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(Left, illustration of Welsh cornfields in the early part of the 20th century from H.V.Morton: In Search of Wales, Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1945.)
Harvest Customs in Wales
By Hilaire Wood
Gatherings on hilltops or beside lakes in Wales at the beginning of August were not, in the last three centuries at least, connected to a specified beginning of the harvest festival like Lúnasa in Ireland.
It is recorded that in a part of Cardiganshire (now Ceredigion) the celebration was more often connected with sheep-farming and was known as ffest y bugeiliaid, the shepherds feast. On August 12th (the first of August according to the old calendar, prior to 1752) shepherds and cowherds (often young lads who were employed between April and October to watch the animals in their summer pastures) would take food up to the top of a local hill where, after feasting, they would engage in contests and feats of strength until dark. In south Breconshire there was a tradition of riding on horseback up the Brecon Beacons between dinner and supper on the first Sunday in August, and on the same day people visited the lake, Llyn y Fan Fach in Carmarthenshire. Here a fairy woman was said to be seen emerging from the lake on that day along with oxen, part of the livestock she had brought with her originally when she married a local boy (which had ensured the prosperity of the family). John Rhys talked to an old woman who attended gatherings at LlynY Fan Fach earlier in the 19th century. She told him of "thousands and thousands of people visiting the Lake of the Little Fan on the first Sunday or Monday in August, and when she was young she often heard old men declare that at that time a commotion took place in the lake, and that its waters boiled, which was taken to herald the approach of the Lake Lady and her Oxen."
This traditional celebration was later turned into a non-conformist religious gathering.
The end of the harvest, however, was attended with various customs and practices. Vital to the reaping of the harvest was the practice of mutual aid between farmers and neighbours in the community. The fedel wenith or reaping party drew on the pattern of Cymhortha (from cymhorthu - to help), a characteristic of Welsh medieval society. Small-holders would help each other and also the large farms in exchange for various things they had in their gift, like the loan of transport or a few rows of potatoes. In this way a system of goodwill and co-operation was built up within the community.
The end of harvest feast was also a vital part of the corn or grain harvest. The feast was known by various names in different parts of Wales - ffest y pen, the end of harvest feast, cwrw cyfeddach, carousal beer and boddir cynhaeaf, drowning of the harvest, being three of them.
The end of harvest feast was both a celebration and a reward for those who had worked so hard to gather it in. In Carmarthenshire the supper included a dish called whipod which included rice, white bread, raisins, currants and treacle. In nearby Cardiganshire in 1760, a farmer reported that the feast following the reaping of his rye by about 50 neighbours consisted of a brewing pan of beef and mutton, with arage and potatoes and pottage, and pudding of wheaten flour, about 20 gallons of light ale and over twenty gallons of beer. After the meal, there was usually dancing to the music of the fiddle, with a plentiful supply of beer and tobacco.
The food for the hay harvest was usually provided for the workers in a shady corner of the field rather than as a feast at the end of harvest, and was a more modest affair. Oats were a staple diet of the people of Wales since they were a crop which grew well in the climate. A great variety of dishes were made with oats as their basic ingredient including two which were a large part of the hay harvest picnic. Sucan blawd, steeped meal, was made from oatmeal husks soaked in water until it became sour and then strained and boiled. It ended up as a pale brown, gelatinous mass which was usually eaten with fresh milk. This, along with bread and potatoes, formed the harvest meal. Siot, oatcake crushed and steeped in buttermilk, was a favourite drink during the harvest for quenching thirst and keeping up strength.
Some of the games and rituals enacted during the harvest may hark back to pre-Christian times and have sexual or fertility overtones. Rhibo, a game recorded from Carmarthenshire, consisted of six men standing in two rows of three facing each other and holding the hands of the person opposite. A man and woman were laid upon the arms of these six men and thrown up into the air several times. During the hay harvest too, there were games with sexual overtones. Anyone venturing into the field would be grabbed by workers of the opposite sex, bound with hay, and not released until some sort of favour was granted. For women, this was known as, giving them a green gown and for men as stretching their backs. Another name for it in Carmarthshire was awr ar y gwair, an hour in the hay.
Another ritual has its counterpart in Ireland and many parts of Europe and may represent the remains of an ancient fertility rite. The custom was known as the caseg fedi or harvest mare. When all the corn had been reaped except for the very last sheaf, it would be divided into three and plaited. The reapers would then take it in turns to throw their reaping hooks at it from a set distance and the one who succeeded in cutting it down would recite a verse:
Bore y codais hi,
Hwyr y dilyn hi,
Mi ces hi, mi ces hi!
(Early in the morning I got on her track,
late in the evening I followed her, I have had her, I have had her!)
The other reapers would then respond with:
Beth gest ti? (What did you have?)
and the reply was: Gwrach! gwrach, gwrach! (A hag, a hag, a hag!)
It was seen as an honour in Wales to be the one to bring down the caseg fedi, and the man who did so was often rewarded. However, his task did not end with the cutting down of the sheaf; he was also expected to carry it into the house without getting it wet, past a team of women who would do all they could to throw water upon it. Often the reaper would hide the mare under his clothes in order to get into the house past the women, and this could involve the men being disrobed as they tried to enter. If the man was successful, he would receive all the beer he could drink, or a shilling. If he did not succeed he did not receive his reward and was relegated to the foot of the table rather than the head of it.
The sheaf was often hung in the house to show that all the corn had been gathered in. It could also, in one part of Wales, be put on the cross-beam of the barn or in the fork of a tree. Sometimes, however, it was smuggled to a neighbouring farm which had not so far finished harvesting and thrown in front of the head-servant as he reaped. Often it was the fastest runner who was given this task since he would be chased and if caught was often bound hand and foot with straw and thrown in the river. Alternatively, the reaper was to get the mare to the farmhouse without being found out. If he were successful in delivering it without it getting wet, he could demand a reward of a shilling. But if he were caught before achieving this, he would be given a forfeit.
The mare may have represented the fertility of the harvest condensed into the final sheaf. In one part of Wales, it was recorded that seed from it was mixed with the seed at planting time in order to teach it to grow. In Ireland the last sheaf was associated with the hare, an animal who was often found sheltering in it. The story of the hag who turned herself into a hare in order to steal milk from the cow was a common Irish tale, and sometimes the sheaf was known as the hag or cailleach. It is possible that this association of the hag, as a creature known to steal food, with the cutting down of the last sheaf, represents the triumph of the human forces of agriculture against the chaotic or malevolent forces of nature in the shape of the hag. The practice in Wales of getting the sheaf into the house without it being wet by the women may also represent the saving of the harvest from chaotic nature in the shape of rain and storms, always a concern at harvest time, even today.
With the coming of the self-binder at the end of the 19th century, the need for the co-operation of the community in the harvesting became superfluous and the harvest customs died out. However, a friend of mine, a farmers daughter from Gwynedd, recalls from her youth in the 1950s and 1960s how everyone helped out at the hay harvest which was a very busy time especially for the women. Even today reciprocal arrangements between small-holders at harvest time are made to share the work and gather it in while the weather is dry, always a doubtful prospect in Wales!
Trefor M. Owen, Welsh Folk Customs, Gomer, Llandysul, 1987
Trefor M. Owen, The Customs and Traditions of Wales, University of Wales Press and the Western Mail, Cardiff, 1998
Marie Trevelyan, Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales, EP Publishing, Wakefield, 1973.
This article in the Celtic Well E-Journal is © Copyright 1999 by Hilaire Wood. Sections may be freely quoted, provided the author is properly cited with the URL and the words"electronic version." You may link to this site, but please do not copy this web page and its dependent web pages without contacting one of the Celtic Well List moderators.