Written by Heather Elvidge
We think of August as the height of summer, yet this harvest month carries hints of autumn. Rowan trees have bunches of bright orange berries – soon they’ll be a fiery red.
The first black berries are visible on bramble bushes, although these early ones are not very juicy. Dog roses have scarlet hips, and the ripe fruits of wild cherry are attracting blackbirds and thrushes. Elderberries are not yet ripe, but that doesn’t deter wood pigeons and starlings from eating them.
Tall spires of willowherb dominate roadsides, railway tracks and waste ground. Rosebay willowherb grows in colonies, each five-foot stalk smothered in pink flowers. Before long they’ll be bearing long seedpods, which split open to liberate battalions of feathery seeds.
Harvesting is underway in the barley fields. On the margins, near the hedge, there’s often a common wild plant called fat-hen. Related to beetroot, sugar beet and spinach, its spear-shaped leaves used to be eaten as a vegetable.
Fat-hen (chenopodium album) grows to about one metre, with a spire bearing clusters of tiny green flowers. A common plant, it is decidedly unspectacular, but if spinach had never been introduced it would be on our plates today.
Nutritious fat-hen contains valuable minerals, brought up by its long roots from deep in the soil. The young tips were consumed fresh; mature leaves were boiled, buttered and eaten with bacon.
August 15 is the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Popularly known as Marymas, it used to be a big day for fairs.
Marymas was notable as the opening day of Scarborough’s famous medieval fair, whose charter was granted in 1253.
Scarborough Fair was long – it lasted until Michaelmas on September 29 – because this was the herring season. Huge shoals of migrating herring were heading south, chased by boats from every community along the coast. The catch was landed at the nearest port, where the fish were gutted and then salted or pickled.
The heyday of Scarborough Fair was over by the 16th century, although the six-week fish market carried on until 1788. Marymas ended too, banished from the church calendar by the reforms of 1549. No Marymas customs survived in England, but Scotland still has two “Murmuss” fairs, at Inverness and Irvine.
The herring shoals kept coming into the 20th century, and so did some of the customs associated with catching them.
Buckie and Fraserburgh, in Scotland’s north-east, had a figure covered in prickly burdock seeds. As the burrs stuck, so the fish would stick in the nets. He was very like the famous Burry Man who still walks the streets of South Queensferry every August.
After Filey boats had sailed, youngsters hauled empty carts to the cliff top, to the annoyance of the owners who had to fetch them back the next morning. Flamborough fishermen’s wives, dressed in their husband’s clothes, went from door to door in a custom called “raising herrings”.
Though the methods differed, the aim was the same — to drive herring into the nets, in a great harvest of the sea.