Martin Martin’s 1703 book ‘A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland’ commences with an account of Lewis and the lifestyles, practices and beliefs of some of its residents. On pages 28 and 29, he tells us a report of a startling practice carried out within living memory by some locals; These seemingly combined christianity with a form of pagan worship in which a deity he calls ‘Shony’ was propitiated at Hallowtide (Samhain) in order to obtain a good bounty of seaweed for the coming year. Seaweed was vital to the agrarian and industrial economy of islanders and coastal peoples of the Atlantic coasts of Europe, and Samhain is the end of harvest and beginning of the dark months when people relied upon stores and collected their (and nature’s) waste and effluvia in order to use it as fertiliser for the coming agricultural season in springtime. It was also the celtic new year:
THEY were in greater Veneration in those
days than now : it was the constant practice of
the Natives to kneel at first sight of the Church,
tho’ at a great distance from ’em, and then they
said their Pater-noster. John Morison of Bragir
told me, that when he was a Boy, and going
to the Church of St. Mulvay, he observed the
Natives to kneel and repeat the Pater-noster at
four miles distance from the Church. The In-
habitants of this Island had an antient Custom
to sacrifice to a Sea-God, call’d Shony at Hallow-
tide, in the manner following : The Inhabi-
tants round the Island came to the Church of St.
Mulvay having each Man his Provision along
with him ; every Family furnish’d a Peck of
Malt, and this was brew’d into Ale : one of
their number was pick’d out to wade into the
Sea up to the middle, and carrying a Cup of
Ale in his hand, standing still in that posture,
cry’d out with a loud Voice, saying, Shony,
I give you this Cup of Ale, hoping that you will be
so kind as to fend us plenty of Sea-ware, for in-
riching our Ground the ensuing year : and so threw
the Cup of Ale into the Sea. This was per-
formed in the Night time. At his Return to
Land, they all went to Church, where there
was a Candle burning upon the Altar; and
then standing silent for a little time, one of
them gave a Signal, at which the Candle was
put out, and immediately all of them went to
the Fields, where they fell a drinking their Ale,
and spent the remainder of the Night in Dan-
cing and Singing, &c.
THE next Morning they all return’d home,
being well satisfy’d that they had punctually
observ’d this Solemn Anniversary, which they
believ’d to be a powerful means to procure a
plentiful Crop. Mr. Daniel and Mr. Kenneth
Morison, Ministers in Lewis, told me they spent
several Years, before they could persuade the
vulgar Natives to abandon this ridiculous piece
of Superstition ; which is quite abolish’d for
these 32 Years past.
The account seems to be in concordance with those of pagan practices on Inniskea off the west of Ireland in the mid-1800’s: Like ‘Neevoge’ or ‘Knaveen’, the ‘god’ Shony (interpreted as an anglicisation of Seonaidh or Seonadh by more modern celticists and Gaelic grammarians) appears to have been given special cognizance at Samhain (Allhallow’s Eve) which was also the Atlantic/Celtic new year. Like on Inishkea, it was believed to have power over the waters and could procure the storms necessary to toss a great deal of seaweed (or wrecks) onto the shores for the benefit of the suppliants.
Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica Vol.1 (Pub. 1900) contains descriptions of similar traditions in other parts of the Western Isles which centred around throwing produce of the fields into the sea in order to obtain more seaweed. In this case, it is at one of the other Atlantic storm season – around the Spring Equinoxe (late March, coinciding with Christian easter celebrations):
Maunday Thursday is called in Uist ‘Diardaoin a brochain,’ Gruel Thursday, and in Iona ‘Diardaoin a brochain mhoir,’ Great Gruel Thursday. On this day people in maritime districts made offerings of mead, ale, or gruel to the god of the sea. As the day merged from Wednesday to Thursday a man walked to the waist into the sea and poured out whatever offering had been prepared, chanting:–
‘A Dhe na mara, Cuir todhar ’s an tarruinn Chon tachair an talaimh, Chon bailcidh dhuinn biaidh.’ O God of the sea, Put weed in the drawing wave To enrich the ground, To shower on us food.
Those behind the offerer took up the chant and wafted it along the sea-shore on the midnight air, the darkness of night and the rolling of the waves making the scene weird and impressive. In 1860 the writer conversed in Iona with a middle-aged man whose father, when young, had taken part in this ceremony. In Lewis the custom was continued till this century. It shows the tolerant spirit of the Columban Church and the tenacity of popular belief, that such a practice should have been in vogue so recently.
It is evident from Carmichael that such similar sea-propitiations were neither abolished in the 17th century, nor restricted to Lewis alone. It is also evident that the practice was not just carried out at Samhain, but at other periods during which the Atlantic weather becomes tempestuous and seaweed or ‘wrack’ is washed ashore – in this case, the period close to the spring equinox.