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  • Writer's pictureRosemary Gemmell

May Day

Hail, bounteous May, that doth inspire

Mirth and youth, and warm desire;

Woods and groves are of thy dressing;

Hill and dale doth boast thy blessing.”

John Milton: ‘Song on a May Morning’


Have you ever washed your face in the early morning dew on May 1st? This is just one of the traditions surrounding this day in the UK when the Mayday dew has the supposed power to improve the complexion or even wash away freckles. I have to confess that I agreed to do this with a friend in our first year of high school, though we waited until we got to the hilly green area above the hockey pitch to pat our face with whatever dew was left! No doubt being the west of Scotland, there would be drops of rain on the grass.

One of the old books I own mentions the tradition being carried out on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and contains an extract from a letter in 1826 which outlines the custom:

“About five o’clock in the morning there is an unusual stir; a great opening of area gates and ringing of bells, and a gathering of folk of all clans arrayed in all the colours of the rainbow… in the course of half an hour the entire hill is a moving mass of all sorts and sizes. At the summit may be seen a company of bakers and other craftsmen, dressed in kilts, dancing round a Maypole.”


What a fascinating picture that conjures up though, needless to say, it probably won’t be a sight you’ll see today!


However, in Scotland, Mayday Eve (30th April) is also the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane, from the Gaelic Bealltainn (bright fire), when bel-fires were traditionally lit on the hill-tops. Edinburgh has revised this tradition and you might be lucky enough to obtain a ticket to the torchlight shenanigans, with drums and magical procession, around Calton Hill which goes on until an hour or so after Mayday arrives.


Around the UK, various Wells have long been connected to special powers and never more so than on Mayday when they are at their most potent and magical. I love the legend about the Schiehallion, a mountain near Loch Rannoch in Tayside, which is said to contain one of the largest faerie kingdoms. Locals used to visit Schiehallion Well on Mayday with offerings for the occupants. There’s a large cave there that I’d like to visit one day, as long as I don’t disappear with the faeries!


No doubt we’ve all used the expression “Never cast a clout till May is out.” Some think it means don’t cast off too many clothes until the end of May (sensible with our British weather), while others think it means until the May blossom is out, which is another name for Hawthorn.


I’m sure you’ll know of other Mayday traditions and legends wherever you live, so please feel free to share them in the comments.


Happy Mayday!


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