The return of the muckle supper?

Former student Sarah De Rees takes us through the 'Muckle Supper.'

Celebrating the harvest


When I was asked to write a piece for this month’s Mimir’s Well, I felt very flattered.  I will do my best to live up to the Centre for Nordic Studies staff standard!  They are a nice bunch at the centre, and very knowledgeable indeed.  My name is Sarah De Rees and I am a PhD student with the Centre for Nordic Studies, doing research into Orkney Food culture.

I was first approached after my talk about old harvest customs and beliefs in Orkney at the Orkney International Science Festival.  We decided that it would be fitting to write about Muckle Suppers and Harvest Homes, since September is traditionally known as ‘the time of the harvest’ or hairst.  When you drive through Orkney, or stand on top of Wideford hill to take in the islands’ breathtaking views, you will notice that many of Orkney’s golden fields of oats and barley have been cut, and the bales of straw are waiting to be taken in.

This is a very modern scene but one can get a glimpse of what the Orkney landscape would have looked like in the early twentieth century on a small patch of land on the outskirts of Kirkwall.  Here a local enthusiast maintains the traditional method of setting sheaves up into stooks to dry before carting them in.  It is good to see this tradition continued as an illustration of times past, however it is undeniable that this technique is no longer viable on a large scale.  Mechanisation began in the late nineteenth century and allowed for the harvesting to be completed in a shorter time.  It also allowed fewer people to do the work, and as a result, farms today are often run by only one or two folk.   Mechanisation has certainly made the work on the land less of a community event, yet harvesting in days of old was backbreaking work and it took often more than 6 weeks to get the crops cut and in the stack yard....

But harvest time was also one of the happiest times of the year.  People from neighbouring farms and islands came together to help each other out on the land.  Being brought up on a small farm in Belgium, I remember the joy of all my cousins coming over to help get the bales of straw in on a warm summer day.  One of us, usually the one old enough and able to reach the pedals, would be allowed to drive the tractor, the other women and girls’ job was to put the small rectangular bales in parallel lines so the tractor could drive between them, while the men raked them high up onto the cart.  It was usually hot and hard work but also a lot of fun.  Before the last of the bales were on the cart, someone was sent home to collect drinks: big bottles of lemonade and glasses for the children and bottles of beer for the adults.  What a treat!  Lemonade never tasted as good as during the harvest.  We’d have a chat about the crop that year and the weather... I expect community spirit during harvest time in Orkney was very similar, but on a much larger scale.

Seeing the crops brought in brings with it extra excitement because once the harvest work is completed, it is time for another ancient tradition: the Harvest Home festival!  Many old harvest customs – such as presenting the last farmer to bring in his crops with a strae bikko and making harvest knots – died out in the 1920s.  But the Harvest Home is a custom that did survive.  Many if not most of you will have attended one at some stage, or faithfully attend your local Harvest Home every year.  I have not been to a Harvest Home yet, and am thoroughly looking forward to my first!  Soon the papers will be full of notices in Deerness, Flotta, North Ronaldsay, Holm and so on.    It is a time to celebrate, a good excuse for another ceilidh and community get together; to lighten the cold, dark autumn evenings.  This is possibly one of the main reasons why harvest homes are still celebrated.

The Harvest Home is an ancient festival, celebrated worldwide in honour of the successful inning of the crops and the last sheaf.  Although Harvest Homes are a traditional festival, the celebrations have changed much since the days nearly every Orcadian worked on the land, and was dependent on it.  Unfortunately we know little about the predecessor of the Harvest Home in Orkney; the Muckle Supper.  Wouldn’t it be exciting to take a trip in Doctor Who’s Tardis and go back some 200 years or more!  What we do have however, are some oral accounts of early harvest homes.  If you are interested in accounts like this, I would recommend the bookOrkney and The Land: an Oral History.

What makes the Harvest Home we know today different from the Muckle Supper?  Muckle Supper could simply mean big feed, since ‘muckle’ derives from the Old Norse ‘Mikill’, meaning great, large. However Ernest Marwick who wrote much on harvest folklore, noted similarities both in characteristics and name with the Norse ‘Mikkel Feast’ or Michaelmas, held in celebration of Saint Michael (Norse Mikkel), whose feast day was 29th September (or 12th October on the Old Style or Julian calendar):

In Sondmor, Norway, it was recorded in the eighteenth century that up to fifty years previously the head of the household would kill a sheep at Michaelmass and share it very secretly with his workers without letting them make any reference to it.  In Norway generally, Michaelmas Day was usually celebrated with a great feast for the servants.  In Orkney, in olden times, a sheep was often killed for the muckle supper, and this was the feast to which all the workers were invited and the one at which they felt most at home. (An Orkney Anthology, 1991)

It is most likely that during the Viking Age the Norwegian settlers brought their Michaelmas customs with them to Orkney, and that these merged with the harvest customs already in place when they arrived.

The Muckle Supper was a big feed organised by the farmer and his wife as a thank you for the workers, friends and neighbours who helped with the harvest.  However its character gradually changed, with different foods being served and the event being open to the wider community.  Eventually the term Muckle Supper was completely replaced with the more widespread Scottish term Harvest Home.

Ernest Marwick commented on the county Harvest Home as a great innovation in the days customs started to change: The late Mr J.G.S. Flett once told me about a Birsay farmer of seventy or so who was so intrigued by descriptions of the harvest home at Kirkwall that he walked all the way from Birsay to see it, and, after it was over, walked home again. (An Orkney Anthology, 1991)

There are some accounts of Harvest Home celebrations during the early 20th century, published in ‘Orkney and the Land: an Oral History” and it is worth sharing some of these.  After the crops were all in, the farmer wives and husbands arranged a big feed which anyone wanting to attend could buy a ticket for.   People of more than one district gathered at a supper and they arrived on foot or bicycle.  The supper was held in a local hall which was filled with tables and seats. The farmers’ wives and husbands did not only arrange the celebrations’ preparations, they also served at the tables on the night itself, which consisted of home brew, and big chunks of roasted meat such as pork, beef and hen.  Once everyone was seated, the minister said grace and thanked God for the harvest safely gathered in, and other speeches were made by prominent members of the community such as the local doctor, who would give his bit o’talk about things. After the meal the tables were cleared and the dancing begun.  Music was provided by local talent in the form of a traditional ceilidh, however the dancing was not always as organised.  According to William Spence it was kind of wild jumping about, it wasna bonny dancing.    Home brew was ladled into cups and refilled many times:  No bars in the dances in them days, far better without it.. (John Taylor, Burray).  This feasting went on until all hours and the  celebrations were said to be a great meeting place for the young folk.  Thelma Rendall from Stronsay told how Many o’ lot o the girls were walking and the boys would come by on their bike and they would say ‘would you like to jump on the crossbar and I’ll gie you a run home?... There was an awful lot who met through dances.

A lot has changed since those days!  Today Harvest Homes are organised by community groups and trusts, and although they are no longer organised to thank the workers, the celebrations are still driven by the sense of community so prevalent in Orkney culture. The local village hall is decorated with a straw display and straw decorations on the tables.  A big feed in the form of clapshot (with mince), a traditional Orkney hearty meal, followed by homebakes, tea and coffee is expected and provided, and a variety of alcoholic drinks, perhaps some homebrew, is also served.   After dinner the tables are put aside as the ceilidh band gets ready to lead the music for the dancing.

Harvest Homes are said to become less popular with the young and they can be an expensive outing for families.  It is also true that now less people are physically involved in the harvest and farming has become almost a one man job, those who aren’t farmers are more distanced from the land and the yearly cycle.  Little wonder there is less incentive to celebrate the end of the harvest season.  Certainly last year a few harvest homes were cancelled due to lack of interest... But are they becoming a thing of the past?  Are we trying to hold on to something that no longer has any relevance in modern day Orkney?  Or will there be a return to the Muckle Supper; a big feed on the farm rather than a large community event?...

Sarah De Rees