Historically, the quarter days were used for hiring fairs (to hire farm servants), rental contracts, the payment dates for rent, loan interest and salaries and stipends. As such, their names appear in all sorts of historic records, in which the writers and the intended readers would know exactly what they meant. As a modern researcher, it’s therefore very useful to know what they were.
The four quarter days traditionally were:
Candlemas fell on February 2. It marked the Feast of the Presentation, marking the occasion when Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth. In pre-Reformation Scotland, the feast was marked by candlelit processions by mothers who had given birth the previous year. The term is still used today by among others the University of St Andrews, as the name of one of the semesters. It coincides with the Celtic celebration of Imbolc.
Whitsun fell on May 15 under the Gregorian Calendar (May 26 under the Julian Calendar before 1599). It commemorates the giving of the law to Moses at Sinai. In respect to genealogy, valuation rolls were in force from Whitsun to the day before the following Whitsun. Whitsun also often coincided with the celebration of the spring communion.
The name Lammas comes from the Anglo-Saxon half-mas, or loaf-mass. It is celebrated on August 1, and marks the first fruits of harvest. It coincides with the Gaelic festival of Lunastal, when in the Highlands it was traditional to make a special cake known as a lunastain. It appears in a celebrated ballad, The Battle of Otterburn, of which the opening verse is:
It fell about the Lammas tide,
When the muir-men win their hay,
The doughty Earl of Douglas rode
Into England, to catch a prey.
Martinmas was November 11. It was originally the feast held to commemorate Martin of Tours, a celebrated 4th century bishop and hermit. St Ninian, an important figure in the Christianisation of Scotland often overshadowed by the better-known St Columba, studied at Marmoûtiers, St Martin’s monastery, and he dedicated one of the earliest churches in Scotland to St Martin. Martinmas is still used as the name of the winter semester at the University of St Andrews, and was historically used by the other ancient universities of Scotland (Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh). The date is of course now better known as Remembrance Day, marking the end of the First World War.