“It happened on a Lammas nicht,
As I gaed oot for a stroll,
I hadnae gaun sae very faur,
Tae I daunered doon by the toll”
Lammas originated in Medieval England as a religious harvest festival, usually held on August 1st or soon after. The hay harvest would have finished, and the early Lammas Wheat (winter wheat) harvest – had started. The loaves of bread from this first ripe corn were consecrated in church. It was a time of rejoicing. Tenants gave the minister his share or tithe, a sample of the first corn or bread.
In Scotland, Lammas became one of the four Term Days, which divided each year into four equal periods. Scottish Term Days are: Candlemas (February) , Whitsunday (May), Lammas (August) and Martinmas (November). England, Ireland and Wales had and have a similar system but call them Quarter Days. These are associated with the two equinoxes and two solstices: Lady Day (March), Midsummer Day (June), Michaelmas (September) and Christmas (December).
Quarter Days and Term Days marked the first day of each quarter of the year and were the dates for paying due debts and the cut-off time for settling disputes. Servants and farm workers could be fired or give in their notice and then make themselves available at Hiring Fairs for work elsewhere. A friend of mine in the agriculture industry remembered a hiring fair in Sussex even in the first half of the twentieth century.
Lammas did not become a Quarter Day in England, Ireland and Wales, but remained a religious and seasonal harvest festival. Early grain harvests were unlikely to be ready by August 1st in Scotland, but the name and date was kept as one of the Term Days.
An elderly Scotsman of my acquaintance talks of Lammas Floods, sometimes called the Lammas Spate, when heavy rains caused rivers to rise, race down to the sea and overflow on the way. Fish (and fishermen!) awaited the Lammas Floods because they were a time when large numbers of oceanic salmon and trout, waiting near river mouths, started their journeys up-river. Even nowadays we are not immune from Lammas Floods. For instance, in 2007 and 2008, roads and homes in the small town of Newmilns in the Irvine Valley were flooded. In the 19th century, the Lammas Floods at Newmilns flooded factories and homes and washed away bridges over the River Irvine too.
In Medieval times, when there were fewer built-up areas to suffer, Lammas Floods were experienced more positively. They watered both the ripening corn and the Lammas Fields or Lammas Lands, which were usually riparian grassland, in private ownership until Lammas, after which they became ‘common land’ when tenants could graze their stock until spring. For 1000 years, the grass of the Lammas Lands at Godalming in Surrey, was cut for hay before the Lammas Floods. They still flood regularly and the town now manages them for nature conservation.
In the same vein, if a high spring tide was due around Lammas, it was called the Lammas Stream.
In Fife, the Lammas Drave was the peak time of the summer herring season, when fishing boats put out from harbours to bring in big catches. Alas, with herring almost gone from the coastal North Sea, the Lammas Drave is no more.
Lammas in the forests is a time when trees, after a lull in growth after the spring rush, suddenly produce late green shoots, often straight out of the trunk, called Lammas Shoots.
There are many other associations with Lammas. For instance, two ancient and very successful Lammas Fairs continue at Tavistock in Devon and Ballycastle in Co. Antrim.
And finally, the origin of the word Lammas: it originated as Old English ‘hlȧf mӕsse’
which means ‘loaf mass’. Old English was spoken from the 5th to 12th centuries so Lammas is an ancient festival and word.