Of Saints and Salmon Queens

This year, Thursday 18th July sees the annual Crowning of the Salmon Queen, part of the Tweedmouth Feast.   Many people believe that this is a tradition that stretches back in time to the middle ages.

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The Fight between Festival and Lent by Breugel, depicting a mediaeval festival.  

It is in fact a relatively new tradition but all traditions have to start somewhere and it is often the case that older traditions are adapted, as new fashions or ways of thinking emerge.

The Tweedmouth Feast refers to the mediaeval Feast Day of St Boisil, one of two saints to whom Tweedmouth Parish Church is dedicated, a slightly unusual thing in itself.  The custom of saints’ feast days is a mediaeval practice originally celebrating the deaths of the martyrs. These often evolved to become local festivals.  The tradition of the week-long Tweedmouth Feast stretches back perhaps as far as the 12th century.

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St. Bartholomew and St. Boisil Church, Tweedmouth.

Who was St Boisil?  Well, a more famous saint from the Dark Ages is St Cuthbert of Holy Island fame.  As a young shepherd in the Lammermuir Hills, he is said to have witnessed the soul of St Aiden rising to heaven.  Inspired, he became a novice at the monastic community of old Melrose.  The prior there was St Boisil:  the place is now called St Boswells, a corruption of his name.

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Boisil greets Cuthbert at Melrose. 12th-century miniature from British Library Yates Thomson MS 26 version of Bede’s prose Life of St Cuthbert.

The first written reference to Tweedmouth Parish Church is in a confirmatory papal document dated 1145 concerning “the Church of Bosilius at Tweedmouth.” which suggests the church had been there some time.

However, in the Victorian period, Tweedmouth Church became known as St. Bartholomew’s.  But why Bartholomew?

Just down the river from Tweedmouth is the village of Spittal.  Like many places with “Spittal” in the name, it is derived from the existance of a monastic hospital.  These were not always hospitals in the modern medical sense, but a place for travellers – a place of hospitality.  However the hospital in Spittal was a refuge for lepers!

It is possible the name St Boisil was seen to be too obscure or tainted with the more “lively” parts of the Feast.  One of the apostles would be far more respectable than an obscure Celtic saint. 

One of the more “lively” customs was a ceremony to create a “Mayor of Tweedmouth”. This would have been similar to many “king for the day” customs throughout Britain, in which the village fool or some other unfortunate was dressed up and made to feel special while, of course, being made fun of by everyone else. 

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The crowd make fun of Quasimodo (played by Charles Lawton) who has been crowned “King of Fools” in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The “Mayor” was voted in on the Monday evening, the honour often being bestowed upon a stranger to the area. Not surprisingly, the festivities often involved a lot of drinking and the eventual dunking of the “Mayor” in the river, often resulting in accidental drownings. This ceremony was still being practiced in the mid-19th century.

During the last two centuries there were many sports events and carnivals during the Feast week with hundreds of people travelling to Tweedmouth from Tyneside and the Borders often having a meal of salmon known as a “kettle”.

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Salmon fishing in Tweedmouth, from Dr Fuller’s History of Berwick (1799).

Today, a highlight of the Feast is the Crowning of the Salmon Queen, a ceremony in which a young local girl is chosen in celebration of the world famous salmon fishing industry that flourished on the River Tweed until recent times.  In the early 20th century community pageants were extremely popular often drawing upon stories from history for their inspiration.  The Crowning of the Salmon Queen started in 1946 and may be a reinvention of the “Mayor” tradition made less unruly for modern, more civilised tastes, yet harking back to other customs like the May Queen and ideas of representing a plentiful catch in the year.

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A May Queen and her attendants, 1891.

An interesting thing about the Tweedmouth Feast is that it takes place during the week including 18th July, yet St Boisils Day is on the 7th July, 11 days earlier. This is because in 1752 England changed from the old Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar adopted by the rest of Europe in 1582.  The change involved leaving out 11 days in the calender which led to protests from people believing they were being deprived of 11 days of their lives! The Tweedmouth Feast however still relates to the old Julian calendar date!

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Early Salmon Queen ceremony.

So come along to the West End of Tweedmouth on Thursday 18th July at 7pm when young Annie Heath will take the tradition of the Tweedmouth Salmon Queen through the next year.  Long may it continue. 

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Tweedmouth Salmon Queen 2013, Annie Heath.

Thanks once more to Anna Emmins and Tamsin Davidson for a slot on their show on Lionheart radio.

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