‘Leisure and Recreation in an Age of Clearance: Hebridean Michaelmas’

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On 2 October 2012, the Centre was pleased to welcome Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart who discussed ‘Leisure and Recreation in an Age of Clearance: Hebridean Michaelmas’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

The origins of the Michaelmas are unclear, with our resident Medievalists stumped by Dr. Stiùbhart’s question on whether communal festivals and holy days are mentioned in medieval manuscripts. Whenever the festival may have began, it was still enthusiastically celebrated by the 18th century, on and around the 29th September. Among other more ‘bawdy’ activities, horse racing occurred across local sandy beaches and there was a procession from the local church. Alexander Carmichael, the famed nineteenth century folklorist, provided an imaginative account in his work, Carmina Gadelica, which was synthesised from a diverse range of sources. And despite his apparent love for the Michaelmas, his reverence was not born from first hand experience.

By the mid-18th century, there began to be a challenge to this annual communal celebration as the kelping industry on the Hebrides became more and more profitable. The Michaelmas fell at the height of the harvest and landlords in South Uist like Colin MacDonald of Boisdale put locals under increasing pressure to work on this holy day. Coupled with increasing rent, these economic considerations meant there was an eventual shift towards a more domestic celebration of Michaelmas, with a de-emphasis of the previous communal revelry. Public humiliation and ‘damaged dignity’ may have also contributed to this decline. The arrival of the formidable Father Chisholm in 1819 probably led to the last festival in South Uist being held in that year. It was also in abeyance in other islands like Islay and Mull around c.1800. Dr. Stiùbhart described meddling with Michaelmas as being akin to cancelling Christmas.

Despite the declining observance of the festival in the Hebrides, settlers on Prince Edward Island in Canada still celebrated the Michaelmas. And Dr. Stiùbhart was keen to emphasise that the Michaelmas was less about the ancient survival of Celtic rites but closer to harvest festivals that occurred all across Western Europe. A possible exception to this wider context was mainland Scotland which was ‘relatively revel-free’ with festivals largely replaced by agricultural fairs.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series continues next Tuesday 9th October, Edel Bhreathnach from University College Dublin, who will discuss the pre-Christian belief system in Ireland. 

This will be held in Room 202, 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome!


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