Thursday, 2 September 2021

Some Cornish Harvest Traditions

Last sheaf is cut, Rillaton

 Cornish Harvest Traditions

Alex Langstone

The old Cornish harvest festival of Guldize was, and still is celebrated across Cornwall with “Crying the Neck” ceremonies and communal feasts, music and dance. Most are held by the many local branches of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, and were revived in 1928, though evidence shows that this tradition is far older, dating back to the eighteenth century and maybe to the distant past. Each year a different farm would be chosen and after the grain harvest was complete, the ceremony would be held in the last field that was harvested, where a small amount of corn would be left standing, as it was believed that the spirit of the crop would reside in these last stalks.  The last standing grain would then be cut with a scythe, tied together and was held aloft to the east, south and west with the cry “I have’n! I have’n! I have’n!”, to which the assembly responds “What ‘ave ee? What ‘ave ee? What ‘ave ee?” and the cutter replies “A Neck! A Neck! A Neck!” and then everybody shouts “Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!”  

The ceremony is concluded by prayers from the local clergy.  The neck was then paraded to the local church or chapel, often accompanied by the local silver band, where a harvest service was taken. Then all would attend a harvest supper, where food was shared and stories told, harvest songs were sung and much dancing took place.                                                                                                                                                           

Rillaton harvest roundel, dated to 1599. Illustration: Paul Atlas-Saunders

Around the edge of Bodmin Moor, this tradition appears to have a much older pedigree. On the ceiling of an old 16th century cottage at Rillaton is a plaster roundel depicting a sheaf of wheat all garlanded ready for the ceremony, along with farm tools and surrounded by a circle made from wheat ears. The motif was carved in situ in 1599, when the house was built and the building was originally the Dower House for the Manor of Rillaton, which was one of the original seventeen manors belonging to the Earldom of Cornwall. This unique piece of craftsmanship has been authenticated by English Heritage and is a real testament to the history and folklore of Crying the Neck in this area of Cornwall.   The annual Rillaton ‘Cry’ is still held each year in the traditional manner, pretty much unchanged for centuries, as the old plaster roundel will attest. 

The Rillaton Neck

The ‘Neck’ ceremony at nearby St Cleer once included placing a witch’s hat and broom on the fire as a charm to keep evil at bay.  The Neck was often called The Craw or The Crow in some parts of mid and east Cornwall and the following ‘Craw sheaf ceremony’ was recorded at St Wenn in the 1930s by Stanley Opie – 

The following ceremony is remembered at the putting in of the craw or crow sheaf, in the building of the rick. This would be well raised on poles (6 or 7 lengthways with cross poles) laid across the tops of the stone ‘keps and posses’ (caps and posts). The ‘Mow stead’, or rick, was built up sheaf by sheaf and when it came to the putting in of the top corner sheaf, the following verse would be proclaimed so that it could be heard almost all over the parish ‘The Crow sheaf is in, ‘tis time to begin, to drink strong beer, and we’ve got it ‘ere.’ while one of them would lift the beer jar.

On the eastern side of Bodmin Moor at North Hill during the 1930s, Goldhys was celebrated with a broom dance to the tune of ‘So Early in the Morning’. This was recorded in Old Cornwall magazine in 1931, where the writer, E. Thompson says: 

“…I must not forget to mention the dance over the Broomstick. This is most interesting especially if someone is present with a concertina. The Dance, I think it is to the tune of So Early in The Morning. It’s fine when you hear the heavy boots beating a tattoo on the stone floors, as the dancers first lift one leg then the other, to pass the broomstick from hand to hand, as if they were weaving. What a wonderful time too. As the dance proceeds, the musician plays faster and faster and the dancers have to dance faster. It is a marvel how these men, some big and well built, can jump so nimbly as they do in this dance.”

Harvest at Tredethy, North Cornwall


Originally published in my regular folklore column for Meyn Mamvro
© Alex Langstone

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