Halloween, like many ancient festivals, has its roots in Scottish culture. A classic Scottish Halloween has a lot of its own traditions that make it unique and many of these traditions still exist to this day.
Halloween takes its name from All Hallow’s Eve, the night before the Christian festival of All Hallows or All Saints Day. It is possible to trace the roots of this back to the Gaelic festival of Samhain, a harvest festival that was traditionally seen as marking the end of the summer and the beginning of winter. Samhain was a festival of revelry and people would tend to make offerings to protect the crops and animals over the winter period. It was said that the spirits of the dead were believed to roam the earth.
Legendary Scottish poet Robert Burns’ 1785 poem ‘Halloween’, details many of the national traditions and history associated with the festival.
“Wi’ merry sangs, an’ friendly cracks, I wat they did na weary; And unco tales, an’ funnie jokes Their sports were cheap an’ cheery: Till butter’d sowens, wi’ fragrant lunt, Set a’ their gabs a-steerin; Syne, wi’ a social glass o’ strunt, They parted aff careerin Fu’ blythe that night.”Robert Burns, Halloween
Here are some other old fashioned Halloween traditions from Scotland that you might want to incorporate into your own festivities this year:
Traditionally on Halloween, to fend off spirits and ghouls’ people would light massive bonfires in their communities. It is believed that this tradition survives today in the carving of pumpkins with spooky smiles and scary eyes. However, the use of pumpkins is an American invention and in Scotland it was custom to carve your lantern out of ‘neeps’ (turnips). Similar to bonfires, neep lanterns were carved and lit in the hope to scare off evil spirits wandering in the house. These are now less common in Scotland as pumpkins are more widely available. Have you ever tried to carve a neep? Maybe give it a go this year.
This game is an ancient Celtic tradition and remains a regular staple at Halloween parties around the world. Without using your hands, players must retrieve an apple from a basin of water. This game is much harder than it looks and can be made even harder by gripping a fork between your teeth and attempting to spear the apples. To make it a bit more pandemic friendly you may wish to have a basin per person.
There is a classic Scottish tradition once common among recently engaged couples that would tell you if you and your significant other will live happily ever after . This tradition involved each person placing a nut in a fire, if the nuts burned quietly the couple would be forever happy, however, if they hissed and crackled, you could be in for a turbulent future together.
Scottish children traditionally wore costumes and pretended to be evil spirits as they went ‘guising’ (shortened from disguise) around the local streets. They would go round to friends and neighbours’ houses, performing tricks, jokes and songs in return for gifts of fruit or nuts. Today trick or treating is done by kids all over the world and in Scotland you will still have a few people asking for a rhyme or a joke before they relinquish their sweet treats.
Scottish Hallowe’en Cake
Collective eating was a very common theme on Halloween and this can be seen in the tradition of the Hallowe’en Cake. This cake would be eaten in a group and would be made to predict the future of the people eating it. Hidden inside the cake would be three items, a coin, a ring and a button. Whoever got the coin would see great riches and fortune, whoever found the ring would be the first to wed and finding the button would mean you would never marry. Bake one of these to add a bit excitement to your Halloween party this year.
It is incredible to see how much of what we consider modern day Halloween has come from Scottish heritage and traditions that have lasted and evolved over time.
What is your favourite Halloween tradition?