Spring festivals and rituals are relatively few in Europe,
and mostly revolve around the Christian calendar and the Easter/Passover
season. However, in many ancient
cultures (including Roman and Hebrew), the new life of spring marked the New
Year, and was marked accordingly. Even
in Great Britain, the numbered year began on March 25 until 1752
and the adoption of the Gregorian calendar.
The annual observation of Whuppity Scoorie, in the historic
town of Lanark in the Scottish Lowlands, seems to hark back to an ancient
system like that of the Romans, wherein the month of March was the first of the
year, and March 1 New Year’s Day.
On that date, several weeks before the vernal equinox, Whuppity Scoorie
observes the increasing light of the new year chase away the receding darkness
of winter, whilst adding in a little chasing of its own.
The origins of the event are unknown, as is its precise
purpose, but Whuppity Scoorie contains enough diverse symbolism to suggest that
it is more than a mere New Year festival or pagan ritual; it is very probably
several such things combined. Suggestions
include such things as a penitential act of repentance and ‘scooring’ (ie.
cleansing), a winter exorcism rite of the sort common elsewhere in Britain, a celebration of
lengthening days and the lifting of the children’s winter curfew. This final possibility is given added credence
by the Victorian-era practice of the town’s boys concluding proceedings by
marching two miles to meet their counterparts from New Lanark in battle (all
apparently with both communities’ full approval, including that of the police).
Every year, on the first day of March, the local children
gather at Lanark Cross by St Nicholas Kirk in anticipation for the 6pm
bell. But when the hour strikes, it is
not the church’s main bells that are rung, but the town’s ‘Wee Bell’, which has
remained silent for the 6 months of darkening days and winter.
At the sound, the children start to race around the Kirk,
swinging paper balls above their heads and making as much noise as they can. After three laps, members of the Community
Council throw handfuls of coins into the air for the children to scrabble
The ritual itself is short and rather haphazard, but
provides the focal point for a wider community event, both on the evening of March 1 and in the week-long
storytelling and arts festival.
Until recently, prizes were awarded for the first boy and girl to
complete the three circuits, but this has now ceased in an attempt to making
the running safer for the smaller children by removing the competitive aspect. Younger children are also dissuaded from joining in the coin scrabble.
known record of the tradition is from a local newspaper article, written in
the mid-19th century. Whuppity Scoorie was still
called ‘the wee bell ceremony’ at the time, confirming the antiquity of that
aspect of the ritual. The custom’s
popular name was first attested in 1893, by which time the ceremony was known
to be over 120 years old.
Lanark used to have a racecourse and the ‘Lanark Silver
Bell’ is thought to be one of the oldest racing trophies in Europe, although its link to the ‘Wee Bell’ is unknown.