Hallowe’en in Scotland goes back to the time of the Celtic pagans, and it was known as the feast of Samhain. Samhain marked the end of summer, the beginning of winter, and was the night when the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest. The Celts believed that spirits could travel freely back and forth between the two worlds, and so, over time, special customs and traditions became woven into the Scottish culture. Fires were lit to ward off evil spirits, and burned throughout the night, until dawn the next morning.
After All Saints Day was established, and became a religious tradition, on November 1st each year, the Scots began to favour the Christian celebration, and the pagan rites on October 31st became less important, until they eventually diminished into the more secular Hallowe’en traditions that remain today.
Instead of carving pumpkins, the Scottish tradition is to carve turnips, or as the Scots refer to them, “neeps”. These are far more difficult to carve, being almost solid in consistency. Originally, during pagan times, these were used as lanterns, when someone was walking from place to place, on Samhain. If someone couldn’t be near the village fire, which would ward off the evil spirits, they carved a frightening face in a turnip, placed a candle inside, and carried it with them as they walked around, hoping to scare off anyone, or any ‘thing’ that approached them.
“Guising”, is the Scottish term for dressing up in a Hallowe’en costume. In the old times, of the Celts, parents would dress up their children and disguise them as ghouls and monsters. Their reasoning was that the real spirits would leave them alone if they thought they were already ghouls. It was a form of protection for the chidren so their souls wouldn’t be stolen in the night. Adult members of the community often practised this as well, dressing up as ghouls and goblins to protect their own souls.
Dookin’ for Apples
“Dookin'”, (or dunking) for apples, can be traced back to the Celtic traditions of Samhain. In this game, the participants try to catch an apple in their teeth, in a deep basin of water. Once the apple was caught, it was peeled, and the peel was thrown over the left shoulder. The shape of the peel where it fell on the floor was said to be the first initial of your future spouse.
There’s an old poem by Robbie Burns, written in 1795, which tells of some of the Hallowe’en customs that were practised at that time in Scotland. In the second verse of his poem he writes:
“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: People got together, burned some nuts, and pulled some plants)
Engaged Couples – On Halloween they each put a nut on the fire. If the nuts burned quietly then the marriage would be happy, but if the nuts and hissed and spat then their marriage would be filled with conflict.
Single Girl – It was customary for a single girl to put two nuts on the fire, one for her boyfriend, and one for herself, and if the nuts hissed, it was a sign of fighting and discord in their future together. If the nuts sat quietly in the fire then they would have a peaceful relationship.
It was customary for single men and women to pull kale or cabbage stocks from the ground after dark, with their eyes closed.
The shape and size of the stock would foretell of the shape and height of your future spouse.
If there was a lot of earth remaining on the stock it was a sign of prosperity.
Today, some of the old traditions are still celebrated on Hallowe’en in Scotland, and one of the most famous is the annual Samhain Fire Festival in Edinburgh.
High on the top of Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, costumed artists still gather each year and use fire, music, and dance to tell the old stories for the crowds that gather.
From the old pagan traditions, to the modern day celebrations, Hallowe’en is alive and well in Scotland.
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