Beltane or Beltaine is the anglicised spelling of the Old Irish Bel(l)taine or Beltine: the Gaelic name for either the month of May or the festival that takes place on the first day of May. Many fire festivals are held on this day to commemorate the days when people would traditionally burn their winter bedding and floor coverings. Other people celebrate Beltane because it’s one of the two crossover days each year between equinox and solstice, the other being All Hallow’s Eve.
The most interesting festival takes place on the Isle of Man when in a strange twist to the crossover idea men dress up as foxes and chase a foxhound across the island. The dog, known as the Beltane Hound, is usually the finest hound from Lord Laxey’s kennels and the animal is given five minutes start ahead of the fifty or so foxes who chase it. Before the dog is allowed to leave, the foxes toast its health by consuming a small dram of whisky from the Glenkinnchie distillery. The dog is not allowed a drink.
The dog is released on the west coast of the island and the idea is that if the dog reaches the east coast then the men in the fox costumes each have to forfeit 100 pounds to the ruling council of the Isle of Man called the Tynwald. If one of the foxes manages to pin a pink rosette to the collar of the hound without being bitten then Lord Laxey has to pay forfeit to the Tynwald and also row a coracle around the Isle of Man in an anti-clockwise direction. The fox who pins the rosette on the foxhound receives the Stannary Cup.
The foxes are allowed to use public transport and bicycles but not private motorized vehicles to try and outmanouevre the hound. Likewise, nobody is allowed to conceal the foxhound or help it in any way. This relatively new ruling dates from 1873 when one of Lord Laxey’s forefathers disguised that year’s Beltane hound as a pheasant thus confusing the foxes. One of the more drunken foxes did admit that he came across the creature but mistook the dog’s growling for a bad case of pheasant laryngitis.
There have been some unfortunate events. The 1911 Beltane Hound was never found and it was rumoured that it was aboard the Titanic heading for a new life. The 1954 Hound had no sense of direction and swam over to Northern Island. Three foxes had to be rescued by the local lifeboat as they tried to catch the creature. In 1968 one of the foxes had too much to drink and tried to pin his rosette to a police dog in Ramsay the capital of the Isle of Man. The police dog’s handler bit the fox, which had to be given a tetanus injection by the local vet as the town doctor was a teetotaller.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker