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. Continue reading