Preface: forever and a day

Forever and a day: on almanacs

In the Scottish calendar, Candlemas comes first or last among the quarter days, depending where the year begins. Officially, in 1588, the year began on March 25th.  Not until December 1599 did the Privy Council order that the Scottish year should conform to other countries, and be reckoned to begin, ‘in all tyme cuming’ from 1600, on January first. (So 1599 was almost three months short.) Properly, our Candlemas – February 2nd 1588 – falls in 1587, or as it is sometimes styled 1587/88. But in popular belief, reflected in the almanacs, New Year’s Day had always fallen on the first of January. And since this is a book about popular beliefs, our year begins there too.

This kind of dual accounting ought not to confuse us, since we have our tax years and our school years and in places like St Andrews, academic ones. But in 1588, we have another kind of reckoning to contend with. Historians tend to date the events of the Spanish Armada according to the Gregorian calendar (adopted in Spain in 1582), then ten days in advance of the Julian one, which Scotland (and England) retained until 1752.  The dates in these stories, and the weekdays they fall on, are those of the Julian calendar. Hew (though not Giles) would be appalled at anything else. And the times of the tides, the length of the days and the phases of the moon, are roughly accounted to follow that calendar, which is different from the one we have today. They cannot be exact. They may, in some places, be wildly out. They do not account for differences in latitude, British summer time, or hours of indeterminate or of varying length. The noon or one or four o’clock is theirs; I cannot promise it’s the same as ours.

Nothing of this matters to the people in the stories, whose lives are shaped by seasons – by seedtime and the harvest, by fish days and flesh days and days when rents are due – rather than by dates. And yet the almanacs are full of dates, each with an aspect and a name (February opens with St Bridget’s day; Valentine is drowned in a sea of saints). They count the years since the world began (ominously, 5550, in 1588) and give ‘everlasting tables’ ‘at no time to be altered’ to calculate ‘for ever’ what sign the moon is in, what day Sunday falls, when it is a leap year, the age of the moon ‘at all tymes’, the ebbing and flowing of the tides, the length of the day and the night, the dates of the movable feasts. These ‘everlasting’ tables were discarded with the day, thrown away each year and like the days they represented, coming round again.  Of the very many thousands printed and reprinted, no more than a handful have survived.   One of those is Walter Gray’s for 1588, An almanacke and prognostication, made for the yeere of our Lord M.D.LXXXVIII, a single copy of which is in the Bodleian library, The Vicar’s library, St Mary’s Church Marlborough. [Electronic access through Early English Books Online via National Library of Scotland.] This almanac is ‘rectified’ for Dorchester, though it’s not clear how this impacts on predictions such as: ‘Februarie, the first day, darke and colde.’

The earliest existing Scottish almanac that I have found is Andro Hart’s 1619 Edinburgh printing of Leonard Digges, although much earlier calendars for calculating the religious feasts are found in some psalm and ballad books: there is a fine example, from a psalter of 1565, in A. F. Mitchell’s late 19th century edition of ‘The Gude and Godlie Ballatis’ of 1567, reproduced below.

Of Leonard Digges’ (anonymous), A generall prognostication for ever. Fruitfullie augmented with manie plaine, briefe, chosen rules, concerning all purposes, and verie expedient for all maner of persons whatsoeuer   Imprinted at Edinburgh by Andro Hart: 1619

– ‘for ever’ once again – two copies have survived, one in the Bodleian, and the other in the National library of Scotland. The NLS copy is available electronically on EEBO. This is a version of several other prognostications issued by Digges in various editions, dating to the early 1550s. The earliest surviving one is dated 1555. This later one adapted for the Scottish market includes the tide times for Leith, Aberdeen, St Andrews and Dundee, and the ‘readie high wayes,’ with the names of the towns and distances between, of which ‘the whole summe is, two hundreth, and foure score of miles betwixt Edinburgh and London.’ (John Taylor, the ‘water-poet’, who walked from London to Edinburgh in 1618, observed that ‘the Scots doe allow almost as large measure of their miles, as they doe of their drink’ [The Pennyles Pilgrimage]).

The almanacs together form a kind of composite of familiar themes, like the days themselves recurring year on year, with very little change. But 1588 was no ordinary year. This was the year in which the same printer who printed Walter Gray’s almanac published John Harvey’s A DISCOVERSIVE PROBLEME concerning Prophesies, How far they are to be valued, or credited, according to the surest rules, and directions in Diuinitie, Philosophie, Astrologie, and other learning: Deuised especially in abatement of the terrible threatenings, and menaces, peremptorily denounced against the kingdoms, and states of the world, this present famous yeere, 1588, supposed the Great woonderfull, and Fatall yeere of our Age, and in which James VI wrote of the Day of Judgement, in response to the threat from the Spanish fleet.  This was a year in which the world was meant to end, in which ‘For ever’ seemed to loom perilously close.


A KALLENDER WITH AN ALMANACK FOR 12 YERES [prefaced to the Scottish psalter of 1565.] reproduced, from a copy in the Advocates Library, in A Compendious Book of Godly and Spiritual Songs, commonly known as ‘The Gude and Godlie Ballatis’, Reprinted from the edition of 1567. Ed. A. F. Mitchell. Blackwood, Edinburgh 1897. There is no calendar in the 1565 edition of The Gude and Godlie Ballatis, [ed. Alasdair MacDonald, Scottish Text Society, 2015] but the 1578 edition includes one.