Offerings to Shoni

Dolly Doctor wrote in Tales and Traditions of the practice of performing the t-ainmean in the upper end of Uig – evidently the last man to carry it out was a Mackinnon, grandfather of Dolly Doctor’s informant, so perhaps towards the end of the 18th century.

This offering was made to a god of the sea, so that this powerful deity would send abundance of fishes close inshore where they could be caught from the rocks by rod and line.

The performance of the t-ainmean was carried out at the end fo the summer, and the blood of the first animal slaughtered that season was collected in a vessel, and one of the villagers was chose to deanamh an t-ainmean.

This individual walked out to the extreme tip of the longest peninsula carrying the vessel of blood, and baring his head he said a weird incantation, poured out the sanguinary libation and hoped Manaan mac Lìr would answer his request for plenty fish for the coming season.

Offerings carried out in other parts of the island evidently involved ale in exchange for seaweed, as Malcolm Macphail gives in Superstitions of the Lewis, in Folklore:

All the matrons of a divination in a township in the time of spring collected a certain quantity of grain whihc was intended to be used for making a spiritous liquor, generally ale; and they superintended the process of making the grain into malt.  When it had been dried and ground they went, according to custom, to some public place devoted to ecclesiastical purposes, such as the site or ruin of a chapel.  Here it was brewed into ale, and as soon as it was ready it was conveyed in libatory vases (craggans) to the seashore, where, wading knee deep, they poured it into the sea, at the same time ejaculating:  Shoni, Shoni!  thugain failteas bruca am bliadhna agus bheir sinne barrachd lionna dhutsa an ath-bhliadhna! (Send us plenty of sea-ware this year and we will give you more ale next year!)  The performance seems to have fallen into desuetude a century or two ago for the memory of it is well-nigh extinct.

A similar account of Shoni is given by Martin Martin in his Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, who adds that at Ness the ceremony was performed at night; subsequently the people went to church, and later to the fields where they passed the night in dancing and singing.

Macphail also noted an instance when, faced with a disastrous shortage of sea-ware somewhere (in what part of the island is unknown), a man went out on St Brianuilt’s Day, 15 May, to the end of a promontory near his home.  He braced himself against a large rock and shouted, “Brianuilt, Brianuilt, send seaware, send seaware!”  Tradition maintains that his request was answered, but was also followed by a tremendous snowstorm.