Nothing will ever beat the traditional Scottish Halloween

Claudia Massie

Claudia Massie celebrates the traditions that make Halloween in Scotland so strange and wonderful

31 October 2018 12:37

Carterhaugh is a flat stretch of land that sits at the confluence of the fabled Border waters, Ettrick and Yarrow. A few miles west of Selkirk, it is a quiet place, populated chiefly these days by sheep and hares, but it is famous in folklore for its faeries, and for the strange events that occurred there one Halloween night.

The faeries of the Border ballads were malevolent spirits who specialized in abducting young people, including, at Carterhaugh, Tamlane. A captive of eerie Elfland, he flits, disguised, between the two realms, and demands a tithe from passers-by at the Carterhaugh well: ‘Either their rings, or green mantles, / Or else their maidenhead’.

An earthly girl called Janet is soon impregnated by Tamlane and returns to the well in search of abortion-inducing herbs. He intervenes, begs her to stop, then then asks her to rescue him at midnight on Halloween, when the faeries are on the move and mortals can enter their world.


But the night is Halloween, lady,
The morn is Hallowday,
Then win me, win me, an ye will,
For weel I wat ye may.


Janet steals into Elfland and a great conflict ensues. She must hold fast to Tamlane beneath her green mantle as the Queen of Elfland turns him into a succession of beasts, water and fire, then finally a naked knight, but she succeeds and so restores him to the land of mortals, a rare happy ending to a Halloween tale.

I grew up across the Yarrow from Tamlane’s well and, like many Selkirk folk, was sure I would someday see the faeries dance at Carterhaugh. The local folklore, told through ballads, was still popular even in the 1980s, and at Halloween it was the old Scottish, rather than the modern American, tradition that persisted. It was still a night when witches might fly and eldritch (supernatural, unearthly) spirits surely prowled.

The staple Halloween activities were apple dookin’ and neep lantern (never pumpkin) carving. The apples recall a time when the fruit was sacred, and the practice of picking out apples from water may relate to pagan theories about the dead crossing water to a land of apples beyond. Traditionally, neeps were laboriously hollowed out so only the thin, transparent rind remained, then a face was either carved out or drawn in with some kind of blacking, before a candle was placed inside and the lantern positioned on the doorstep to scare away the bogles. An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language from 1808 records this practice and explains, ‘These being placed in churchyards on Allhallow Eve are supposed to have given rise to many of the tales of terror believed by the vulgar’.

More indulgent families than mine supplemented the apples and neeps with games involving treacle scones, to be eaten dangling from strings, and toffee apples. More superstitious ones still left out an empty chair for passing ghosts and made Halloween cakes that concealed divining charms: a ring for marriage, a thimble for eternal spinsterhood or button for bachelorhood, a coin for wealth and so on – a practice that was described in the 1920s by the folklorist F Marian MacNeil in ‘The Scots Kitchen’.

MacNeil also relates the Highland custom of baking Bonnach Salainn, or Salt Bannock. This was an ordinary oatcake but made with the addition of  ‘a great deal of salt’. The Bannock was to be eaten at Halloween ‘to induce dreams that would foretell the future’, with the caveat that, ‘no water may be drunk, nor any word spoken after it was eaten or the charm would not work’.

Halloween originates in the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain, a ‘quarter-day’ festival that marked the end of summer and the turning of the year. It was on this day that the division between the world of the living and the world of the dead was, as we see in ‘Tamlane’, at its thinnest, meaning that the passage between the two realms was fluid and that the Gods might use this to play tricks on the living, sending evil spirits into their world to deceive or tempt them.

The habit of ‘Guising’, which, when exported to America, would morph into ‘Trick or Treat’, stemmed from the belief that the Samhain or Halloween night teemed with these wandering spirits, and that anyone stepping out that night should be disguised as an evil being so that they might blend in and travel safely. Anyone thus disguised who visited a house would be rewarded with nuts or fruit in an attempt to placate the bogles.

As with Christmas, the long-established pagan festival was eventually appropriated by Christianity when All Saints Day was moved to November the first. On the Celtic fringe, however, pagan traditions die hard and, even by the time of the Reformation, the entrenched, ancient customs still dominated, fomented further by a superstitious atmosphere in which pagan beliefs melded with a particular kind of Christian fundamentalism and spewed out the crime of witchcraft.

In 1563, witchcraft became a capital offence in Scots law and the following two hundred years were marked by suspicion and fanciful reckonings. In 1597, just before the Union of the Crowns, the Scottish King James IV even wrote a treatise entitled Daemonologie in which he outlined the crimes of witches and warlocks and detailed appropriate punishments, chiefly death. The last recorded execution of a witch in Scotland took place at Dornoch in 1727, but unofficial punishments probably continued for some time after this date.

By the time of Robert Burns, in the late eighteenth century, witch hunts had been abolished, but superstition and a fear of bogles, brownies and bockies remained deeply rooted in folklore and custom. One of Burns’ strangest poems is ‘Halloween’ (1786), a long ballad that details many of the traditions then associated with the date. He accompanies his tale with an extensive paratext that ‘give(s) some account of the principal charms and spells of that night, so big with prophecy to the peasantry in the west of Scotland’.

In the poem, a cast of twenty enacts the Halloween customs, such as pulling, with eyes closed, a ‘stock’ of kale from the soil to determine, from the shape of the stem, the form of a future lover. According to Burns, ‘if any “yird,” or earth, sticks to the root, that is “tocher,” or fortune; and the taste of the “custock,” that is, the heart of the stem, is indicative of the natural temper and disposition’ of the ‘grand object of all their spells’.

This being Burns, all the Halloween traditions recorded in the poem relate to affairs of the heart, or perhaps just the loins. His characters undertake ten different Halloween customs in attempting to prophesize their romantic destiny, and all the while the lads and lassies are also jinking about with each other in the haystacks or whispering by the fire.

Some of the traditions he relates were quite likely arcane, even in 1786, but the habit of burning nuts at Halloween, their behaviour on the flames indicative of future matrimonial success, continued in some places at least into the twentieth century, and was transported abroad along with the traditions of lantern carving and guising.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in 1859, records the nut-burning custom amongst the city’s American-Scots community, ‘Tonight all those … merry-hearted boys and girls from the land of Burns… will burn their nuts, and mayhap their fingers, in fishing up the name of the lucky dog upon whom they will throw themselves away.’ It is clear that the original American Halloween grew out of the Scots, and also Irish, immigrant traditions, before eventually being re-introduced to these shores as today’s cheery festival of pumpkins and grinning ghosts.

‘Halloween’ is not one of Burns’ more popular poems and has often been dismissed as a mere folkloric compendium, lacking in narrative drive, but, ultimately, that is its charm. He gives us a wild, dark night of superstition where, when not pulling kale or burning nuts, credulous farmhands and hopeful maids eat apples in front of mirrors, dip fingers in bowls of water or literally clutch at straws to see their fancies rewarded.

‘Tam O’Shanter’ is, of course, the Burns poem most likely to be read at Halloween these days, and its evocation of a witches’ Sabbath remains profoundly unnerving. It gripped me as an impressionable child and I was for a long time worried about meeting Auld Nick or the witch Cutty Sark, as well as fretting over the possibility of seeing the malevolent faeries at Carterhaugh.

The description in ‘Tam O’Shanter’ of the warlocks and witches engaged in their heady dance, and the devil’s altar laid out in front of an audience of open coffins, peopled by lantern-gripping corpses, is as sinister and eerie as any modern horror tale. What leaden soul would not be chilled by the spectacle of these demons skirling to the devil’s pipes, or the description of  ‘A garter, which a babe had strangled / A knife, a father’s throat had mangled’ and the ‘Three priests’ hearts, rotten, black as muck / Lay stinking, vile in every neuk’ amongst the gory treasures on display in the kirkyard that night?

A few years ago, I proposed a nocturnal tour of an abandoned medieval graveyard as part of my child’s primary school Halloween party, which was to be held at the adjacent village hall, in a remote part of rural Perthshire. The suggestion was shot down, but the fear was more about children falling over in the dark, or colliding with crumbling headstones, than them being pursued by witches or confronted, like Tam, by ‘some devilish cantraip slight’. Perhaps it was for the best though, for who knows what eldritch spirits may have lain in wait that night?