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Corn Dollies
Small corn dollies...

Corn Dolly large ones.
From a University of Aberdeen Museum Lecture Series 
'Corn Dollies and Straw Work in Scotland: From Cornfield to Catwalk'

Harvest Time Corn Dollies

Harvest Time approaches and with it Corn Dollies which seem to have been with us forever, but are they fair or fearsome?

Although the Harvest Festival and celebrations of the autumn season go back to ancient times, the ways they were celebrated then were very different to how we celebrate today, and regular contributor Linda Wilson has a look through some of the folklore.

One thing that seems to have been constant across the generations is the making of Corn Dollies.

Sickles and Scythes

In olden times, Corn Dollies were made from the last sheaf of the harvest of corn from the fields. The cutting of the last sheaf was a most serious affair, as the farming folk believed that it was unlucky to be the one who cut it. So there tended to be a bit of a competition between neighbouring farmers to try to get their harvest in before anyone else so they didn’t have to cut the last sheaf.

And if you were the farmer unlucky enough to find yourself behind everyone else in the harvesting race, you would also find that your helpers or farm hands wouldn’t want to be the ones who actually cut the last sheaf. They didn’t want bad luck!

So farmers prepared a cunning plot to get round the problem.

Farm workers were blindfolded and took turns to throw their sickles (a hand-held tool with a curved blade) or scythes (same as a sickle only bigger) at it. There was no way of knowing who would get the bad luck until they actually hit the sheaf and felled it. It could take quite a while to finally knock the sheaf down – and all the time the farm-workers would be drinking their ale. I can’t think that this helped their aim at all!

Ancient Corn Dollies

Once the last sheaf of corn had been cut, it was used to make a Corn Dolly. In ancient times, farmers believed that the spirit of the crop lived in the field and when the corn was harvested the spirit had nowhere to live. The Corn Dolly was made to provide the spirit with a home for the winter, until it could be ploughed back into the first furrow of the new season. That way, the spirit of the crop lived happily through the winter and a good harvest would be enjoyed in the following year.

Corn Dollies could be any shape or size – depending on how big or important the spirit was considered to be. In Scotland the Corn Dolly was actually made in the shape of an old woman, which was called a Curlin or Curline. This character was considered a Goddess concerned with looking after nature during the winter months (another Goddess – Brid – looked after nature during the summer).

But Scottish folklore also called the Corn Dolly a Cailleach, or hag. The hag was a wizened old woman (think of a witch with a crooked nose and warts!) whose main activity was to bring doom and gloom to the farmers. The Cailleachan were a group of hags the farmers thought of as the destructive forces of nature, like the strong winds of Spring. And anyone around the Fylde Coast in 2010 will remember the damage the winds caused to the iconic windmill on Lytham Green!

In Ireland the hag was associated with sovereignty. She was someone special. The hag would appear to the young men who were the heroes of the stories. They had to show her love and kindness even though she was so very ugly. When they did this, she turned into a beautiful young Goddess and the farmers and crops were safe. There’s hope for me yet, then!

Farmers in England also told stories about an old hag. She was seen as the nightmare spirit, who would come to the people during the night and sit on their chests. She sent nightmares into their sleep and when they woke they had difficulty breathing. Hmm – I think this one is more like me...

Fair or Fearsome

Of course the fearsome Corn Dollies of ancient times don’t come to the Fylde Coast.

Only the fairest and kindest of Corn Dollies visit the animals and attractions you will find here. So, why don’t you come to the Fylde Coast this autumn? In these modern times you might not find any corn dollies, but you'll certainly find lots of great things to see and do - whatever your taste is.


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