Need-fire – a Celtic tradition that lasted till the 1840s

The need-fire – a Celtic response to cattle disease – might not mean much to people today. But, it’s only 160 years or so since desperate farmers finally abandoned it. And it seems to have been especially popular in Westmorland.

Anyone who experienced or witnessed the ghastly foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 must have sympathies for their forebears. After all, 21st century learning and science didn’t have answers to the catastrophe, beyond containment and mass slaughter.

In fact, our ancestors would have found little changed in 2001’s movement restrictions etc from their own times.

So, what was the need-fire?

A correspondent – identified only as JH – in January 1786 explained it, in some disdain.

JH  wrote that in ‘a few parishes, about seven or eight miles south-east of Carlisle,’ a fatal cattle disease called the Murl was incurable, but many folk believed it could be warded off by a magical charm – the need-fire.

First, the villagers put out their own fires. Then they got together with a wooden spinning wheel, fixed it with a spindle amongst some straw, and span it until the friction finally started a fire.

This was fuelled with peat or turf, then all the cattle would be driven through the smoke three times.

The villagers would then go home, each taking ‘a piece’ of the need-fire. As long as the fire was kept going, the cattle would (in theory!) be safe.

JH reports that the ‘Murl’ was rife in Westmorland, and making rapid progress northward. But urged farmers reading the paper to reflect on futility of nonsensical ceremonies in an age when learning and science had made great progress.

Need-fire v science

They didn’t listen! Possibly because for all the progress, learning and science hadn’t come up with sure-fire (pun intended) alternatives to prevent the spread of cattle diseases.

In July 1834, the Westmorland Gazette reported, to its own amazement, that the need-fire had been carried out through almost all the east ward of the county, and even into Cumberland. It said it wasn’t just the illiterate and credulous practising it, but those who should have been the first to put an end to such nonsense.

In November 1840, both the Gazette and the Kendal Mercury reported the need-fire being used in the county, which sparked (pun also intended!) a lot of interest among readers as to the origins of the custom. It was reported as having been used recently in Coniston and Crosthwaite and being ‘all the go’ about Hawkshead.

Early in 1841, a letter to the Kendal Mercury asked if anyone knew the origins of the need-fire, ‘which we have lately had circulating here’. W Pearson, of Border Side, Crosthwaite, thought the need-fire was of Druidical origin, and thought it may well have originated in Westmorland or thereabouts.

A reply the following week said it had been created in the township of Killington, where they’d run a lathe or thorn well against a piece of wood till it ignited. The writer believed the Druids had rubbed two green sticks together.

The need-fire was ‘flying about from farmhouse to farmhouse in all directions’ in Appleby, in 1843.

An article in 1866 reckoned the need-fire hadn’t been used in Westmorland for 20 years, claiming the arrival of the railways had swept superstition away. Vets at the time were recommending farmers fumigate their cattle in their byres with iodine (placing a bowl on a fire to give off fumes). Another vet preferred a mix of carbolic acid, spirits of tar, and tar acid.

For all the superstition surrounding the need-fire, some commenters felt that as it was a form of fumigation, there may have been ‘something in it’.