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Monday, 11 February 2013

The Corn Maiden

Here are some details about an age-old custom of keeping the Corn Maiden or Dolly, sometimes referred to in Gaelic as A’ Mhaighdeann Bhuana. The following anecdote was taken down by Calum Maclean in Newtonmore on 18 July, 1952, from a Mrs Ferguson, aged ninety, then residing in Laggan in Badenoch: 
 
When they cut the corn they always kept the lost sheaf, always. It was called the Maighdeann, Maiden. In the early times, in the times that Cluny was in his briskness you know they had a dance at the Maighdeann, as it was called, the Maiden, when the Maiden was taken in. It was taken in to the burn and the burn was cleared out of course and they had a dance. When the last of the corn was taken in, the Maiden was taken in. They had a dance. The Maiden was hanging on the wall. It was just a pretty sheaf. It wasn’t a sheaf but a small sheaf crossed And it used to hang on an nail on the wall. And then they danced till morning. It was called the Deireadh Bhuain (V70.4.). Well, they always had that in Cluny. Well it was going on for years and it was understood that the granary was to be used for the dance after the Harvest Home (V70.4.). But then they took to drink and that finished the old lady. She wouldn’t have any drunkenness about, if she could at all. But it would be there in spite of her. So we always had great pleasure, when the Harvest Home would be there and other times too.  I remember quite clearly having the sheaf and hanging it up. It was fastened like a cross and I think it would be a ribbon that would be fastening it, coming down. And then it was put on the wall for the rest of the winter. It was left on the wall. We had it on our own wall many a time. The one that cut the last corn, whoever was gathering it with him got the Maiden. It wasn't the man that got it. It was the gleaner who got it. It may have been different in other places. But I know that in Cluny, when Cluny was in his day, they always had it. And there were such a lot of men. There were six ploughmen in those days. There were six pair of horses and Oh! there was plenty fun for them, you know, and then there was plenty would go to finish off the harvest for the sake of the dance and all that came after it. They called the sheaf “Maighdeann Bhuain.” Well that’s that anyway. 

Such a custom held a particular fascination for Calum Maclean as he would later go on to write an article, posthumously published in Scottish Studies, about the various traditions that he had collected himself and other historical sources besides about the Corn Maiden. With regard to the custom in Badenoch, Maclean wrote as follows:

Even despite the introduction of modern agricultural machinery and the almost complete disappearance of sickle and scythe, the Harvest Maiden or Clyack Sheaf is still cut and brought home. Several informants in different parts of the country stated that they hung it on their walls; some said they did so until recently, others declared that they still did it. As recently as 1954 I saw a Clyack Sheaf on the wall of a house in Laggan, Badenoch. I should venture to say that the practice is more widespread than is generally thought. It is pleasant to notice that the practice of giving an extra sheaf of corn to horses and cattle on Christmas or New Year’s Day has not stopped either.

References:
Calum I. Maclean, The Highlands (Inbhir Nis: Club Leabhar, 1975)
———. ‘The Last Sheaf’, Scottish Studies, vol. 8 (1964), pp. 193–207
SSS NB 13, pp. 1210–12

Image:
The Corn Maiden or Dolly / A’ Mhaighdeann Bhuana, lit. The Harvest Maiden, an example photographed in Mull (Courtesty of the School of Scottish Studies Archives)

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