Gab o’ May to Gemini June
The old Scots of our little rhyme applies not just to the month of May, but also to the hawthorn bush, the Maytree. Thereby hangs a tale.
Ne’er cast a cloot till May be oot
Old Scots rhyme
Gemini offers a kindly doorway to summer: and we are now thankfully a few days into this communicative astrological sign. Gone the stress and hardship of winter, cold spring, slow growth. Enter the Cosmic Twins: dualism, communication, seeing both sides of the same situation. In other words, enter the mercurial element. And warm.
Gemini is usually a forgiving zodiac month. It fills one third of the calendar month of May. Its communication is tangible. Emblazoning shocking pink blooms dance on pale green leafy branches next to russet peeling-bark maples. Purple blossoms shout color from bending lilac boughs. Who wouldn’t want to communicate, yea, rejoice, in May? at least in the latter part of it.
“The world’s favorite season is the spring.
All things seem possible in May.”
– Edwin Way Teale
Not only has the zodiac sign of Gemini the backing of communicative Mercury to support it, but this year Mercury has only recently turned from retrograde to direct. Time for winter silence to end, stilted conversation, lack of fluidity gone; communication can start up again. The earth, too, a little miffed at having to wait so long to see the sun, is throwing caution to the winds, and everything is blooming at once.
As far as I’m concerned, this is a Godsend. It has been a long hard winter. We can all do with some relaxation. A little light relief, duality, multi-vision. Spring, however late, is welcome.
Trees this year are coming into leaf together all at the same time. We are reminded by birdsong of the fullness of life – fresh greenness of trees and shrubs – blossoms open. Life coughs and restarts.
In ‘normal’ years, the ash and oak are the last to open leaf and flower buds and rivalry between them to prognosticate rainy or dry weather of this old wives’ saying is noticeable. All beech, birch, lime and cherry buds are in full leaf before bare branches of the oak and ash decide to join them. Not this year. It was like a race had been initiated to see which species might rival the traditional early budders. They all won the contest.
‘If the oak comes out before the ash – we’re in for a splash;
If the ash comes out before the oak – we’re in for a soak‘ more Scots wisdom
What potent blood hath modest May.
– Ralph W. Emerson
Other aspects of the season begin to rub off on our chill northern disposition. We loosen up a little, feeling perhaps not so obsessed to compete or complete projects under the pressure of frost. Northern character is driven by cold: it precipitates one into working harder; showing that one is capable of braving hardship along with challenging temperatures. Mañana doesn’t work here. No cultural bias here, but who ever heard of a multi-million-dollar operation run by a Jamaican?
Is it any wonder that the Scot is Scotland’s greatest export? And, as a corollary, that the Scots hard-working northern ethos is one which takes well to leadership? Historically, successful world empires have been run by expatriot (and patriot) Scots: think Andrew Carnegie 1835-1918 (coal, steel and museums), Thomas Blake Glover 1838-1911 (Mitsubishi), John Paul Jones 1747-1792 (founder of the US Navy). Or politics, art and philosophy: think Sir Walter Scott 1771-1832 (lawyer, poet, novelist), Adam Smith 1723-1790 (author, Wealth of Nations, first modern economist), John Sinclair 1754-1835 (politician, writer, first to coin the word ‘statistics’). Or naturalist John Muir 1834-1914, founding father of the environmental movement.
That said, the Scots, like the Germans, are addicted to exotic places — but only as a place to ‘chill’, to ‘get away from’ their ‘real world’. Nowadays Scots populate world cruises and Germans overrun southern Italy. But then they come back home.A friend on a recent visit from the Pacific Northwest made an interesting observation: more of a cosmic comment:
what if Mary Queen of Scots had not been executed in 1587 by her cousin Elizabeth I?
Would we Scots still be the same feisty underdogs, over-achievers striving to pit our wits against the Universe? If she the Roman Catholic queen, rather than her protestant son James VI & I, had reigned in Great Britain, would we be more stay-at-home? more continental (‘auld alliance’ Scotland/France)? more laid-back? less prickly? less worldly or world-travelled?
Would we have been motivated to invent anything? (James Watt 1736-1819, steam engine; John Logie Baird 1839-1913, television).
Would we tolerate living in a climate which supports, in the words of Lord Byron – whose mother came from Aberdeenshire:
“Winter – ending in July
To recommence in August” ?
Is it any wonder we are obsessed with May?
The Gab o’ May is a harsh word for the beginning of such a gentle month, but historically its behavior has been erratic. The ‘Gab’ or ‘maw’ of a new month which perpetuates the weather of its predecessor is given short shrift. Lest the unwary shepherd forget, ancient tales tell of sheep dying in the fields in May.
Aye keep in some corn and hay
To meet the caul Kalends o’ May
The old earthman’s repeated rhyme about the Kalends of May sounds antiquated and without relevance to the modern ear, but in the North of Scotland this year his words had meaning.Weather in this Icelandic neighbourhood reached Arctic climax proportions between December and March. April’s showers were icy rather than gentle and the psyche of the ‘stoic’ Scot hardened and bristled. It’s the traditional way in a northerly, long-suffering people to cope with the harsh realities of living at the 57th degree of latitude and farther north.
The Pentland Firth, chosen to host the World Surfing Championships, presented contestants with ice floes. Not a single tree opened its spring foliage in April.
A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.
– Rhyme from England
Not a bee in sight. Not even an over-wintering midge. And May was imminent. Back to the Kalends, though.The Kalends was a Roman term which looks a little anachronistic now on the page of the poem. But it is good to remember that until Pope Gregory initiated a calendar change from Julian to Gregorian in 1582, only a brief time into Scotland’s own revolutionary change — the Reformation, which itself did not fully take hold until 1660 — the Church commanded people’s lives; dictated what was read to them (most of them didn’t read themselves) and what the Church read was Latin. So the first of the month was, in the minds of the rural farmer and countryman at least, still referred to by its Roman calendrical name, the Kalends.
It was the Roman name for the beginning of the month which gave us the word for Calendar in the first place. In Roman Scots it’s the same as the Gab o’ May – Maw of the month – the cold raw maw of May.
So what does it mean?
In times before there were trains, buses, mechanized transportation, when every countrydweller lived close to the land, the only modes of travel other than foot were a horse or a bicycle. And one of the surest ways of surviving was to keep a cow, or a sheep or a goat close to home. It’s what many rural communities still do in countries other than the First World. In Scotland before the 18th century, little “but ‘n’ ben” shacks were built of turf and earth. When stone building became more common at the end of that century, the same structure was converted to stone, but of similar design: a ‘but’, (abutting the ‘byre’ or stable with access to outdoors) where the animals lived and kept the building warm with their cozy breathing; they provided easy access for milking before being put out to pasture in the fields at the end of May. The ‘ben’ was the other part of the house, ‘through’ the house where guest humans went, away from the warm kitchen hearth and adjoining beasts. Until well into the 20th century, ‘company’ were invited into the ‘ben’ part of the house. Only the family spent time in the ‘but’, within soundwave proximity of the beasts. Even after the advent of a more leisured farming class – those in stone farmhouses with separate quarters for farm animals, barns and other sheds – no good practitioner of husbandry would send his animals out into the fields before the end of bad weather.When the weather became kindly – as garden centres so often remind us “plant out after all risk of frost has passed”: So with hen, cow, pig, sheep or goat. You kept your life-giving feathered and four-footed companions warm and fed indoors, not venturing to put them out to pasture until all risk of frost was over.
That’s where the calendar and the month of May come in.
The original Roman calendar calculated according to a 13-lunar-month regimen. Julius Caesar, after an extended visit with Cleopatra in Egypt, upgraded the Roman ‘Julian’ calendar in 46BC to run along lines similar to the Egyptian solar one which he admired. The Julian year was on average 365.25 days long. It worked well until extra ‘leap’ days started to mount up over a period of 1500 years. When the Gregorian calendar took over from the Julian calendar, the western hemisphere ‘lost’ 11 days. In country districts in the northern hemisphere – Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles – country people saw this as being robbed of life’s most precious commodity – time.
Because the original Roman calendar had run on cycles of the moon, even the revised version began to clash with solar time and calculation which made sense in the first centuries AD by the 18th century had lost relevance. An adjustment had to be made. September 2, 1752 was chosen as the date on which the old calendar would ‘switch’ to the new. On that day, the British Isles and all English colonies, including America, lost 11 days–September 3rd through 13th. People went to bed on September 2nd and when they awoke next morning, the date had become September 14th.There were riots in rural villages when people thought the government was trying to cheat them out of 11 days of their lives. Though these days disappeared in English lands in 1752, a number had already vanished in other places–France in 1582, Austria in 1584, and Norway in 1700. Tsarist Russian, on the other hand, did not convert to Gregorian until 1918. And the Berber people of North Africa still operate on Julian time.
Naturally they were upset when Christmas fell 11 days earlier that year, Epiphany 11 days earlier the next January and then it played havoc with spring. May started 11 days before the accustomed season and so our title quote, another favored Scots expression, became meaningless:
‘ne’er cast a cloot
till May be oot’
It has often been said that the ‘May’ of the quotation refers to the blossom of the May or Hawthorn and this would tie in well with spring timing. In calendar terms, however, in now (Gregorian) time, the Scots are seen to suggest caution when divesting winter woolies, extra layers of ‘vests’ (underwear) until the month of June has begun!
The original aphorism may have applied to the hawthorn, which did indeed bloom during the latter weeks of May; but when 11 days were subtracted from the old calendar, May became 11 days chillier and so in northern Scotland at least, the hawthorn no longer blooms until the last week of the month or the first week of June.
‘Ne’er cast a cloot till May be oot’
becomes the month as well as the tree. i.e. don’t take off anything until June.
… and now is not the time for me to tell the tale of the Victorian Scots bothy loon (farm worker) who was sewn into his underwear in November by the ‘kitchie deem’ (kitchen lass, maid) only to have the stitches removed the following summer solstice.
I’ll leave that delight for another story-telling session…