Beltane is the ancient Gaelic fire festival of Spring, traditionally observed midway between the Spring equinox and the Summer solstice, and equivalent in importance to the festival of Samhain for the Celts. It was widely observed in some form throughout the Celtic lands, especially in Ireland , Scotland and the Isle of Man. Both days were times when the veil between this world and the Otherworld, the land of the aos sí , became thin, allowing travel between the two realms. Ritual bonfires were lit for purification of livestock and homes, an all night communal event. Beltane was also a fertility festival, marking the beginning of the summer planting season and the creation and birth of new plants and animals.
Like Samhain, Beltane ritual involved fire, specifically large bonfires that were sacred and used to purify and protect homes and farm animals. Cattle were driven between two bonfires or over the embers and smoke as a means of protection from bad fortune and to encourage growth in the coming months. People would walk around the bonfires or jump over them for the same reasons, hoping to to ward off bad spirits and ensure good fortune in the coming season; fire from the ritual bonfires was brought home and used to light new fires in the hearth, with the belief the Beltane fire would purify the home and bring prosperity and good health to the family.
Today, Beltane is usually observed on May 1st each year, although in the ancient world there was no set date for the festival. The ancient Celts held their Beltane rituals when the hawthorn trees began to bloom, or on the full moon nearest that time. The hawthorn tree held a special place in the lore of Ireland, where farmers would plough around the trees rather than dig them up, for fear of angering the fairies who were thought to live in and under the trees. Legend said that hawthorn flowers could heal a broken heart, but the flowers were never to be brought inside the home because to do so would invite illness, bad luck, even death to enter the house.
Blooming hawthorn tree and spring lamb, County Mayo, Ireland
In Scotland, Edinburgh holds a large Beltane Fire Festival every year on Carlton Hill, an event that is more of an arts and music festival than a strict interpretation of the traditional Scottish Bealltainn rituals. The event is hugely popular, drawing crowds from around the world to watch the arrival of the May Queen and the Green Man, whose dance symbolizes the fertility aspect of the ancient fire fest.
One of my favorite Beltane songs from Scotsman Ian Anderson and his group, Jethro Tull:
Have you ever stood in the April wood
And called the new year in?
And while the phantoms of three thousand years fly
As the dead leaves spin?
There’s a snap in the grass behind your feet
And a tap upon your shoulder
And the thin wind crawls along your neck
It’s just the old God’s getting older
And the kestrel drops like a fall of shot and
The red cloud hanging high a come, a Beltane
A come, a Beltane….
Do you have a favorite image of Scotland? Matador Network, an online community of travel writers, journalists and photographers, recently posted a list of 30 Images of Scotland We Can’t Stop looking At, and a quick glance through the pictures shows why these shots are so compelling. From outrageously beautiful landscapes to ancient castles and architecture, the images chosen are clear examples of why Scotland is a major tourist destination and a photographer’s dream.
It’s hard to limit myself when it comes to views of Scotland, but here are a few of my favorite images from the Matador list.
The Great Highland Bagpipe (GHB) is one of the most iconic symbols of Scotland, and is often used by civilian and military bands, as well as by soloists. Widely used in Europe for centuries, the GHB came into use in Scotland many centuries ago as war pipes played before and during battles.
Castle Stalker (Caisteal an Stalcaire, in Scots Gaelic, meaning castle of the hunter or falconer), is a 14th century keep in Argyll, set on a small island in Loch Laich. This former home of the Clans MacDougall, Stewart and Campbell is one of the best-preserved medieval tower-houses surviving in western Scotland. You might remember seeing it in the 1975 film, Monty Python and The Holy Grail–it is from the top of Castle Stalker that the French soldier (played by John Cleese) famously taunts the English as “English pig dogs” and “silly English K-nig-hts [pronounced kuuuh-nig-its].”
Who doesn’t love a brawny red haired Highlander? The Highland cow, affectionately known as the Hielan Coo, is certainly popular with most visitors to Scotland. This hardy breed is native to Scotland and comes in red, black, brindle, dun and yellow coat colors. Females have horns that generally curve upward (as in the above photo), while the horns of Highland bulls usually grow straight out and slightly forward from the head.
To see the rest of the Matador images of Scotland, click HERE.
On January 8, 1107, Edgar I, son of King Malcolm III and Margaret of Wessex, died in Edinburgh, Scotland. At the time of his death, Edgar was unmarried and childless, therefore the crown of Scotland passed to his 29 year old brother, Alexander, who was crowned that same day as King Alexander I of Scotland. Who was this young king, described by contemporaries as a bold and godly man?
Alexander (Medieval Gaelic: Alaxandair mac Maíl Coluim;Modern Scots Gaelic: Alasdair mac Mhaol Chaluim) was born in 1078, the fourth son of Malcolm III by his wife Margaret of Wessex, who would become Saint Margaret of Scotland in 1250. Upon the death of his older brother, Edgar I, Alexander became King of Scotland; in accordance with Edgar’s wishes, Alexander gave his younger brother, David, the lands of the former kingdom of Strathclyde, or Cumbria. David, the Prince of Cumbria as he was entitled, would go on to become King David I of Scotland after defeating Alexander’s illegitimate son, Malcolm, in battle.
Alexander was by all accounts a pious man, not surprising in light of his mother’s devotion to the Catholic Church. She was a devout Catholic and quite active in reforming the Celtic Church of Scotland along the lines of the continental Catholic Church. Margaret practiced what she preached, so to speak, pursuing many activities on behalf of the poor and ill. Alexander’s father, Malcolm III, was not nearly as religious, but indulged his wife in her daily prayers and devotionals and in her dedication to raising her sons to be just and holy rulers. Alexander may have been named in honor of Pope Alexander II, the leader of the Catholic Church, who had died just a few years earlier.
Saint Margaret of Scotland, as depicted in her chapel at Edinburgh Castleimage
Alexander established Augustinian priories at Scone and on Inchcolm Island, sometime between 1114 and 1124. He also appointed his mother’s chaplain and hagiographer, Thurgot, as Bishop of Saint Andrews (or Cell Rígmonaid) in 1107 and granted lands for a priory to be built there.
A king, however godly he may wish to be, must also be willing to raise his sword in defense of his kingdom, a royal duty Alexander understood and was more than willing to perform. In 1114, Alexander joined Henry I of England on his successful campaign against Gruffudd ap Cynan of Gwynedd, a powerful Celtic king of Wales. At some point during his reign, between 1107 and 1114, Alexander also married Henry’s illegitimate daughter, Sybillia de Normandy, a woman with both Viking and Cornish heritage. Henry was thus Alexander’s father-in-law, a distinction which may have influenced Alexander’s decision to fight on behalf of an English king.
Many Scottish chieftains had cause to despise Alexander, and there was no love lost between the Celtic Highlanders and the Anglo-Saxon influenced king. Malcolm III, Alexander’s father, had wrested control of Scotland from King Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, better known by his Anglicized name, MacBeth–yes, THAT MacBeth, title character in “the Scottish Play ” by Will Shakespeare. MacBeth himself is a subject for another post, but let me quickly note that the play, while based on the historical MacBeth, is not an accurate account of either the man or his reign as the last Celtic King of Scotland. That’s a good thing for Scottish history fans–trust me.
When men (not clearly identified in historical sources) from the Gaelic-speaking earldom of Moray (Moireabh in Scots Gaelic, pronounced Murray), in the northeastern Highlands of Scotland, attacked Alexander at his court in Invergowrie, he quickly pursued them north. He was known for his fiery, energetic temper and he ruthlessly quelled the nascent Celtic rebellion. As a result of his actions against the Highlanders, he was nicknamed Alexander the Fierce, a fitting appellation for a warrior king of Scotland.
The reverse of the seal of Alexander I, enhanced as a 19th-century steel engraving. Image
Alexander and Sybillia never had any children. She died (the cause is unrecorded) in July 1122, on the tiny island of Eilean nam Ban (Eilean nan Bannoamh: “Isle of the female saints”) in Loch Tay, and Alexander founded a priory on the island in her memory. She was buried in Dunfermline Abbey, Fife. Alexander did not remarry.
Alexander did have an illegitmate son, Malcolm (Medieval Gaelic: Máel Coluim mac Alaxandair or Máel Coluim mac Alasdair) who challenged his uncle, David I, for the Scottish throne after Alexander’s death. Malcolm is a relatively obscure figure, mostly due to the scarcity of source material, which appears only in pro-David, English sources. I could find no source that identified Malcolm’s mother or her connection to Alexander.
The end of Alexander’s seventeen year reign as King of Scotland came on April 27, 1124, when he died at Stirling. He was 46 years old.
In addition to the continuation of his mother’s reforms of the Celtic Church in Scotland and his own devout support of the Church, Alexander is remembered for his reforms amongst the governing civil authorities of the day. He continued the changes begun in his predecessor’s reign, bringing most of Scotland into conformity with the types of high offices used in England:
“…the whole of Scotland, with the exception of what had formed the kingdom of Thorfinn (during the Norwegian conquest consisting of the Orkneys, the Hebrides, and a large portion of the Highlands), exhibited the exact counterpart of Saxon England, with its earls, thanes, and sheriffs, while the rest of the country remained in the possession of the Gaelic Maormors, who yielded so far to Saxon influence as to assume the Saxon title of earl.”
History of Highlanders, Their Origin, History and Antiquities, Vol I, p.128, by William F. Skene, 1837
Alexander also encouraged Scottish trade with other countries, even distant and exotic Asian lands. His court, like that that of his father’s, was a far stretch from the “barbarous” courts of early Scottish kings and chieftains. Alexander dressed in silks, jewels and finery from around the world, and members of the Scottish nobility followed suit. More trading with foreign lands led to a need for more royal coinage. Some of the oldest Scottish coinage dates to Alexander’s reign, when commerce began to flourish along Scotland’s coasts and border areas. The silver pennies of Alexander I are some of the most ancient coins and are extremely rare.
Can we conclude that Alexander the Fierce was an important ruler of medieval Scotland, worthy of remembrance? Scholars generally seem to view his reign favorably, especially the religious and secular changes he brought about in Scotland. His granting of Scottish border lands in the south to his younger brother David, however, and Alexander’s swift and harsh reprisal against Highland challenge to his authority over the northern portion of Scotland should be noted. The historic disjunction of these two parts of Scotland aided David’s relatively bloodless transition as successor, but it further deepened the division between the Celtic, Gaelic-speaking Highlanders and the Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking Lowland Scots,who made up the majority of the noble rulers of Scotland. Highland Scotland continued to resist the degradation of their Celtic heritage, while the rest of the country continued on their course towards English allegiances, lifestyles and, ultimately, English rule.
So, Scottish history buffs, I say keep Alexander I in your to-be-studied pile, but remember that this medieval king is not on a level with truly famous Scotsmen such as William Wallace, Rob Roy or Robert the Bruce. I give Alexander credit for fierceness, but he sadly lacks in heroic qualities–Hollywood won’t be making an epic based on this historical Scotsman.
Let’s sing, dance and share a wee dram of whisky to toast the New Year ~ Lang May Yer Lum Reek!
In Scotland, the New Year festivities around January 1st are commonly referred to as Hogmanay. The word itself is Scottish for the last day of the year, and Hogmanay celebrations can last all night, through the day on January 1, and even into January 2nd. Customs and traditions vary from town to town in Scotland, but always involve merrymaking and good times, especially in Edinburgh, which holds the largest Hogmanay festivities.
“Lang may yer lum reek” is Scottish slang for “long may your chimney smoke“, and is a common salutation used to wish someone health, wealth and prosperity in the New Year.
For the third year in a row, Scotland’s magnificent Edinburgh Castle has been voted the top heritage site in the UK. If you have ever toured the castle, you’ll know why this ancient beauty continues to intrigue visitors from all over the world.
Fiona Hyslop, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs said:
“To win this prestigious award three times in a row confirms that Edinburgh Castle’s fascinating history, dramatic location and panoramic views have an enduring appeal for visitors of all ages both in the UK and around the world.”
The fortress stands on a volcanic plug of basalt, known as Castle Rock, and dominates the Edinburgh skyline. The rock was once home to a late Bronze age people and archaeological evidence shows it was also the site of an Iron Age hill fort or broch.