Old May Day custom of the Queen of Summer driving off Winter's ruler
arrival of the merry month of May has special significance in the Isle
of Man and was celebrated in the past with a Druidical festival called
Beltane when bonfires were lit on hilltops and various ceremonies were
enacted. One custom was to gather a small bunch of primroses and leave
it on the doorstep on May Eve to keep the witches away. Another, still
observed, is to make a crosh cuirn by binding together two rowan twigs
with lambswool (you must not use a knife). This is placed above the
door inside the home and left there all year, for the same purpose. One
custom that has fallen by the wayside concerned the choosing of a Queen
of the May. The following account is from Waldron's Description of the
Isle of Man, 1726:
'In almost all the great parishes they chuse
from among the daughters of the most wealthy farmers a young maid, for
the Queen of May.
'She is drest in the gayest and best manner
they can, and is attended by about twenty others who are called maids
of honour; she has also a young man, who is her captain, and has under
his command a great number of inferior officers.
to her is the Queen of Winter, who is a man dressed in women's clothes,
with woollen hoods, fur tippits and loaded with the heaviest and
warmest habits one upon another: in the same manner are those who
represent her attendants dressed, nor is she without a captain and
troops for her defence.
'Both being equipped as proper emblems
of the beauty of Spring and the deformity of the Winter, they set forth
from their respective quarters; the one preceded by violins and flutes,
the other with the rough musick of the tongs and cleavers.
'Both companies march till they meet on a common, and then their trains engage in a mock-battle.
the Queen of Winter's forces get the better so far as to take the Queen
of May prisoner, she is ransomed for as much as pays the expenses of
'After this ceremony, Winter and her company retire and
divert themselves in a barn, and the others remain on the green, where,
having danced a considerable time, they conclude the evening with a
feast: the queen at one table with her maids, the captain with his
troop at another. There are seldom less than fifty or sixty persons at
each board . . . '
The mock battle referred to has been
successfully revived in recent years at Manx National Heritage May Day
events at Cregneash. E. Kermode, whose writings dated 1885 were
published 100 years later as Celtic Customs, said Waldron was the only
writer who mentions the custom as having existed in the Island, and but
for him the memory of it would have passed away into entire oblivion,
so completely had the practice itself died out, although there was no
doubt the custom was a very ancient one in the Isle of Man (probably of
Norse origin). He added: 'We have no evidence that the Maypole or
Morris Dancing ever obtained a footing in the Isle of Man. If they were
ever introduced it would probably be by English residents. The customs
and amusements most in use in the Island seem to have had greater
resemblance to those of Ireland and Scotland than with those of
England. Kermode noted that in later years, instead of the seizing the
Queen herself during the mock battle, one of her slippers was
substituted and this was ransomed in a similar manner to pay the
expenses of the pageant. The procession of Spring was called the
Maceboard (being probably a corruption of May-sports), and went about
from door to door inquiring if the inmates would buy the Queen's
favour, which was composed of small pieces of ribbon. The traditional
song Tappagyn Jiargey (Red Top-Knots), which appears in A. W. Moore's
Manx Ballads, is connected with May Day customs. It was one of Twelve
Manx Folk Songs, arranged with piano accompanist by Arnold Foster, with
translations by Mona Douglas and published in 1928. In her introduction
to it, Miss Douglas says: 'This song is connected with the old Manx
May-Day custom of a mock battle between Summer and Winter, in which the
Queen of Summer and her followers drive off the Queen of Winter and her
forces and are hailed as victors.
'The Summer Queen's head-dress was decked with coloured ribbons, to which the title refers.
'This custom is no longer celebrated traditionally in the island, but the song is still fairly well known.
refrain has a peculiar and characteristic rhythm, and early collectors
seem to have found difficulty in getting the exact note-value down on
'In the version used here the actual notes are identical
with Moore's version in 'Manx Ballads' , but the time has been noted
direct from folk singers (children at Ballaglass), and varies a little
from Moore's notation.'