Scotland’s Halloween traditions

Scotland’s Halloween traditions

From television to the pneumatic tyre, Scotland claims to have invented many of the objects which have shaped life in the 21st century. This ancient country has also played a part in forming many of the rituals associated with the age-old celebration of Halloween on the 31st of October. In fact, the word Halloween is a Scottish shortening of All-Hallows Eve.

Many Halloween traditions can trace their origins back to the Gaelic festival of Samhain. This was a harvest festival at which our pagan ancestors would give thanks for the current crops and pray for future crops. October 31st was also a time when spirits of the dead were thought to walk among the living.

Trick or treat

Today’s trick or treating has its roots in the old custom of guising. This involved the young men of the community wearing masks or blackening their faces in order to avoid recognition by wandering spirits. Thus disguised, they would go door to door and collect food for Samhain feasts and offerings.

Other traditional, food-based Halloween customs include dooking for apples. To dook is to try to pick an apple from a bowl of water using only your teeth. Also a great, if sneaky way, of getting mucky kids to clean their faces.

A more messy variation on this theme sees participants trying to eat treacle-covered scones strung up in the air. Naturally, you are not allowed to use your hands.

As mentioned in the 1785 Robert Burns poem Halloween, people used to use kale roots and nuts to divine the future at Halloween.

Unmarried women would pull up a kale root and examine them to try and gain a few pointers about any future husband. The shape and length of the root was said to predict the shape and height of a would-be beau. The earth caked around the root was a measure of how much money the couple might have.

Popping nuts mean marital strife

People could also try to glean clues about their future spouse by peeling an apple and throwing the long peel behind them. The shape made by the tossed skin would reveal the first letter of the future spouse’s name. One imagines that a certain amount of wishful thinking and guided imagination could help reveal the ‘right’ letter.

Another relationship-themed ritual revolved around newly married couples throwing nuts onto a fire. If the nuts burned steadily this was thought to indicate a harmonious marriage. If the hazelnuts hissed, fizzed and popped then it was an omen that the marriage might be stormy.

Halloween pumpkins push out the tumshies

While many of these customs have more or less faded away, others remain strong. Although they may have moved with the times.

Carving scary faces into pumpkins seems like a quintessentially American import. However, the Scottish origins of the practice involved children carving turnips. Also known as tumshies. The idea was that the fierce faces would frighten away evil spirits. Scottish families that emigrated to America took the tradition with them but swapped turnips for pumpkins. A new twist on the custom that has been re-exported back to Scotland.

Along with delicious food and drink, our Eat Walk food tours in Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews are packed with stories about Scotland’s history and culture.

Pic is by Toby Ord.

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