The description of the gathering of the May-dew at Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh on the first of May is taken from 'The Every-day Book: or the Guide to the Year' of William Hone. It was supplied to the author by a correspondent in 1826. From a sketch that accompanied the letter George Cruikshank, an eminent illustrator of the period, produced the following illustration. It seems that the custom of gathering May-dew continued to take place at Arthur's Seat until the 1930s.
"About four o'clock in the morning there is an unusual stir; a great opening of area gates, and ringing of bells, and a "gathering" of folk of all clans, arrayed in all the colours of the rainbow; and a hurrying of gay throngs of both sexes through the King's-park to Arthur's-seat.
"In the course of half an hour the entire hill is a moving mass of all sorts and sizes. At the summit may be seen a company of bakers, and other craftsmen, dressed in kilts, dancing round a Maypole. On the more level part " next door," is usually an itinerant vender of whiskey, or mountain (not May) dew, your approach to whom it always indicated by a number of "bodies" carelessly lying across your path, not dead, but drunk. In another place you may descry two parties of Irishmen, who, not content with gathering the superficial dew have gone "deeper and deeper yet," and fired by a liberal desire to communicate the fruits of their industry, actively pelt each other with clods.
"These proceedings commence with the daybreak. Tlie strong lights thrown upon the various groups by the rising sun, give a singularly picturesque effect to a scene, wherein the ever-varying and unceasing sounds of the bagpipes, and tabours and fifes, et hoc genus omne, almost stun the ear. About six o'clock, the appearance of the gentry, toiling and pechin up the ascent, becomes the signal for serving men and women to march to the right-about; for they well know that they must have the house clean, and every thing in order earlier than usual on May-morning.
"About eight o'clock the " fun" is all over; and by nine or ten, were it not for the drunkards who are staggering towards the "gude town," no one would know that any thing particular had taken place."
The gathering of dew on the morning of May-day was a widespread tradition. Women gathered the dew to bathe their faces with in order to improve their looks. Of course May-day was anciently the ancient Celtic feast of Beltane that celebrated the joyous season of springtime and the fertility of nature this heralded.
As Arthur appeared in stories that have been related to Celtic myths that portrayed the revolving cycle of the seasons, the association of the custom of gathering May-dew with his name is interesting. For the abduction of Guinevere, and her release from her abductor, occured in the spring. Indeed, in Malory, Guinevere was abducted as she collected the new growths of springtime in May.
The locale of the custom, Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, brings our attention to the theory that Arthur was originally active in Scotland. Later his reputation, and the stories concerning him, migrated south to Wales and England. Then the connection of Arthur with Scotland was lost and he was seen as being purely associated with Wales and with the West Country of England. This theory is expanded in Alistair Moffat's book 'Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms'.
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