Sunday, 11 October 2015

Halloween in Scotland

Halloween the shortening of All Hallows Eve, is the night where the barrier between the spirit world and this one becomes extremely thin. It is a turning point in the year when the spirit of winter begins to overcome the spirit of summer. If you are lucky Edinburgh's multiple parks and green spaces are a blaze of defiant colour with a late summer, called, in less politically correct times, an Indian summer and one can roam Arthur's Seat and Calton Hill enjoying the warmth before retreating to a quiet bar and enjoying a whiskey – make it two. If you are unlucky the trees are bare and the leaves are a wet mass huddled on the ground. In which case you can spend longer at the bar and enjoy some of the local beers.

Of course you don't need to come that late. September, after the festival is a good time, transport is back to normal and prices have slid back a bit. Everyone is more relaxed and cheerful. But if you come at Halloween you can catch the ghost tours, maybe encountering the Greyfriars Poltergeist.


There is debate whether Halloween is related to the celtic festival of Samhain but to the dismay of the sort of Christian who believes smiling is a sign of the presence of Satan, it involves a lot of fun, normally ritually denounced by such people every year. Ignore them. The first mention of All Hallows is found in Old English (ealra hālgena mæssedæg, mass-day of all saints) but All-Hallows-Even is itself not seen until 1556, though by old tradition a day starts at sunset the day before: This is why Orthodox Jews have to be home by sunset to observe the Sabbath.

Halloween is typically linked to Samhain (“summers end”) and was the most important of the quarter days of the medieval calendar. Being the last day of Autumn (though nature is never that precise at following human rules) it was a time to prepare for winter. It was also the time of year when the physical and supernatural worlds were closest and magical things could happen. Since the spirits were not friendly at that time of year (something Mussorgyky used as a theme for Night on the Bare Mountain) the Gaels protected themselves with huge bonfires and sacrifices. In the Western Isles of Scotland the Sluagh, or fairy host was regarded as composed of the souls of the dead flying through the air (like the Wild Hunt of the Northern Tradition), and the feast of the dead at Hallowe'en was likewise the festival of the fairies, who, needless to say, were NOT regarded as sweet six inch tall ballet dancers.

The Christian Holy days All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls day come close enough to Halloween to make it likely these days were chosen to “Christianise” the festival. Also Guy Fawkes day in the UK is 5th November, celebrated with Bonfires and could also be times to coincide with Halloween and mede Halloween less important in England, but not in Scotland, though research is needed here. It was traditionally believed that the souls of the dead roamed the world till until All Saints' Day, and All Hallows' Eve provided one last chance for the dead to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving onto the next. As a result Christians would disguise themselves in masks and costumes, and this has survived as guising.

Protestants, denounced Halloween as papist and contrary to their foul doctrine of predestination, but the Scottish Kirk was more tolerant and it survived. By the end of the 19th century however Halloween had become a children's festival.

Some traditions

The guisers would dress up to avoid recognition by evil spirits, or perhaps to avoid being seen by them, or simply as a way of letting themselves go wild hoping they would not be recognised. A tradition of giving guisers small gifts as sacrifices to placate evil spirits grew up and perhaps became trick or treat. Long before "trick or treat" though, children went round the houses and had to perform a poem or a song or tell jokes before receiving nuts, apples or sweets (candies). In recent years, concern about child safety has reduced the amount of "guising" and the children who do go out seem to think they should get something without having to do a "party piece".

Candles and Lanterns were used to keep the dead away from the living, and in Scotland Turnip lanterns were used (well it was a poor country and you could eat the insides) but later pumpkins (squash to American readers ) became more popular. Placing lanterns, whether made from Turnips or pumpkins round the house continues a tradition of putting skulls outside an encampment to scare evil spirits. Dressing up is more acceptable now it is largely children who dress up, though last year we recall adults in Vampire and other costumes walking (not crawling) from bar to bar.

Ducking for Apples, apples being sacred to the druids, being the fruit that kept the Norse gods from ageing and being commonly considered the fruit of the tree of knowledge, involves removing an apple from a bowl of water without using your hands. Much could be made of the symbology of the Apple, but that is a story for another day and place.

We still have some accommodation for Halloween but better book fast

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