Halloween (All Hallows Eve) takes place on 31 October – a night when some say spirits walk the earth. In actual fact All Hallows Day takes place on November 1, and it is after midnight on 31 October that souls are believed to roam free. Halloween offers folk the opportunity to guard against evil spirits and prepare for those which may touch their lives. Halloween is of particular importance in Scotland because it marks a visible change in seasons - the bringing in of dark, the welcoming of the year’s turning to cold and ice and snow.
These traditions echo more ancient rituals, in particular the Celtic festival of Samhain. At this time the veils between the worlds are thin, allowing those that have departed to cross the threshold between the death and life. In the Scottish Highlands and Islands, with few people and vast expanses of land, the veil between the worlds hovers yearlong in the air of ancient and sacred places. You may feel the whisper of the past on Culloden battlefield, in the mountains of Skye or on the far north coast at John O’Groats where you can see beyond the world’s end.
Robert Burns wrote a poem about Halloween (click the link and it will take you to the BBC website where you can view the text and hear Ralph Riach reading Burn’s poem) published in 1786. The poem – a fair length – explores a lot of Scottish Halloween customs including pulling up stocks (kale stalks) which can be used for divination and roasting two nuts in a fire to represent a courting couple – if the nuts burst/fall far apart the relationship will not last, if they cook whole side by side the couple should have a long future.
Traditionally Scots would carve turnips rather than pumpkins at Halloween - a tougher but plentiful vegetable. Now pumpkins prevail – sometimes outside guarding houses, the pumpkin being a sign that Halloween visitors are welcome.
I had the delight last year of taking my six-year-old nephew “guising” - a Scottish custom whereby children, dressed appropriately (my nephew wore his skeleton costume) will visit local houses and will be asked to tell a joke or sing a song before being given any sweets or other treats. My nephew came home with a bag full of treats, some house holders inviting him in to choose what he would like to take from a table of goodies.
Halloween in Scotland takes place at the time of the old Celtic new year, and old and new customs sit side by side on one of the darkest nights of the year.