More Yule Musings

Last week’s Barry Mill Blog post provoked quite a reaction. Many of you, like me, didn’t realise that Christmas Day and Boxing Day were not recognised holidays in Scotland until 1958 and 1974 respectively. That means, within our lifetimes, you might not necessarily have been guaranteed time off work over the festive season to spend time with your family. This week, I’ve been thinking about the 1640 Act which effectively banned Yule in Scotland- how did we celebrate the season prior to that, and has the emphasis always been on family and community?

Yuletide traditionally begins with late November’s Full Moon. Celebrations commence on the day of the Winter Solstice and continue for twelve days, up to and including New Year’s Day. ‘Yule’ invites many etymological explanations, but I like its association with the Old English iul, meaning ‘wheel’ ( from the Norse jhól). The Anglo Saxons loved wordplay, and this seems to suggest the turning of time. It also provides a very visual reference to the rising, or rebirth, of the Solstice sun.

Over the centuries, the Pagan festival of Yule has become inextricably linked with the Christian celebration of Christ’s birth, but the secular traditions of both seem to share the same Northern European roots. The fir tree, and the ‘bringing in of the outside’ in the form of evergreen branches, mistletoe, holly and the Yule Log are Germanic Celtic customs, which have been adopted and adapted over time.

In some parts of Scotland, the Yule Log (a symbol of everlasting light) was carved into the figure of an old woman, the Cailleach Nollaich. At dusk, the figure would be brought into the house and burned in the hearth; a farewell to the darkness of winter and to the Old Year. Similarly, the Yule candle was given a special place in the household. It was expected to remain lit throughout the festivities- if it was accidentally extinguished bad luck would ensue.

When we consider the rural calendar, this notion of a ‘beacon in the dark’ reminds us of a practice which was once so important that it was enshrined in early Celtic (Brehon) Law; the custom of offering  hospitality to all. Hospitality meant a response to the physical need for food, shelter and protection, but also a recognition of the worth and common humanity of neighbours and strangers.


I’ll leave you with a couple of verses from a very apt poem I discovered on the Scottish Language Centre’s website. William Beattie was an Aberdeen-based poet, and a lesser-known contemporary of Burns. Christmas hospitality at its best, but let’s spare a thought for poor Tibby!

From A Yule Feast by William Beattie

“Cast aff yer sheen, an’ warm yer feet,

I’m sure they canna’ but be weet;

Hae, set them up on this bit peat

Anent the cutchack;

An’, Tibby, bring him ben some meat,

Ye senseless smutchack!


Make haste an’ gi’e ’m a glass o’ gin,

An’ that will make a’ right within;

Syne, Tib, I trow ye’ll need to rin

Forth to the stack

For peats, the roast will be ahin’;

An’ haste ye back.”


The Christmas Mill

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!santa-at-the-mill