Everyone of my generation will remember the first verse of, ‘Here we go gathering nuts in May.’
“Here we go gathering nuts in May, / Nuts in May, nuts in May, / Here we go gathering nuts in May, / On a cold and frosty morning.” How many people, however, remember the other verses? Here is verse 2. “Who will you have for nuts in May, / Nuts in May, nuts in May, / Who will you have for nuts in May, / On a cold and frosty morning?” And in the third, fourth and fifth verses, the children singing the rhyme used to answer the question posed in verse 2 by nominating one of their number to give the line, “We’ll have Kirsten for nuts in May,” following this by asking, in verse 4, “Who will you have to fetch her away?” and answering that question in turn in the final verse, “We’ll have Jimmy to fetch her away, / Fetch her away, fetch her away, / We’ll have Jimmy to fetch her away, / On a cold and frosty morning.”
But it is the first and final lines of verse the first verse that really intrigue me for, although the rhyme was first recorded by Alice Gomme in The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland , published between 1894 and 1898, we do not, of course, gather nuts in May in Scotland, nor do we expect to have many cold and frosty mornings. One theory is that the word ‘nuts’ is a corruption of ‘knots’, an alternative name for the blossom of the hawthorn … or may … tree; and, since gathering may blossom was a pastime of country children a hundred-and-more years ago, the explanation may be as simple as that.
However, there is a different solution to this thorny problem of ‘nuts in May’; and that is that the rhyme refers to an edible tuber … not actually a nut … variously called gourlins or hornecks in many parts of Scotland, lucy aunt on Fife, swine bread in Inverness-shire, lousy arnut in Perthshire and Aberdeenshire and as kippernut, cipernut, arnut, jarnut, hawknut, earth chestnut, groundnut, and earthnut in other parts of the United Kingdom. From its popularity with pigs come the names pignut and hognut; and it is the tuberous root of a plant with the botanical name Conopodium majus … Conopodium coming from the Greek word konos meaning ‘cone’ and podion from another Greek word meaning ‘little foot of a vase’, referring to the shape of the stylopodium. Majus means simply ‘greater’ or ‘large’. The plant is a member of the same family of plants as the carrot.
And yes, children of yesteryear did indeed grub up those tubers which, apparently, taste rather like a nutty parsnip. Despite the inclusion in their botanical name of the word majus, the tubers are not large - about the size of a shelled hazelnut - and not plentiful, so pignuts … perhaps the most widespread of all the common names for the plant … were not regarded as a viable food source and were never harvested as a commercial crop. But pigs did indeed root about for them in the days when pigs had much more freedom of movement than is usual today; and the plant is common through much of Europe and parts of North Africa. It grows in woods and fields, and is an indicator of long-established grassland.
Children could not simply pull the roots out of the ground in the same way in one can free a carrot from the soil by grasping the foliage firmly; they had, instead, to follow the pigs’ example, using their fingers as the pig uses its snout to follow the root underground and discover the tuber, which has a thin skin that can easily be scraped away to reveal the white flesh. If the finder was hungry, the tuber could be eaten there and then: but it was more usual to take it home and serve it boiled as a vegetable. And yes, they can be found during May.
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society