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Crying the Neck

Mrs Eliza Bray

Originally written in the form of a letter to Robert Southey in 1836



One evening, about the end of harvest, I was riding out on my pony, attended by a servant who was born and bred a Devonian. We were passing near a field on the borders of Dartmoor, where the reapers were assembled. In a moment the pony started nearly from one side of the way to the other, so sudden came a shout from the field, which gave him this alarm. On my stopping to ask my servant what all that noise was about, he seemed surprised by the question, and said “It was only the people making their games as they always did, to the spirit of the harvest.” Such a reply was quite sufficient to duce me to stop immediately; as I felt certain here was to be observed some curious vestige of a most ancient superstition; and I soon gained all the information I could wish to obtain upon the subject. The offering to the spirit of the harvest is thus made.

When the reaping is finished, toward evening the labourers select some of the best ears of corn from the sheaves; these they tie together, and it is called the nack. Sometimes, as it was when I witnessed the custom, this nack is decorated with flowers, twisted in with the reed, which gives it a gay and fantastic appearance. The reapers then proceed to a high place (such, in fact, was the field on the side of a steep hill where I saw them) and there they go, to use their own words, to “holla the nack.” The man who bears this offering stands in the midst, elevates it, whilst all the other labourers form them selves into a circle about him; each holds aloft his hook, and in a moment they all shout, as loud as they possibly can, these words, which I spell as I heard them pronounced, and I presume they are not to be found in any written record. “Arnack, arnack, arnack, wehaven ,wehaven ,wehaven? — This is repeated three several times; and the firkin is handed round between each shout, by way, I conclude, of libation. When the weather is fine, different parties of reapers, each stationed on some height, may be heard for miles round, shouting, as it were, in answer to each other.

The evening I witnessed this ceremony, many women and children, some carrying boughs, and others having flowers in their caps, or in their hands, or in their bonnets, were seen, some dancing, others singing, whilst the men (whose exclamations so startled my pony) practised the above rites in a ring. When we recollect that in order to do so the reapers invariably assemble on some high place, that they form themselves into a circle, whilst one of their party holds the offering of the finest ears of corn in the middle of the ring, can we for a moment doubt this custom is a vestige of Druidism? The man so elevating the offering is, in all probability, no other than the successor of the priest, whose duty it was to offer up the first and best fruits of the harvest to the goddess who fostered its increase, as his brother priests formed about him that circle which was held sacred in the forms and offices of religion; and I cannot but conclude that we have not throughout the whole kingdom a more curious rite, derived from Pagan antiquity , than the one just mentioned that I witnessed on the borders of Dartmoor.



'Crying the Neck' is a harvest tradition unique to Cornwall and Devon, that was revived by the Old Cornwall Societies in 1926. The earliest account is given in the second edition of William Hone's Every-day Book (1826), and is again from Devon.

Photo is of the ceremony in Cury, 1967 (courtesy helstonhistory.co.uk).