The age-old Edinburgh tradition of washing your face in the May dew

Thousands used to partake in generations-old ritual on May Day morning

Thursday, 30th April 2020, 6:32 pm
Updated Friday, 1st May 2020, 9:28 am

On this day in years gone by Auld Reekie’s hills were alive with the sound of footsteps as hundreds of locals ascended the slopes to partake in the generations-old ritual of washing their faces in the May dew.

The tradition of washing one’s face in the morning dew persisted for hundreds of years, having only fallen out of favour fairly recently.

Each May Day, thousands of people would set their alarms for before sunrise to traipse up Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill and Blackford Hill and partake in the ancient rite of washing their faces in the morning dew.

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Four girls wash their faces in the dew at the top of Arthur's Seat Edinburgh on May Day 1969

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Origins

The gathering of the May-dew was a historical relic of the Druidic festival of Beltane, when our forefathers kindled great fires on the hill-tops in honour of the sun and sought to harness the mysterious forces of nature by sacrifice and incantation. Doing this was supposed to ensure an abundance of corn, cattle and increase their chances of producing offspring. Moisture produced by nature was seen by the ancients as a sacred entity - vital to make things grow.

Curiously, the tradition appears to have taken hold chiefly in Scotland, and on May Day morning for several hundred years, tens of thousands of mostly female devotees - perhaps oblivious to the fact they were taking part in an ancient Pagan rite - ascended the nearest hill from 4am to drench their faces in the wet turf in the pursuit of a favourable complexion.

Three girls wash their face in the morning dew at the top of Arthur's Seat during the traditional May Day ceremony in Edinburgh, 1987.

Memories

Though it survives today, the tradition remained incredibly popular throughout the 20th century and usually included a May Day service, with members of the church and latter day druids present.

Portobello High alumnus, Stella Robertson, recalls heading up Arthur’s Seat very early one May 1st with her friend, Eileen Shand, in the mid-1970s.

Stella told the Evening News: “It was madness, but we were only about 15 and full of energy. We set off from Milton Road and got to Arthur’s Seat as the sun rose. What I remember most is that there were Morris Dancers at the top of the hill - bizarre.

“We washed our faces and I’m pretty sure we went straight to school afterwards.”

However, on Arthur’s Seat especially, partakers had to be vigilant, as Charlie McLaren recalls.

He said: “I did it once and washed my face vigorously. Coudln’t understand why I had Maltesers all over my face.. then realised the sheep had been before us.”

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