Samhuinn: 11 Scottish traditions to celebrate Halloween
Halloween is officially here, so here's 11 ancient customs to help you celebrate the spooky season.
The dark misty nights are rolling in and the smell of bonfire is thick in the air. Bulbous pumpkins, sticky toffee apples and sweets in all flavours have been ransacked from every supermarket. Streets glow orange under lamplight as little ones run around in bed sheets and buckets spilling with treats. It can only mean one thing... Halloween is here.
You may be surprised to discover this spooky and heavy-commercialised holiday actually originated on our shores. It also had a darker, more solemn purpose: Samhain (Samhuinn in Scottish Gaelic) was the ancient Celtic festival held on 31st October to 1st November - marking the culmination of summer, the harvest period and the coming winter. It was a time of reflection on the year past and the loved ones lost, but also served as a celebration for the coming year. It was also believed that the veil is at its thinnest between our realm and the Otherworld, a place where the aos sí (fairies) and slaugh (spirits of the restless dead) reside.
Halloween or Hallowe’en takes its name from All Hallows’ Eve, the night before the Christian festival of All Hallows or All Saints Day. Around the eighth century or so, the Catholic Church adopted the 1st November as All Saints Day. The Christian festival honoured any saint who didn’t already have a day of his or her own and the mass that took place was known as Allhallowmas – the mass of all those who are hallowed. The night before All Saints became known as All Hallows Eve, which eventually was abbreviated to Halloween.
At Samhain, it was believed that the otherworldy creatures known as the aos sí needed to be propitiated in order to ensure that the people and their livestock would survive the winter. Offerings of food and drink would be left outside and even portions of the crops were left in the ground to appease the aos sí. People feared upsetting them, taking special care not to offend by staying near to home during this time and, if forced to walk in the darkness, turned their clothing inside-out or carried iron or salt as protection. Another method of protection you may well recognise - a gruesome face carved from a turnip and lit with candles would be placed on the windowsill to ward off mischievous spirits.
Many of these age-old traditions remain to this day, so if you’re looking for a traditional Scottish way to celebrate this spooky season, why not try some of the following:
1. Carve a neep lantern
The number one tradition in every household during the spooky season is pumpkin carving, with their glowing grimacing faces lit from every window. It is impossible to escape the flood of commercialised pumpkin-scented items and every year we still kid ourselves that pumpkin-spiced lattes tastes good. Yet pumpkin carving is a great example of the evolution of an ancient tradition.
In Scotland, it has been customary to carve lanterns out of neeps (turnips). Emigrants took this traditions overseas but found that pumpkins as well as being in abundance at this time of year actually made for easier carving due to their softer flesh. Neep lanterns with grotesque faces were also set on windowsills and were used to ward off evil spirits.
2. Light a fire
The most iconic event of the season takes place on top of Calton Hill in Edinburgh. The Beltane Fire Society is known for welcoming thousands to the hill during their Beltane event in May, however, it is lesser known that they hold other celebrations during the sabbats throughout the year. Their lively, borderline chaotic parties allow visitors to reconnect with the old ways, where pagans would reign in the coming season with elaborate body paint and costumes, dances and bonfires. The tradition of lighting fires in celebration spans centuries in Scotland, with the purpose to ward off potentially malevolent entities, where large bonfires were lit in communities. Fire would also play an important role in any Samhain ritual, as two bonfires would be lit side by side, and the people, along with their cattle, would walk between them as a cleansing ritual.
In parts of Scotland, torches of burning fir or turf were carried sunwise around homes and fields to protect them. In other parts of the country, people doused their hearth fires on Samhain night. Each family then solemnly re-lit its hearth from the communal bonfire, thus bonding the families of the village together. People also took flames from the bonfire back to their homes. In parts of Scotland, torches of burning fir or turf were carried sunwise around homes and fields to protect them.
However, by the modern era, bonfires lit on hilltops across the country slowly faded out - only to occasionally be seen in parts of the Scottish Highlands, on the Isle of Man, in north and mid Wales, and in parts of Ulster.It is suggested that the fires mimicked the Sun, helping the powers of growth and holding off the decay and darkness of winter. The Beltane Fire Society continues to keep the fire burning with their annual celebrations and well worth a visit.
3. Go guisin
Guising, mumming or galoshin are all age-old terms used for our modern-day trick-or-treating, where children would literally disguise themselves as the aos sí or slaugh, and received offerings on their behalf. According to folklore, this was so that they could venture out safely without being detected by otherworldy spirits. Before receiving treats as they went door-to-door, guisers would have to perform a trick by reciting a song, poem or joke before being rewarded with food or fuel for fires. Mumming and guising date back to the 16th century and was recorded in parts of Ireland, Scotland, Mann and Wales as part of Samhain tradition.
In Scotland, young men would call at each house with masked, veiled, painted or blackened faces from bonfire ash. The latter was deep-rooted in celtic witchcraft, as coating yourself in ash was a form of protection as much as the common ring of salt. It is important to note, however, this ancient belief of replicating evil spirits with darker skin did indeed fuel racism, so please always be conscious of replicating ancient customs, especially for others to see. These costumed men would often threaten to do mischief if they were not welcomed. Playing pranks at Samhain is recorded in the Scottish Highlands as far back as 1736 and was also common in Ireland, which led to Samhain being nicknamed Mischief Night in some parts - which is still carried out today in the form of egging (throwing eggs), throwing toilet paper and growing increasingly more violent over the years in some cities.
4. Dook for apples
A staple at every Halloween party, bobbing for apples (or in Scotland - dookin for apples) involves trying to grab apples floating in a tub of water using only your mouth, as your hands are bound behind your back. For adults, if you want to take it a step further, why not have a go at catching them with a fork? Dookin for apples stems from the ancient use of apples in divination rituals or games. In Celtic mythology, apples were strongly associated with the otherworld and immortality. Another example of divination - apples were peeled in one long strip, the peel tossed over the shoulder, and its shape was said to form the first letter of your future spouse’s name.
5. Tell your fortune with nuts
Another food used for divination were hazelnuts, which were associated with divine wisdom. If you’d like to find out if you and your beloved will live happily ever after, toss a nut each into an open fire. If they quietly smolder amongst the flames your union will be a blessed one, however, if they hiss and crackle, you better start packing your bags. This ritual could also predict whether you and your crush make a good match - again, two hazelnuts were roasted near a fire; but this time one was named for the person roasting them and the other for the person they desired. If the nuts jumped away from the heat, it was a bad sign, but if the nuts roasted quietly it foretold a good match.
6. Leave an offering out for the fairies
As mentioned previously, it was common for people to leave offerings such as food or drink for the fairies. In the Hebrides, the bier (moveable frame) on which a corpse is carried would be deliberately broken to prevent the sluagh using it to carry away the dead.
Another otherworldy creature said to haunts the Highlands was the Cat Sìth (a feline fairy creature). On Samhain, it was believed that a Cat Sìth would bless any house that left a saucer of milk out for it to drink and, for the houses that did not let out a saucer of milk, the Cat Sìth would curse them with their cattle’s milk drying up.
7. Pull some kale
This hearty green vegetable found on the menu of every hipster haunt was said to kale predict your romantic future. A perfect example of this ancient custom can be found in Robert Burns's poem Halloween, where people pull stalks from the ground after dark with their eyes closed in the hopes of predicting their future love.
“Then, first an' foremost, thro' the kail, Their stocks maun a' be sought ance; They steek their een, and grape an' wale For muckle anes, an' straught anes.” - Halloween, Robert Burns,
The length and shape of the stalk was said to represent your future lover’s height and figure, and the amount of soil around the roots represented wealth.
8. Eat sweet and salty
Make sure to add these tasty treats to your Halloween party buffet. Like dookin for apples, treacle scones would be another staple at the Samhain celebration. Again with your hands tied, this messy game challenges participants to take a bite out of treacle covered scones hanging from ropes.
Returning to the theme of divination, another game said to predict the future involved eating fuarag - a large dish of oatmeal and cream (and sometimes potatoes) made in the Western Isles of Scotland. The fuarag would be made in a large bowl and hide a ring, a coin and a button buried beneath the surface. Everyone sat round the table and began supping with spoons, until all the objects had been found. Whoever got the ring would be the first to wed, the one who found the coin would see riches. Finding the button would mean you would never marry. Although as a custom this has all but died out in the islands it is heartening to know that it still lives on in Canada.
In parts of Cape Breton, people still cling to its traditional roots eating fuarag on Samhain and it is as common as trick or treating. A salty oatmeal bannock was baked; the person ate it in three bites and then went to bed in silence without anything to drink. This was said to result in a dream in which their future spouse offers them a drink to quench their thirst.
9. ...But stay away from sausage rolls
The Witchcraft Act of 1735 forbid the consumption of pork pastries during Samhain. It wasn’t repealed until the 1950s and since then sausage rolls have been a popular treat at Halloween parties and gatherings.
10. Honour an ancient Celtic goddess
An ancient Samhain ritual that has survived to this day revolves around the statues of An Cailleach in Glen Lyon in Perthshire. The event is believed to be the oldest uninterrupted pagan ritual on record, and so old in fact that no one can pinpoint exactly when it originated. A small hut found deep into Glen Lyon houses a number of ancient stones which represent the Cailleach, a creator deity in Celtic folklore.
This site is recognised as the only surviving shrine to the ancient Celtic goddess and is one of the few examples of the continuity of ancient beliefs from the past to the present day. According to folklore, the Cailleach and her family were once given shelter in the glen by the locals. The goddess was said to be so grateful for the hospitality given to her family that she left the stones with the promise that, as long as they were cared for, she would ensure the glen would continue to be fertile and prosperous. Every year on Samhain, the stones are ritually placed inside the hut for the coming winter, only to be brought out again at Beltane for the duration of summer.
11. Remember a passed loved one
Honouring ancestors plays an important role in many religions during this time. The belief that the souls of the dead return home on one night of the year and must be appeased can be found in many cultures throughout the world, including in Mexico with its Dias Des Los Muertos.
As Samhain is a time when the seasonal powers of darkness, decay and death began to take hold on the land, it seemed natural to reflect on death within human society. During this time, a Celtic custom known as the Feast of the Dead was held in honour of the ancestors. It was believed that the veil between the realm of the slaugh was lifting and the spirits of ancestors entered into the realm of the living. For this reason, it was important to keep in contact with the ancestors and maintain good links between the realms. The souls of thankful kin could return to bestow blessings just as easily as that of a wronged person could return to wreak revenge.
For this Samhain, I will be reflecting on what my ancestors have taught me, exploring what I call “blood memory” - the traits of my relatives I’ve inherited without ever meeting them. Plus, valuing one of my icons, my grandmother - the last remaining grandparent in my life and the only one I’ve ever known. I’ll also make sure I partake in some cliche Halloween festivities too, including gorging my weight in toffee apples and rewatching my favorite horrors.
So there’s just a few of Scotland’s ancient customs. I hope you enjoyed reading and feel more inspired to celebrate this spooky season. Have a blessed Samhain and Happy Halloween.
Stay safe, for the slaugh is about...