Weather lore – Fact or fiction? Separating myth from meteorology

Words by:
Matt Limb OBE
Featured in:
May 2024

Many traditional sayings involve predictions about the weather. But with our increasing scientific knowledge, do they still hold true?

‘A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay,
A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon,
But a swarm of bees in July is not worth a fly’

IT IS the most popular topic of conversation in the land, in fact we are almost obsessed by it, making it a point of humour for our near neighbours in Europe: the British weather. It has also been man’s desire for generations to forecast it accurately.

For many living in the countryside, an accurate prediction would often be key for a day’s work or other activity; the farmer wanting to plant or harvest crops, or wondering if it will be warm enough to put young animals out into the fields in early spring.

As a nation we are near possessed by the weather – but as a good friend will often remind me, there is no such thing as bad weather, only people who are not dressed properly for it.

But the ability to accurately forecast the weather locally or regionally, for the next few hours, could mean the difference between success and failure. This still holds today even with predictions delivered via the latest mobile device in your pocket, which is continually updated from some supercomputer at the weather centre. In generations gone by, the only measure was an individual’s past experience. From this came a mass of folklore and weather lore sayings. But is there any truth or scientific facts behind them?

Folklore and country-lore relating to the weather might be light years away from our smartphone apps, but in some cases it can have a degree of validity. This probably explains why they are still quoted generation after generation. Maybe the best-known saying, one you hear on a near daily basis is:

Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight,
Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning

This saying is often passed off as an old wives’ tale, and over the years the shepherd has been replaced by a sailor, a ploughman, even a farmer – but for the British Isles it does have a degree of foundation, meteorologically speaking.

Here we predominantly have westerly winds, so it follows that most of our climatic conditions are formed over the Atlantic, as seen this last winter. To this we add that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. So, a low sun in the morning will shine onto advancing weather clouds making them red, hence the shepherds’ warning, as the clouds are most likely coming towards us, so there is a chance of rain. Or at least an increased chance of wet weather compared to a cloudless sky, which would not be red. Whereas at night the opposite is true, the low sun shining to the east and a red sky would indicate the clouds have already passed or are at best moving away.

Another well-known and popular saying revolves around St Swithin’s Day, which is marked on 15th July each year; many will quote a popular phrase dating back to medieval England:

St Swithin’s Day, if it does rain
Full forty days, it will remain
St Swithin’s Day, if it be fair
For forty days, ’twill rain no more

St Swithin, which has also been spelled Swithun, was Bishop of Winchester and died in 863. There have been various claims about the origin of the saying – I suspect most are lost in the fog of time. But is there any science in its prediction? Why would a day on the feast of a saint predict a period of rain, or sun, lasting for the rest of the summer?

The Jet Stream, which has a profound effect on weather across the British Isles, will often settle in mid-July and move very little until late August, so this does give some credence to the St Swithin’s Day saying. It also comes as no surprise that several variations have come to light based on the original saying, including one of my favourites: ‘If on St Swithin’s Day it pours, you are better off to stay indoors’.

Another popular phrase, which again can have a grain of truth, is: ‘The sharper the blast, the sooner ’tis past’. We can easily relate this to March and April’s squally storms, often with hail and violent winds, that arrive quickly with little, if any, warning on a bright spring day. I have often heard such storms referred to as ‘Lambing Storms’, but they are always very short in duration, even if vicious, and pass through quickly.

The English language is full of folklore, sayings and phrases, many of which are attributed to the weather.

For some, like ‘Dogs and cats eat grass before a rain’, we would really struggle to find any scientific link to underpin it. But some do have a degree of substance.

‘Rain before seven, clear by eleven’: again, there is very little science in the statement and yet I for one would tend to agree that if there is heavy rain in the early morning it will generally clear by late morning.

Other sayings amount to little more than common sense, such as ‘When clouds look like black smoke, a wise man will put on his cloak’.

There is one saying that I can relate to from past experience, but again the science behind this could be questioned: ‘When your joints begin to ache, rainy weather is at stake’. This is a phrase that was quoted to me many years ago by an old, retired gamekeeper. He had served during World War Two and always said his knees were never the same following his service. When I met him, he was well into his late eighties and would always say if his knees ached you could expect rain.

So maybe there is some science behind the old folk and weather lore sayings, maybe they are not all just old wives’ tales, as witnessed in another oft-recited phrase: ‘When the wind is out of the east, ’tis neither good for man nor beast’. Again, the science behind this saying is well founded; the cold easterly winds that can batter the British Isles have always been associated with cold weather and cold winds (plus in winter such easterlies are the ones most likely to bring snow, as we will remember with the ‘Beast from the East’ several years ago).

I feel sure that all of us have our own thoughts on the validity of any phrase, saying or rhyme quoted as a weather prediction. But as we have now seen, some do have a level of scientific credibility. Still I suspect many are little more than thoughts and beliefs of former generations, passed from father to son, giving guidance for working in the fields at a time when the need for accurate forecasting was critical.

But even today, for anyone living and working in the countryside, an accurate and up-to-date weather forecast is vital. Yes, we can still go out in the wet and a good waterproof coat will help keep you dry. But it is not half the pleasure of being out in the countryside on brighter and drier days.

Words and photographs: Matt Limb OBE

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