Liminal times in liminal places

Bracklinn Falls, scenic nature landscape near Callander, small town in the council area of Stirling, Scotland.

Figure 1: Bracklinn Falls near Callander (the actual Highland fault being visible). Source: Adobe Stock

 Liminal times in liminal places? Gaelic calendar festivals in southern Perthshire

The Oxford English dictionary defines liminiality as “a transitional or indeterminate state between culturally defined stages of a person’s life; spec. such a state occupied during a ritual or rite of passage, characterized by a sense of solidarity between participants”[1]. The concept of liminality was first described by folklorist Arnold van Gennep in his books Rites de Passage in 1912 when he used the term to describe different stages in rites of passage. The concept was largely ignored until the British cultural anthropologist, Viktor Turner, furthered the concept in the 1960s when liminality developed into a state of limbo and that:

“the attributes of liminality or of liminal personae (“threshold people”) are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention.” (Turner 1969: 95).

In 2009 Bjørn Thomassen argued that the concept was “now considered by some to be a master concept in the social and political sciences writ large” and that “the concept of liminality has the potential to push social theory in new directions” (Thomassen 2009: 5). Turner’s definition and Thomassen’s validation of the concept will be used as the theoretical basis for this essay which will analyse whether there is anything especially remarkable about Gaelic cultural calendar festivals which were celebrated on the border between the Gaidhealtachd and the lowlands in Perthshire.

The word ‘Gaidhealtachd’ is bound with the notion of borders, real and imagined. The Oxford English dictionary defines it as ‘the Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland, considered collectively; esp. The Highlands and Hebrides. Also: any of several areas in Canada in which Scottish Gaelic is spoken’, the Cambridge English dictionary as ‘the area of Scotland where people speak Scottish Gaelic’ and the Dictionary of the Scots Language defines it as ‘the Gaelic-speaking Highlands’. The Wikipedia entry defines it as ‘usually refer[ing] to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and especially the Scottish Gaelic speaking culture of the area. Defining what the Gaidhealtachd is and where it is located is therefore problematic.

The definition of the Highlands is also problematic: do the Highlands include all the mainland north and west of the Highland fault line, or simply just the area of the modern Highlands council?

If the Gaidhealtachd is only defined by the first language of the people living in the defined area of the Highlands, without mentioning the Hebrides, this can again lead us to an inaccurate, or rather limited, definition. Data from the 2011 Scotland census clearly demonstrates that the majority of Scottish Gaelic speakers today live in the Outer Hebrides and, to a lesser degree, the Inner Hebrides and west mainland coast. It was estimated in 2011 that there were only about 25,000 fluent native speakers of Scottish Gaelic left in Scotland (in a country of about 5.3 million people (BBC 2013). An argument could therefore be made that the only true Gaidhealtachd today is in the Hebrides. Due to the difficulties mentioned above, this essay will be taking an historical approach and will discuss liminality of borders and calendar festivals as they were experienced in the long eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century, before the Gaidhealtachd was first assessed geographically by Bartholomew’s maps in 1881.

River Lednock

Figure 2: River Lednock at Comrie (source: Adobe Stock)

A very specific area has been chosen to look at: an area of Perthshire along the Highland fault line from Callander to Crieff and north to Killin. A review of the Old and New Statistical Accounts for the parishes of Kilmadock, Callander, Balquhidder, Killin, Muthill, Comrie and Crieff reveal the following information about the level of Gaelic usage in those parishes:

Parish Old Statistical Account Author & Year New Statistical Account Author & Year
Kilmad ock (Doune

& Deanst on)

(upper class is presumed to be English

by inference)

working class: Scots and English.

No Gaelic spoken here

(starts near Callander)




1791 (?)

“Provincial” English with Gaelic by a few


The Rev.


Mitchell, A

M (minister)



Callan der Upper class: English

Working class: Gaelic

Not taught at school. No information on church services.





Both Gaelic & English used.   Church services in both. Both taught in parochial school. Rev P





Balquh idder Gaelic (described as ‘Celtic’), they speak some basic English The Rev.

Mr. Duncan


1791 (?)

“Gaelic is the language generally spoken but it has rather been losing ground over the last

40 years or so”

Gaelic & English both taught in the parochial schools and at SSPCK

Rev Mr




Killin English and Gaelic taught in all schools.

Gaelic main language but younger people made attempts to learn

The Rev Mr

Patrick Stewart,



Gaelic translation of Bible done at manse.

“Though nearly the whole population can understand and

The Rev

Alexander Stewart MA,




for                   seasonal

employment opportunities (cattle herding etc.) in the


speak less or more of English, Gaelic is still, and will long be the language of devotion and of the affections of the people” (p


All children over 6 y o could read in Gaelic &


Muthill Not mentioned The Rev Mr John Scott, minister Not mentioned Rev James Walker,


August 1837

Comrie Common language was

Gaelic. Some understood English (not old people). Young people learned English by working in the


Church service every fourth week four miles from Comrie was

entirely in Gaelic

Mr Colin Baxter, minister of Monivaird and Rev Mr Hugh


minister of


English was generally spoken, gained great ground in last 40 years. Hardly anyone attended Gaelic church service. The Rev

William MacKenzie,


June 1838

Crieff “The people speak the English language in the best Scotch dialect; although Gaelic be commonly spoken at a distance of three miles north, or four west from Crieff, yet no adult natives of the lowland part of the parish can speak or understand it. They have not even contracted the peculiar tone of that language, The Rev Mr





“The language generally spoken is the best Scottish dialect. Gaelic sermon preached on communion services with considerable attendance.

NB Parish is divided into two parts;

Highland and


The Rev

William Laing, minister &




June 1838

by their intercourse with the numerous Highland families now residing in the town. Many of these understand no language but the Gaelic, and their children born in Crieff speak that alone for a few years as their mother tongue.”

Table 1: Level of Gaelic usage in southern Perthshire as described in the Statistical Accounts (information sourced from Old & New Statistical Accounts at

mcculloch map

Figure 3: John MacCulloch’s geological map of Scotland (accessed from here on 30th May 2019)

As can be seen above, in general the parishes situated south of the Highland fault line – the pink area of MacCulloch’s map  were largely English-speaking areas and those in the green areas were mainly Gaelic-speaking areas. The ‘liminal’ towns of Callander (very close to the Highland fault) and Comrie (on the Highland fault) seemed to have experienced a difference in the changing use of Gaelic over the period; a bias towards English language, and perhaps culture, was clear in the writing of Rev William MacKenzie of Comrie which was not evident in the report from Rev James Robertson of Callander and arguably author’s subjectivity needs to be taken into consideration.

What is evident from six of the seven parishes, Kilmadock being the exception, is that the area underwent a change in language use and culture at the end of the eighteenth century and into the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is fascinating that although Doune and Deanston in Kilmadock parish are only eight miles from Callander, they were clearly very different places both in terms of language and culture. The area was, indeed, liminal.


Figure 4: The Celtic calendar (Source: Adobe Stock)

The worship which made up the Celtic year was based upon the progress of the sun (Walsh 1947: 280). The Celtic year was divided in two halves; a productive ‘light’ six months (Beltane to Samhain) and an unproductive ‘dark’ six months (Samhain to Beltane). The festivals celebrated were Imbolc 31st January/1st February; Beltane 31st April/1st May; Lughnasa 31st July/1st August; Samhain 31st October/1st November. The year was therefore neatly divided into four quarters. In between these dates are the solstices (Winter 21st December and Summer 21st June) and the equinoxes (Spring 20th March and Autumn 23rd September). The year then becomes divided into eight. Walsh states that:

“Bealtaine which fell at the beginning of May; Midsummer Day, marking the triumph of sunshine and vegetation; the feast of Lugh, in August, when the turning point in the sun’s course had been reached; and the sad Samhain, November, when he bade farewell to power and fell again for half a year under the sway of the evil forces of darkness. The equinoxes were considered more important than the solstices, and so round them, as upon pivots, the whole Celtic mythology seemed to revolve.” (Walsh 1947: 280)

In 1885 Ellen Guthrie published Old Scottish Customs, local and general which included a wealth of information on customs celebrated all over Scotland. In the book she went into great detail about how Beltane was celebrated (there is some information on Samhain but significantly less, and even less on other Gaelic calendar customs) both in the Lowlands and the Highlands, and mentions a specific Perthshire Beltane custom:

In some parts of Perthshire it is still the custom for the cow-herd of the village to go from house to house on May morning, collecting fresh eggs and meal, and then lead the way to some hill top, where a hole is dug and fire lighted therein; then lots are cast, and he on whom the lot falls must leap seven times over the fire while the young folks dance around in a circle; then they cook their eggs and cakes, and all sit down and partake thereof” (Guthrie 1885: 233-4)

James Robertson, the minister of Callander in the 1790s, must have been quite a remarkable gentleman. In his report he included an explanation of Gaelic grammar. He clearly was very interested in both the history of his area and also in Gaelic traditions and belief. For example, in the footnotes of his report on Callander in the OSA he discussed druids praying on Ben Ledi at the chapel of St Bridget (page 581) and referred to worship at standing stones:

“the same expressions that the people then used for their place of worship is still used till this day; as the Highlanders more frequently say “Will you go to the stones?” or “Have you been at the stones?” than “Will you go to, or have you been, at church?” Mankind in this instance as they do in many others retain the ancient name while the thing signified by that name is entirely forgotten by gradual influence of new habits, new manners and new modes of thinking.” (Robertson, 1791: 581)

The topic of ministers’ interest in non-Christian festivals is a worthy topic of study but there is not enough space to discuss here. However, it should be noted that Robertson was not the only minister in this area who was interested in Gaelic traditions and belief. For example, folklorist and Gaelic scholar Robert Kirk, who wrote The Secret Commonwealth of the Fairies in the 17th century, was the minister at Balquhidder and later at Aberfoyle.

In his report to the Old Statistical Account, Robertson included a section which he called ‘peculiar customs’ where he discussed Beltane and Samhain. This was the only reference to any Gaelic calendar festivals in either the Old or New Statistical Account for this area of Perthshire. He felt that Beltane and Samhain both needed including in the report as the festivals were fast dying out in both Callander and the rest of the Highlands and needed to be discussed while they were still celebrated. Robertson’s account of how Beltane was celebrated in Callander at the end of the eighteenth century bears a great deal of resemblance to how Beltane was described by Guthrie at the end of the nineteenth century, although Robertson states that it is just boys who celebrated the festival;

“All the boys in a township or hamlet meet in the moors. They cut a table in the green sod, of a round figure, by casting a trench in the ground, as such circumference as to hold the whole company. They kindle a fire and dress a repast of eggs and milk in the consistence of a custard. They knead a cake of oatmeal, which is toasted at the embers against a stone. After the custard is eaten up, they divide the cake into so many portions, as similar as possible to the one another in size and shape, as there are persons in the company. They daub one of these portions all over with charcoal, until it be perfectly black. They put all the bits of the cake into a bonnet. Everyone, blindfold, draws out a portion. He who holds the bonnet is entitled to the last bit. Whoever draws the back bit, is the devoted person who is to be sacrificed to Baal, whose favour they mean to implore, in rendering the year productive of sustenance of man and beast […] the devoted person leap[s] three times through the flames.” (Robertson 1791: 620-1)

John Ramsay of Ochtertyre (very near to the village of Doune), wrote at length about Beltane in the second volume of his Scotland and Scotsmen in the eighteenth century which was published in 1888. Ramsay recounted similar events as Guthrie and Robertson. He mentioned that near the church at Balquhidder there was a cnoc-nanainneal, a (small, round) hill of the fires and that at Killin there was a Tom-nan-ainneal, an eminence of the fires, which he said was long used as a place to hold the court of justice for all of Breadalbane and that local superstition held that the hill had special healing powers and the earth from it could heal sick cattle (Ramsay 1888: 445).

Interestingly, Ramsay explains a Gaelic proverb relating to Beltane and fire: ‘The e’ eada anda theine bealtuin’ which translates as ‘he is between two Beltane fires’, to describe when someone is in a critical dilemma (Ramsay 1888: 444). Ramsay explained that fires were kindled at Beltane from the tein-eigin, a need fire, which was a special fire that was created by friction after all the fires in the township or hamlet had been extinguished (usually the night before). He stated that the Gaels viewed this as a protection against witchcraft and that a remedy against disease in both humans and cattle (Ramsay 1888:443).

Fire was used at all festivals for its supposed healing properties. Ramsay recounts, for example, that during midsummer a cowherder would go clockwise three times around the fold with a lit torch in hand to prevent disease in the animals. It was also used as a form of prediction of impending death at Samhain; Ramsay states that a bonfire of ferns was created during the day and lit at night after a circle of stones – one for each family- had been placed around it. Each person present was given a torch of ferns or sticks and ran around the bonfire shouting before going indoors for a feast. The next morning, they would go out together to see if any of the stones had been moved. If so, the person who placed the stone would be dead within a year (Ramsay 1888:437). In the Old Statistical Account for Callander, Robertson recounts a different version of Samhain festivities:

they set up bonfires in every village. When the bonfire is consumed, the ashes are carefully collected in the form of a circle. There is a stone put in, near the circumference, for every person of the several families interested in the bonfire; and whatever stone is moved out of its place, or injured before the next morning, the person represented by that stone is devoted, a fey; and is supposed not to live twelve months from that day. The people received the consecrated fire from the Druid priests the next morning, the virtues of which were supposed to continue for a year.” (Robertson, 1791: 621-2)

In the Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore (2004), Patricia Monaghan discusses how Samhain has become the modern-day Halloween, stating this is thanks to Celtic emigration to North America. She talks about how Samhain marked the time when cows were brought down from their summer pastures (Beltane being when they were taken to their summer pastures) and that this movement continued until recently in Ireland. She then continues by talking about how in more recent times that legends and ghost stories were linked to the festival; Samhain was a time when the veil between this world and the Otherworld was lifted so fairies and the dead could enter the world. Fairies would pour out of fairy mounds in their droves, so it was well advised to steer clear of them. It was believed that it was a time when people were abducted and taken to the Otherworld by the fairies, which is why people were advised not to go out in the dark, or if they really must then they should carry iron or salt with them to protect themselves against the fairies. Divination was also practiced by young women at Samhain; they would drink water and hold salt in their hands, listening out for the name of eligible young men. The first name heard would be the name of her future husband. (Monaghan, 2004: 407-8).

No evidence has been found that the Gaels of southern Perthshire believed in liminality between this world and the Otherworld at Samhain, Beltane or any other times of the year. While it is true that not many written records exist of what actually happened several hundred years ago at these key dates in this area, the striking thing which jumps out is how closely the beliefs are linked with the agricultural cycle of the year and how the festivals had more to do with the time of year- celebrating the start of summer or start of winter- and mainly were associated with the health of either themselves or their cattle. Therefore, the liminality of these festivals, at least in this liminal area, was not to do with a border between this and the other world but was about something a lot more basic; the liminality between life and death.


Guthrie, Ellen (1885) Old Scottish Customs, local and general London: Hamilton, Adams & Co

Moynahan, Patricia (2004) The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York; Facts on File Inc.

Ramsay, John (1888) Scotland and Scotsmen in the eighteenth century volume 2. Edinburgh & London: Blackwood & Sons

Robertson, James (1791) Parish of Callander in Sinclair, John eds. The Statistical Account of Scotland 1791 – 1799. Edinburgh: William Creech. (Accessed online at 1-15 December 2018)

Thomassen, Bjorn (2009) ‘The Uses and Meaning of Liminality’ in International Political Anthropology vol 2 (2009) 1; pp 5 – 27

Turner, Viktor (1969) The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Aldine de Gruyter

Walsh, Michael (1947) ‘Notes on Fire-Lighting Ceremonies I’ in Folklore, Vol. 58, No. 2 (June 1947), pp. 277-284

BBC (2013) ‘Census shows decline in Gaelic speakers ‘slowed’’ (accessed from on 12th December 2018)


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s