taking our culture forward

Social dancing at harvest time

Wed, 23 Sep 2020

In the ninth in our series of articles about Manx music, this piece looks at the large part music and dance have always played in the traditional Manx harvest, the Mheillea. This was recently published in the Manx Independent:

Social dancing at harvest time

Autumn is here, the nights are drawing in and it’s the season to celebrate the harvest, known in the Isle of Man as the Mheillea.

Mheillea was traditionally held on the evening after the last corn was cut. The last handful of corn was plaited and bound in ribbons and taken by procession to the nearest hill, where the ‘Queen of the Mheillea’ waved the ‘babban ny mheillea’ (Manx equivalent of the English ‘corn dolly’) to indicate that the harvest was in, to great rejoicing. It was time to party and dance the night away.

Thomas Quayle wrote in 1812: “The Manks peasantry being much attached to dancing, it is a constant practice on the evening of the day on which the last corn is cut, for the farmer to call in a fiddler or two.”

Once they had left the fields and changed out of their working clothes, the reapers - men, women and children - joined the farmer and his family in the barn for a celebratory supper of broth, beef and mutton, barley and greens, mheillea pie (made with potatoes and herring) and apple dumplings. This was accompanied by barrels of ale, and followed by singing and dancing. The ‘babban ny mheillea’ came to the party too and was passed between the young women whilst dancing. For the rest of the year, it was kept on the mantelpiece to ward off bad luck.

Not restricted to the mainland, the mheillea was also celebrated on the Calf of Man, and in 1811, visiting author George Woods joined the tenant farmer and a dozen labourers on the tiny isle for “the meller of the Manks, a time of jubilee”. He described the small party enjoying plentiful ale, a modest measure of the master’s rum, and dancing in the barn, before he was rowed back to the opposite shore that same night.

One particular Manx dance is associated with the harvest celebrations. Folklorist Mona Douglas constructed a harvest dance in the 1940s that was based on historical descriptions of a circle dance around the ‘babban’, With its final coda, “Y Mheillea, y Mheillea, t’eh ayn, t’eh ayn, t’eh ayn, Hogh!” [The harvest is in!] it has become a staple of many a ceili.

These days, the harvest is celebrated in a different way than in the past. All over the Island, churches, chapels, pubs, clubs and schools host auctions of home produce, including fruit and vegetables, pies and cakes, jams and hedgerow wine – with the proceeds going to a various good causes.

Soon, the IOM Foodbank will increase its efforts to provide for those in need over winter, and events such as the forthcoming Food & Drink Festival and Trad Music Weekend will give us a flavour of days gone by when food, music and dancing went hand in hand.

This month, Culture Vannin releases a new tutorial video of “Yn Mheillea” for guitarists, and there is further information about the calendar customs here.

The article is available to be enjoyed on the Isle of Man Newspapers' website.
This article links to the series of traditional Manx music arranged for guitar being released as a free download and video lesson. More information is available here.