When Scots were banned from lighting Midsummer fires

A fire lit on Midsummer's Eve in 2009. PIC: Tansys Golowan/Wikipedia.
A fire lit on Midsummer's Eve in 2009. PIC: Tansys Golowan/Wikipedia.
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Since ancient times, it was believed that Midsummer fires helped to bless crops and beasts and ward off evil spirits that roamed freely as the sun travelled southwards.

Lighting a fire was central to the potent nature festival but attempts were made following the Reformation in Scotland to ban the “heathenish practice”.

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Fires were typically lit on June 23, the eve of Midsummer’s Day, with tradition encouraging young men to jump through the flames. Some believed the highest jumper would mark the height of that year’s crops.

The midsummer celebration that was rooted in Paganism was later adopted by the Christian Church as the feast of John the Baptist.

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In Scotland, there are several records of churchmen trying to rid their congregation of the “superstitious” acts linked to the festival.

According to MacPherson’s Primitive Beliefs of the North East, Midsummer fire festivals were “deeply rooted in the affections of the people” of the north.

“In city and country, the Reformed Church long struggled to suppress it observance,” he added.

The first case where churchmen tried to ban the fires was recorded in the north east in Elgin on June 30 1580.

Then, the provost, baillies and councillors “ordained that no person shall make any fires on St Johns Even or St Peter’s Even in the month of June.”

In 1591, several folk from the town were dealt with for such offences.

In July that year, a Margaret Innes confessed to “bigging on of Midsummer Fires” and was ordered to sit for two Sunday’s on the church’s penitential stool.

She was threatened with banishment should she repeat the offence again.

At Ellon Presbytery, the Countess of Errol was summoned on suspicion of carrying items to make a fire on Midsummer’s Eve near the home of a David Barclay.

Aberdeen too had its offenders and even the Provost was not above suspicion as the church sought to rid the ancient ritual which endured, particularly among farming communities.

MacPherson wrote: “On the 3rd of July 1608, fourteen persons, including the head of the civic community and a baillie, were charged with lighting fires on the King’s highway or the calsay before their doors on Midsummer’s Even or Peter’s Even or on both nights.”

In both Aberdeen and Elgin, it was common to light fires in the street to mark Midsummer.

In the early 1600s, the church introduced several bans in presbyteries across the north.

At Boyndie in 1625, an order to clamp down on fires was passed with churchmen at Slains, near Peterhead, forbidding the celebration from November 25 1649. At Dingwall, congregations were urged to “desist from superstitious abuses”.

Thomas Pennant, who wrote several accounts of Scottish life in the late 1700s, recorded how lowland farmers would walk through their corn with burning torches in honour of Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain.

He wrote: “The Midsummer solemnity was celebrate in honour of Ceres...with burning branches of wood in their hands to obtain a blessing on their cornes.”

“On Midsummer Even they kindle fires near their cornfields, and walk around them with burning torches.”

The midsummer fires were lit in Aberdeenshire until the mid 18th Century.

In Orkney, preparations were made for the Midsummer fires for two weeks before they were lit.

MacPherson wrote of young lads heading to the hills to collect heather with others gathering in peat.

A live peat being brought to the fire signalled it was time for it to be lit.

MacPherson added: “Further, to make the cattle thrive and the cows bring forth in their season, the blazing heather was carried round the animals in the byres. Sometimes there was much chasing of each other with he fiery torches round the bonfire.”

Midsummer’s Day is still observed in Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Quebec, among others.

The Summer Solstice, the astronomical reading of midsummer when the sun is at its highest point in the sky, usually falls on June 21. Pagans have celebrated the power of the sun on daybreak of the Summer Solstice for thousands of years.