Harvest Customs

by Bernadette Weyde

The following description of the procedure at an old-time harvest-home is gathered from a pamphlet by George Quarrie entitled ‘The Melliah’. It is a rhymed account of the final harvesting of thirty stacks of oats, barley and wheat in Kirk Bride in 1856. Its value as a picture of the bygone days was fully appreciated by Hall Caine in ‘The Manxman’. This delicate subject is dealt with in detail in Quarrie’s Introduction and Appendix.

Before noontide on the last day a thirty-foot pole is set up on high ground, with aprons, a woman’s old frock, and a long cravat fastened to it. This serves as a signal to the neighbours that the Ballavair Melliah is about to be taken, and that the customary feasting and dancing will ensue. (1)

On the party’s arrival at the field in the morning with their sickles under their arms – there are thirty-eight workers, the women in clean print frocks and sun-bonnets – the foreman tells off each man and woman to their tasks according to their abilities. When at last only a small area is left unreaped, those who had been cutting, “according to the good oul’ fashion” stand a little distance away and throw their sickles into the patch still standing, to the sound of cheers and the clashing of blade on blade as they fall in a heap. (2)

The oldest woman among the workers then steps proudly forward, draws a sickle from the pile, and strikes down the remaining heads of corn. (3)

Then “hooray for the Melliah!” and “the Melliah’s took!” is the cry, and the last bunch is plaited and tied with tape to grace the Melliah Cup at the dinner. (4)

Impromptu games and horseplay follow, in which the younger men chase and catch the girls, or trip them up with a straw rope, and “rag” and kiss them. (5) Then the youths race homeward, jumping the stooks as they go, while the girls follow more leisurely, all hands proceeding to “slick” themselves for the evening’s enjoyment.

The Melliah dinner in the barn consists of rich meat broth with vegetables and apple-dumplings in it, accompanied by potatoes, barley bonnag and clapcake, and followed by pudding made of rice and currants. Ale is the drink; doubtless there is tea for those who prefer it, though Quarrie does not say so. When the workers and hangers-on have satisfied their appetites they adjourn to the loft and their places are taken by the children, master and mistress still presiding.

After the dinner, and a necessary interval for digestion, comes dancing in the barn by the light of oil-lamps and candles stuck to the wall by their own grease. Forms, stools and sacks of wheat serve for seats. At the darker end of the barn there is plenty of kissing and skylarking. A fiddle or two and a clarinet provide the dance-music.

The first dance, the Swivvle Hornpipe, to the tune of “Edinburgh’s Flowers,” is led off by the mistress with Jem, the foreman reaper, as her partner. Many of the women dance with their shoes off, bare-footed in the ‘oashyryn voynnee’ or footless stockings of that era. (6) In the midst of the merriment old Nannie, who had performed the ceremony of cutting the last ears of corn, comes in at the door with a straw rope tied round her. (7) She “floors a clout” and sings “Kiree fo Sniaghtey.” Dancing is then resumed:

♫ “Now quicker flew old Collins’ bow,
Now Dawsy, blow, ye divil, blow!
And reel and wheel and quicker go,
Ye merry dancers!” ♫

A solo, the difficult Frog-dance, is executed to its special music by a recognised expert:

♫ “with kick and prance,
Low on the floor, doin’ well, my faith!
The oul’ Frog-dance! ” ♫

Then more jigs, more reels, more jough (ale), and a final “hip hip hooray!” to wind up the Ballavair Melliah.


1) Here the pole is merely a signal. “Th’ oul’ flag is thrue flung, welcome sight To mortal lots from lef’ to right.” Strictly, the dressed pole is a vestige of an image which symbolized the harvest as a woman. Henderson in ‘Folk-lore of the Northern Counties’, p. 87, has this description of it in Northumberland: The cutting of the last sheaf is announced by loud shouting, “and an image of it is at once hoisted on a pole, and given into the charge of the tallest and strongest men of the party. The image is crowned with wheat-ears and dressed up in gay finery, a white frock and coloured ribbons being its conventional attire. The whole group circle round this harvest-queen, or kern-baby, curtseying to her, and dancing and singing; and thus they proceed to the farmer’s barn, where they set the image up on high, as the presiding goddess of their revels.” By another account the dressed image on the pole stood in the field from early morning till the reaping was finished, as in Quarrie’s description. In Styria the last sheaf, dressed up as the Cornmother, is carried off the field at the top of a pole (Golden Bough, abridged edn., P. 400). “As we approached the isolated hamlet, we were aware of a Maypole . . . it was decorated with flowers and ribands fluttering in the evening breeze.” (Hone’s Every-clay Boole, ii., col. 1155). This relates to the harvest-home at Hawkesbury, in the Cotswolds, with an illustration of the pole which may be fanciful.

2) The motive of the act in the South of Scotland, Wales and Ulster was to cut the still-standing stalks with the flying sickles – a feat of some skill, or luck. This is not mentioned in the Manx account, and perhaps had already lapsed.

3) The oldest woman, because the last sheaf represents the Cornmother, whose life (for the year) is ending. In Britain it was called “the Old Woman” or “the Old Man,” in Gaelic countries the Cailleach, i.e. old woman. In classical Greece this was the goddess Demeter; in Egypt, the god Osiris, according to Sir James Frazer. In other Manx parishes the Melliah Queen was a girl or young woman, who tied the last sheaf herself and rode off with it at the head of the procession. Similarly at Hawkesbury in Gloucestershire, the “Queen ” was a girl, who sat on the leading horse (Hone’s Every-day Boole, ii., col. Iz55).

4) The shape was a rough representation of a woman’s figure, with a pair of arms akimbo like jug handles. This was the usual form of it, but in Kirk Patrick I have seen the melliah sheaf made into a miniature stack of the round variety. It was preserved on a window-sill of the farmhouse.

5) In some foreign harvest-fields, notably in Germany, such amusements took a more serious turn, and were definitely symbolic of the reproductive powers of Nature. It will be remembered also that the Rape of the Sabine Women traditionally occurred during the Roman Consualia or harvest-home festival, on the 21st August.

6) This I take to be the meaning of “Ankles clane, half stocking bare, They foot it lightly.” Or does it mean that half of the women danced without shoes and stockings?

7) Throughout Europe, especially in the Germanic lands, and in India, the cutter or the binder of the last sheaf, or the one who places it on the cart, is afterwards tied up in sheaves or straw; for he or she personifies the Corn-spirit which was to lie dormant until the next sowing. Near Stettin, for example, “as late as the first half of the 19th century, the custom was to tie up the woman herself in pease-straw, and bring her with music to the farmhouse, where the harvesters danced with her till the pease-straw fell off” (Golden Bough, abr. ed., p. 427). In Poland ” she remains till the dance is over” (p. 40g).


(source: A Third Manx Scrapbook by W Walter Gill (1963); artwork)

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