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The Cornish Midsummer Eve Bonfire Celebrations
As a heathen festival, there can be no question but that these fires owe their origin to a form of sun worship. Although the opinions of Dr. William Borlase and other 18th century antiquaries concerning Druidical religious practices in Cornwall have been largely discounted by later historians of a less romantic turn of mind, it is difficult, if not impossible, to account for the existence of this ancient midsummer custom without invoking some such explanation. For, despite the scepticism now accorded to stories of burnt offerings sacrificed on Cornish hilltop altars, and of rock basins brimming with human gore, the mere survival of the fires themselves and the traces of pagan customs associated with them, form the strongest possible argument for the soundness of the underlying sun-worship theory.
These bonfires were supposed to have been kindled by the Druids on the first of May on all their sacred places, and on the tops of all their cairns, in honour of Bel (Baal) or Belinus, “the name by which they distinguished the sun, whose revolving course had again clothed the earth with beauty and diffused joy and gladness through the creation." (Hone's Year Book.) The fires held on Midsummer Eve, just after the solstice, would have celebrated the splendour of high summer, with the sun at the peak of its power and glory in the heavens, and promising ripeness to the maturing fruits and grain. They were supposed to bring a blessing on the crops; and animals, such as rabbits and pigs, and sometimes criminals, as well, were sacrificed in the flames.
In its early days, the Church found itself faced with the alternatives either of suppressing altogether such pagan festivals as the Midsummer bonfires, or of adopting and adapting them for its own purposes. It generally chose the latter course; and so the fires were allowed to continue, though they were now lit to celebrate the Eve of St. John (Cornish golowan, from gol Jowan, John's feast). In spite of the new, Christianised form which had thus been given to the custom, some of its old pagan features were still maintained by the people, though in a disguised form. Thus, instead of having a human or animal sacrifice, a wreath of symbolical herbs was cast into the fire, and the children danced around it singing songs, the words of one of these being, according to Sir Richard Tangye's recollections of his Cornish childhood in the 1830's:
Midsummer Eve is passing away, is passing away,
Games were also indulged in; and as the flames died down, the young people leaped singly through the fire to purge away any evil influences. They also carried some of the ashes to their homes to keep until the next year, these being supposed to bring them luck.
The Midsummer fires continued to blaze forth for centuries from hilltops throughout Britain; but with the passage of time, the festival gradually lost its hold in most parts of the country, and eventually became confined to such remote areas as the western parts of Cornwall, where it survived until about the last quarter of the 19th century.
The first fire of the chain of Midsummer bonfires was traditionally lit on the "Garrack Zans," or "Holy Rock," in the village of Escols, in Sennen, and the second on the Chapel Hill, Chapel Carn Brea, after which all the other beacon hills in the area were soon ablaze - Bartinney, Sancreed Beacon, Castle-an Dinas, Carn Galver, St. Agnes Beacon, Tregonning, Godolphin, Carn Marth, and many others further north and east.
This Garrack Zans, at Escols, was, according to Dr. Robert Hunt, invested with the most remarkable associations. He asserts that many superstitious rites, such as are connected with the eves of St. Agnes and Midsummer, were formerly performed on it; and that the extinction of several old local families was ascribed by the peasantry to the unholy act of removing or breaking up the altar for building stone. Bottrell describes this rock as “nearly round, about three feet high, and nine in diameter, with a level top," and says that it stood near the middle of the hamlet on an open space where a maypole was also erected. This stone was the usual meeting place of the villagers, and regarded by them as public property. Whenever an article had been stolen or some misdemeanour committed, those who wished to prove their innocence and discover the guilty, would light a furze fire on the Garrack Zans; each person present took a burning faggot from the pile; and those who could extinguish the fire in their sticks by spitting on them, were deemed innocent; but those whose mouths proved too dry — through fear, one presumes — to generate sufficient moisture for the purpose, thereby revealed their guilt. Most evenings, young people linked hand in hand danced round the rock, and many old folk passed round it nine times daily, in the belief that this brought luck, besides being a protection against witchcraft.
Many other villages in western Cornwall used to possess unhewn, table-like rocks such as this, which were used for similar purposes, and called by the same name. The stone at Mayon in Sennen, known as Table-Mên, used to be called the Garrack Zans, whilst there were others at Treen, Sowah and Roskestal in St. Levan. It seems fairly evident that all these rocks were ancient altars, and closely connected with the Midsummer fires and their mystic rites.
fire on the Garrack Zans at Escols had been lit, the villagers would
dance around it, and the same scenes were repeated at other bonfires
elsewhere. Bottrell, writing in 1873, when the old tradition was fast
dying out, declared wistfully that he "would gladly. go many miles to
see the weird-looking, yet picturesque, dancers around the flames on a
carn or high hill top, as [I] have seen them some forty years ago.”
During the day, the Mayor of Penzance used to issue a proclamation, forbidding the lighting of bonfires - a measure chiefly designed to prevent him subsequently being charged with a failure of his duty in the event of a mishap occurring, and which was entirely disregarded by the populace. As evening drew in, pandemonium would seem to break loose in Penzance and its neighbourhood. Youths from different parts of the town paraded the streets with burning torches, which they swung around their heads with a circular motion. These were made of large pieces of folded canvas steeped in tar and nailed to the ends of sticks between three and four feet long, and it required much exertion and no small skill to keep them from coming too close to the bearer.
With the approach of darkness came an increase in the number of torch bearers; tar barrels and bonfires then blazed in every direction, not only in Penzance itself, but also at Marazion, St. Michael's Mount, Newlyn, Mousehole and Paul, so that the whole bay seemed to be lit Fireworks were also let off among the crowds in the streets, as at a G Fawkes celebration, producing much merry sport, but apparently few accidents. A “Mock Mayor” would also make his appearance during the late evening in the Green Market, surrounded by a number of youthful attendants, who held lighted hand-rockets above his head their falling sparks giving the impression that he was standing in the middle of a fountain of fire.
About eleven o'clock, when the fires had somewhat died down. another amusement would begin, principally enacted by the lads and lasses living in the vicinity of the quay. These formed a line, and ran through the streets, calling “An eye! An eye! An eye!” and so proceeded to "thread the needle.” J. S. Courtney, writing in 1845, described the game as follows: "The line is formed without any regard to the number engaged, excepting to keep in mind the old proverb of 'the more, the merrier.' The two individuals at the upper end then hold high their hands, and the whole of the party, beginning with the opposite extremity rush quickly through; this, of course, reverses their position, and it is now the turn of those who at first held up their hands, to be the leaders of the thread. Thus alternating, rush after rush takes place, with shouts and laughter, until weariness compels them to desist.” All these customs can be matched in Brittany: descriptions of Breton midsummer fires will be found especially in the writings of Anatole le Braz.
On the day following these celebrations, the Quay or Midsummer Fair would be held on Penzance Pier, and was conducted much like any other pleasure fair, except for a custom of having a short trip in a boat, which was called "having a pen'orth of sea." This was much indulged in by the country people, who visited the fair in great numbers. These jollifications were repeated later in the year on St. Peter's Eve in every particular, except that the fair on the following day was smaller and less well attended.
In the mining areas of St. Just, Lelant, Towednack, and elsewhere, an interesting custom of "shooting the Midsummer holes was observed. The young miners would bore rows of holes in the tops on flat rocks on nearby hills or in fields near their homes, which they the charged with gunpowder and exploded in rapid succession by means om a connecting train. The sound produced was similar to that of a large jumping cracker. The holes were too shallow to result in the rock being broken, and so the same batteries could be used year alle year. Many of them, indeed, still remain. There are several such 10 to be seen on the highest rock of Rosewall Hill Cairn, near St. and others on the top of Trencrom. On Trendrine Hill, above the hamlet of Beagle Todn, lies a curious rock formation, known as the "two-penny loaf," near which is a very large Midsummer Hole Rock. The writer has also been shown several flat rocks at Tregerthen Farm in Zennor parish, which are drilled in the same way, quite a number of miners having once resided in the vicinity. The shooting of Midsummer Holes is said to commemorate the fact that tin was discovered on Midsummer Day; but this method of celebrating the event cannot be older than the introduction of gunpowder into the Cornish mines.
As previously stated, the traditional Midsummer Eve customs were already sharply on the wane in the early 1870's. Shortly after 1881, the increasing traffic at Penzance led to the cessation of bonfires in the Green Market, but they continued to be held in other parts of the town for some while longer. The hilltop fires appear to have been generally discontinued somewhere about the same period, although Camborne had its bonfires until 1914. Thus a considerable lapse of time occurred between the end of the traditional St. John's Eve festivities and their organised revival by the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies in 1929.
Yet, in spite of this intermission, during which no fires blazed forth from the carns, and when it seemed that the festival, like so many other ancient observances, had sunk into permanent oblivion, a living continuity was nevertheless preserved, several of those who assisted at the revival having themselves taken part in the old celebrations during the previous century. The late Mr. R. J. Noall, of Hellesvean, who lit the 1929 O.C.S. bonfire at St. Ives, was one of those who could bridge the gap and thus hand on the torch — in an almost literal sense! — to a younger generation. “Rechard John” used proudly to recall that he had himself taken part in the old Midsummer fires on the hilltops, and seen huge bonfires blazing in the streets of Penzance, with the young people passing through the flames when they had somewhat died down. He could also remember the miners firing Midsummer Holes at noon on Midsummer Day, showing that this practice must have lingered rather later than is generally believed, for he was himself born in 1871.
When the revival took place in 1929, a chain of bonfires was organised throughout the county by the Old Cornwall movement. The first fire lit was on Chapel Carn Brea, overlooking the Land's End, followed by others on Castle-an-Dinas and Rosewall Hill; and so the fiery chain ran on through the 80 mile length of the Cornish peninsula to Kit Hill, near the Devon border.
The general procedure established in connection with these fires in 1929 has been maintained ever since, and may now be regarded as traditional. Folk-dancing and songs, and a pasty supper, are regarded in most places as necessary preliminaries to the fire itself, whilst the ceremony of lighting the bonfire (usually carried out by some local dignitary, such as the Mayor) and the casting in of the herbs, with invocations and a prayer spoken in Cornish, also now follows a set pattern. As the Old Cornwall movement has increased in strength and new Societies have been established, so has the number of bonfires tended to increase; and the spectacle of all these beacons blazing up on Midsummer Eve is now a very fine one indeed, perhaps exceeding in splendour that which was once presented by the “Baal” fires of ancient times. The temporary “black out” caused by the Second World War utterly failed to dim the enthusiasm of Old Cornwall members for this annual festival, which gains in popularity each year, and is a source of never failing interest and pleasure both to local people and their "foreign" guests from across the Tamar.
BOTTRELL, William. Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Second Series, 1873.
COURTNEY, J. S. A Guide to Penzance and its Neighbourhood, 1845.
HUNT, Robert. Popular Romances of the West of England, 1871.
REES, Edgar A. Old Penzance, 1956.
TANGYE, Sir Richard. The Rise of a Great Industry, 1905.
Recorder's Books, St. Ives Old Cornwall Society.
Cornish in Song and Ceremony. Published by the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, n.d.
First published by the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies (1963). Thanks to Lally Macbeth.