Why 18th-Century Scots Carried out Mock Human Sacrifices Over Oatcakes

It’s springtime within the Scottish Highlands and a bonfire blazes towards the evening sky. A bunch stands earlier than the flames, passing round a hat containing slices of bannock, or griddled oatcake. Every individual plucks out a chunk, till one unlucky soul unfurls his fist to disclose a charcoal-daubed morsel. Destiny has declared him the cailleach Beal-tine, a scapegoat who should be sacrificed. A few of his companions seize him, pulling him towards the hearth. For good measure, they could even lay him out and put together to attract and quarter him. On the final minute, when it seems his sacrifice is imminent, a gaggle of rescuers rush in and save him.

Such was the 18th-century ritual of the burnt Beltane bannock and the cailleach Beal-tine. The mock sacrifice is one among a number of bygone traditions related to the traditional Celtic pageant of Beltane. Celebrated from the eve of April 30 by means of Might 1, Beltane marks the start of summer season. When many individuals image related Might 1, or “Might Day,” festivities, they could think about dancers round a maypole and flower-clad Might Queens. Whereas modern-day Beltane celebrations incorporate a few of these parts, early Beltane Eve nights had been extra intense affairs, full of sky-licking flames, purification rites, magic, and choices to highly effective beings. The pageant got here on the precipice to a vital time: With months of summer season looking and farming forward, it was important to supplicate each pure and supernatural forces. Like its winter-welcoming fellow pageant, Samhain, Beltane was believed to be a time when the barrier between the mortal and the magical lifted.

The bonfire and procession at the Beltane Fire Society's 2019 event.
The bonfire and procession on the Beltane Fireplace Society’s 2019 occasion. Courtesy of the Beltane Fireplace Society/Photograph by Kasia Sowinska

As a result of lack of written Celtic data, now we have little details about the primary Beltane festivals. The earliest recorded point out of Beltane seems in an early medieval Irish glossary, centuries after its theorized origins, and essentially the most substantial documentation of Beltane-related traditions throughout Scotland, Eire, and Wales happens from the 1700s by means of the early 1900s. Although a lot of the charcoal-smeared bannock’s significance is a thriller, these data spotlight the griddled oatcake’s auspicious significance on the vacation. On the Isle of Mull, 18th-century Scottish author John Ramsay famous, farmers milked their cows by means of a gap of their bannocks for good luck on Beltane. In the meantime, within the Highlands area of Perthshire, Scots baked a scalloped bannock—maybe to imitate the form of a solar—and tore off items that they’d toss over their shoulders with attendant needs for crops or livestock well being: “Every [is] devoted to some explicit being, the supposed preserver of their flocks and herds, or to some explicit animal, the actual destroyer of them,” Thomas Pennant wrote in his 1769 ebook, A Tour of Scotland. “‘This I give to thee, O Fox, spare thou my lambs; this to thee, O Hooded Crow, this to thee, O Eagle!’”

Sarah Barr grew up round Perthshire, the place these superstitious Beltane bannock rituals as soon as befell. Nevertheless, since they largely disappeared from Scotland by the flip of the twentieth century, Barr says she “by no means noticed disguise nor hair of them.” Nonetheless, she was drawn to the traditions surrounding Beltane and at this time helps manage Edinburgh’s annual Beltane Fireplace Society pageant, a contemporary celebration that sometimes entails a dramatic procession and enormous bonfire atop the town’s Calton Hill. (Nobody is sacrificed, not even in faux, theatrical trend.)

Performers beside the burning bonfire on Calton Hill.
Performers beside the burning bonfire on Calton Hill. Courtesy of the Beltane Fireplace Society/Photograph by Gladys Yelland

Barr, who makes her personal bannock with leek-infused butter, notes that bannock-based symbolic sacrifices might have their roots in an earlier, extra determined time, when sick cows or a brief drought might sign doom for a neighborhood. “I do marvel if traditions just like the cailleach Beal-tine have been kind of, not sanitized, however they not carry the identical concern and weight behind desperately having to verify your loved ones survives by sacrificing somebody in your neighborhood. However it nonetheless has that vein of ‘Properly, now Jimmy, you’re the cailleach Beal-tine, don’t let our crops die.’”

Though archaeological proof means that the Celts did carry out human sacrifice, students have but to unearth a physique or artifact that confirms with certainty that they carried out such a ceremony on Beltane. Nevertheless, one archaeologist and Celtic scholar theorized that bannock, Beltane, and human sacrifice might have collided in a single well-known Iron Age corpse.

In her ebook, The Life and Death of a Druid Prince, the late archaeologist Anne Ross investigated the Lindow Man, a physique miraculously preserved in a peat bathroom in Cheshire, England. As a result of seemingly methodical execution of his accidents (an enormous blow to the top, a damaged neck from garroting, and stabbing wounds) in addition to his manicured fingers and wholesome physique, many students consider the Lindow Man was a person of excessive standing who was sacrificed. Due to the traditional physique’s unbelievable, preserved situation, scientists had been in a position to study the Lindow Man’s abdomen contents and decide his final supper: mistletoe pollen and a griddled, unleavened flatbread. Since researchers famous the bread had been charred, Ross speculated that the Lindow Man was an unlucky burnt bannock recipient who was sacrificed within the title of an excellent harvest.

The Lindow Man's body was so well preserved in the peat bog that scientists could confirm his last meal consisted of mistletoe pollen and burnt flatbread.
The Lindow Man’s physique was so nicely preserved within the peat bathroom that scientists might affirm his final meal consisted of mistletoe pollen and burnt flatbread. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

However archaeologist and Celtic scholar Miranda Aldhouse-Inexperienced cautions towards making too many imaginative leaps in relation to the Lindow Man, particularly the precise rationale for his loss of life. “I believe the difficulty is that it’s fairly tempting with this topic to take the inferences and interpretation too far,” she says. “While you’re coping with the Iron Age in Europe, you don’t have written data apart from the Romans, who had been speaking about these ‘Different’ individuals.” One enduring instance: In The Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar mentions seeing an alleged human-shaped wood scaffold that burned human sacrifices trapped inside. (The chilling scene impressed each the traditional 1973 horror movie The Wicker Man and a hilariously horrible 2006 Nicolas Cage remake.) Aldhouse-Inexperienced continues, “We don’t have the voice of the indigenous inhabitants of Britain on the time and due to this fact we don’t have written explanations of what their rituals had been about. It’s all secondhand.”

Nonetheless, Aldhouse-Inexperienced hypothesizes that the Lindow Man might have been sacrificed in dramatic, communal trend, considerably much like the mock rituals of Beltanes centuries later. “It’s a flat panorama so issues would’ve been seen for miles,” she says of the peat bathroom the place the Lindow Man was killed. “I’d suspect what you’d have is a procession probably happening for miles with bells ringing and music taking part in that will be calling individuals out of their homes to hitch the procession. That might’ve taken days. It might’ve lined mile after mile and all of the native individuals would hear this and are available out to see what was happening then take part.” Though she’s cautious to not state something with certainty, she speculates that he might have been sacrificed to stave off the advance of Roman troopers.

With the rise of industrialized agriculture and evolution of science, the terrifying unpredictability of fixing seasons is essentially a factor of the previous—and so too are the superstitious rituals that attended the change of seasons. However the world stays terrifyingly unpredictable: With the hazards of COVID-19, the Beltane Fireplace Society has cancelled its on-site occasion this yr and as a substitute recorded a pretaped efficiency now available on YouTube. Nonetheless, Barr plans to make bannock and, if it’s not crowded, get pleasure from a quiet second on Calton Hill to have a good time Beltane. “I’ll convey some tea, I’ll convey some bannock. And I’ll in all probability throw some for the crows.”

Beltane bannock, topped with caudle.
Beltane bannock, topped with caudle. Sam O’Brien for Gastro Obscura

Beltane Bannock and Caudle

Tailored from the Beltane Fire Society’s recipe

For added symbolic heft and taste, some Scottish cooks coated their bannocks in caudle, a custard-like batter of eggs, milk, cream, and oats. In keeping with Scottish folklorist F. Marian McNeill, every core caudle ingredient represented a want for the months forward: eggs and dairy for plentiful hens and cows, and oats for a bountiful harvest. For added supplication, a libation of the caudle can be poured onto the bottom earlier than spreading it over the cake.


For the bannock:
1 cup self-rising flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup rolled oats
¼ cup oat flour or rolled oats floor finely in meals processor
½ to 1 cup buttermilk

For the caudle:
1 cup milk or gentle cream
1 tablespoon oat flour or rolled oats floor finely
2 eggs
Honey or brown sugar, to style
Salt, to style
Grated nutmeg, floor ginger, allspice, or saffron, to style
A number of splashes of brown ale


1. Sift the flour, salt, and baking soda collectively in a big bowl, then whisk within the rolled oats and oat flour (or floor oats).
2. Add the buttermilk, progressively incorporating it till the dough is tender. As quickly because it’s beginning to get a bit sticky, cease including the buttermilk, even in the event you haven’t used the entire quantity but.
3. On a floured floor, prove the dough and form right into a circle. Gently work it; don’t knead it.
4. Prepare dinner the dough in a pan on medium warmth till the underside is browned, then flip over and repeat. Set the bannock apart.
5. Warmth the milk or cream with the oat flour (or floor oats) in a nonstick saucepan. Simmer till it begins to thicken.
6. Beat the eggs, then pour them into the stovetop combination, including within the honey and seasonings to style. Proceed simmering, and stirring, for about 5 minutes.
7. Take away the caudle from the stovetop. Add a number of splashes of ale.
8. Pour a part of the caudle over your bannock. Don’t neglect to pour half on the bottom outdoors as an providing.
9. In the event you’d wish to play a recreation of mock-sacrifice, slice off a chunk of bannock and return it to the pan. Prepare dinner till charred. Slice different items of the bannock of equal measurement, then add all of them to a hat. Have your folks shut their eyes and pick items. When the cailleach Beal-tine pulls the blackened portion, open the oven door and name in your mates to convey the crone to their fiery doom. On the final minute, in the event you’re feeling beneficiant, spare them. Completely happy Beltane!

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