First comes Candlemas,
Syne the New Mune.
The first Tyseday efter that
Is aye Fester E’en.
This old poem reminds us of another traditional Scottish holiday which has been ‘lost’ with the passage of time.
Fester E’en, or Fastern’s, as the lines suggest, was observed on the ‘first Tuesday of the Spring light’, and finds its modern equivalent in our more familiar Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. It was essentially the last Feast Day before the Fast of Lent, and medieval Scots were expected and encouraged to take part in games, which included ‘tourneying, mumming and othere festivities’[i].
For ordinary folk, this usually amounted to a fiercely-fought ball game through the village, with teams determined by trade, location and marital status. You might be on the ‘Uppies’ or the ‘Doonies’ side, depending on which end of town you lived in, or the married men’s team versus the bachelors. (Sorry, no girls allowed, but that may have changed!) Versions of these games still survive in Jedburgh (the Jethart Ba’) and Kirkwall (Kirkwall Ba’).
As always, there is a fascinating mill connection! The Duns Ba’ has been held in the Border town since the earliest times, and the ‘goals’ were originally the Kirk pulpit and the Mill hopper! Check out The Dunse History Society for a full description, but here is an interesting snippet from a Victorian account:
‘The opposing parties were married and single men. The goal for the former was the Parish Church, which was left open for the purpose, and one of the Mills in the Parish for the single men. Those reaching the mill with a ball were dusted by the miller as proof of their success. The prizes were for the Kirking or Milling of the first ball 1/6d., the second 1/- and the third 6d.’
An earlier, anonymous account of the event written in 1833 records:
‘The parties however rarely met on equal terms. The young men spent with previous exertions [ i.e. drinking before the game] were no match for those fresh opponents [married men] and not infrequently ended in their being plunged in the mill-lade. If however in spite of all opposition the mill-hopper was fairly reached the game was won and then came the honours. The miller entertained them with pork and dumplings and what was of far more importance dusted them especially their hats with flour. Like the laurel wreaths of other regions this marked them out for the gaze of their fellow townsmen.’
In the evening celebrations were held. These are described in a poem by R. M. Calder, the Polworth poet;
An’ then the ba’ men wi’ thir friens
Adjourn tae some ane o’ the inns
Where lang syne yarns the landlord spins
On what he’s done and seen
And when the noise and din hae ceased
Then pork and dumplings crown the feast
Washed doon wi’ toddy o’ the best
Is this a custom we could revive in Barry? Now there’s a thought!
[i] F. Marian McNeill. The Silver Bough. Vol 1, ( Maclellan, 1957)