Scotland Stories and Tips

Scottish Halloween Traditions

Ancient Celts marked Samhain or the summers end on October 31st, it was believed that on this day the day that the gap between the living and the spirit world was at its weakest and witches and warlocks were at their most powerful.. When Christianity came to Scotland the day before All Saints Day became Halloween, the word Hallowe’en meaning Hallows Evening and many of the ancient pagan traditions like lighting bonfires and an setting an extra place at the table to tempt friendly spirits to come home and feast continued . Many of our modern day celebrations can be traced back to these ancient times, for example small gifts given at the door were believed to ward off evil spirits which today has turned into trick or treating.

As a child in the 1980’s Halloween was always a festival which the kids looked forward to. We would dress up in home made costumes, the humble black bin bag coming in very handy for a witches cloak or as a skeleton once the bones were painted on with left over white paint. We would also buy masks and face paints to make our costumes as scary as possible. In ancient times it was believed that by disguising children as scary creatures then they would blend in with wandering spirits and be unharmed by any malicious spirits who would be tricked into believing that the children were one of them.

At school or Brownies we would always have a party. The main Halloween games were dookin' for apples which involved grabbing one of many apples floating in a large bowl with your teeth, treacle pancakes where the aim is to eat a pancake covered in treacle which is hanging from a string tied high across the room and bobbing for monkey nuts in a treacle covered tray. Traditional Halloween foods include toffee apples, monkey nuts (unshelled peanuts) and oranges.

The children would go out guising at night and would go door to door in their costumes performing songs or poems, telling a joke or performing a magic trick for a small reward. Householders would keep a bag at the door with treats for the guisers and you would work hard at your act as you knew if you performed well then your bag would be bulging with monkey nuts, tangerines, apples, small sweets and even a few pennies at the end of the night. The poem we would all recite if we were short of ideas went like this:

Halloween Is Coming
The Goose Is getting Fat
Please put a penny in the old mans hat
If ye’ dinnae have a penny
A ha’penny will do
If you dinnae have a ha’penny
God Bless You

Turnip lanterns were traditionally used to scare away the unread and as kids we would take them round the doors with us. Turnips or occasionally large potatoes were hollowed out, scary faces carved on them, string attached as a handle and a small candle fixed inside the lantern to give some light. Turnips are extremely hard to carve, it would often take hours to chip out all of the orange flesh and of course we then had to have turnip for dinner the next night which was something none of us enjoyed. The wind would almost always blow these candles out so they would need to be relit constantly but one of the most vivid memories I have of Halloween is the smell of roasting turnip as the inside of the lantern slowly cooked from the heat of the candle.

Halloween in the noughties in Scotland is still a lot of fun but it is a lot more commercialised and Americanised and many like me are sad to see the old Scottish traditions die out. The kids still carve lanterns but now they use larger and softer pumpkins instead of turnips. Kids still dress up, the outfits nearly always bought from a shop instead of being home made and instead of going guising they go trick or treating. It is the trick or treating that I dislike the most, every year I turn into an old curmudgeon and have a little rant about how going to peoples door and demanding treats under the threat that you will play a trick if they don’t comply would be thought of as criminal behaviour on any other day. I have tried to get the kids in my own family to carry on the old guising traditions and even asked kids who have came to my door if they have a song or joke to tell but I end up getting blank looks and the demand sweeties anyway.

Many places in Scotland also run ghost walks or Halloween themed events for the family as a way to boost tourism, I know there are also Pagans who still celebrate the ancient festival of Samhain. However you choose to spend your Halloween in Scotland whether it is by following ancient traditions or hanging orange tinsel and fake cobwebs from the ceiling then you will still have an enjoyable evening.

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