Author: Bill Hendrie

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Thursday, March 13th, 2008 at 6:07 pm
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The Skire Siller

Every year at Easter, Her Majesty the Queen distributes specially minted Maundy Money to the same number of pensioners as there are years in her age. Scotland once had its own much more elaborate version of this annual church ceremony. Known as the Gieing o’ the Skire Siller, this event took place at Linlithgow’s historic St. Michael’s Kirk, if the Scottish monarch happened to be in residence at the neighbouring royal palace.

James IVThis was the case on several occasions during the reign of King James IV because, while he was faithful to his duties to the church, he also delighted in turning the Easter festival into an enjoyable holiday. The excellent hunting available around Beecraigs and Cockleroi and further afield over Bathgate Moss, was always a highlight.

The Gieing o’ the Skire Siller took its name from the fact that the ceremony was always performed on the Thursday before Good Friday. In the church calendar this was known as Sheer Thursday, meaning pure Thursday, as it was on this day that acts of purification were traditionally conducted prior to Good Friday. Skire appears to have been a corruption of this term. The Siller referred to the little silver coins which were specially produced for the occasion and which, in the years when they were distributed to the poor in Linlithgow, may well have been cast at the town’s mint just off the High Street. The coins were handed out to the paupers, the old and other deserving poor of the Royal and Ancient Burgh, by His Majesty King Jamie from the stone steps in front of the west door to St. Michael’s.
St Michaels LinlithgowDoor of St Michaels Linlithgow

Washing feet

As well as this distribution, the monarch carried his act of penance much further than now happens at the Maundy Money. While the poor folk made their way up the steep, cobbled Kirkgate to St. Michael’s, the royal servants were busy preparing basins of hot water and fresh linen towels. Sweet smelling herbs were strewn in the water – and the king must have welcomed this thoughtful act, because, as each of the elderly poor folk appeared in front of his throne, he was expected to lean forward and imitate Jesus at the Last Supper, by carefully and gently washing their feet.

Once their feet were washed and dried by the royal servants, the king presented each pauper with a small linen bag of the silver coins. In addition he handed over a new gown of blue or grey Holland cloth, a new pair of leather shoes or boots, probably made by Linlithgow’s well known snabs, as the cobblers were known, and a wooden platter and a wooden bowl.

Religious Observances

The following morning, on Good Friday itself, King James continued his religious observances by rising at dawn to worship in the Chapel Royal within the palace, where he received the sacrament. Situated on the first floor of the palace, the chapel, with its five tall windows facing south, was ornately decorated with statues of the Saints. The row of stone niches in the wall, where they stood, can still be seen. Sadly, all are empty now as they were smashed in 1560 during the Reformation. Intact below the spaces however, are the carvings of the cherubs, little boy angels, each of whom is depicted playing a different musical instrument. The consecration crosses carved in the walls, indicating where the Bishop originally sprinkled the holy water when he consecrated the Chapel Royal, can also be traced.

Later in the morning, accompanied by his young Queen Margaret and his courtiers, King James crossed the courtyard and entered St. Michael’s through the now walled up north entrance, to participate in a second public act of worship. Jamie IV was reputed to be generous and if the Easter Mass was said by a young priest who was performing this sacred rite for the first time, it is said that His Majesty always gave an especially generous offering to celebrate the occasion.

St Michaels Linithgow

Easter traditions

While the ceremony of The Gieing o’ The Skire Siller is now only part of history, Linlithgow is still a very pleasant place to visit at this time of year. St. Michael’s Church is always decorated with beautifully perfumed Easter lilies, while on Easter Monday, the Peel, the Royal Park which surrounds both the kirk and the ruins of the palace, is a favourite place for local youngsters to commemorate another ancient tradition – rolling their hand decorated hard boiled eggs.This is said to commemorate the rolling away of the stone from in front of Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem.

In the past, in Linlithgow, many of the eggs were dyed dark brown because the children made use of the water used to tan the hides in the leather works. The best place to have a competition to see which egg remains intact longest is the deep hollow, immediately in front of the east facade of the palace, known as the Giant’s Cradle. Once the eggs have all been smashed its steep slopes provide a sheltered spot to enjoy eating the insides.

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