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Scottish traditions

Halloween

bats flying across the moon
In Scotland, the customs around Halloween are similar to North American customs in many respects but there are a few important differences. Our children did not traditionally go 'trick or treating' (although many of them are starting to use this phrase). Instead, they go guising.

The verb to guise comes from Old French (se) déguiser, to disguise oneself, and the practise was once associated not only with Halloween but also with Yule. Elaborate costumes are a comparatively recent trait. Fifty years ago, it was enough to wear a jacket back to front and draw a moustache on your face with a piece of burnt cork. My own children were happy to make a ghost costume out of an old sheet of turn themselves into witches, bats or big black cats with the aid of a few black bin-liners. Thus disguised, the guisers lit their turnip lantern (made from a hollowed out swede, with a gruesome face), smaller and less colourful but easier to carry than a pumpkin, and set off to knock on the doors of friends and neighbours to tell a joke, sing a song, dance or recite a poem in the hope of sweets, fruit, nuts, toffee-apples and money. Once children might have cried out: 'Canty dame wi kindly looks, Ye hae fairins (presents, especially edible ones) in yer neuks (corners, nooks), Aipples reid, or aipples green, Up, and gie's oor Halloween!' but these old customs are dying out.

Customs varied from place to place but, after guising, my children and their friends had a small Halloween party with such activities as dookin for aipples (ducking for apples) and trying to eat scones covered in molasses and hung from a clothes line (which some cruel adult would jiggle about) with their hand kept behind their backs. Then, with faces black and sticky, they would duck for sweets in a bowl of flour. This was followed by telling spooky stories. Just the thing to do with children before bed!

Such harmless fun represents the remnants of more serious superstitions, some of which are recalled in quotations in the Dictionary of the Scots Language which defines Halloween (under the entry for Hallow) as 'the eve of All Saints' Day, i.e. 31st October, in the old Celtic calendar the last day of the year and the first of winter, when witches and the powers of darkness were supposed to hold revels; subsequently the night on which bonfires and various traditional rites of divination were held as described e.g. in Burns's poem Halloween.

Originating in a Celtic fire festival, bonfires have long been a part of the celebrations. 200 years ago, John Jamieson, the great Scots lexicographer, tells us that 'In some parts of Scotland it is customary on this evening for young people to kindle fires on the top of hills or rising grounds. A fire of this kind they call a halloween bleeze.' The Folk-Lore Journal of 1883 tells how, 'after the Hallow-Fires were consumed, . . . some were in the habit of gathering together the ashes, and covering them up — "ristin the halla-fire'" — and placing in the ashes a small stone to represent each member of the household. If the stone which represented a member was not found, that member would be removed by death before the next Hallow-Fire was kindled'.

Another superstition was the blue clew. To try this, go alone and secretly to the fire pit under the kiln (if you have one), and throw in a ball of blue wool, keeping hold of the end. Rewind the ball and, when it is nearly rewound, something will hold the thread. Bold ask, wha hauds? (i.e. who holds?) and answer will be returned from the fire pit, by naming your future spouse.

But perhaps such divination is not a good thing. Maybe it is better not to know. As Burns said to the mouse:

Thou art blessed compared wi me
The present only touches thee;
But oft I backward cast ma ee
  On prospects drear
And forward though I canna see
  I guess and fear.

Visit the Dictionary of the Scots Language website for more information on christening bit or any of the Scots words in this article.