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Halloween Traditions in Scotland

History Scottish Traditions

Many of the Halloween traditions today can be traced back to the Celt’s and their ancient festival of Samhain.

Samhain marked the end of the summer, the last harvest, and the beginning of the dark, cold, winter. For the Celts the festival also symbolised the thinning threshold between “our” world and the “other” world. This meant that spirits of the dead could walk freely amongst the land of the living. Feasts were held and the spirits of dead kin were called upon to join the feast. Place settings were set for these spirits and ,in recent times, many leave a chair outside with a table and plate of food for offerings to the friendly spirits. To ward off evil spirits the Celts would build large bonfires that were built in each village. Fires in the home were put out to build one massive fire to scare the spirits away. In more modern times, bonfires have been saved for Guy Fawkes night on November 5th. Now it is more common to carve lanterns from “neeps” – or turnips. The flesh is scooped out and a face is carved on the front. A candle is then placed in the neep to create a goulish face that will ward off evil spirits. In America, it is more common to carve pumpkins – in the past few years this has become quite popular in Scotland as they are much easier to carve ! However their raw flesh is not as tasty !

Scottish Halloween Turnip Lantern complete with Candle Alight

During the Samhain festival it was also common to find children disguised as evil spirits so they would be safe and blend in with the spirits of the night. The children would then go door to door and perform a trick, such as recite a poem, or sing a song in return for an offering, often times fruit or nuts. Today in Scotland this is still known as “guising”. Children no longer perform their party tricks but do receive an offering – more common to be sweets or money in these modern times.

Another tradition which has been upheld since pagan times is “dooking” for apples. This is a game that involved tying children’s hands behind their back. The children would then try to bite an apple that was floating in a basin full of water. The tradition evelved because apples were the sacred fruit of the Samhain festival. People still do this today. Another party game involves a treacle scone. Again the children’s hands are tied behind their back and they attempt to take a bite out of a treacle scone hanging from string. Sometimes the treacle scone is substituted for sweeter donuts.

Halloween in the 1700s in Scotland also had strong traditions for those couples recently engaged or those wishing to discover who they would marry. As stated in Robert Burns Poem “Halloween”, couples would throw nuts into the roaring bonfires in their village. If the nuts sizzled and spat then that was a bad omen for their future, but if the burned quietly then they would know they would have a happy marriage. In another tradition kale used to be pulled from the ground with one’s eyes shut. The length and the straightness of the stalk that was pulled from the ground would indicate their future partners height and figure. Any soil on the stalk would indicate wealth.

One last Halloween tradition that has since been abolished, was the banning of pork at Halloween. This was actually a bit controversial because some think this was entirely fabricated. However, it is said that in the Witchcraft Act of 1735 both pork and pastries were banned from consumption during Halloween. This was repealed in 1950, so now sausage rolls and pork pies are a common way to celebrate during Halloween.

So there you go - a few Scottish games to play on Halloween. Enjoy yourself.


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