Scottish Halloween

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Welcome to this month’s Real English video where I tell you about Edinburgh and Scotland’s history and culture, and you get a great English lesson looking at language in context! This month we are talking about Scottish Halloween traditions. Before you watch the video, have a look at our Quizlet set to help you follow the video better. Then read our interactive blog for more great English practice!

Remember, our Real English videos aren’t written in advance! We use authentica language so you get to see how L1 speakers use English naturally.

A Traditional Scottish Halloween

Think you know Halloween? Think again! Halloween comes from a celtic tradition and started right here in Scotland (although Ireland should definitely get a mention too). You can forget about pumpkins and trick or treating, our traditions are very different! Read on to find out more.

What is Halloween called in Scotland?

Halloween has its roots in the Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in), which roughly translated means summer’s end. There are mentions of Samhain in Celtic literature from over 2000 years ago, and the festival celebrated the end of light and the coming of darkness, or the end of summer and the start of winter. It was essentially a harvest festival during the autumn season, which is why we associate the colour orange with Halloween. 

Like so many of our pagan festivals, Samhain was definitely a chance to have a great time with your family and neighbours, but it also served an important purpose. People thought that the 31st October marked the start of the dark and cold winter, and they (logically!) associated it with human death and the destruction of crops and cattle. The Celts believed that this was because it was the night the veil between the human and spirit world lifted, and spirits could visit the Earth. 

Druids would use the night to make predictions about the future, and lit bonfires to burn sacrifices to offer the communites protection. It was traditional to put out the fire in your home, and relight it from the bonfire, giving your home protection as well as helping to reinforce community spirit.  The Celts also wore costumes, mainly made out of animal skins, and tried to tell each others’ fortunes.

photo of a bonfire similar to what they would have traditionally done in Scotland on Halloween
Photo by Jens Mahnke from Pexels

When did the name change to Halloween?

The name Halloween came from the Christian tradition taking over the celebration. In around 1000AD, the church more or less took over the festival calling it All Souls Day, the day they honoured the dead. All Soul’s Day still kept a lot of Samhain traditions like bonfires and costumes, although this time with a much more religious theme like angels and devils. The night before was All Hallows Eve, which eventually became Halloween. 

So what are Scottish Halloween Traditions?

We have a lot of Scottish Halloween traditions which stem from Samhain, although there are some that nowadays we definitely don’t do. Most of these are about predicting the future. People believed that you could predict the height and weight of your future partner if you went out into a field on Halloween and pulled out a stalk of kale. The length of the stalk would determine the size of your partner, and the amount of soil on it would tell you how rich they would be! 

You could also test out your future marriage by throwing a nut on the fire. If it didn’t make a sound, it meant that your marriage would be successful, but if it hissed then it would not.

Later in our Halloween history it became traditional to make a Halloween cake. These are cakes decorated with really ugly faces. Inside you would find 3 items; a ring, a coin and a button. If you got the ring, you’d be the first to get married, if you found the coin you’d be rich, but if you found the button you’d stay single! These cakes were pretty hideous and led to the Glaswegian expression “he has a face like a Halloween cake” to say that someone was really ugly.

What Halloween games do you play in Scotland?

Although we don’t predict our futures using such scientific methods nowadays, we do still have a lot of traditional games that we play. Apples were sacred in Celtic culture and they feature a lot at Halloween. Toffee apples are a very popular sweet treat, but the most popular way we use apples on the 31st of October is dooking for apples!

A basket of apples.
Photo by Елена Кузичкина from Pexels

In this game, you put lots of apples in a bowl, put your hands behind your back and try to take one out with your teeth. A variation on this, is putting a fork in your mouth and dropping it into the water to try and pierce an apple.  This is a great option if you don’t want your face to get wet! Similar to dooking for apples is putting sweeties in a plate full of flour and taking them out while your hands are behind your back.

Another game where you can’t use your hands is treacle scones! Here we hang scones or cakes from a string and cover them with treacle, a thick syrup. You kneel down and have to try and eat them wearing a blindfold and with your hands behind your back.  As you can see, we like to get pretty messy at our Halloween parties!

Scottish Halloween Costumes

Because people believed the dead could walk the Earth on Halloween, people would dress up their children as ghouls and ghouls to protect them from the evil spirits. This is where the tradition of dressing up and going door to door comes from. While in the US it’s common to dress up as princesses and superheroes, in Scotland we traditionally dress up as something spooky! That means plenty of witches, vampires, ghosts and bats.

two children dressed up as ghosts with sheets over them and some pumpkin shaped buckets.
Photo by Charles Parker from Pexels

When I was growing up in the 80s, you definitely couldn’t get your costume from the supermarket either. We used to have a lot more homemade costumes out of things you could find in your house. That meant us 80s children usually had costumes made out of black bin bags!

Is trick or treating a Scottish Halloween tradition?

Well, not exactly! Trick or treating is definitely an American tradition, however the idea does come from Scottish traditions. Here we go guising or galoshin. It’s very similar to trick or treating, but you don’t get your sweeties without giving something first! You have to do a turn or do a piece, which means giving a performance. It can be lots of different things, like telling a joke, singing a song, or doing a magic trick.

Children dressed as a witch and a devil going guising,. Gusiing is a Scottish Halloween tradition which inpsired the US version of trick or treating.
Photo by Charles Parker from Pexels

And traditionally, we did not get sweeties either! When I was growing up, typical Halloween treats included satsumas, monkey nuts and raisins, although this has certainly changed. I’m not sure how happy 21st century kids would be if they got these snacks instead of haribo!

Are pumpkin lanterns a Scottish Halloween Tradition?

Lanterns are, but not pumpkin ones! One of the most easy to grow and common vegetables in Scotland that make a good lantern are neeps, or turnips, and that’s what we traditionally use! These are much more difficult to carve than pumpkins, but the effort certainly pays off. They also look much spookier! There is no denying though that pumpkins have become much more popular these days! They are more user friendly and there’s less chance of losing a thumb in the process!

Witches and Scottish Halloween

A witches altar. The Goddess of winter used to be an important part of Halloween in Scotland.
Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

The Scottish Halloween Goddess

The changing of the seasons were associated with the winter goddess in Scotland, and she has many names. She is know as the Cailleach, the Carlin, Nicneven and the Crone (or the old woman).

She was believed to bring the changes of the season. During the winter months, she herded deer, resisted springtime and froze the soil with her staff. She was also believed to have created a lot of Scotland’s lochs and mountains. 

On the east coast she was also known as the Queen of the Witches. This is one of the reasons we associate witches with Halloween.

It was illegal to eat a sausage roll on Halloween in Scotland

Another fact about witches is that it was illegal to eat this popular party snack on Halloween until 1950! This was because of the Witchcraft act which banned the consumption of pork on this date. Pork bones were associated with spells cast by witches, and so everything associated with pork was banned on Halloween.

American influences on Scottish Halloween Traditions

A pumpkin with the words trick or treat written on a wooden sign.
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

When Scots emigrated to North America, they took their Halloween traditions with them and adapted them. As they couldn’t find turnips, they used pumpkins for their lanterns. Over time the celebration turned into a more family friendly event. It was definitely less scary and had a carnival feel.  Through Holywood and TV shows, US culture came to domiate globally. Thanks to this, the North American Halloween traditions became the most well known.

Nowadays you can see the enormous influence the US has had on our traditions. You’ll see trick or treat all over the place these days. There’s less neeps being carved and more pumpkins. And I’m sure a child would turn up their nose at being given a monkey nut. You’ll also see a lot more Spidermen and Elsas from Frozen than ghosts and ghouls out on the street! And I’m not sure how many kids still do a turn. But I am hopeful that a lot of our traditions will stick around!

The Beltane society in Edinburgh do an amazing Samhain celebration every year, ending in a fire festival on Calton Hill. And there are plenty of traditionalists like me! We still insist on carving a neep, dooking for apples, and dressing up as something scary! Hopefully I’ve inspired you to try some of these traditions this year too!

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