The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 7/Notes on Harvest Customs

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IN the following notes, where my information was derived from correspondence, I have thought it best, for the sake of accuracy, to give the writer's own words.

With regard to harvest customs in Ayrshire, I have received the following note from my sister. It is dated—

"Lanfine, Ayrshire, Oct. 4th, 1888.

"Caldwell says that in her part of the country (South Ayrshire), the last sheaf-cutting is called 'cutting the hare or hair, she does not now which spelling is meant. In speaking of witches she says they often turn themselves into hares, so that perhaps it should be hare, as it might be a witch was in the last sheaf.[1]

"Last week here a field of corn was cut, and all the maids went up to see it done. The machine could not cut it, as the corn was much laid. Caldwell knew how to shear with the hook, so she showed the others the way to do it. They left the last sheaf standing in the middle of the field, and when all the rest was cut they went to it and plaited it as it stood. Then all the men in turn tried to cut it. Each went up to it in turn, then stepped backwards a good long way, and threw the hook at the sheaf. The hook has to be held flat by the back of the blade, not by the handle. No one succeeded in cutting it, so one of the maids ran in and cut it down at one blow. She held its head. The men were not very well pleased at this proceeding; however, she carried it home in triumph, and hung it up over the door. The first one coming in after that was supposed to have the same name as her future husband. The sheaf is now all destroyed, as the servants began to play pranks with it, and it was torn to bits."

The Rev. W. Cunningham, rector of Great St. Mary's, Cambridge, tells me that to the best of his memory, the custom of plaiting the last handful of standing corn, and cutting it by throwing sickles at it, was observed in his youth in Dumfriesshire; but the introduction of scythes for cutting the corn had gone some way towards abolishing the latter part of the custom. Thus in the Ayrshire observance, already reported, the throwing the sickles would seem to be the revival of an old custom, for in Ayrshire also the scythe appears to have ousted the sickle.

The following is from a letter of Mr. Robert Matheson, addressed to a friend, the Rev. J. S. Black, of 6, Oxford Terrace, Edinburgh, who gives me leave to publish it. The letter is dated 4, Caledonia Crescent, Edinburgh, November 12, 1888.

"I have been waiting for some information as to the present clyack[2] ceremonies before writing you ; but it will be better to write now the little that I know and have learned about clyack thirty to forty years ago, and I shall write again if I learn anything new.

"At Corwichen, which is a small farm of fifty to sixty acres, no great style of feasting was possible ; but a 'clyack-kebbuck' was always produced and cut for the first time — at dinner, if clyack was got in the forenoon, and at supper, when otherwise. We called the last corn cut the 'clyack-shaif,' but it was much smaller than an ordinary sheaf ; and it was given to a favourite horse. It was made into a rude female figure, and got a drink of ale ; but I can distinctly recollect of this being done only once, and I will make enquiries. I learn from two acquaintances that in the neighbourhood of Roslin, and in the neighbourhood of Stonehaven, the last handful (or handfuls) of corn cut got the name of 'the bride,' and she was placed over the 'bress' or chimney-piece ; she had a ribbon tied below her numerous ears, and another round her waist.

"Under Kern, in Jamieson (Dictionary of the Scottish Language), there is some interesting information ; and in the poem called Har'st-Rig, where a kern is described, it is said in reference to the year Aughty-Twa : —

'Oh that year was a year forlorn !

Lang was the har'st and little corn !
And, sad mischance ! the maid was shorn
After sunset !
As rank a witch as e'er was born —

They'll ne'er forget !'

"And there is the note as to the 'mischance' ; 'This is esteemed exceedingly unlucky, and carefully guarded against.' The scene of tlie poem is in the vicinity of Edinburgh. Clyack-shaif, kirn-cut, kirn-dollie, kirn-baby, maiden, and bride, are names given to the last handful (or handfuls)."

The Rev. E. B. Birks, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, tells me that at Orwell, in Kent, within living memory, it was the custom to throw water on the last waggon returning from the harvest-field ; water was also carried in the waggon, and the people in the waggon threw water on those they met. The waggon was called hawkey.[3]

The Rev. J. J. C. Yarborough, of Chislehurst, Kent, informs me that in a part of Yorkshire, it is still the custom for the clergyman to cut the first corn. Mr. Yarborough thinks that the first corn so cut is used to make the communion bread, but of this he is not sure. He tells me also that as the reaping-machine goes round and round the corn-field, the wild animals (hares, rabbits, &c) retreat into the standing corn in the middle of the field, and when the last patch is to be cut down the reapers stand round it with sticks, ready to knock down and kill the animals when they dart out of the corn. A friend tells me that the same thing happens when the reaping is done by hand ; but the machine by its whirring noise seems to daze and stupify the creatures more than does the simple reaping by hand. This fact suggests an explanation of the reason why the spirit of the corn is so often supposed (as Mannhardt has shown) to be incarnate in animal form in the last corn cut.

My friend, Mr. H. E. Cameron, of Newton Leys, by Ashbourne, Derbyshire, writes me : "As a boy, I remember [4] the last bit of corn cut was taken home, and neatly tied up with a ribbon, and then stuck up on the wall above the kitchen fire-place, and there it often remained till the 'maiden' of the following year took its place. There was no ceremony about it, beyond often a struggle, as to who would get, or cut, the last sheaf to select the maiden' from . . . . . . A friend from Wigtonshire was here some weeks ago, when I was away from home, and he told my wife, the only custom in that district was throwing water on the man that led the last load home, but this has been done away with, as the horses often got frightened. He did not know the origin of the custom, nor could he give any reason why the water was thrown."

Mr. Cameron also enclosed a letter from Mr. Horace Warner, of which the following is an extract. The letter is dated, 44, Highbury Park, N., Nov. 11th, 1888.

"You asked me to describe the scene of 'Harvest Home' we witnessed in the country in Norfolk, and so I will do it to the best of my ability. The sun was setting behind the old wind-mill as we crossed the field of stubble, when from a little group came a woman, who with a low curtsey asked us for 'largess(e),' the old English word for money, which is still used in parts of the country. We thence passed on to the road, where in the distance we heard merry shouts and cheering, which gradually approached, and round the corner of the road came a fine team of horses mounted by two lads dressed in the costume of women, and on the top of the corn were a merry lot. The waggon stopped, gave us three cheers, which we returned, and then on went the joyous men to the village green, where, as the children came out of the village school, they stopped, and many of the children were hoisted on to the top to join in the shouts."

In Fifeshire, the custom of the 'maiden' seems still to be regularly kept up ; for in a recent case which came before the sheriff, the date of one of the events was fixed by the day on which the 'maiden' was cut, as if the cutting the 'maiden' was a matter of popular notoriety. This was told me by Mr. Sheriff Mackay, before whom the case was tried.

I learn on good authority that the custom of the harvest 'maiden' is practiced at the end of the maize harvest in America. The ears form the 'maiden's' head and the husks her dress. A similar custom used to be observed in cutting the sugar-canes in Louisiana, as we learn from the Journal of American Folk-Lore. As this journal may not be in the hands of some English readers of these notes if may be worth while to transcribe the passage : —

"Another custom which was quite interesting was the cutting of the last cane for grinding. When the hands had reached the last rows standing, the foreman (commandeur) chose the tallest cane, and the best labourer (le meilleur couteau) came to the cane chosen, which was the only one in the field left uncut Then the whole gang congregated around the spot, with the overseer and foreman, and the latter, taking a blue ribbon, tied it to the cane, and brandishing his knife in the air, sang to the cane as if it were a person, and danced around it several times before cutting it. When this was done, all the labourers, men, women, and children, mounted in the empty carts, carrying the last cane in triumph, waving coloured handkerchiefs in the air, and singing as loud as they could. The procession went to the house of the master, who gave a drink to every negro, and the day ended with a ball, amid general rejoicing." — " Customs and Superstitions in Louisiana," by Alcée Fortier, The American Journal of Folk-Lore, vol. I. No. ii., pp. 137 sq.

The Rev. J. S. Black tells me that in the counties of Fife and Kinross it is the custom for the reapers to seize and "dump" any person who happens to pass by the harvest fields. The person is seized by his (or her) ankles and armpits, lifted up, and the lower part of his person brought into violent contact with the ground. This is called "dumping" or "benjie." Mr. G. A. Aitken, a friend and agriculturist whom Mr. Black consulted on the subject, writes: "The only correction I can make is that it is usually administered to people visiting the harvest fields, not to those passing by. It is occasionally practised, in frolic, by the harvesters among themselves, but the custom is fast dying out in this quarter. 'Head-money' is usually demanded, and if that is[5] custom is 'the fashion of the field.' How far it extends to Perth and Forfar I don't know." Mr. Black, however, has no doubt that passers by, as well as visitors to the field, are liable to be "dumped." He adds that the dumping was not (as some one had suggested) the exclusive function of the women reapers; and that the custom of interposing a sheaf between the sufferer and the ground seems, where it exists, to be only a modern refinement. "Dumping" was also practised in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh, for Mrs. Nicholson, of Eden Lodge, Morningside, Edinburgh, remembers that as a girl at Bonaly, Collinton, not many years ago, she was warned not to go into the harvest fields, as one of the servants had been "dumped."

  1. The analogy of the German Hase which is applied to the last sheaf in some parts of Germany (see W. Mannhardt, Die Korndämonen, p. 3) makes it almost certain that the Ayrshire name is hare. Animal names for the last sheaf, though common in Germany, are not common in this country. In Hertfordshire and Shropshire the last sheaf was called the Mare; Brand, Popular Antiquities, ii. p. 24 (Bohn's ed.). In Devon and Cornwall it was called the Craw (crow); J. H. Dixon and R. Bell, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England, p. 159. [J. G. F.]
  2. Clyack is the name given to the last sheaf in the north-east of Scotland. See Mr. Gregor, Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, p. 181 sq.; id. in Revue des traditions populaires, October, 1888. [J. G. F.]
  3. So I spelt the word from Mr. Birks's pronunciation ; he did not know the proper spelling,. It is plainly the same word as Hawkie, Hockey, Horkey in Brand and Hone. [J. G. F.]
  4. Mr. Cameron's recollections refer not to Derbyshire, but to Invernesshire, and particularly, I believe, to Glen Moriston. [J. G. F.]
  5. So Mr. Aitken writes. Some words seem to have dropped out, the meaning apparently being that if head-money is refused by the victim he is dumped. [J. G. F.]