By Gwen Sinclair
This week finds us at the time of the Autumn Equinox which is the moment when the sun moves southwards from the North Pole after it had been tilted slightly toward the sun. This time in September marks the beginning of autumn – which can occur at any time between September 21st and 24th. This year it occurs on 22nd September at 7.21pm.
The term Equinox comes from Latin aequi, which means equal, and nox, which means night. This is because day and night are now of nearly equal length across the planet. In many parts of the world Autumn Equinox is celebrated as a festival – such as in Korea where it forms the basis of a 3 day harvest holiday. For the Celts this festival was thought to have been named Mabon or Alban Elfred, and was also a time of harvest celebration, and in particular where they expressed gratitude for all their blessings. They knew the strength of the sun would begin to diminish until their next festival of the Winter Solstice, three moons later – when they celebrated the return of longer days. It was also a time to stock up with firewood to keep them warm during the colder months. However, it wasn’t until the 12th century, that fire places were invented and even by the 13th century only nobles would have had fireplaces in their homes, but for the others – the normal source of heat was a fire pit in the middle of the room.
It’s an excellent time to plant trees, shrubs, bulbs and seeds since they will have the winter’s extra hours of the darkness to establish and germinate. In Dundonald it is a time of wonderful skies, and can be one of the best times to visit the woodlands where the changing colours of the leaves makes it quite spectacular.
Traditionally it is also a time to go out and collect nature’s wild abundance – for picking wild fruits and nuts such as rose hips, hazelnuts, damsons, elderberries, sloes, brambles and hawthorn berries. On nearby gentle rise of a wooded hillside curving eastwards towards Dundonald Castle lies Old Auchans. Once described as ” a large and beautiful pleasure house in the countryside“, now semi-ruinous, this year there’s quite a crop of pears growing in what was once its orchard. This orchard was famous for its Auchans Pear, (with Red Auchan and Winter Achan as varieties) because it’s thought to have been the first of its kind planted in the country from a variety originally brought from France, reputedly at the time of Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587).
In by gone days autumn was also a time for stockpiling food since people knew it would be a long time until new crops arrived. Meats and fish were smoked and salted, and fruits were harvested and dried. They were especially keen to ensure that there was enough grain on hand too, because bread was their staple carbohydrate, and of course used to brew beer! It was a time also for feasting while there was a plentiful supply of food – hence the harvest celebrations since people thought that they had to fatten up for winter!
Find out more about Old Auchans House:
Gordon Stewart’s guidebook: ‘Old Auchans House: A Brief History’ is available for sale in the Dundonald Castle Visitor Centre gift shop – open daily 11am-4pm.
Medieval autumn harvesting image by unknown master – book scan, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1638834
Sunset over Dundonald Castle by Lauren Welsh
Nature Images from Dundonald by Marysia Kolodziej
Pears at Old Auchans orchard by Marysia Kolodziej