I heard geese crying overhead as I stood in the garden in an early December gloaming, at first thinking magically it was my name being called over and over; I watched and listened as they flew towards the north east until they were out of sight and hearing. I normally see them in Sutherland in October and always think that they herald the end of my autumn gallivanting so it was unusual to hear them so late in the year. I hoped that most of them would survive the outbreak of bird flu which is turning our high water marks white with bones and feathers.
Their calls always make me think of the melancholy of Violet Jacob’s poem of 1915 The Wild Geese:
“And far abune the Angus straths / I saw the wild geese flee / A lang, lang skein o beatin wings / wi their heids towards the sea / and aye their cryin voices trailed ahint them on the air – “
If not in a book, you’ll find it on the Scottish Poetry Library‘s website at https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/wild-geese-O/ and it’s also a song with different versions on YouTube; start with Jim Reid’s singing as he was the one who set the poem to music, try https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WT3GwWTkVFo . Jean Redpath also does a fine version on her A Fine Song for Singing album, try https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3G_rPQecq2A . (The song is sometimes called “Norland Wind” as it’s a conversation between the north wind and a homesick homeless Scot in England. Have a hanky ready.) You may have seen a line from it carved into one of the stones at Makars Court in Edinburgh: “There’s muckle lying yont the Tay that’s mair to me nor life”. This stone could go a good clean though and the words more deeply incised.
The cries of the geese came pre-solstice when the light was dying but now, just a few weeks later there’s been a turning and I’m looking with hope for a few more minutes at the end of each day. I can well understand why our pagan ancestors felt the need to mark this time of year, bringing in greenery to decorate houses and celebrating light sources. There is still life out there in the natural world and the light will return; things are not as hopeless as they might seem.
My plant bible Flora Celtica says that in addition to ivy, holly and mistletoe, juniper branches were sometimes hung above doors and windows but the juniper was in some places burned in a cleansing New Year ritual not only to protect the family from evil but also to drive out pests and diseases. “The branches were dried beside the fire the night before, and when all the windows and doors were shut, fires were lit in each room until the whole house was full of their acrid smoke. When the coughing and spluttering inhabitants could stand it no longer, the windows were opened and the process was repeated in the stables.”
The writer goes on to note that “the smoke of burning juniper is also used for spiritual cleansing in Nepal where it plays a key part in puja ceremonies such as those held before attempts to climb Mount Everest.”
We wouldn’t be burning it here now as it’s a protected plant – one of our native conifers along with Scots pine and yew. You can read more about the Forestry Commission’s action on juniper at https://forestryandland.gov.scot/images/corporate/pdf/fcs-species-juniper.pdf
Are we starting to see a resurgence of the word Yule for this time of year? It’s a much older term, maybe Germanic or Scandinavian in origin, for the period of celebration which began at the winter solstice and continued into early January. A huge Yule log was kept burning, as was a Yule candle. Special dishes of sowans were made from oatmeal and water into which “the usual objects of divination were stirred before distribution among the company”, according to my Concise Scots Dictionary.
In The Scots Kitchen, F Marian McNeill describes the making in Shetland of Yule Bread – a thin oatmeal bannock “round in shape, with a hole in the centre (to keep the trows away), and the edge pinched in points to symbolise the sun’s rays ….. An oatcake was kneaded for each child, and differed in size as the children differed in age.”
The Daft Days is another term for the period between Christmas and New Year. I love that phrase and I have my own traditions – not getting up in the dark mornings, eating cake for breakfast and watching films in the afternoon without feeling at all guilty. In Robert Fergusson’s 1772 poem about the Daft Days in Edinburgh, he warns us: “When fou, we’re sometimes capernoity”; that last word was a new one on me but we could guess at its meaning of capricious, giddy, crazy. He also wanted us to have a good time though: “Let mirth abound; let social cheer / Invest the dawnin o the year”. The poor lad was dead two years later at the age of 24 after a fall down a flight of stairs and a period confined to the Edinburgh madhouse. Robert Burns it was who put a stone up on Fergusson’s unmarked grave in the Canongate Kirkyard and his statue is now on the pavement outside.
After a tip from Professor Alan Riach in The National on 19 December, I went to the Scots Language centre website and found a poem called “Year’s End” (no writer given though) which refers to “the auld and new year’s meetin”. The final lines describe the different attitudes to the turning of the old year into a new one: “The young fowk blythely forrit step / The auld anes, latchy, grievin”. And that’s me in the second camp by the way. I knew I was latchy, even before I was completely sure of its meaning of slow, loitering, dilatory. And yes, I’m always sad too.
Nowadays alas the traditional greenery brought into the house has largely been replaced by plastic trock, and entranceways are festooned with stuff that will likely head to landfill after just one season. I was in a Dobbies garden centre where the shelving and floors of their now 50% off decorations section were covered in glitter. When is that work of the devil going to be banned in Scotland? Poor Lorna Slater MSP has got her hands full with the bottle and can recycling scheme – and I saw today that somebody is taking their objection to the new legislation to court which will delay matters yet again.
On The Guardian website on 21 December, there was a good article about trying to have a ‘green’ Christmas. See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/dec/21/season-food-green-christmas-holidays-planet I’m not getting however into the whole “holidays” as a substitution for “Christmas” argument! But if it looks like it’s going to take over on this side of the Atlantic, then I’ll go into battle for Yule.
Christmas superseded New Year as the main festival celebrated in Scotland in my lifetime. My father, a civil servant, went to work on Christmas Day when I was a young child; yes, we had a tree up, had a big dinner with ancient relatives invited to the table and we got a present along with fruit, chocolate and money in a sock. At New Year however, my mother had to give the house a thorough clean, first footing was the main thing and I remember we had to open the door at midnight to hear the ships hooting on the Clyde. Maybe a reversion to celebrating Yule will happen over the next 60 years.