Wild Goose Chase

The Scots celebrate April Fool’s Day by “hunting the gowk.”

Last night, a new McCollough (our first grandchild) was born. With tightly closed eyes, Theodore McCollough entered a new world much brighter than he has been used to. He brings a new light to our family as we emerge from winter, see the end of a long pandemic, and hope for brighter days to come.  We welcome this wee lad and wish him a long and happy life.  

Being born on April Fool’s Day will be special. No doubt little Theodore will receive interesting birthday presents and greetings and will have to endure a wild goose chase or two. If he is anything like his father, Theodore will be the one to deliver mischief on this day of foolishness.   

This day of merriment and joviality dates back thousands of years. Many cultures had a day of foolishness built into their annual calendars often occurring about the spring equinox. The Scots are known to have a great sense of humor. Since the 1700s, this vernal day of mischief  has been known as “Hunting the Gowk.” In Gaelic the translation was La na Gocaireachd that means “gowking day”’ or La Ruith na Cuthaige that means “the day of running the cuckoo.” Do what? A gowk is another name for the cuckoo bird, a relatively common species lurking in the hedgerows of Great Britain.

To hunt the gowk in Scotland on April 1 meant to send someone on a fruitless errand. They might be asked to fetch some impossible item like pigeon’s milk, striped paint, elbow grease, hen’s teeth, or succotash seeds. In Boy Scots, we used to send new recruits to look for a “left handed smoke shifter.” More frequently, an April cuckoo was selected for an important fool’s errand. On April 1 he or she was sent with a sealed message to deliver to a person on the other side of the village. In turn, the recipient asked the messenger to take the important message to another person in town. Finally, the exasperated messenger would be asked to open and read the message:

Dinna laugh an’ dinna smile
Hunt the gowk another mile

The origins of April Fool’s Day are obscured in the mists of time. It may have started in the 1500s with the confusion caused by the change of the Christian calendar. The New Year used to be celebrated on March 25 followed by a week of festivities that ended April 1st. That was until the French King Charles IX issued a decree stating that the year would begin on 1 January rather than 1 April. To protest this most unpopular change, people sent each other worthless presents as New Year’s gifts on April 1st. In France, it was traditional to send a raw fish. Nowadays, it is traditional to eat chocolate, marzipan or sugar fish. In Alsace, cakes are molded into the shape of fish. Sometimes practitioners will sneak up behind another and pin a fish-shaped cloth to the back of their jacket.

In Scotland April 2 is known as Tailie Day.

The Scots enjoy the foolishness so much that April 2nd is known as Tailie Day. Instead of a fish, the Scot’s secretly pin a tail on an unsuspecting victim. Of course, one cannot be foolish all day, so the Scots insist that all practical jokes end at noon on April 1 and 2. Our Scots-Irish McCollough ancestors brought this Tom foolery along with them to western Pennsylvania. A prank or two was pulled in the McCollough households!

So, we look forward to many happy April 1 festivities with our grandson. Maybe we will serve spaghetti freshly plucked from our spaghetti tree, bake a porcupine cake, or serve asparagus ice cream. However, as Theodore gets older we’re sure the gentle-hearted tricks will be on us!

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