October is the month of ghouls and ghosts and spooky happenings, but did you know Halloween actually has its origins in Scotland? It might be a American corporate money maker these days but it was Scotland that kicked off all the frightful fun. Halloween in Scotland can be a exciting affair with plenty of Scottish Halloween traditions and activities to get you in the spooky mood plus a whole host of events to get you out enjoying a ghoulish evening.
Scottish Origins of Halloween
Halloween or Hallowe’en is celebrated in many places around the world, typically on the 31st of October, and is said to have come from All Hallows Eve – a historic Christian celebration preceding All Saints Day. However, this itself has its own origins in a Celtic pagan festival originating in Scotland known as Samhain or Samhuinn in Scottish Gaelic. The celebration symbolised the end of the summer months and the oncoming of winter as well as marking the harvest and preparations for the darker months ahead. What is more important in the connection to Halloween is that Samhuinn was believed to be a time when the borders between the Earth and the spirit-world were at their weakest and so those from the other side could cross through. Such spirits needed to be appeased to ensure the winter months would go well and stocks would last until the beginning of more favourable weather. This idea of otherworldly creatures walking among us on this specific day led to many of Scotland’s Halloween customs and involve either hiding yourself from the spirits or seeking their wisdom.
Scottish Halloween Traditions
With such a long history, Scottish Halloween has gained a few traditions. Some are rather old fashioned but some remain in place to this day while many have spread throughout the world.
Heading out guising
It might now be synonymous with Halloween in the USA but trick-or-treating, or at least its origins, actually started in Scotland. Known as guising, children dress up as spirits or ghoulish creatures and go door-to-door. While the modern take across the pond is that you must give the child a treat or face a nasty trick, the Scottish original is much more balanced with children performing a trick – usually a song, poem or joke and receiving a treat for their endeavour. No egging or toilet papering houses over here! The tradition still continues to this day though the costume choices have certainly expanded beyond simple ghosts and goblins.
Going Guising in 2021: This year, to continue social distancing and to keep everyone safe, many neighbourhoods have adapted the usual tradition. Rather than visiting others homes, many streets are decorating front gardens or creating spooky Halloween scenes in windows so children can still enjoy heading out in costumes and spotting all the displays by following a Halloween trail.
It’s a well known fact that bad spirits don’t like fire, or at least to some it is, so large fires are also one of the Halloween customs in Scotland. These bonfires are meant to keep the spirits at bay but in ancient customs the smoke from the bonfires was also thought to cleanse and so people would often gather near them or even drive their sheep or cattle through the smoke to bless them before slaughter. While the purpose behind the practice has somewhat died away, large fires and bonfire gatherings still take place in several places throughout Scotland to mark the date.
Of course, sometimes you need to leave the safety of the big fire but still keep those wandering ghouls at arms length so taking your own source of light and purifying fire with you was a must and so a neep (turnip) lantern would guide the way or protect a home after dark. In more modern tradition the carving of turnips into scary scenes or scary faces is more common than simply using them as lights but the act of putting a turnip on the doorstep is still alive. Sadly, the American tradition of carving pumpkins has largely taken over but there are still some who will persevere with the hardier turnip lanterns and these can be seen outside houses in the lead up to Halloween.
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Romance and fortunetelling
It might not seem the most romantic of traditional holidays but actually there are several Scottish Halloween traditions which relate to relationships and predicting your future love life. Each must be carried out on Halloween in order to consult the spirits who will give you guidance on the path ahead. One such tradition is to peel an apple, carefully cutting it in one long strip. Once you have your apple wiggle, throw the peel over your shoulder and the shape in which is lands will tell you the first letter of your future husband or wife’s name.
If that’s not enough detail then kale pulling might be more for you. As the stories go, if you head out to the garden and pull up kale plants or castocks on Halloween the shape and size of the stalk will match your future partner but you need to pick your plant after dark AND with your eyes shut so you can’t cheat. The volume of soil that comes up with your plant will also tell you how much wealth your future partner will have!
Of course, if you’ve already found your spouse-to-be, then nut burning will predict the future of your marriage. This Halloween tradition sees engaged couples each throw a nut into a fire. If the nuts burn quietly then the future is looking good and your marriage will be a happy affair, if however, they spit and hiss then you have a turbulent time ahead.
But not all fortunetelling is related to love and marriage. Fuarag, a traditional Gaelic dish of primarily oatmeal and cream was often used as a vessel for items to foretell the future. Similar to the tradition of placing tokens within a Christmas pudding, several small objects are added to the mix and whichever you pull out when you come to eat it will be your future. Common additions include a ring to symbolise an upcoming wedding or a button to predict a solo future, a coin to indicate wealth was coming your way, while a thimble implies a spinster’s path was for you. While sometimes served as a family, the practice of scooping a spoonful of fuarag at each home you visit on Halloween is also a common practice. While this is another Scottish Halloween tradition that has become something of a rarity you can still find this is smaller Gaelic communities during Halloween in Scotland.
Scottish Halloween party games
A children’s Halloween party is a staple of many households but in Scotland these are a decidedly messy affair. Two of the top Halloween games are dookin’ for apples and eating treacle scones, which are both usually completed in teams and against the clock. Dookin’ for apples involves a large pot, bowl or barrel filled with water with several apples floating in the water. The task is to grab the apples with your teeth, usually with you hands behind your back and trying not to drown in the process. While the second activity might sound like something to do during snack break, the treacle scones are actually dangled from the ceiling on a string, the scones are heavily filled with treacle and you have to eat the scone as fast as you can with your hands tied behind your back. This proves a very sticky affair so best to plan this party game first and follow up with the apple dookin’ or just make sure there are plenty of washing up options around!
Such party games may be a bit of fun but us Scots take these things seriously and in 2008 the town of Peebles in the Scottish Borders set the record for the most participants simultaneously dookin’ for apples and achieved a Guinness World Record for their efforts. The feat has since been topped by a group in Ohio, USA but maybe in the future we’ll take back that title. Apple dookers assemble!
Reading the poetry of Robert Burns
Tam o’ Shanter is a particularly long poem written by Robert Burns in 1790 and is a mammoth story of the title character Tam and his silly interaction with several supernatural beings including witches and warlocks. In a drunken state he interrupts a supernatural ritual and ends up in a frightful chase to escape the wicked creatures barely getting away but for the speed of his horse Meg who loses her tail. As legend goes, the witches cannot cross running water and so are thwarted by the River Doon. This high-spirited Scots poem will certainly get you in the Halloween mood and if you want to create a perfect atmosphere you can even visit the supposed site where horse, Meg, lost her tail at Brig o’Doon in Ayrshire.
If you’re looking for something a little shorter then Burns’ Hallowe’en also gives a nice overview of the customs and there are many more of Burns’ works which focus on Scottish supernatural elements and ancient customs.
Things to do in Scotland at Halloween
Sadly, if you don’t have little ones to take around the doors then you might get a few funny looks if you attempt to go guising but there are still plenty of things for adults to do on a Scottish Halloween.
Watch the Samhuinn Fire Festival
One of the top Halloween events in Edinburgh, Samhuinn is a dramatic moving fire festival in the Scottish capital taking things back to those original Celtic origins. In the past, parade routes have taken in the city centre including the Royal Mile but since 2018 the festival moved to Calton Hill and is bigger than ever before. The festival tells the story of the end of summer and the coming of winter and performers act out various scenes which symbolise the struggle between the seasons before winter eventually wins out. Expect fireballs, elaborate costumes and a fair degree of nudity! Worth remembering it is the end of October in Scotland so prepare for wet weather and dress accordingly – even if the performers don’t.
Samhuinn in 2021? Like so many other large-scale events, there has been a few additional social distancing and safety considerations added to Samhuinn in the last two years. Last year, the festival had its first ever digital outing but this year the Beltane Fire Festival group are excited to invite people to join in person again. For 2021, Samhuinn will be moving back to a parade format and moving through Edinburgh’s Old Town to reduce static crowds but if you’re not quite ready to join larger events then why not watch last year’s online version: Hearth Fire – The Digital Samhuinn Fire Festival bringing performance, music, and ritual celebrations direct to you. The team at Beltane also have some rituals that you can do in your own time to feel more involved in the spirit of the festival which celebrates togetherness and our roots in nature!
Ghost tours, halloween trails and haunted houses
Ghost tours are an ever popular Halloween activity and plenty of historic buildings put on a show for the occasion. While not every castle and stately home is haunted, a fair few do have their own resident ghosts so why not join a supernatural evening or if you’re brave enough, stay the night! If you’re spending Halloween in Edinburgh there will be plenty of options such as Mercat Tours, Mary Kings Close or even the Edinburgh Dungeon but plenty of sites will have a dedicated event in the lead up to All Hallows Eve. Locations including Traquair House, Kelburn Castle and Country Park, Linlithgow Palace and Kinneil House are just some of the places that typically getting into the “spirit” of things!
If you want to play it a bit safer then Castle Kennedy in Dumfries and Galloway have a family-friendly Halloween Pumpkin Trail or you could take a trip to the Edinburgh Zoo Spooktactular to explore the zoo after dark on a magical illuminated trail. Or you can try some slightly more futuristic festivities in the Paisley Halloween Festival. The 2021 festival will be along the theme of ‘Out of this World” with illuminations and displays covering alien invasions, creatures from the deep and a constellation of stars.
Check out Visit Scotland to find out which spooky events are taking place across Scotland this year.
Explore the supernatural
Shakespeare was certainly never been one to shy away from the supernatural and Scotland provided his inspiration for the tale of MacBeth. Filled with witchcraft and sorcery, the story certainly isn’t short of spooks and now you can experience many of the real-life locations mentioned in the play with the MacBeth Trail. You can also visit some of the filming locations used in the recent big screen rendition of the story. Look out for historic castles, atmospheric glens and mystical fairy pools.
If you want a little more real life witch history then Paisley may be the place to visit. The town played and leading role in the history of Scotland’s witches and was actually the last town in western Europe to preform a mass execution for witchcraft. Look out for local exhibitions detailing these dark stories of the past. Paisley is of course not alone in this brutal chapter of history and you can learn more about individuals and suspected crimes of witchcraft on this map of Scottish witch trials created by Edinburgh University.
Witches are not the only source of magic in Scotland and there indeed plenty of supernatural creatures in Scottish folklore. Why not use Scottish Halloween to discover the tales behind beings such as kelpies, selkies and forest spirits but remember not all fairies are friendly!
For exploring the supernatural in 2021, we’d recommend a self-guided supernatural walk where social distancing is possible. Why not check out some of the creepy locations recommended by Forestry and Land Scotland in this article on spooky locations to visit this Halloween. Aptly named spots include the Coffin Route in Barcaldine, Argyll and Bute and Hill of Damned Souls in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire.
Visit a Pumpkin Patch in Scotland
If you want to embrace the more modern take on Scottish Halloween and give in to the American influence then there are several pumpkin patches where you can pick your own pumpkin to carve. They are certainly easier to carve than the traditional turnip lanterns and I must admit a pumpkin patch is more photogenic than a field full of turnips. A few spots to check out for pumpkin-based activities include Narrowboat Farm’s Pumpkin Cruises in Linlithgow, Cairnies Fruit Farm in Cupar, Fife or Udny Pumpkins in Aberdeen.
Which is your favourite Halloween tradition in Scotland? Do you celebrate supernatural traditions?
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