Victoria tells us about Scottish Halloween Traditions...
Halloween has always been one of my favourite times of year. Autumn is particularly atmospheric in Scotland, and not just because of the darkening nights, the blaze of autumn leaves, and the mists that rise from streams in shady hollows. The traditions associated with Halloween give it a special significance, and ensure its continued popularity despite its ancient roots.
Modern Halloween traditions are adaptations of the folklore surrounding much older Halloween celebrations in Scotland. The Celtic Festival of Samhain celebrated the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. People would gather around bonfires to burn sacrifices to Celtic deities in the form of animals and crops. As the darkness gathered, Samhain was considered a time when the veil between the worlds thinned, and spirits could pass freely into the world of the living. The costumes worn by the Celts during Samhain were believed to ensure they blended in with the spirits and help them go undetected, and parents would dress their children up in scary disguises, hoping to hide them from the spirits who were walking among them. This tradition of ‘mumming’ evolved into the custom of going ‘guising’ round the houses of neighbours performing tricks and songs in return for offerings of food and small gifts – again in the hope of warding off the evil spirits.
The spirits were further warned to keep their distance by the carrying of a candle in a turnip (‘neep’) lantern into which scary faces were carved. Growing up in the eighties, in the days before pumpkins were cheap and plentiful, I spent many hours carving out turnips for my night of Halloween guising – not an easy task given how much harder it is to carve a turnip than a pumpkin! The effort was always worth it, though – there was something so much more spooky and atmospheric in the old tradition of carrying a flickering candle lamp through the dark streets than the modern version of a battery-operated plastic pumpkin!
‘Dookin’ for apples is still a popular Halloween party game, but when I was a child I also enjoyed the even messier traditional game of trying to take a bite of a treacle scone that was hung from a string. Not nearly as easy as it looked, and always guaranteed to give onlookers a good laugh! There were, however, a few old Scottish traditions that had already died out by my childhood. These included burning a chestnut in a fire and watching to see what happened. For a single person, a chestnut turning to ash instead of popping signalled a wedding was on the cards. For a couple, a silently burning chestnut signalled a happy marriage, while a cracking, popping or hissing one signalled a more turbulent union. In rural areas where people kept vegetable plots called ‘kailyards’, single women also had a tradition of ‘kale pulling’. The size and length of the stalk she pulled from the ground with her eyes closed after dark on Halloween was said to represent the height and figure of her future husband, while the soil around the stalk indicted future wealth. These traditions are mentioned in the second verse of Robert Burns’s poem ‘Halloween’, which says:
‘Some merry, friendly, country-folks
Together did convene,
To burn their nits, an’ pou their stocks,
An’ haud their Hallowe’en
Fu’ blythe that night…..’
(Translation: ‘Some merry, friendly, country people
Together did convene,
To burn their nuts, and pull their plants,
And keep their Halloween
Full blythe that night.’)
Despite being written for a modern audience, Hag Storm sticks very close to the traditional roots of Halloween in Scotland, with its corn dollies, kailyard, hag stone, and of course, its witches gathering to dance in the Auld Kirk in Alloway. Halloween traditions inspired Robert Burns to write Tam o’ Shanter, and more than two hundred years later, they’re what inspired me to write my own version of this spooky Halloween tale. Wherever you are, if you’re planning on holding a Halloween party this year, perhaps you could try some of these old Scottish traditions? But don’t forget to dress up as scarily as possible to keep those wandering spirits from recognising you!