Yellow plant of Beltane

The marsh marigold is a vivid reminder of the close links between Gaelic culture and the Scottish seasons, as Ruairidh MacIlleathain explains.

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig

Marsh marigolds. ©Lorne Gill/SNH
The yellow Beltane plant. To Scotland’s Gaels, the marsh marigold in bloom is a traditional symbol of the start of summer.. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The day that starts the summer, now the first of May, is still known in Gaelic as latha buidhe Bealltainn – the ‘yellow day of Beltane’. Buidhe, however, doesn’t just mean ‘yellow’. It also has suggestions of good fortune. This plant, which bears yellow flowers at the time of Beltane (the English word came from Gaelic), is lucky – its blooms would often be tied above doorways or to the tails of horses or cattle to bring good fortune. The Gaelic name for the species is lus buidhe Bealltainn (sounds like ‘looss boo-yuh BYOWL-tin’) or the ‘yellow plant of Beltane’.

Whimbrel. ©David Whitaker
Whimbrel. ©David Whitaker

Another species named for this season is the whimbrel – eun Bealltainn (‘eeun BYOWL-tin’), actually meaning ‘bird of Beltane’. And Tullybelton in Perthshire would have experienced the fires through which cattle and other goods were passed as part of the purification rites of this pre-Christian festival. Its name comes from the Gaelic Tulach Bealltainn or ‘Beltane hill’. The two greatest festivals in the old Gaelic calendar were Bealltainn and, six months later, Samhain – the start of winter. The first day of Samhain is still widely celebrated in Gaelic Scotland, as it is in the English-speaking world, where it’s called ‘Halloween’.

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