Quarter Days, Cross-Quarter Days & The “Wheel of the Year” in Scotland

The terms “Quarter Day” and “Cross-Quarter Day” can mean various different things to various different people depending on where they’re from, what the context is and even their own personal beliefs. So, in this article I’d like to as briefly as possible outline what these things mean in a Scottish context in terms of history, religion, folk culture and Scots Law.

I hope this information will be helpful in particular to people interested in Scottish folk beliefs/practices, in comparing what these terms mean in some neighbouring countries, and in comparing the Scottish calendar to the modern Neopagan “Wheel of the Year”. There will be links and other resources for further reading at the end.

What’s a Quarter Day?

A Quarter Day is a set day when contracts are made/renewed, rents/debts are paid, staff are hired etc. Traditionally these where organised according to the changing seasons, therefore they also coincided with religious and cultural events. This is no longer the case in Scotland with the modern legal Quarter and Term Days.

The Gaelic or “Celtic” Quarter Days

In Scotland, what we call the Gaelic or “Celtic” Quarter Days appear to have been the same as those in Ireland and the Isle of Man, marking the beginning of each season, dividing the year roughly into quarters. These are also commonly known as Fire Festivals. Originally these would not have occurred on fixed dates, but would have been celebrated after the changing of the season had been ascertained through signs from the changing weather, plants and the moon. The celebrations began the night before.

In Old Irish, these were known as:

  • Samain
  • Imbolc/Oimelc
  • Beltine/Bealltine/Cétemain
  • Lugnasad/Brón Trogain

These marked the beginning of Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn respectively. Given that we have written evidence of these being historically important from 8th century Irish Christian monks, it’s likely that these festivals are pre-Christian in origin. Note: when I say pre-Christian I mean as in native Gaelic/Celtic beliefs – the idea that Bealltaine, for example, is related to the Phoenician God Baal unfortunately doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, particularly for anyone familiar with Gaelic language and culture. It’s also worth noting that while these festivals seem to have been celebrated in Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man, each of these places would have had their own local customs and were later affected differently by religious, legal and cultural changes over the centuries. So, even “Gaelic countries” can’t be lumped together nevermind wider “Celtic countries” and beyond.

In modern Scottish Gaelic, they are now commonly known as:

  • Samhainn/Samhuinn/Oidhche Shamhna/Là Samhna – 1st November
  • Imbolg/Imbolc/Là Fhèill Brìghde – 1st February
  • Bealltainn/Bealltuinn/Là Bealltain – 1st May
  • Lùnastal/Lùnasdal/Là Lùnast – 1st August

Nowadays these festivals have fixed dates as shown above and still have a variety of folk customs associated with them in Scotland. In particular Halloween, which is on 31st October due to the Catholic All Hallows’/All Saints’ Day being set on 1st November, is a good example. At this time of year in even formerly majority Presbyterian and currently majority secular Scotland, people all over the country – not just in the ‘Gaelic Heartlands’ either – took and still take part in various folk traditions such as Guising, divination etc that are also traditionally associated with Oidhche Shamhna. Additionally, the word “Halloween” is actually a contraction of the old Scots “Alhallow-evin” meaning All Saints’ Eve: the night before All Saints’ Day. That’s why we have variations in spelling such as “Hallowe’en” & “Hallow-E’en”. I’m going to write separate articles about some of the traditions associated with the Gaelic Quarter Days, as well as other annual festivals, at a later date and will link them to this one when they’re done – see Further Reading at the bottom of this article for those and other associated folklore. These are also of course the dates that Gaelic Polytheist Reconstructionists and Scottish folk practitioners follow, at least in Scotland and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere – in the Southern Hemisphere it makes more sense to flip them to coordinate with the seasons. There are also some who celebrate the older way on different dates every year.

In England, these days are referred to as “Cross-Quarter Days” as they fall roughly between the traditional English Quarter Days which are near the Solstices and Equinoxes, in the middle of the seasons rather than at the beginning. These are legal Quarter Days too which also apply to Wales, but this has never been the case in Scotland.

The Old Scottish Quarter & Term Days

Changes in religion, language and society brought changes – in many areas of Scotland the Quarter Days came to be Candlemas, Whitsunday, Lammas and Martinmas. Since at least the Early Modern Period, these days for making contracts, paying rents, hiring etc were legally set down as falling on or very near 2 of the older Gaelic Quarter Days. When exactly these were varied over time as at first Scotland was using the Julian Calendar and didn’t formally adopt the Gregorian Calendar until 1752, much later than many other countries in Europe. Also one of the days, Whitsunday, had been a moveable feast day and so setting a fixed date was meant to simplify things. However, even after the change some areas still stuck to the “old calendar” for quite some time. For example, as shown below Whitsunday was set on 15th May on the “new calendar”, but in some areas Quarter Day activities were still carried out on 26th May, “old Whitsunday”, rather than the “legal Whitsunday” over a century after the change. Below is a list of “new style” legal dates:

  • Candlemas – 2nd February
  • Whitsunday – 15th May
  • Lammas – 1st August
  • Martinmas – 11th November

Folk traditions still continued on the Gaelic Quarter Days after these changes, though additionally in some areas some traditions seem to have ‘migrated’ to the new days.

The Current Legal Scottish Quarter & Term Days

Towards the end of the 1980s it was proposed that legislation should be brought in to set down new legal Quarter & Term Days. This was in order to make things easier to remember and make sure they divided the year into roughly equal quarters.

The current legal dates are:

  • “Candlemas” – 28th February
  • “Whitsunday” – 28th May
  • “Lammas” – 28th August
  • “Martinmas” – 28th November

This came into effect in the early 1990s and it’s made very clear that these dates are legislative changes for legal purposes only, not for religious or cultural events. Therefore, these date changes only affect certain people’s lives in specific circumstances. Now, in legal terms “Quarter Days” covers all 4 of the above dates while “Term Days” refers only to Whitsunday and Martinmas.

In conclusion, we can see how the meaning of term “Quarter Day” in Scotland has changed over time due to changes in religion, language, culture and law. Despite these changes there are still a lot of surviving folk customs surrounding the Gaelic Quarter Days/Fire Festivals even after all this time. Therefore I would argue that marking these in some way is not confined to the pre-Christian past nor the modern, Neopagan/Witch present – these are living Scottish traditions.

It can also be seen that “Cross-Quarter Day” isn’t really a term that’s used in Scotland traditionally nor legally, just in neighbouring countries such as England and in the modern Neopagan “Wheel of the Year”. Other modern terms like “sabbat” – coined by Gardner, notorious founder of Wicca, in 1950s England – have no historical basis in Scotland either. Neither does the idea that all of the festivals marked on the “Wheel of the Year” would have been equally celebrated by any one culture historically. In reality these come from various different cultures, some with modern names such as “Mabon” and “Litha” slapped on them, and the importance of these days varied greatly. In Scotland generally, there are of course folk traditions surrounding the Solstices etc too, but they don’t traditionally have the same importance placed on them as they do in other European countries. An example of an exception would be areas with more Norse influence such as Shetland, but again in those areas there is obviously much less Gaelic influence.

All this isn’t to say it’s necessarily wrong to follow the modern “Wheel of the Year” if that’s what you want to do, but it’s important to avoid cultural appropriation by taking the time to learn where things come from, when they originated and to not conflate different countries/cultures with each other. In any case I hope this article is helpful for those looking to learn about these things in a Scottish context.

📚Further Reading & Sources:

📸Featured Photo credit: Me, Isle of Skye

6 thoughts on “Quarter Days, Cross-Quarter Days & The “Wheel of the Year” in Scotland

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