The May Day tradition which originated in Scotland has only fallen out of favour fairly recently, writes David McLean
On May Day mornings gone by the slopes of Arthur’s Seat were once as crammed with pedestrians as the paving slabs of Princes Street.
The tradition of washing one’s face in the morning dew persisted in Scotland for hundreds of years, having only fallen out of favour fairly recently.
In Edinburgh each May 1, thousands of people, mostly young ladies, 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 May dew.
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.
May dew was therefore deemed to be the holy water of the druids, and sprinkling it on one’s self assured a healthy dose of vitality, beauty and good fortune for the rest of the year.
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 onwards to give their faces a good old drenching and guarantee themselves a favourable complexion.
Acclaimed Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson wrote about the strange custom in 1773:
On May-day in a fairy ring We’ve seen them round St Anton’s spring (St Anthony’s Well) Frae grass the caller dew-drops wring To weet their een And water clear as crystal spring To Synd them clean
Into the 20th century and the tradition was still incredibly popular, and a trawl through our own Evening News archives reveals that plenty of folk were still making the journey well into the 1960s.
A report from 1 May 1968 makes mention of the 2,000 people who made the early morning climb up Arthur’s Seat to enjoy the annual ritual: “The summit of the hill was crowded with people old and young, huddled together trying to keep warm in the crisp, clear morning air”.
And on the same day in 1987, reporter Scott Begbie states that the numbers had dwindled to just 300 – partly due to the rather inclement weather conditions. Our reporter caught up with three young women.
One of the trio, 22-year-old life insurance inspector Linda McLeod, wasn’t so chuffed to be there: “I was talked into this by these two. This is my first and last dawn trip to Arthur’s Seat. I didn’t expect it to bucket with rain”. Although there are plenty people alive today who recall taking part in the ritual, the number of folk willing to brave a cold and windy May morning to splash their coupons in frosty Scottish dew appears to have dwindled.