Need Fires: the last Celtic tradition

Not that long ago – until only 150 years or so – if your cattle came down with murrain or foot and mouth, there was a solution. The ‘need fire’.

Each household extinguished their hearth fire, then a new, communal fire was lit using  friction, either with flints or by rubbing sticks together. Damp wood was added to the fire to create a lot of smoke, then the village’s cattle and swine1  were driven through the smoke in order of age. The householders then lit a brand in the communal fire, and re-lit their domestic hearth.

The cattle-curing aspect may be the last surviving memory of something much more significant. Today, we might wonder if the smoke or the heat had some affect on the micro-organisms that were causing the illness, and hence if there was some logical, albeit hit-and-miss, basis for believing this might work. And perhaps this is true, but, of course, knowledge of bacteria is recent, and this tradition is not. Two hundred – and two thousand –  years ago, people feared the cause was otherworldly.

In the 1850s, a Mr Taylor, of Sawrey, near Hawkshead, wrote2,

‘A well-to-do old farmer having lost several of his cattle by some disease then very prevalent in the neighbourhood, and being able to account for it in no way so rationally as by witchcraft, he had recourse to the following remedy, recommended to him by a weird sister in the district as an effectual protection from the attacks of the foul fiend. A few Stones were piled together in the farmyard, and wood and straw having been laid thereon the fuel was ignited by fire obtained by friction, all the neighbours for miles around attending with their cattle to go through the solemnity. The cattle were made to pass through the fire and smoke in the order of their dignity and age, commencing with the horses and ending with the swine. The ceremony having been duly gone through, the enlightened owners of the herds and flocks, along with their families, followed the example of the cattle, and the ‘sacrifice to Baal’ was considered complete; and the assembled throng repaired to their several homes in the full gratification of having performed a great deed.’

There are several other recorded instances of need fires of a similar date:

Keenground, 1836: Isaac Hodgeson recalled the fire being brought on-site in a pan.

Finsthwaite, 1837:  Robert Scales reported a need fire to cure cattle murrain.

Keswick, 1841: the fire was brought farm-to-farm from Dunmail Raise.

Hollin Bank, 1847: Mr Wilson recalled the last need fire at his family farm.

Fieldhead, 1847:  John Usher, ditto.

Troutbeck, 1851.

The last known need fire took place at Scaleby, during the cattle plague of 1865-6.3

It’s interesting to note that even at this late date, Mr Taylor knew that the fire was associated with ‘Baal’; this is Bel, the Celtic fire god, after whom Beltane5 – the Celtic name for May Day – is named. In old Welsh literature, Bel is said to be the father of both Lud/Lugus, and Afallach, who we’ve already met in Cumbria. Many Celtic cultures, including Cumbria, had held bonfires on May Day, midsummer and Samhain (31st October – although of course in later years this was replaced by 5th November) for a good couple of thousand years.

It wasn’t just livestock, either; note that Mr Taylor’s villagers followed the animals through the fire. There are whispers that suggest that ‘need fires’ cured sick children, although this was obviously considered un-christian, and therefore to be spoken of in muted tones, when it was reported in the 19th century.

The re-lighting of household fires from the need fire is also significant4. Even when the last need fires were recorded, fire was a capricious thing. There were no matches, firelighters and so on. Hearth fires were never allowed to go out, and if they did, you took a light from someone else’s fire. So, all fires were spawned from other fires; there was no such thing as a ‘new’ fire unless you started it the hard way with that magical ‘spark’ from friction.  The need fire wasn’t just about sick cattle and old festivals; it was a ‘new start’ that cut ties with past difficulties.

So what finally saw off this ancient tradition? Was it the sneering tone of ‘educated’, urban gentlemen, like Mr Taylor of Sawrey? Was it the development of understanding of disease? Perhaps the invention of the ‘lucifer’ match took the mystery out of fire? Whatever the case, they’ve been out of fashion for 150years.

A papal synod tried to ban need fires in 747CE2. It only took 1100 years to come into effect.

©Diane McIlmoyle 18.05.11

  1. Note that sheep never seem to be involved. Is this because sheep were a Viking introduction, so not associated with a Celtic practice? Opinions appreciated.
  2. As quoted by Henry Swainson Cowper, Hawkshead(1899).
  3. The Folklore of the Lake District by Marjorie Rowling (1976).
  4. Denham Tract, 1895. ii:50 as quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore
  5. Marjorie Rowling (see 3) quotes Pennant, who wrote in 1772, ‘Till of late years the superstition of the bel-tin was kept up in these parts…’ (Keswick)
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28 thoughts on “Need Fires: the last Celtic tradition

  1. Interesting ancient custom that lived on into the 1800’s. I’m curious: what is a wierd sister? Is that another name for wise woman, solitary philosopher? The connection of Baal to Bel is interesting and might account for a connection to Anatolian
    proto-Celtics. Always interesting ruminations based on local findings. Once again, Diane, thanks for some intriguing food for thought!

    • The chap’s quoting Shakespeare, of course, who refers to the Macbeth witches as ‘weird sisters’. I guess the contemporary locals would say ‘wise woman’, though!

      I’m increasingly of the opinion that all these gods go back much further than we think, in geography and time. Like people.

      Thanks for visiting, as ever. You always have something intelligent to say 🙂

  2. Sometimes when I watch my autistic son staring at the flames of our fire, or see him mesmerised by the wind rustling the leaves of the trees I begin to get a glimpse of how earlier societies must have regarded the elements. (My son has very few communication skills and as such we cannot explain them to him.) Fire with it’s crucial role in every day existence must have taken on an importance that we with our push a button energy needs, can never fully hope to grasp. It therefore makes sense to me that fire would be used to cleanse and purify. Even to cure. I knew nothing about ‘need fire’ and once again need to thank you for educating me.

    • I agree, your son is probably seeing the world in a very ancient way, when everything was magical. What a gift! Glad you enjoyed it, and it’s lovely to see you here, as always.

  3. Fascinating post! I think we still have an atavistic need for fire- why was it called a “need” fire- and this is why we all still love an open fire. And why we celebrate Guy Fawkes on November 5th! It was fortuitous that Fawkes tried his bombing on 5th November- it’s only remembered now because it’s as near as dammit Samhain! We need a fire as “Golden October declines into sombre November” to remind us that the sun and his plenty will come back! What do we generally call it? Bonfire Night!

    • Thanks for coming over, Con! And this was probably the biggest bonfire of them all. I assume it was a line-shaped fire, or two round ones, if animals were to be driven through the smoke. Guy Fawkes gave christianised Britain a reason to carry on with the fires. As you say, it was conveniently near to Samhain, but the big fire festival was Beltane. Perhaps Beltane was just too near our ancient practices for comfort.

  4. Sheep probably not mentioned because if it is a smoke=antibacterial practise, it’s probably pointless with woolly animals. Just a thought. Also, woolly animals might, y’know, burn…

  5. I think it’s a mistake to look for logical, practical reasons for what these ancestors did with their cattle, as if there was a real sensible reason being dressed up in the fairy stories they told themselves. They believed in the Fae not as a matter of blind faith, but because they saw them. The Fae were as real to them as they are to me here in Glastonbury. And the practise of passing between two fires at Beltaine was to protect themselves and their cattle from the Fae.

    The Fae are not the sweet little gossamer-winged characters which we see in the Flower Fairy books, which stem from Victorian fiction. Some of them are the same size as us, and some of them are huge, and some are even covered in fur like the Yeti. They are another, older, stellar race of peoples that I had no idea existed before I started practising shamanic techniques which improved my ‘second sight’. But stealing cattle or making ill to the point of death cattle that had disturbed their’ raths’, their homes, was, and may still be, a common practice of theirs.

    In any case, my point is, whether we believe in the Fae (aka the Gentry or the Sidhe) or not, our ancestors very definitely did and the passing between the fires was for protection purposes ~ protection from the magical influence of the Fae.

    • Hi there and thank you for a lovely long comment! I’m quite sure that ancient peoples saw livestock illnesses as supernatural in origin, and perhaps there was some benefit from the fire – whatever the cause – and that’s why the tradition lingered long after the point when ‘educated’ gentlemen started making sarcastic comments about ‘rustics’ having odd rituals. You get the impression that by the mid 19th century, locals got together and carried out these old practices in semi-secret, before incomers could get a hold of them. In some ways, it’s not so different now!

      There’s no question that belief in faeries, or the sidhe, was common here. We have Fairy Steps (Beetham) and Elva Plains, faeries kings (Eveling), faerie raths (Hardknott), umpty barrows with strange associations, and numerous tales about barguests, boggarts, black dogs and dobbies. And very few of these were seen as benign, tinkerbell-types even in recent times.

  6. Hi, great article, I hadn’t realised quite how many individual authorities wrote on this element of the Beltane fires! Just one question though (I am seriously interested in knowing the answer): you say sheep were introduced by the Vikings? – Who’s your source for that? I thought sheep very much like the soay breed were present in Britain from medieval times (hence all the emphasis on plucking sheep etc)? And even if the VIkings did introduce sheep, they were surely widespread enough by the 1800s that they would be included in the fire ceremonies as well. Perhaps they were not included in the ritual as they were just not as important as cattle; they aren’t worth as much at least.

    • Hello Lee – I’m thinking of ‘native’ Cumbrian Herdwick sheep, who were, apparently, introduced by the Vikings who got here by sea and river (probably the norse who were chucked out of Dublin), as opposed to the Vikings who arrived here over the Pennines from the northeast. I’m quite sure there were some sheep here before, as you say, but were they as common? Were they considered less important than cattle, so either they weren’t cleansed in the need fire, or weren’t worth mentioning? I’ve no idea. It’s just a puzzle that they’re not mentioned, given they’re everywhere in Cumbria now.

    • Hi Nicola – I’m thinking of Herdwick sheep, which are regarded as ‘native’ in the Lake District. It’s believed that they were introduced by Vikings who reached the Cumbrian valleys by sailing upstream from the Cumbrian coast. I’m quite sure there were sheep here – as Lee says, think of the soay – but were there hundreds on most farms, as there are now? Perhaps there were, but my impressions are confuddled by the Herdwick story.

  7. St Patrick and St Cuthbert were both shepherds with sheep.

    An interesting bit of folklore. I’ve been looking at cattle murrains in 7th century Irish annals this week. And no, passing them through smoke or even fire wouldn’t do anything to the microbes.

    • Well, Patrick and Cuthbert were both certainly pre-Viking. My Viking sheep thing comes from the Lake District’s native Herdwick, which were supposedly introduced by the Vikings. I’m wondering if there were fewer sheep pre-Herdwick, whether they just missed a mention, or whether for some reason they weren’t included. Perhaps I need someone to tell me if cattle had a superior status in ‘celtic’ culture.

      While some of the recorded 19th century need fires were certainly connected to murrain, there’s no word on whether it ‘worked’ (at least in their minds – not necessarily as a result of the smoking!). I should think there was just an ancient association with ritual cleansing that became more prosaic as the centuries passed.

      Thank you for dropping by – much appreciated 🙂

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  9. Perhaps I need someone to tell me if cattle had a superior status in ‘celtic’ culture.

    If for `Celtic’ you were prepared to accept `Old Irish’ then absolutely yes; cattle were the primary unit of value in Old Irish society, there being no money there till the very late tenth century. The law tracts organise compensation payments in cattle, grade people’s wealth and status in terms of cattle, the earliest vernacular Irish literature is about a cattle raid… and sheep are just nowhere compared to this. They obviously existed, people wore wool and so on, but they’re not a status animal. Whether you can safely argue from seventh-century Ireland to pre-Viking Cumbria is another question, though, as this kind of differential isn’t really visible in the very very scant sources we have from mainland `Celtic’ Britain; no law tracts there and not much literature, very few transactional documents… I guess one could hope for something out of the Book of Llan Dâv but I don’t have easy access to that literature as I type. And would that help anyway? The choice between cattle and sheep must be partly down to landscape.

    • That’s very helpful, though, thanks. I know evidence of a lot of things is scant in early Cumbria, but it’s not madness to think that 7th-century Cumbrians would have similar ideas to the Irish, given that they were both shores around the same pond! I wish there were earlier written references to need fires in Cumbria, which might give a clue as to how eroded the individual components had become by the 19th century. It just seems strange that, given sheep have been critical in Cumbria for so many centuries, that they don’t seem to be included in this ‘ritual’. Perhaps it’s just an omission from written record, not practice.

      • Just wanted to expand Jonathan’s thoughts with some further speculation, since he pointed out the Old Irish parallel. Patterson’s ‘Cattle Lords and Clansmen’ has a whole chapter all about the significance of various livestock animals in Medieval Ireland, and according to him sheep were hardly ever eaten. Their wool was really important as a water resistant material and they were milked a lot, but mutton wasn’t very popular. Cows on the other hand were eaten a lot, but pigs were more important for the common people who had most to gain from rituals like the Beltane fire one. That leaves only their status value, like Jonathan said. In Irish society you could only hold a certain ‘rank’ (boaire, ocaire, etc.) with a certain number of cows.

        That was obviously not the same in Britain where I would have thought pigs and horses would have been as important again, but it may have been the case in Ancient Britain/Gaul/wherever the tradition started. Beltane is not mentioned on the Coligny Calendar like Samhain but the festival does seem to have some ancient origins. Also, as much as I hate the nature of the evidence, Brigid is strongly associated with both cows and Beltane (Latha Bride across the Gaeltacht), and the two may have been associated by themselves.

        • Thanks for that – that’s very relevant and very useful! With Cumbrian history, we’re always grasping wisps and suggestions – there’s so little written down and Viking customs seem to have over-written a lot. There is, however, plentiful evidence of Cumbrians holding bonfires on ‘St. John’s Eve’ a long time after having a ‘Beltane’ fire went out of use… and of course, they’re on more or less the same date (like Samhain and Guy Fawkes, of course)!

          The later need fire records do include pigs, so that fits with what you say. I’ve always found it odd that there are so many Cumbrian traditional dishes with pork, including the infamous Cumberland sausage, even though you rarely see pigs here; doubtless another hang-over from the days when they were more important than sheep, as a food, at least.

          Funny you should mention Brigid. It was pointed out to me that there are a lot of place names, particularly on the western side of the county, that must be derived from Brigid. More suggestions of a shared culture with other (in our case, formerly) Gaelic/Brythonic-speaking parts of the world.

          Thanks for coming over 🙂

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