Halloween in Scotland
Halloween in Scotland in quite the event. Not because we’re a nation obsessed with spirits - of all types - or because of the dark – the sun runs off at four P.M. so you know it’s pitch by the time ghosts and ghouls come out for sweets - but because everything here is done just a little bit differently.
To start off, the holiday titles aren’t the same. While Halloween, or Hallowe’en for the traditional, is the best known name for the night of 31 October you are more likely to come across it being called Samhain (or Samhuinn in Gaelic) north of the border. An ancient Celtic festival, Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and the start of the cold dark times, and was traditionally celebrated on the 1 November. It was any easy leap to join the Christian festival of All Saint’s Day to this, and a large number of the pagan traditions around Samhain were simply brought into the celebrations for All Hallow’s Eve.
This included the past time of guising, where children dressed up as evil spirits or creatures by painting their face black and using old clothes saved through the year. The reason for guising was twofold: in part to be a scary creature for the night and in part to blend in with the restless dead, known as the sluagh, so the children wouldn’t be carried off to the underworld.
Guising is similar to the more well known trick or treating, in so much as the children would go door to door asking for gifts, but things aren’t just handed over. Children have to perform their tricks before a treat will be given, and this is usually a joke, a poem, a magic trick or a song – the ruder or funnier, the better.
There are other cross over activities which will feel familiar but have a slightly different meaning in this slightly different Halloween. Apples dookin’, where one tries to capture an apple from a barrel of water with either a fork between the teeth or a well placed chomp while your hands are tied behind your back, is of course similar to bobbing for apples. But treacle scones, where your challenge is to take a bite out of, surprisingly, a treacle covered scone hanging from the ceiling by a thread, while you are blindfolded and have your hands are tied behind your back, is far messier and likely to cause hair, costume and palette issues (unless you’re very fond of treacle.)
Some Scottish traditions simply don’t translate over in the same way. Take the humble pumpkin: a versatile squash known for spooky faces, Starbucks coffee and tasty pasty treats. Hardly a Halloween image is complete without the pumpkin lanterns adorning porches and pathways, leading trick or treaters along their way to the door. Not so in Scotland! In a land where pumpkins were not so popular and concern was more over evil spirits than fun sized chocolate bars, the Jack-o-lantern was forsaken for something far less enchanting: neep lanterns.
A neep lantern is a neep, or turnip, carved out and given a spooky face, with a small candle like a tea light put inside. The lantern is then placed on the windowsill to spook off any unwelcome dead. Not so different, one might say, to a pumpkin lantern. However, the undertaking of making a neep lantern is significantly more of a challenge. Turnips are a round, hardy root vegetable which are commonly fed to livestock as well as being added to soups, strews and roasts. They are solid right through and have no handy stem with which to form a handle for the lid. As such, a neep lantern often looks more Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein than the grinning ghouls pumpkin lanterns depict, and is best off in the window.
A lot of Halloween traditions in Scotland centre around love: love for the dead who might revisit family left behind, and love for the future. Singletons looking for their prospective spouse had a choice of two divinations of Halloween – peel an apple or pull a kale. For the fruit lovers, you peel the skin of an apple to get as long a strip as possible, then throw it over your shoulder. The shape it lands in is said to show the first letter of your spouse’s name. For those of a more green and leafy disposition, you must go out into the growing patch at night and, with your eyes closed, pull out a kale stalk. The length and shape of the stalk is said to show your spouses height and body shape, and any dirt attached signified wealth. This later tradition is discussed in Robert Burn’s 1785 poem Halloween and though it has fallen out of favour more recently it is still well known in the north Highlands.
Couples already in love, and engaged, could take advantage of Halloween night to do a little fortune telling as well. Roasting nuts is a well established and delicious past time in the UK, and should the almost weds wish to see how their marriage would fare they were encouraged to toss some into the fire. If they burned and cooked quietly the marriage was to be smooth, but if the nuts hissed and spat the couple could expect a stormy coupling.
Those who had lost a loved one, be it spouse or other family member, were told to leave an empty chair and a plate of food out over Halloween night. This was so any returning spirits could pass some time at the home and see the family was hale and hearty, before moving on to the afterlife. The offering of a place at the table was also felt to dissuade the sluagh from carting off any recently deceased souls, a risk taken so seriously that certain places broke their bier, a wooden frame that a corpse or coffin was carried to graves on.
Lastly and by no means least, one of the biggest traditions in Scotland is fire. Halloween is more popular by far than the English centred Guy Fawkes Night, with bonfires and candles lit to scare off the evil spirits. These can be community bonfires, backyard parties or just your neep lantern, flickering away in the window. Some land owners took this several steps further, lighting torches and walking the boundary of their land to drive off any evil lurking at the far corners.
With the symbolic death of the year and the onset of the long nights, any excuse for a bonfire, revelry, and some shared drinks is welcome. In Scotland, the Halloween celebrations are tied to family, home and love with the sharp reminder that not only you are running around in the dark. While some of these have fallen out of favour for the more easily recognised trappings of modern Halloween, it can surprise and delight you to find out just where some of the older traditions are hiding.