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  Orkney's Harvest Lore

Castin' the Heuks

Barley Field. Picture Sigurd TowrieUntil the introduction of mechanical harvesting machines in the 20th century, the tools and methods used in the fields of Orkney had changed little for millennia.

On of these ancient tools, the "heuk" was a sickle used to cut crops by hand. This implement, together with the plough, date back to the earliest days of prehistoric agriculture.

One particular custom, common throughout the islands, related to these heuks, in particular "the casting o' the heuks".

In this "ceremony", after the last of the crop was cut, the harvesters would hold their heuks, by the points of the blade. They would then throw them backwards, over their shoulders, while reciting this chant:

Whar'll I in winter dwell,
Whar'll I in vore dell,
Whar'll I in simmer fare,
Whar'll I in hairst shaer.

Upon landing, the way the thrown heuk faced was thought to indicate the direction its owner would next take up residence or find employment.

A dark fate awaited those whose heuk blade stuck with its point into the ground. In these cases, it was as certain, as day followed night, that the unfortunate heuk owner would lie in the kirkyard before the next harvest came around!

Something worth noting at this point, are the faint similarities between Orkney's casting the heuks, and group sickle throwing found elsewhere in Britain - see the page dealing with The Last Sheaf for more details.

There is no doubt that by the time it was finally recorded, Orkney's heuk-throwing ritual had deteriorated into boisterous superstition, the significance of which was long forgotten.

But what lay behind the tradition?

There are hints of an older ceremony, perhaps a means of selecting someone. In other similar traditions, found across northern Europe, the sickles were thrown at the last stalk.

The thrower whose sickle was directly responsible for cutting this stalk, and thereby symbolically killing the "harvest spirit", may once have been ritually put to death. This sacrifice would have been to return fertility to the land - a practice that over the millennia degenerated into the rough horseplay found in the games surrounding the "last man".

Shadows of this may still be seen in the custom of castin' the heuks - after all was the person whose heuk stuck point down not expected to die before next harvest?