You can tell autumn is here by the smell. The crisping of the air and the burning of log fires across the countryside. Harvest fare making for rich and hearty meals, sweet treats that make room in your stomach the moment you get a hint they’re being served. Earthy aromas of mushrooms ready to harvest, smoked fish served just right.
The sound of leaves crunching as we stroll out in long golden evenings. Children laugh as games are played, and scary stories are told. The rustle of fiercely preparing creatures getting ready for the winter cold. The flap of wings as flocks of birds make their way to sunnier climes. The quiet, the blessed quiet of an evening, ready for the chill to come overnight. The loudness, the boisterous loudness, of family coming together to celebrate their togetherness and all the season has to offer.
Autumn has always been a time of festival and community. These days it’s known as Halloween almost the world over, but we’ve celebrated it in Scotland as far back as the point where history becomes murky with myth and mystery. From Celtic tradition to Victorian infatuation and 21st Century phenomenon, Scotland’s been at the heart of Samhain forever. Come with us as we explore scary stories, ancient nights and all of Scotland’s Halloween traditions.
The darkening nights and a growing sense of foreboding for lean times seem to develop otherworldly explanations quite readily. This almost supernatural occurrence of shortening days and seasonal change in Scotland is especially stark due to the country’s northerly position.
Accordingly, it’s little wonder ancient Celtic peoples viewed the end of the harvest and time of abundance as a time to be concerned for spirits, boggles and other terrible beasties. Samhain (pronounced Sow-e’en) was believed to be the worst time for such irregularities, a night when the spirits would walk the earth. It is from this belief that many of our present day traditions began. These include carving of turnips into faces to scare off ghosts from the door. It’s from this that the common practice of carving pumpkins has come. Children would carry these turnips with scary faces as they walked the ever darkening night to keep them safe. Historically, dressing in costumes would confuse spirits and let you walk among them. That’s called guising in Scotland, but is known as Trick or Treating today.
Fire has always been at Samhain’s heart, from lanterns to cleansing pyres and ornate displays in ceremony. There is one custom of running cattle between two pyres to purify them for the winter ahead. Today talented fire artists keep alive old traditions at the passing of the seasons with impressive displays.
When Queen Victoria visited Balmoral in the 1800s, she found the locals practising all sorts of ancient rites for Hallowe’en. A torchlit procession of solemn intent, and locals wearing costumes were enough to catch the interest of the Queen. She stayed for the festivities and apparently even partook herself, though that much has never been confirmed.
In fact, she was so taken with the spectacle that she made it a yearly occasion that she indulged in for her holiday to Scotland each October. She attended and made sure her children were brought close to the celebration – encouraging it and the local people utterly. It was much the talk of the newspapers and people of Great Britain at the time – that their Queen, and the head of the Church of England, was encouraging such superstitious and unchristian things.
Of course, such scandal only fuelled the fascination with the occult which was sweeping the nation at the time. Soon enough, Halloween parties were all the rage over the length and breadth of the country. This new fad reached the empire at large and beyond everywhere Britain had influence. Everyone enjoys being someone else for the evening, and playing make believe has never quite gone out of fashion. Halloween as we knew it was born, from an old Celtic tradition in Scotland and Ireland until it had swept the world.
Apples are a sweet autumnal treat, a favourite for crumbles, pies and cider. Did you know that apples were associated with immortality by the ancient celts? With their rotting to spill seeds into the ground to regrow apple trees, they were the perfect symbol of rebirth so often tied to autumn. Such was their belief that they often put apples into the graves of the departed to feed the dead.
The game of dooking for apples has always been a favourite in Scotland. Filling a bucket or basin, preferably a deep one, with water and letting apples float upon it; then players try to bite the apples with hands held behind their backs to make it more difficult. A bit of silliness for adults who have supposedly outgrown such childish fun, an equal opportunities sort of game as water splashes and laughs are had by all.
Messiness and tastiness are dual facets of Halloween. A little mystery makes it all the more indulgent. That’s why this delightful game is quite so much fun for children – but especially adults who join in!
Similar to dooking for apples, participants have their hands behind their back. To up the ante, a blindfold is introduced to make finding and biting the spooky-feeling pastries even more difficult. Then the scones are presented, hung on a line from pieces of string, with dribbling treacle all across them. The mixture of sweet slickness and twisting turns make for a game which is as fun for the audience as those trying their best to get a mouthful!
If those involved have a more competitive spirit, then a line of scone scoffers all getting started at once make the scones bob and weave as they each race to finish first.
Another, slightly more serious, game was for young lovers to burn nuts on a fire on All Hallow’s Eve. These sorts of horoscopes are routed in pagan practices which go back millennia, though perhaps the burning of nuts is a touch tamer than auguries taken from patterns in animal organs.
In this practice, a recently engaged couple will each select a nut to represent themselves. Then they take it to the fire and cast them in, perhaps to represent the heat of a relationship. Watching keenly, they wait to see how they’ll burn: quiet and peaceful or with much hissing and crackling. In the former case, the love will be happy and grand, but in the latter, then storms and troubles may lie ahead for the lovers.
Scotland is a place which has a changing and evolving cultural landscape. While being deeply connected to the past, it also looks forward. That’s why you can see children trick or treating on Edinburgh’s city streets on the same night as witnessing the spectacle of Samhuinn. This sister festival to May’s Beltane, and put together by the same organisation, celebrates the passage of summer into winter in a display which is part Celtic tradition, part Victorian torch procession and all Scottish culture.
This and so many other events mark Halloween in Scotland. Halloween is still a time of joy and delight in Scotland, and with a little bit of mystery mixed into these autumn nights. Maybe even a couple or two burning nuts to see what the coming years might bring.