Celtic myth is full of them, but I haven’t the space to address them all. The Celts believed that everything was possessed of a spirit and great care was taken by Celtic women not to partake of certain foods or plants for the fear of becoming pregnant.

Transformation as Punishment

As with Blodeuwedd’s transformation into an owl, a person could be transformed to inflict some sort of punishment for transgressions, real or percieved. Ossian’s mother was one such person. She was transformed into the shape of a deer by the Druid Fer Doirche. In this story, she is turned into a doe while pregnant with him. He is born of her while she is in deer form and retained throughout life a patch of "fawn’s hair" on his forehead where she licked him. Ossian becomes a member of the Fianna and later comes face to face with his mother while out hunting. She is able to show him her true form and thus prevent Ossian from shooting her. Ossian then warns to to flee, for the Fianna would not show her the same mercy.

The children of Lir were transformed into the shapes of swans by their step mother Aoife because she was jealous of Lir’s love for them. The children were doomed to remain in this shape for many years until finally they resumed thier human shapes and died old and tired.

The Welsh story of Math ap Mathonwy we find another example of transformation used as a punishment. Gwydion and his brother Gilfaethwy create problems for Math when they start a war with Pryderi, King of Annwn. This war is all to draw Math away from his royal foot holder Goewin. Gwydion kills Pryderi and Gilfaethwy rapes Goewin. Math in a rage over these transgressions changes Gilfaethwy and Gwydion into deer. Gwydion a stag and Gilfaethwy a doe. In these bodies they are forced to live as mates until death at which time they are again transformed, this time Gwydion becomes a sow and Gilfaethwy a boar. Again, they live life as mates and produce many off spring. After the "incarnation" as pigs they live again as wolves. Gwydion the he-wolf and Gilfaethwy as the she-wolf.

Shapeshifting for Protection

The father of Lugh, Cian mac Cainte encounters his sons enemies. Since Cian was outnumbered he strikes himself with his wand and changes himself into a boar. One of Lugh’s enemies, Brian mac Tuirenn, derides his brothers for not being able to distinguish a real boar from a druidical boar. Thus, he strikes his brothers with his wand, changing them into hounds. In this shape they pursue Cian and mortally wound him. Cian then resumes his human shape before he dies. This form of transformation for protection didn’t work, but there are other examples.

There is in Highland Scotland folklore a specific spell used to affect the transformation of an individual. This type of spell is known as fith-fath (fee-faw) and as most Celtic spells was chanted verse. The folklore behind the fith-fath states that it was employed to bring about invisibility by transforming the subject into a different form. Alexander Carmichael informs us that the fith-fath was applied to circumstances where a person needed to walk unseen, which was usually done in the shape of an animal, or when one wished to transform one object into another. Hunters would use this spell when hunting, as it afforded them the luxury of hiding from their prey, and hiding the slain prey from any who would steal it. One can imagine a hunter chanting the fith-fath and taking on the shape of a deer, how better to approach their quary unseen and unsuspected.

Carmichael has provided us with a translated fith-fath spell meant to ensure that the person whom it was chanted over would become invisible to all the animals and beings recited in the verse.

A magic cloud I put on thee,
From dog, from cat,
From cow, from horse,
From man, from woman,
From young man, from maiden,
And from little child.
Till I again return.

The "magic cloud" could easily be a invocation of the powers of the god Manannan, who being the god of the sea had control over the mists and fogs. These mists and fogs were controlled by the god with his magic cloak or mantle. This same mantle was shaken between Fionn and his Fae lover, so that they would forget each other. So, what the chanter of this verse is asking is that the subject be covered by the cloak of Manannan. This same spell could be used to transform the subject into an animal or some other object.

The Matthew’s find a correlation between the fith-fath and the spell known as the lorica in Irish lore. They translate the words fith-fath as "deer’s aspect" and give a similar translation for the Irish feth-faidha. The feth-faidha is another name for the chant known as "St. Patrick’s Breastplate." The breastplate was used by the Irish saint to confuse the soldiers of King Loegaire, thus changing Patrick and his attendants into deer. The breastplate runs thus:

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven,
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightening,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.


As I stated above the people who were transformed were able to gain some knowledge from living as animals. Through this experience they were able to better appreciate nature and gained a closer affinity for nature. So we see several instances from Celtic myth where transformation was used as a means of survival or of protection. Taliesin and Tuan both used transformation as a means of survival and to bring about their eventual rebirth. Hunters and even the Irish Saints used transformation to protect themselves or cause them to become invisible.

John Matthews presents a theory which states that some transformations were necessary for an exchange of knowledge between otherworld beings and a seeker or shaman. These transformations required the seeker to confront a threshold guardian or to become that guardian themselves. In a later essay I will address this theory in greater detail.


The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom by Caitlin and John Matthews
The Celtic Tradition by Caitlin Matthews
Fire in the Head by Tom Cowan
The Magic arts in Celtic Britian by Lewis Spence
An introduction to Celtic Mythology by David Bellingham
The Druids by P.B. Ellis
The Druids-Magicians of the West by Ward Rutherford


Bronze Age Bressay – reconstructing the ancient for the future

Cruester Launch
Pic: Bronze Age Bressay
Bronze Age Bressay! was an ambitious and innovative project to reconstruct an eroding Bronze Age site on the island of Bressay, Shetland. The site, the Burnt Mound at Cruester, originally sat on the northwest coast facing Shetland’s capital, Lerwick. A previous excavation in 2000 revealed an impressive array of stone cells, together with a large hearth, a cistern, a stone tank and a sloping chute or passageway. These had all been built into a mound, formed from discarded stones that had been heated and then plunged into water.

Burnt mounds with structures within them are very rare, and the Cruester Burnt Mound is one of only a handful of known examples.

The project ran through June and July 2008 and involved the excavation and dismantling of the site, which was then transported to Bressay’s Heritage Centre where it was reconstructed. The replica structures, built at the same time as the reconstruction was carried out, were intended to be fully functioning so that they could be used as a centre for experimental work into these enigmatic structures. Volunteers were trained in drystone walling and a range of archaeological techniques.

The reconstruction will be open to the public and the finished site is being interpreted for the public with an on-site information panel, a leaflet, and a permanent exhibition at the Bressay Heritage Centre. The project also includes a twelve month education and outreach programme led by Bressay History Group and involving the local school and volunteers from all over Shetland. Events have so far included Open Days, a series of public lectures, Living History days, ancient technology workshops (such as pottery making) and Experimental Archaeology days.

A burnt mound is a mound of shattered stones and charcoal, normally with an adjacent hearth and trough. The trough could be rock-cut, wood-lined or clay-lined to ensure it was watertight. Radiocarbon dates vary quite widely, the earliest being late Neolithic, with clusters of dates between 1900 – 1500 BC and 1200 – 800 BC, with some outliers in the Iron Age. There are also some dates that go into the early Medieval period. The technology used at burnt mounds has much greater antiquity and is found from the palaeolithic onwards. Burnt Mound at Cruester,  at Bressay
Pic: Bronze Age Bressay

The main explanation for burnt mounds is that they were cooking sites. However, there are problems with such explanations, not the least of which is the lack of any direct evidence of cooking. The process undoubtedly works; experiments were carried out in Ireland in the 1950s to show that a joint of meat could be fully cooked in about three to four hours through this method. However, bone is rarely if ever reported from burnt mound sites, which would be unusual for a cooking site. This has been explained as the result of the soils being too acidic for the bone to be preserved, but this is unsatisfactory. It would be rather unlikely that all of the soils relating to burnt mounds were so acidic that no bone survived, particularly as the pH of the soil will vary considerably from site to site. However, there are examples of burnt mounds that have been recorded on neutral or basic soils, without bone being apparent in the burnt mound material, Alternatives that have been suggested include saunas (where the intention is to create steam rather than cook anything), fulling, salt production, leather preparation etc.

The implication found in many accounts of burnt mounds in Britain gives the impression that they are found in Ireland and Scotland, but they also are found in Wales and in England. The Welsh examples tend to be upland and rural, as are many of the English ones, but there are also many found in the lowlying English Midlands. Barfield & Hodder’s interpretation of burnt mounds as potentially saunas arose from their various excavations of burnt mounds in the Birmingham area, while more recently forty mounds have been discovered in Birmingham . One example is in Moseley Bog where experiments were made in the late 1990s to asses the plausibility of the sauna hypothesis. [Wiki]

In order to replicate the burnt mound, it was decided to dig down and not build up, as a low hill lay on the reconstruction plot. A hole was dug that matched exactly the shape of the outer wall of the Bronze Age building.

Not only was the threatened Bronze Age building moved, we also built a second structure for conducting experiments in. This was built to the same dimensions as the original building, but using new stone. So far, we have built the hearth cell, the passageway, the tank and one of the side cells. In the future, dry-stone walling classes will be held and more cells will be added.

The replica stone structures were built with the aim of conducting experimental workshops to replicate a number of Bronze-Age style technologies. We also wanted to try to learn what burnt mounds were originally used for. Of course, there may have been a range of uses, and suggestions range from cooking, bathing, industrial processes and even making beer! Not only will we try different processes, we will measure the temperatures reached in the hearth cell and tank; record how long it takes to bring the water to boil; and see how many times we can use the same stones before they shatter.

The Project Team have not only done such marvellous work and promise much more but if you tour their site you will find many photographs of the various stages of re-building and  their experiments.  They promised more details of more detailed experiments in 2009 but as yet the site hasn’t been updated.

Go and visit the Bronze Age Bressay site for more details. Better still, go and visit the Visitor Centre on Bressay – one day, I’ll get there!

The Power of Pictish Women

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Pic: ‘Pictish Woman’, one of the Pictish Nation
collection by F. Lennox Campello

There is a great blog written by an author of medieval biographies, Melisende, called Women of History. Here, I would like to point to a post that she made back in October 2008 in which she quotes from an article about the role of Pictish Women in Pictist Society. Melisende is probably better known for the superb Pages from History Wiki that she has set up and we’ll hopefully be highlighting in the future.

She quotes from an article found in "British Archaeology" (Issue 3, April 1995) written by Dr Ross Samson, Editor-in-Chief of Cruithne Press, in which he says:

The idea that women may have had unusually high status in medieval Pictish society has long been the subject of scholarly fascination – and dispute – even though there has never been much evidence on which to pin opposing views.

The idea started with the 8th century English historian, Bede, who wrote that, whenever the Pictish royal succession was in dispute, kings were chosen from the female royal line rather than the male. Although dismissed by some scholars as a myth, others have taken the absence of sons succeeding fathers in the Pictish king lists as supporting evidence for Bede’s words. Several scholars have gone further, arguing that if women had a decisive role in succession disputes, their power doubtless extended to other areas of society as well.

An entirely new line of evidence, however, may be provided by Pictish symbols. These are carved on rough boulders or cross stones, and about 400 examples survive. They have been taken, at different times, to represent inter-tribal marriage instructions, estate boundary markers, records of personal professions, Pictish `flags’, simple artistic expressions, even pagan altars–but never on the basis of much hard evidence. In my view, the symbol stones were memorial stones, and the symbols represent names – either the name of the dead person, or of the person who had the stone erected. Moreover, I believe that a fifth of the names belonged to women. Compared to other contemporary societies, this would represent a very high proportion– in Ireland, for instance, we know the names of about 10,000 men dating from before AD1000, but of only 200 or 300 women.

The symbols almost always appear as pairs, and in several contemporary societies names were produced from two themes. In Anglo-Saxon, for instance, we have Aethelgifu (`Noble-gift’), Aethelstan (`Noble-stone’), and Wulfstan (`Wolf-stone’).

I believe Pictish names may have worked in the same way, and that feminine endings on the Pictish carved stones were represented by the mirror and comb symbols that follow one in every five symbol pairs. A mirror and comb appear to the left of the only unmistakably Pictish woman represented on a cross stone – there are several biblical females – that from Hilton of Cadboll, dating from about AD800.

If this theory is correct, 20 per cent of Pictish stones were erected for or by women, which is between five and 20 times more often than in any other contemporary Celtic or Scandinavian society. One motive for commemorating the dead publicly is the statement it makes – I am inheriting this person’s wealth, power, authority and prestige. If women held 20 per cent of the power and wealth in Pictish society, it is no wonder Bede heard such stories about their dominant role in the royal succession.

To read the full argument, please let me refer you to the original post on Women in History.

More stone art from Westray in Orkney

Pic: Orkneyjar

Orkneyjar reports that it’s been a fine summer for stone age artwork in Orkney.

After examples turning up almost daily at the Ness of Brodgar, now a large piece of decorated stone has been discovered at one of Orkney’s most threatened sites — the Links of Noltland prehistoric settlement, in Westray.

Returning to Westray, for the Historic Scotland sponsored excavation, was a team from Edinburgh-based EASE Archaeology. The archaeologists concentrated, this year, on the unusual structure discovered last year.

The exterior of this building had been carefully “decorated” using neatly-laid horizontal bands of masonry. While other houses of the period tended to be created with function, rather than looks, in mind, the Westray structure was built using dressed stone and was clearly meant to look impressive from the outside.

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£2.7 million for Gaelic education

Pic: MOD Falkirk
Gaelic is a unique vehicle for passing Scottish understanding from one generation to the next, First Minister Alex Salmond said on the 10th October as he prepared to formally launch the Royal National Mod 2008 in Falkirk on that evening. The Scottish Government announced their support for the Gaelic language.

The Mod is Scotland’s premier Gaelic festival, celebrating Gaelic language and culture, which will today be strengthened with the announcement of more than £2.7 million funding for a range of Gaelic education measures.

The First Minister used his address to announce:

  • Support for a Gaelic Parents Advocacy Scheme to promote Gaelic education and provide support for parents
  • £2.6 million to assist local authorities with the renovation and construction of dedicated Gaelic schools in the next two financial years
  • Extended funding for the Gaelic Teacher Recruitment Officer based at Bord na Gaidhlig
  • £70,000 to support a Youth Scheme that will create employment opportunities for young Gaelic-speakers

Looking forward to the official launch the First Minister said:

The Gaelic language is a vital way of seeing and understanding Scotland. It contains the symbols and metaphors, stories and landscapes, that help define Scotland’s unique culture and history. As an essential part of our life, lore and language – Gaelic provides a valuable vehicle for passing Scottish understanding from one generation to the next.

That is why the Scottish Government is committed to promoting Gaelic education, and why I’m delighted to announce more than #2.7 million of funding to support the development of this strand of our cultural matrix. This money will help young learners by supporting parents, schools, teaching and youth training.

This year’s Mod provides a vibrant example of the enjoyment that can be found in Gaelic learning, with people of all ages competing across a range of disciplines including Gaelic Music and Song, Highland Dancing, Instrumental, Drama, Sport and Literature. Tonight’s launch gives a taste of the talent on show.

For talented Gaelic-speakers this is an exciting time, with a newly launched Gaelic language channel BBC Alba, the Fàs Centre established at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig to attract and support cultural enterprises, and a Gaelic Language Plan being developed. There should be no limit to the ambitions of modern Gaels.

With Scotland’s Year of Homecoming fast approaching, I hope we can harness some of our Gaelic ambition to encourage even more people to travel to join us in Oban for our Homecoming Mod in 2009. As an opportunity for Gaels and non-Gaels to renew old friendships as well as forging new ones – the Mod is the perfect way to reconnect with Scotland, in any language.

The Mod is organised by An Comunn Gàidhealach (The Highland Association) which was founded in Oban in 1891 and which has HM The Queen as its Patron.

Attending the Mod opening ceremony will be President of Comunn Gaidhealach John Macleod, National Mod Convener Janet Macdonald, Falkirk Provost Pat Reid, Convener of the Mod 2008 Local Committee Angus MacDonald, and Deputy Premier of the Legislature of Nova Scotia Angus MacIsaac.


The Mod

Am Mòd Nàiseanta Rìoghail was first held in Oban in 1892. It is the Scottish Gaelic community’s annual festival celebrating their language and culture, and is mostly competition-based. An 8-day festival with a strong language emphasis, it attracts around 1200 competitors, focussing on junior competitions at the beginning of the week and adult events at the end of the week, culminating in the awarding of Gold Medals (Non-trad and trad) for solo singers and the Lovat & Tullibardine trophy for the top choir. The current Bàrd (Martin MacIntyre) is serving a 3-yr term of office. The Mòd is comparable to the Welsh National Eisteddfod. In the course of the week, around 20,000 people attend the Mòd and it is estimated to bring up to £2m in economic benefit to the host area, at an off-peak period in the tourist season. Future Mòds will be in Oban (2009), Caithness (2010) and Stornoway (2011). The host area for 2012 will be announced at this year’s event.


Archaeologists unearth Black Spout nobles

Pic: BBC
Archaeologists and volunteers working at a Perthshire forest claim to have uncovered a “very exciting” find.

Excavations have revealed a stone entrance to the Black Spout enclosure, which workers believe indicates an important local person lived there.

Radiocarbon dating has also shown the site dates back to about 200 BC – it was originally though such homesteads were from the early centuries AD.

It is thought a large extended family would have lived there.

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Bid To Save Scottish Jewel Of The Iron Age

Pic: Dun Dornagill Broch by orionforumpics

Scotsman.com tells us: Discovered only 13 years ago, the remarkably preserved ancient settlement at Old Scatness on Shetland (Scotland) forced experts to completely rewrite the history of Iron Age Britain. Old Scatness Broch, a mile from Sumburgh Head, was a pristine time capsule which enabled archaeologists to date the chronology of an Iron Age site in northern Europe with unprecedented accuracy. It has now been revealed that ambitious plans are being championed by the Shetland Amenity Trust to turn Old Scatness into a world-class heritage centre in a boost for the tourism industry on the islands.

The site is currently open to the public for a only limited season and large parts have to be covered up during the winter to protect it from the elements. But the trust aims to transform the settlement into a year-round visitor attraction with the addition of a dome-shaped building with a grass roof. Jimmy Moncrieff, the general manager of the amenity trust, said:

“This project could be huge for Shetland. There is nothing else like it anywhere in Britain; Old Scatness is the best preserved Iron Age village in Europe and the jewel in the crown of archaeological Shetland.”

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The Bone Caves are a window on the past

Pic: BBC

The four Bone Caves of Inchnadamph in the north west Highlands, which are protected by SNH, contained a physical record of Scotland’s ancient beasts, reports the BBC. They are a window in to the past, according to Alex Scott, an officer with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). Since the late 1800s remains have been excavated from the underground complex.

Last week an almost complete skeleton, recovered over a period of years by cavers, was confirmed as that of a large male brown bear (see our earlier post).

It joined a long list of creatures whose remains have been retrieved from the darkness. They include bones from a polar bear, lemming, arctic fox, reindeer, tundra vole and wolf. Some may have been washed into the caves during Ice Age floods.

Most exciting

The polar bear skull found in 1927, and held in the collections of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, continues to fascinate scientists. Believed to the only remains of its kind found in Britain, a sample was taken last year for DNA analysis.
Ireland-based genetics expert Ceiridwen Edwards had hoped to compare the DNA of the animal found in a cave in Scotland with that of modern polar bears.

However, she said there was not enough DNA left in the sample for an analysis to be done. According to SNH’s leaflet on the Bone Caves, one of the most exciting finds was the skull of a Northern lynx dated at about 1,770 years old and also found in 1927.

The caves were also a burial site and the bones of four people found there have been radiocarbon-dated to being between 4,515 and 4,720 years old.

The recovery of the newly-confirmed brown bear was a painstaking process. Caving club, Grampian Speleological Group, retrieved the first pieces of bone in 1995. Cave divers then spent the next 12 years wriggling through narrow spaces and moving soil to unblock entrances in their effort to recover all they could.

Their efforts have paid off with another valuable addition to the record of Scotland’s long gone residents.

You can read the full article on the BBC website

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