Orkney is also known as the Orkney Islands and lies some 10 miles along the coast of Caithness in Northern Scotland. These islands, 70 of them with 20 inhabited seem to have been populated since 3500 BC and has a prehistory associated to it.
Absolute darkness reigns in Orkney for nearly half a year and so the ceremonial lighting of bonfires to brighten the night sky is an eagerly awaited ritual. In the words of an old Orcadian author: “Bonfires are the very blood of Orcadians. The ritual bonfire goes back to the very beginning of our history and even before.”
In bygone days, the hilltops across Orkney raged with an orange firelight, four times in a year to commemorate the festivals of Yule, Beltane, Johnsmas and Hallowmas. Johnmas and Hallowmas are Midsummer and Halloween.
As centuries went by, the age-old tradition of lighting the bonfires at Yule, Johnmas and Beltane slowly died out with the last of them, the Johnmas bonfires dying out in the 1860s. Hallowmas is now associated with Guy Fawkes’ Night and is lit around 5th. November.
An interesting event, the significance that has now been lost, was the throwing of a bone fragment into the bonfire. The bonfire is also associated with some superstitions and divinations. One of the main divinations was related to marriage. Orcadian women regarded marriage seriously and one of the superstitions associated with marriage was that letting water boil alone in a pot was considered dangerous. It was believed that if it occurred, the girls within that homestead would certainly lose their sweethearts.
From her youngest days, the girls of Orkney took part in various forms of divination. At the end of the bonfire festivities, girls carried home a partially burnt piece of peat (bonfires were made of peat and heather). This would be extinguished completely in a tub of urine (“strang bing”) and placed up on the door lintel. This peat would then be taken the next day and broken into halves. It was believed that the color of the peat inside would foretell the color of the future husband of the girl.
Traditionally, it was believed that attempts to peer into the future would be successful only during sometimes of the year. These were the times of Candlemas (2nd February); Johnmas (Midsummer) and Halloween (31st October).
Some of the beliefs include:
v The girl must startle the first cow she sees at Candlemas every year. The direction taken by the crow in its flight indicated the direction which her husband-to-be lived in. If the startled crow happened to fly over a churchyard, the girl was sure to remain a spinster.
v The flowers of the Ribwort Plantain were supposed to be placed beneath a stone. If more flowers grew before the heads withered, the girl was sure to marry her sweetheart.
v Two straws a knot tied on one of them, named for each of the pair of sweethearts, would be placed onto a glowing peat. The heat of the peat would sooner or later cause the knotted straw to jump. If it jumped towards the other of the pair, it was a sure indication that the pair would marry.
v Another variation of the breaking of the peat to see the color inside, as mentioned earlier, was the extinguishing of the piece in a bucket of water, placing it under a turf and left for the night. At the break of dawn the peat was broken and if there was a hair in it, it would indicate the color of her future husband’s hair.
v The second category of divination are the more interesting. It rests on the Orcadian belief that each and every living person had what was known as the “ganfer” – supernatural duplicate also known as the “doppelganger”. These rituals were carried out during the festivities of Halloween.
It was a widely held belief that if a person met his own “ganfer”, it would mean certain death. But in these rituals they merely permitted the girl to catch a glimpse of her would-be.
The most common of these Halloween divinations involved the scissors, the knife and the sieve. A girl, if she be brave enough, could leave the house and proceed to the other building (usually the barn) and stand in the dark, winnowing “three wechts o naitheen” meaning “three weights of nothing”. If the winnowing was done properly, the girl could hope to see a scepter of her husband-to-be to pass through the open door of the barn.
A similar ritual involved the girl hanging a wet sleeve in front of the fireplace before going to bed. There she would wait for an apparition of her future husband to enter her room.
Another belief was the eating of a salt herring before bedtime. This would ensure the visitation of her future husband. The scepter would appear anytime during the night to quench the girl’s thirst with cold water.
A girl, it was believed, could hear the voice of her future sweetheart if she threw a ball of wool into a kiln used for drying grain, at the same time reciting the words “Wha taks had o me clew’s end” meaning “Who takes hold of the end of my ball of yarn?” The ghostly voice that answered, if any, was thought to be the voice of her future husband. Undoubtedly, this led to some practical joking by the local lads who would hide in the kiln and wait for the anxious girls to turn up.
A final example would be that of the young girl running around the stackyard of the farm at night with outstretched arms. On the completion of the circle she is supposed to embrace the scepter of her future husband.