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The straw bikko

Prowling wolfA tradition once found throughout Orkney at harvest time, was the manufacture of a "dog" from the last of the straw to be cut.

This straw dog was known as the bikko, a name derived from the Old Norse word, "bikkja", meaning "bitch".

The bikko was lifted to a prominent position in the stackyard, or on one of the farm buildings, belonging to the farmer who was last to finish his harvest. By the time the tradition came to be recorded, the receipt of a bikko was regarded as the ultimate insult.

The tradition died out in the 1920s, but behind the tomfoolery of its twilight days, the true origin of the bikko go back much further and are linked to harvest, and fertility customs found across northern Europe.

To those who took great pleasure in creating, and delivering, a bikko, the original significance had long been forgotten. It had degenerated into a means of teasing, sometimes quite roughly, the last man to finish his harvesting.

Other accounts tell us that the bikko was tied behind the cart of the last farmer to bring home his sheaves.

The dog connection to the harvest was also apparent in Sanday where the "last man" was known as "Drilty in the Yard slap". According to the Orcadian antiquarian and folklorist Ernest Marwick, this man was presented with a "dog".

Whether the Sanday dog was a straw dog, in common with the bikko, or simply an object referred to as a "dog", I have not been able to discover.

But although earlier antiquarians and folklorists had recorded the bikko customs, there remained unanswered questions. What did it look like? How was it made? Why a she-dog? What did it represent?

It is possible that the hoisting of the bikko was an Orcadian reflection of a Norse tradition in which a straw bale was placed on a roof as protection against the malicious influences of trolls.

But given the similarities found elsewhere, where harvest was a time to make straw goats, horses and even women, it seems more likely that the bikko was originally regarded as a fertility symbol - the spirit of the corn.

For more observations on the significance of the harvest bikko, click here.

The idea that a corn spirit lived among a crop is widespread across Europe, and beyond. With the harvesting of the corn, this spirit was made homeless, so sought a refuge in the last sheaf. This explains the treatment accorded to the last sheaf, which was fashioned into a receptacle to hold the corn spirit over the winter.

But one puzzling difference remains.

Was the responsibility for looking after the corn spirit being passed to him? Or was he being marked as the man who had slain it? And as such was he once marked for "special treatment"?

Straw Figures and Last Man Capers

Section Contents
Casting the Heuks
The Last Sheaf
The Straw Dog - "The Bikko"
Straw Figures and "Last Man" Capers
The Harvest Bannock
The "Ritual Bannock" Connection
Offerings to Nature
Harvest Home and Muckle Supper

See Also
The Significance of the Harvest Dog

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