Barry Mill recently held its first ever Christmas Fayre, complete with Santa’s Grotto and vintage get-away car for the main man and his elfish helpers! A Victorian theme was chosen for the event; a typical Dickensian Christmas, but it got me thinking about how the festive season would have been celebrated in rural communities when the mill was still very much a part of village life.
There is no doubt that the mill would have been the setting for occasional festivities in its day. In her book The Scottish Country Miller, 1700-1900, Enid Gauldie points out that it the days before the village hall, the mill was dry, warm and the most spacious building in the neighbourhood- perfect for a large gathering. The miller would provide the fare; generally grain-based. Perhaps a mill bannock; a large, millstone-shaped oatcake, baked on a bed of burning oat husks in the kiln hearth. There would be ale and music, and possibly dancing, but curiously the best feasts were a reward for work done, to celebrate a time of hard labour; the ‘winning home of new millstone’, for example, or harvest home. Christmas, it would seem, has never been a traditional Scottish holiday.
I remember my own grandmother, a Dundee jute weaver, being slightly bemused at the ‘turkey and trimmings’ custom of the English holiday. She might heat up a steak pie, but otherwise the day went by unobserved. As a child growing up in England, I found this curious, and always felt a bit sad for her. Until her retirement at the age of 70, all her Christmas mornings were spent at work. The jute mill would close at midday, to allow the women more time with their families, but Hogmanay and Ne’erday (Jan 1st) were the traditional days of celebration in the winter calendar.
It was only while researching this post that I learned the reason for this. Up until the Reformation in 1560 ( Barry Mill would have been on its present site for over fifty years at that point), Christmas was an important religious Feast Day, but due to its association with the Roman Catholic Church, the Kirk dismissed it as a ‘Popish’ festival. In 1640, the Scottish Parliament banned the Yule holiday. Despite protestations, this ban lasted for 400 years. December 25th only became a public holiday in Scotland in 1958, followed by Boxing Day in 1974.
All this sounds a little depressing in the run-up to our own festivities, so next time, I’ll look at what was happening in the countryside before the ban- the Celtic celebration of Yule. Perhaps I’ll even find a mill connection!