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Until the end of the 19th century there were many local traditions associated with the farming year.

Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, marked the traditional beginning of the barley farming year.

On the previous day, the ploughs were brought into church to be blessed for the new season. 'Plough lights' were kept burning in front of images in the church to bring good fortune to the ploughs. The farm workers would go about in procession through the village, collecting money to support the cost of the lights.

The Reformation of the Church in England put an end to the plough-lights, but the processions continued with a gaily decorated “fool plough” being taken round and the money collected going to the village poor or for the ploughmen to spend in the local pub.

Sometimes mummers, or “guizards” performed a play featuring a character called “Bess”, a youth dressed as an old woman who represented the corn spirit of fertility. Bess was “thrashed to death” then brought back to life during the performance, to represent the regrowth of the new season.

In Northumberland, the processions and plays were often accompanied by sword-dancers, whose movements symbolised the hope that the season's crops would grow as high and as vigorously as the dancers leaped. The custom had died out in Northumberland by the mid-19th century.

Plough Rituals in England and Scotland” by Thomas Davidson (1959)

Plough Monday website links

Barley and Wheat

Farming Traditions