Traditional Weather Lore Sayings of Britain
Weather lore sayings are based on nature
The capricious British weather provided a fertile basis for the development of weather lore sayings in centuries past. Observations of natural phenomena, mixed with a pinch of superstition, gave rise to a rich collection of sayings to help with weather prediction. It is perhaps not surprising that much of British weather lore is to do with rain. A popular saying with numerous regional variants sums up the most likely outcome for Britain. In Wales, where I live, people say: “When you can see the hills, it’s going to rain; when you can’t see the hills, it’s raining!”
Weather lore predicts weather on the basis of: animal behavior; observation of plants; appearance of the sky and atmospheric phenomena; and by what happens at a certain time.
This hub gives examples of British weather lore. Please comment with examples from your country/region.
Animal behaviour in weather lore sayings
When a cat sneezes, rain is on the way.
“If a cat washes its face o’er its ear,
’tis a sign the weather will be fine and clear”
If a cat sits with its back to the fire, frost and hard weather can be expected.
My cats sometimes have a “mad half hour”. They run all over the house, claw at everything and roll around on the floor. This was believed to predict heavy winds or a storm.
If a cat stays out for the night and caterwauls loudly, the weather will be bad for the next few days.
Other farm and domestic animals:
Cows lie down in the field before rain.
Dogs will start eating grass when rain is coming.
Farmers on the Isle of Man considered a storm was on the way when pigs ran around energetically, especially if they had straw hanging out of their mouths and ran towards home.
When geese cackle, rain is due; when they honk, a dry spell is coming.
Wild geese fly high when fine weather is imminent. Storms can be expected when they fly low.
Crows warn us of rain when they caw and walk alongside pools and rivers.
When the woodpecker laughs, rain is on the way.
On Dartmoor they say:
“If at dimpsey [twilight] the frogs do croakin', we'em be soon due a soakin'”
When bees fly far from their hives and return late, fine weather will come. When rain is due, bees are more industrious, but do not fly far.
Flies become more annoying just before rain.
Spiders spinning webs on the grass means fair weather.Gnats flying up and down at sunset predict hot weather.
Weather lore sayings about plants
Pine cones open up in dry weather and close when rain is coming.
“When the dew is in the grass, rain will never come to pass.
When grass is dry at morning light, look for rain before the night”
In Huntingdonshire, the mulberry was called the wise tree. When it started to put out shoots, there would be no more frost.
The Welsh believed a storm was due if marigold flowers did not open early in the morning.
“If in the fall of the leaf in October many leaves wither on the boughs and hang there, it betokens a frosty winter and much snow”
Oak and ash trees were watched in early spring to see which would put out shoots first:
“If the Ash before the Oak,
Then there'll be a regular soak;
But if the Oak before the Ash,
Then there'll only be a splash”
The poet John Clare was the son of a farm worker in Northamptonshire. His Shepherd’s Calendar (1827) includes weather lore in the poem for May:
scarlet-starry points of flowers,
Pimpernel, dreading nights and showers
Oft call'd “the Shepherd's weather-glass”,
That sleeps till suns have dried the grass,
Then wakes, and spreads its creeping bloom,
Till clouds with threatening shadows come,
Then close it shuts to sleep again;
Which weeders see and talk of rain”
Weather lore sayings of the sky and atmospheric phenomena
John Clare’s poem The Woodman contains the verses:
“And as most labourers knowingly pretend
By certain signs to judge the weather right,
As oft from "Noah's ark" great floods descend,
And "buried moons" foretell great storms at night”
Charles Dack, in Weather and Folklore of Peterborough and District(1911), cites John Clare as explaining that Noah’s Ark is, "a long dark cloud stretching across the heavens, broad in the centre and tapering at each end, resembling the figure of the ark, and supposed to foretell great floods. But it depends on the direction of the ark. If it is from south to north it is a sign of good weather, but if from east to west bad weather."
I have not been able to find out what is meant by “buried moons” (hidden by clouds?). Suggestions welcome.
“Red sky at night, shepherd’s
Red sky at morning, shepherd’s warning”
“Mackerel scales and mare’s tails, make lofty ships carry low sails”
(This refers to altocumulus and cirrus clouds foretelling an approaching storm)
“Near full moon a misty sunrise,
Bodes fair weather and cloudless skies”
“When the clouds of the moon to the West fly away, You may safely rely on a settled fair day”
“When mountains and cliffs in the clouds appear,
Some sudden or violent showers are near”
Sound was also predictive:
“When forests murmur and mountains roar, close your windows and shut the door”
In Peterborough it was said:
“When the Clock of the Abbey strikes three minutes slow,
The river's bright waters will soon overflow;
When the Church Clock and Abbey Clock strike both together,
There will soon be a death or a change of the weather”
Weather lore sayings linked to certain times
I’ve selected one saying for each month. Jeremy Sewell has many more.
1. “If the grass do grow in Janiveer, it grows the worse for all the year”
2. “If Candlemas Day [February 2] is cold and clear, there'll be two winters in that year”
3. “If March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb”
4. In Manx:
“Tra heidys Avril big e chayrn,
Sy thehll vees palchey traagh as
[When April. sounds aloud his horn,
Great crops will be of hay and corn]
5. “A wet May brings a load of hay”
6. “If St Paul's day [June 29] be fair and clear, it does betide a happy year.
But if it chance to snow or rain, then will be dear all kinds of grain.
If clouds or mists do dark the sky, great store of birds and beasts shall die.
And if the winds do file aloft, then war shall vex the kingdom oft”.
7. July 15 is associated with a very well known proverb:
“St. Swithin's Day, if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin's Day, if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain nae mair”
Swithin, Bishop of Winchester, died in 862. He wanted an outdoor grave so that "sweet rain from heaven" would fall on it. A century later, the monks decided to move his remains to a shrine (destroyed during the Reformation) inside Winchester Cathedral. The move was set for July 15, 971. On that day, torrential rain started and continued for 40 days. This was believed to be St Swithin showing his displeasure.
8. “If Bartlemas Day [August 24] be fine and clear
Then a prosperous autumn comes that year”
9. September 29, Michaelmas Day
“If St Michael brings many acorns, Christmas will cover the fields with snow”
10. “When berries are many in October, beware a hard winter”
11. “If there’s ice in November to hold up a duck,
for the rest of the year there’ll be slush and muck”
12. Rain before Mass on the first Sunday in December means rain for a week
Weather lore wizards
Wil Awst (William Augustus) from Cil-y-cwm , near Llandovery, Carmarthenshire was said to forecast the onset of rain, frost, gales, or storms to the very hour. His The Husbandman's Perpetual Prognostication (1794) contains weather lore in English and Welsh.
A recent master of weather lore was Yorkshireman Bill Foggitt, called the “Oracle of Thirsk”. Bill’s family started keeping weather records in 1830. Bill began adding to them at the age of 12. He became locally known for being more accurate than the Met Office. He observed plants and animals and made deductions from his records. Bill believed weather follows cycles, with very hot summers occurring every 22 years and very hard winters every 15 years.
In 1985, the Met Office predicted a long cold winter. Bill disagreed. He had seen a mole poking its nose through the snow, which meant milder weather was coming. Bill’s correct prediction brough him national fame.
Like the Met Office, Bill failed to predict the great storm of 1987. Later he said he should have taken more notice of his neighbour’s cat: “Blackie, went crackers, jumping up poles and into trees. That was a sure sign.”
Do weather lore sayings really predict the weather?
Cloud formations certainly show what weather is imminent. Pine cones, seaweed and salt, which change with humidity, will indicate whether rain is likely. Changes in atmospheric pressure, temperature and light do influence plant and animal behaviour. I’m more sceptical about weather on a particular day determining a future pattern.
Peter Freeland’s Testing weather lore in schools discusses the possible scientific basis of some weather lore and gives suggestions on how to test this.
The Met Office promised the UK a “barbeque summer” in 2009. It turned out to be one of the filthiest summers for decades. Perhaps a weather lore wizard might have given us better warning.