Gàidhlig The Calendar Year

The yearly calendar was divided according to the events of the agricultural year; the seasons began and ended at different times than English seasons. In Gaelic Scotland every season started with a fire festival and celebrated with lots of ritual and food; midway through a season there was another festival.

 For the Gaels the next day didn't start at midnight but earlier at sunset. So the celebrations of a given festival began with the evening before. For example, Christmas Eve is the beginning of Christmas Day; that is, Christmas Day began at sunset not midnight. And Halloween (All Hallows Eve) was the beginning of All Hallows Day (i.e. All Saints Day).

 Samhainn – The Beginning of Winter

 Samhainn marked the end of the summer half of the year, the beginning of winter, the dark time (an Dùbhlachd). Oidhche Shamhna (night of Samhainn) is Gaelic for Halloween (English: The evening of Hallows or Saints). In modern Gaelic, Samhain is the word for the month of November.

Some sources in English say that a veil is removed between the two worlds at Samhainn, and passage is easier back and forth. I've never heard or read the word 'caille' (veil, covering) used this way in Gaelic. In 1861 William Winwood Reade published The Veil of Isis or Mysteries of the Druids in which Reade attempted to explain the religion of the druids which he thought must resemble the religion of ancient Egypt. He was hugely popular in his day. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, Sherlock Holmes recommends Reade to Watson. Needless to say Reade’s interpretation is inaccurate, but his ideas linger on.

But communication with the Otherworld (an Saoghal Ud Eile) was easier at this time. Divination for marriage was popular among the young men and women. One method used three plates or bowls containing clean water, which represented a good spouse, dirty water, which meant a bad one, and no water which meant no husband at all. The petitioner was blindfolded and pushed in the direction of the plates; the first one touched indicated what sort of spouse was in that person's future.

 In Scotland samhainn can be pronounced sa-veeng and oidhche shamhna something like oee-hyuh how-rah.


                     Gaulish Calendar of First Century AD showing MID SAM. a  cognate of Gaelic  

                     samhradh (summer)


 Nollaig is Christmas and, in most of the Highlands and Islands, it was a purely religious holiday, and many of the Christmas traditions were not observed: no Christmas trees, no Santa Claus or Father Christmas, and no gift exchange. In districts which are Catholic, laoidhean Nollaig (Christmas carols) were sung.

 Latha Callainn

 Midway through winter is the celebration of New Year’s. Oidhche Challainn (New Year’s Eve) is the beginning of the new year and Latha Challainn is New Year’s Day.

 Houses were decorated with holly to keep the fairies away as it was one of the woods which repelled them. Boys (gillean Challainn) used to dress up in old clothes, stuffed with straw. While travelling through the village, the young men struck the walls of the houses they passed by, which was meant to frighten off evil spirits. One person wore a hardened bull hide with horns and hooves still attached; he jumped around and shook the horns and hooves while the others beat the hide with sticks, and sang New Year's songs (duain Challainn). These customs, which varied from place to place, were brought to Highland settlements in Canada and observed into the 20th century; many of the songs have survived.

 The gillean Challainn circled the houses deasail (clockwise), the lucky way. Going tuathal (counter-clockwise) was unlucky.

After the entertainment, they collected food and went round the fire deasail (clockwise) and sang. They singed a portion of hide and all had to smell it for luck.

 If the young men were badly treated or not given food, they walked around the fire tuathal (counterclockwise) and further damned the house by building a cairn of cursing.

 When they had amassed a collection of food, they went to one house where the girls were waiting and prepared a feast; leftovers were taken to the sick and others in need.

 Latha Fèill Brìghde – the Beginning of Spring

 Latha Fèill Brìghde is St Brigid's Day (1 February); formerly this day was called Imbolc or Imbalg. The goddess Brìghde had a sanctuary at Kildare (Church of Oaks) in pre-Christian Ireland where nine virgins kept a perpetual fire burning. Many traditions concerning the pagan goddess and the beginning of spring were incorporated into the so-called First Life of Brigid. Brìghde was believed to bring back fertility to the land with her magic white hazel wand.

 Brìghde (Bree-juh) was also believed to be the mid-wife (bean-glùin = knee woman) of the virgin Mary. When a woman was in labour, she invoked the saint’s name, and if the birth was easy, it meant Brìghde was pleased with the family. While in labour, a woman would recite the sloinntearachd Bhrìghde, the genealogy or lineage of Brigid.

 Sloinneadh na Ban-naomh Brìghde

     Lasair dhealrach òir, muime chorr Chriosda

     Brìghde nighinn Dughaill duinn

     Mhic Aoidh, mhic Airt, mhic Cuinn,

     Mhic Crearair, mhic Cìs, mhic Carmaig. mhic Carruinn.

           The genealogy of the Holy Woman Brigid

           Radiant flame of gold, noble foster woman of Christ

           Brigid, daughter of Dugall Brown (haired)

           Son of Hugh, son of Art, son of Conn

           Son of Crearar, son of Cis, son of Cormac, son of Carrunn.

           (Carmichael 1900: v.1, 164)

 On the eve of St Brigid's festival, the girls of each baile (farm town) made sheaves of grain into corn dollies called Brìdeagan and decorated them with flowers and shells. The doll was taken around the village and an offering of a pin, button, pebble, shell etc. offered to it. The girls of the village made the bannag Brìghde (Brigid's bannock) or a roll of cheese to honour the corn doll, and provide the food for an all-night feast with the boys in Brigid’s honour.

  Fires were banked in such as way that the flames were extinguished, but the embers were kept alive covered with ashes. They could be relit the next morning if done properly. There were accompanying incantations for the smàladh an teine (banking of the fire).


 Imbalg or Imbolc was the ancient name for this festival celebrating the coming of milk in pregnant farm animals. This word may mean ‘the bag’ or udder.

Saint Brigid's cross

                                                       St Brigid’s Cross - from Ireland

Fèill Pàdraig

 Fèill Pàdraig is St Patrick’s Day (17 March). It used to be observed in the West Highlands and Islands. Observing St Patrick’s Day properly might end winter storms so that the planting season could begin. 

Stories about Fionn and An Fhèinn (aka the Fiana, Fionn’s band of men) were well-known in Gaelic Scotland as well as Gaelic Ireland. According to tradition, the stories lasted because Oisin, Fionn’s son, and Caoilte, one of the Fiana, survived into the time of St Patrick, and he had a conversation with the saint about the wonderful things Fionn’s band had seen and done.

 Didòmhnaich Càisg / Didòmhnaich Ceusda

 Didòmhnaich Càisg means Easter Sunday, the holiest day of the Christian calendar, and Didòmhnaich Ceusda means Crucifixion Sunday. On Sunday people used to climb to the top of a high hill before sunrise to worship God at Easter.

 Bealltainn – the Beginning of Summer

 This festival marks the beginning of summer, and the summer half of the year. Latha buidhe Bealltainn (the Yellow Day of Bealltuinn) is an expression still current among Highlanders; the day was yellow because of the huge fires built for the purification of cattle.

 On May Day all the fires were extinguished and the tein'-èiginn, a fire made from friction, was lit on a hill. The fire was divided in two, and people and cattle rushed through for purification and safeguarding against disease in the year following. People took fire from the hill to each of their houses.

In many parts of the Highlands, the young people of the district would meet on the moors on 1st May. They cut a table in the green sod by cutting a trench in the ground of sufficient circumferences to hold the whole company. They then kindled a fire, made a custard of eggs and kneaded a cake of oatmeal, which was toasted at the embers against a stone. After the custard was eaten, they divided the cake into as many portions as there were people in the company. They daubed one of the pieces with charcoal, till it was black all over, and they were then all put into a bonnet together, and each one blindfolded took out a portion. The bonnet holder was entitled to the last bit, and whoever drew the black bit was the person who was compelled to leap three times over the flames. People say this was originally to appease a god, whose favour they tried to implore by making the year productive. (Dwelly 1911: 82-30)

 Là Chaluim Chille

 Là Chaluim Chille is literally ‘St Columba’s Day’ (9 June). The Thursday in June closest to Columba’s feast day is particularly lucky for beginnings. Thursdays are lucky for starting things except when Bealtainn falls on it.

 On Wednesday Eve the mother makes a bere, rye or oat cake into which a small coin was put (shells, buttons formerly). The cake was toasted before a fire of rowan, yew, oak or other sacred wood. In the morning the father cut the cake into as many pieces as there were children. The children each chose a cake from a ciosan (basket). The child who found the coin in her/his piece got the crop of lambs for that year for making a start on their own farm. (Carmichael 1900: v. 1, 162)

 Lughnasadh – the Beginning of Autumn

 The name means 'Lugh's assembly' from Lug(h) and násad(h); Lugh was a sky god worshipped all over Gaul, Spain, Ireland and Britain. Many place names are based on his name; Lugdunum, which became Lyon, France, means 'Lugh's fortress'.  

In Ireland people make pilgrimages to Croagh Patrick (Cruach Phádraig) to memorialise the battle between St Patrick and Crom Dubh, a demon. But Maire MacNéill, an Irish scholar, has shown that pagans believed that a battle took place between Lugh and a storm or thunder god (Toran). August is the beginning of the harvest season, the time when berries, first fruits, were picked and eaten. During this time trial marriages were contracted for the year following.

 Latha Fèill Mìcheil

 Latha Fèill Mìcheil is St Michael's Day (29 Sept). St Michael was called brian Micheil (the god/king Michael) likely showing his pre-Christian origin. He is the patron saint of the sea, of boats and boatmen, and of horses and horsemen. Mont St Michel in Brittany and Mount St Michael in Cornwell were religious foundations dedicated to him.

 The festival took place at the time when the corn (grain) was harvested, and it became more important in Scotland than Lughnasadh; many of the activities performed at Lughnasadh shifted to St Michael's Day in Scotland.

 The eve of St Michael's is for bringing in the carrots, baking the strùan (cake of all grains locally grown), killing the lamb, and horse racing. During the day the lamb and strùan are distributed, there is a pilgrimage to the burial ground to honour the dead, and the horse races are held on the shore. Young men and women exchange gifts during the day and at the dance in the evening as tokens of interest in a continuing relationship.

 Often remembered by old people as the best day of the calendar; there are references to this holiday in Gaelic songs as well.



Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, v.1 & 2, 1900    Edward Dwelly, Illustrated Gaelic to English Dictionary, 1911                                                                                                      E G Richards, Mapping Time: The Calendar and its History, 2000


Gaelic Phrases

A’ Gaidhealtachd = The Scottish Highlands                                                                            Alba = Scotland                                                                                                                          Erinn = Ireland                                                                                                                        Sasainn = England

fine = clan  (legal term)                                                                                                            clann = children                                                                                                                      e.g. Clann Dòmhnall = Children, Descendants of Donald

Le Gaélique Ecossais

Gaelique Ecossais

        © Sheila Currie 2014