Lady playing lute
Lady playing lute, Bartolomeo Veneto, c.1530 J. Paul Getty http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/666/bartolomeo-veneto-and workshop-lady-playing-a-lute-italian-about-1530/

Yule or Ȝule in Old Scots is the festive period lasting from late December into January, of twelve or twenty days, and sometimes longer still. It includes the twelve days of Christmas; Yule Day on December 25th; New Ȝeris Day and Evin[1]; Hansel Monday, the first Monday in the year when the New Year’s gift or Han(d)sel was given to bring luck; and Uphalyday, Twelfth night (and day), the Feast of the Epiphany. Rarely in Scotland was it known as Christmas, even in the years before the Reformation. At the Reformation itself, it ceased to be a holiday (i.e. a ‘holy day’) and the celebration of the nativity of Christ was not officially restored until 1958. Many Scots today do not remember Christmas as a childhood holiday, but were given gifts at New Year instead.

The present giving harks back to the old Handsel day, [from Old English, to give into the hand], but the transferring of festivities to the secular New Year, and the death of Yule, did not begin at once at the Reformation; while the battle persisted between Episcopalians and the Presbyterians over the right of governance over the reformed Kirk, the old traditions smouldered on until well into the middle of the 17th century, and were kept ablaze in many parts of Scotland.

In February, 1588, the General Assembly at Edinburgh complained of the ‘superstitious keeping’[2] of the Yule in Fife, and the Kirk Sessions were kept busy in the first month of each year with the discipline of those who persisted in the holiday. In January 1573/4 the archbishop of St Andrews (not yet Patrick Adamson but the ailing John Douglas, who died in the pulpit in 1574) had recommended the insertion in the  record books ad futuram rei memoriam that ‘upon Sunday the xxiiii day of January Walter Ramsay, lorimar, Walter Lathangie, cutlar, and John Smith, blacksmith, being accused and convicted…of observing of superstitious days and specially of Yule-Day became penitent and made open satisfaction thereof in presence of the whole congregation then being present. And therefore the minister, at command of the assembly, publicly denounced…that all persons within this parish, that observed superstitiously the said Yule-day…should be punished in like manner if they abstain from their work and labour that day, more than any other day except Sunday.’[3]

The keeping of the Yule was offensive, in particular, because it flouted the prerogative of the Sabbath day to be the single holy day of rest.

The revellers were not willing to give up so quietly. On the same day, Walter Younger refused to submit to the Church’s discipline, complaining that ‘it was unbecoming for an honest man to have to sit upon the stool of repentance’, and saying that ‘he is a young man and saw Yule-Day kept holiday and that the time may come that he may see the like yet; and therefore would not become obliged nor restricted in time coming to work or abstain from work that day, but at his own pleasure’.[4] Younger was quickly brought to book, and found his place on the stool of repentance with the rest. But others would continue to offend. In the following year, James Thomson, mason, accused of ‘superstitious keeping of Yule last as holy day’ promised that ‘who would or would not he would not work on Yule day, and was not in use of the same…and in time coming…should never keep the said Yule day holiday, but would work on that day as on any other day to any man that would offer him work…and if no man charges him with work, he shall work some ridge stones of his own’. The key was to look busy when the Kirk dropped by.[5]

The General Assembly had also condemned the singing of carols at Yule[6], despite the very lovely ones which had found their way into the Gude and Godlie Ballads, such as ‘Luther’s ‘children’s hymn for Christmas Eve’, ‘I come from hevin to tell’, ‘to be sung to the tune of the lullaby, Ba lula low’, and ‘To us is borne a barne of blis’.[7]

The carols were still sung – and danced [8] –  and people still dressed up, women guising in men’s clothes,  and crying ‘Zwil, Zwil, Zwil!’ in loud and lewd company, while the Kirk did its best to discourage them. The story of the dog crying Yule is attributed to the preacher David Calder: ‘A learned brother at a catechising told Yule-day was derived thus: There was a certain man hanged his dog on the 25th December, the creature was three hours hung, and at the end, the cord was loosed, and the dog lived; and running off, cryed Ule, Ule, Ule, and hence, says he, comes the word, Yule, Yule, Yule’.[9] And Robert Blair of St Andrews, with a characteristic Presbyterian bluntness, is reported to have said: ‘You will say, Sirs, good old Youle day; I’ll tell you, good old Fool-day; you will say it is a brave Holiday; I will tell you it is a brave Belly-day; You will say, these are bonny Formalities, but I tell you, they are bonny Fartalities’.[10]

It is in this spirit that the prying Alan Guthrie comes to peer into the windows of Hew’s house at Kenley Green, in search of superfluous cheer. Alan first appears in Queen & Country, as a nameless elder spying for the Kirk. Here he continues to intrude on family life, and represents constraints on it by both church and state.

sinners and saints
‘A Protestant picture [not coloured] both for light to sinners and delight to saints.’ Hogarth. From Crokatt, Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence displayed, 1738.

Superfluous Cheer

The law of which Hew falls foul, in this story of the Yule, was enacted first in 1552 by Mary of Guise, ‘concerning the order of every man’s house’ ensuring that all men should eat and keep table according to their rank and status in the land. The act was the result of a dearth of food to share among the poor and a damage of excess ensuing to the gluttonous:

because of the superfluous cheer used commonly in this realm, amongst small men as well as great men, to the great hurt of the commonwealth of the same and damage to the body, which make a man unable to perform all necessary lawful and good works[11]

the following restrictions must apply: an archbishop,  bishop or earl should have at his table no more than eight dishes of meat; an abbot, lord, prior or dean no more than six; a baron or freeholder [in which we may count Hew] no more than four; a burgess ‘but three, with one kind of meat in each kind of dish’. Those who broke the law were to be punished with fines.

In those early days, already under shadow of the sharp axe of Reform, Christmas and Easter banquets were exempt, as were saints’ days and marriages and entertaining strangers, and the clergy could expect a satisfying board. By 1581, when the Parliament of James VI ruled against ‘superfluous banqueting and the inordinate use of confections and sweetmeats’ [in the original, the more decadent ‘drogges’][12], there were no exceptions, but ‘bridals and banquets’ were targeted specifically, while the Yule and Pasche already had their cards marked by the Kirk.  The ‘inordinate consumption’ not only of native foodstuffs, but of ‘sweetmeats, confections and spices brought from the parts beyond sea’ was now to be deplored, for the shortage and inflation of prices it had caused, to the detriment of those who could not ‘sustain that cost’.

In consequence,  it was now prohibited for anyone below the rank of prelate, earl, lord, baron, or landed gentleman worth less than 2000 merks a year to have ‘at their banquets or tables in ordinary cheer’ any ‘sweetmeats or confections’ brought from overseas, such as the sweets and spices given to the farmers of Hew’s lands at Yule, ‘Under pain of £20 to be paid by any person doer in the contrary as well of the master of the house where the effect of this act is contravened’.

To enforce the law, the provosts and the bailies of the burghs were constrained to make use of official searchers, ‘to which searchers open doors shall be made of whatsoever house they come to search, under the pains to be esteemed culpable in the transgression of this act if they refuse; and the offenders being apprehended, to be taken and held in ward until they have paid the said pecuniary pains, to be employed the one half to the benefit of the ordinary officers and searchers and the other half to the poor of the parish’.

It is an act entirely in the spirit of Protestant Reform; well-founded to assist the poor, and to curb the excesses of the rich and powerful, while it brings with it an oppressive joylessness, reflected in poor Alan’s sad officious end. The king and his entourage were naturally exempt.

Yule still life
Still Life, Gerret Willemsz. Heda, 1642 Rijksmuseum https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/collectie/SK-A-1549

 Yule Girth

The law of Yule girth, invoked by Hew to take advantage of a stay of execution, was an ancient one, the remnant of which was reflected still in the justice courts. Originally, it appears to have conferred immunity from prosecution, in the sense of sanctuary, at least for a limited time. ‘Girth’ means immunity from harm, and to ‘tak girth’ means to take refuge.

When Hew invokes Yule girth, he knows it must be temporary. For the purpose of evading Alan Petrie’s prying, it will serve his tenants well, allowing them the chance to consume the evidence. But justice cannot be escaped for long. In the Burgh court of Glasgow, convening after Yule, disturbing of the peace in the time of girth does not seem to remit, but almost to compound the ordinary fault. So Margaret Andro, spouse to John Anderson, cordiner, is called to make amends for striking and pulling the hair of Janet Taylor, daughter to James Taylor, ‘within the time called of old the proclamation of Yule girth, and now of abstinence’.[13]

And Patrick Spreull is pursued by John Boill, Chapman, for assault resulting in a bloody nose ‘upon the 9th of January instant, within the time of proclamation of feriat time and abstinence’.[14] The ‘feriat’ and ‘abstinence’ referred to here are not immunity from charges faced by the transgressors, but recognition of the fact that the courts were not in session at that time. January brings a backlog of complaints, and the burgh sessions are as busy as the Kirk’s following excessive freedom during Yule, when any sense of licence may be limited, and false.

Kickshaws and Sunkats

Still life, Osias Beert, 1600-1650. Rijksmuseum https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/collectie/SK-A-4247

Despite the prohibitions of the Crown and Kirk, Hew’s table at the Yule is fairly exotic for his place and time. He has money, and sophisticated tastes, refined in his years spent in France where he studied for the law, and had a brief flirtation with a young cook called Colette[15], whose lapin à la moutarde is still his favourite dish. Rabbits, or conings as they are known more commonly (‘rabbats’ are their young) are farmed by the golf links at St Andrews, where a warren was established to help to feed the town. They are not native here, nor yet run wild. Hew has a doocot[16] on his estate, like the one in town at St Mary’s college[17]. Doves are a reliable and welcome source of food, as well as of birdlime for gunpowder, but they deplete the grain stocks in surrounding fields, so they are disliked by those who work the land. There may be a hare in a raised Christmas pie, of a more modest kind than the crenelated coffins Frances once admired in the London cookshops. Structures of this kind – castles, ships, or dinners shaped from sugar plate, fatal to the teeth of the English queen Elizabeth – the most grandiose of culinary conceits, were known as ‘kickshaws’[18] in the 17th century, a corruption of the French ‘quelques choses.’ In Scotland, a ‘sunkat’, by the same pattern, is a small tit-bit, a delicate ‘something’ to eat.

Early English cook books, and translations from the French, already offered recipes for dishes which were ‘made’ of parts, which were looked on with mistrust, like modern ready meals. Robert Burton (and no doubt our own Giles Locke) felt the combinations of unwholesome foods engendered melancholy:

To these noxious simples, we may reduce an infinite number of compound artificiall made dishes, of which our Cooks affoord vs as great variety, as Taylers doe fashions in our apparell. Such are…. Puddings stuffed with blood, or otherwise composed, Baked meats, sowced, indurate meats, fryed and broyled, buttered meats, condite, powdred, and ouerdryed… all cakes, Simnels, Bunnes, Cracknels made of butter, spice, &c. Fritters, Pancakes, Pies, Sasages, and al those seuerall sauces, sharpe or ouer sweet…  As lettice steepd in wine birdes fed with fenell and sugar, and perfumed dishes…And which riot and prodigality haue inuented, and these doe generally ingender grosse humors, fill the stomacke with crudities, & all those inward parts with oppilations[19]

As the dangers of the modern diet became more apparent, early Scottish cook books lagged behind. The first to appear in print date from the eighteenth century. But the manuscript collection in the National Library, viewable online, contains some rare examples from the 1680s, with recipes for biscuit bread, macaroons and cakes. One of them, dating back to 1659 [20], contains in it the secret of preserving grapes in a layer of sand, which Leonard Mascall had published in 1572[21],

‘that they may be eaten in the winter both before and after Christmas with as much delight and pleasure almost, as when they were new gathered’. [22]

For plainer fare, we must look to the Yule bread baked by Bella Frew, which the baxters were prohibited from baking by the Kirk. The ‘twelfth cake’ Meg makes for the children is an early example of the Scots ‘black bun’, itself a version of the ‘bean’ cake eaten on Twelfth night. Whoever finds the bean in the cake is king for the day (and whoever finds a pea will be his queen). Bean cakes were proverbial, and date from ancient times: the treasurer’s accounts for January 1502–3 include an amount for the ‘king of bene’ and for ‘Joke Fule’ in Dundee at the king’s command for the Twelfth night play.[23]  ‘Uphalyday’ [from ‘Haly’ or holy day] the feast of the Epiphany, marking the end of the Yule festivities, turned the normal order upside down. The Lord of Misrule, or Abbot of Unreason, quelled by the Reformers, had his chance to lift his head again. And briefly for a day, anyone might dare to call himself a king.

Lore of the land

Bot Yule is young, thay say vpon Yule evin.

And diuers times it hes bene hard and sene,

That efter most joy followis aduersitie.[24]

Proverbs of the Yule do not abound in cheer. In the natural world, this is a bleak time of year. ‘He is als bair as the birk in yule evin’, is recorded in four versions in Carmichaell’s list[25], and brings a shiver with it.  Where Yule does bring joy, it will be short-lived: ‘Ilk day is not yule day, cast the cat a castock’; ‘a yule feast may be quit at pasche’. And mild weather at this time of year will fill up the kirkyard. Whatever the moment, the outlook is grim.

The cat who looks disdainfully upon the cabbage stalk perhaps reflects the sourness of the Scottish Kirk, sneering in the face of the festivities. James Carmichaell, who left behind these proverbs in a manuscript collection, was a student of St Salvator’s in the early 1560s, and later master at the St Andrews grammar school. He then became Kirk minister and schoolmaster in Haddington, and was one of the reformers charged with the revision of (what became) the second book of discipline in 1578. With Andrew Melville, he refused to sign a bond accepting the authority of bishops in the Kirk, and fled to England with Melville, Patrick Galloway[26] and John Davidson[27], poet and minister of Prestonpans, who had been a regent of St Leonard’s College, at the beginning of 1584. They were there in exile at the same time as Hew.

Hew’s yuletide celebrations would have embarrassed him, perhaps, if he came into the company of former friends and teachers such as these. Like the king, he is committed to the ‘trew religion’, in which he has been brought up since he was a child, despite his father’s – and his sister’s – lasting Catholic sympathies. But also like the king, he does not like constraint, nor does he want his faith to hamper the festivities. He has an English wife, and in England, where Reformation was imposed by the Crown upon the Church, and not, as in Scotland, the other way round, Christmas celebrations are not yet discouraged (that was all to come).

It is not hard for Hew to justify the Yule, which is the highlight, for his tenant farmers, of another year of hardship in the agricultural calendar, and brings a little joy into the darkest time. Winters at the close of the 16th century were exceptionally cold, and 1588 was, on every count, an exceptional year. That they have survived it is due to careful management, by Frances of the land, and by Meg of the medicines and the food stores that will see them safely through the winter months. They deserve their feast.


[1] ‘Hagmane’ or Hogmanay, referring to the New Year’s gift, is first recorded in DoST in 1604, and is derived obscurely from Old French.

[2] ‘No resorting to the Kirk in many places. The kirks [are] ruinuous and destitute of Pastours and provision in many places. There is superstitious keiping of Yoole, Pasche [Easter], &c.’ in Acts and Proceedings of the General Assemblies of the Kirk of Scotland, 1560-1618 (Edinburgh, 1839), pp. 703–28. 1588: February. See above, at Candlemas.

[3]St Andrews Kirk Session Register, part first. 1559–1582. Ed David Hay Fleming. Edinburgh, 1889. Translation of Wednesday, 27th January 1573. p.387. A lorimar makes bits and buckles for horse harnesses. Craftsmen were particularly attached to old traditions.

[4] St Andrews Kirk Session Register, p.388.

[5] St Andrews Kirk Session Register, Wednesday, 12th January 1574. p.404.

[6] Acts and Proceedings, March 1595, where the ‘singing of carols at Yoole’ is listed among the common corruptions of all estates in the realm.

[7] ‘Followis ane sang of the birth of Christ with the tune of Ba Lula Low, I come from hevin to tell/The best nowellis that ever befell’. [p.49] ‘To us is borne a barne of blis’ [p.51] in A Compendious Book of Godly and Spiritual Songs, Commonly known as the Gude and Godlie Ballatis, ed. A. F. Mitchell, Edinburgh, 1897. The original of ‘I come from hevin to tell’ is said to have been composed by Luther for his five year old son [p.249, Appendix ll].

[8] A carol was originally a circle dance, becoming by extension the singing which accompanied it.

[9] ‘Excerps from the writings of Mr Robert Calder’, p.118 in Gilbert Crokatt’s satirical, but representative, Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence Displayed, or the Folly of their Teaching, discovered. This book has a long and delightful printer’s legend, ending with ‘& [sold by] Mrs Manby living in bishops-gate not far from the Three Naked Boys; and by Mr Henry Parson, Stationer, at the Three Bibles and three Ink Bottles, near Temple Bar on the Strand Side, where is to be had the Skin for the pains in the Limbs. Price 2s. And a protestant picture, coloured, both for light to sinners and delight to saints.’ – 1738.

[10] Page 81 of Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence Displayed. Robert Blair had a turbulent career in the Kirk. He was nominated minister at the Kirk of Holy Trinity, St Andrews, in 1639.

[11] Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707. Digitized by the University of St Andrews at http://www.rps.ac.uk/ Translation: University of St Andrews of Mary l, Manuscript ‘Anent the ordering of everie mannis house, ca. xxxj’ 1552:  1 February

[12] Records of the Parliaments of Scotland. Translation http://www.rps.ac.uk/ James Vl Manuscript ‘Aganis superfluuus  banquetting and the inordinat use of confectouris and drogges’ 1581, 24 October, Edinburgh [29th November 1581].

[13] Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Glasgow Vol. 1, 1573-1642, ed. J. D. Marwick. Edinburgh, 1914. 19 Jan 1574–75: Curia Capitalis post natale Domini: ‘‘The quhilk daye, Margaret Andro, spous to Johne Andersone, cordiner, is fund in the wrang and amerchiament of court, for trublance done be hir to Jonet Tailyour dochtir to James Tailyour, in stryking of hir and rugging furth of hir hair, vpone the hiegait of Glasgw, vpon Sondaye the viij daye of Januare instant, within the tyme callit of auld the proclamatioun of Yule girtht, and now of abstinence’.

[14] Ibid. ‘The quhilk daye, Patrik Spreull, being persewit be Johne Boill, chepman, for trublance done be him, vpon the xi of Januare instant, within the tyme of the proclamatioun of feriat tyme and abstinence, in invadyng of him, and stryking of him with ane quhinger, and schutyng him on the wallis, throuch the quhilk the said Johnes neis wes voundit to the effusioun of his blude’.

[15] See Hue & Cry, Fate & Fortune.

[16] Doocot: dovecote

[17]In Friend & Foe.

[18]‘a kind of daintie dish or quelque chose’ [Florio, World of Wordes, 1598] maligned as  ‘over-curious cookery’ [Thomas Moffat and Christopher Bennet, Health’s Improvement, 1655.

[19] Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Oxford, 1621, p.96,

[20] Recipe Book inscribed Henry Blaxton His Booke, 1659. Most of the contents are of a later date. See the digitalized Manuscript Recipe Books in the National Library of Scotland,  http://digital.nls.uk/recipes/browse/

[21] Leonard Mascall, A booke of the arte and maner, howe to plant and graffe all sortes of trees, 1572. ‘To keepe Reysins or Grapes good a yeare.’

[22]  John Parkinson, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, 1629, offers the fullest account: ‘One way is, when you haue gathered your grapes you intend to keepe, which must be in a dry time, and that all the shrunke, dried, or euill grapes in euery bunch be picked away, and hauing prouided a vessell to hold them, be it of wood or stone which you will, and a sufficient quantitie of faire and cleane drie sand; make stratum super stratum of your grapes and the sand, that is, a lay of sand in the bottome first, and a lay of grapes vpon them, and a lay or strowing againe of sand vpon those grapes, so that the sand may couer euery lay of grapes a fingers breadth in thicknesse, which being done one vpon another vntill the vessell be full, and a lay of sand vppermost, let the vessell be stopped close, and set by vntill you please to spend them, being kept in some drie place and in no sellar: let them bee washed cleane in faire water to take away the sand from so many you will spend at a time.’ Parkinson has other methods too. Grapes were often referred to as ‘raisins’, and raisins as ‘raisins of the sun’.

[23] Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland vol 2 1500-04 p.354.

[24] John Rolland, Ane treatise callit the court of Venus deuidit into four buikis, newlie compylit be Iohne Rolland in Dalkeith. Imprentit at Edinburgh: be Iohne Ros. 1575.

[25] The James Carmichaell collection of proverbs in Scots, edited by m. l. Anderson. Edinburgh, 1957. Proverbs nos. 169, 672, 797 and 1726; 840 [a ‘castock’ is a cabbage stem]; 260.

[26] Minister of Perth, who became minister to the king’s household in 1590. See above, on ‘The end of the world’, at Lammas.

[27] The printer Robert Leprevik, who worked briefly in St Andrews in 1572–73, was imprisoned for printing Davidson’s anonymous polemic, Ane dialog or mutuall talking betwix a clerk and ane courteour, concerning four parische kirks till ane minister, in Edinburgh 1574. See Alastair Mann, The Scottish Book Trade 1500–1720, Tuckwell Press, 2000. Fate & Fortune gives a fictional account of the hazards printers faced. [27] Minister of Perth, who became minister to the king’s household in 1590. See above, on The end of the world, at Lammas.

[27] The printer Robert Leprevik, who worked briefly in St Andrews in 1572–73, was imprisoned for printing Davidson’s anonymous polemic, Ane dialog or mutuall talking betwix a clerk and ane courteour, concerning four parische kirks till ane minister, in Edinburgh 1574. See Alastair Mann, The Scottish Book Trade 1500–1720, Tuckwell Press, 2000. Fate & Fortune gives a fictional account of the hazards printers faced.