Scottish Halloween traditions

Traditions | 26 October 2020

With the end of October bringing all things spooky to the shop shelves and TV schedules, we thought it might be a good idea to write about some of the Scottish Halloween traditions. After all, the ghostly holiday we celebrate globally these days has its roots in the ancient Celtic rituals of Scotland and Ireland.

The name of the holiday we know now as Halloween comes from the earlier celebration of All Hallows Eve. It was the evening before the Christian holiday of All Saints Day (falling on the 1st of November) and as such gained a fixed date on the last day of October. But like in many other cases, the Christian holiday adapted a much earlier pagan tradition. Many native cultures gave importance to the turn of the seasons, celebrating harvest, saying goodbye to summer and ushering in the colder and darker months. The new Scottish Halloween traditions kept some pagan aspects of the celebration and through immigrants travelled across the ocean to America, where it evolved to Halloween we know today. 

In order to understand where modern trick-or-treating and pumpkin spiced lattes came from, we need to go back in time to prehistoric rituals, druidic beliefs and windswept hilltops of Scotland…

Halloween and Samhuinn

Many celebrations of the Christian All Hallows Eve were adapted from the Celtic seasonal festival known as Samhain in Ireland in Samhuinn in Scotland. The Gaelic name pronounced “sow-win” probably meant “summers’ end” and was the most significant of the four quarterly fire festivals, taking place at the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. The end of harvest (which in those times was probably a communal effort) marked a time for celebration for local communities, usually centred around huge bonfires. Animals were sacrificed, and participants took the special flame back to their homes to relight their hearths and protect their families.

And they needed protection, because the Celts believed that in the liminal moment between the seasons the barrier between worlds was thin and breachable, letting the fairies and spirits roam freely in our world. They prepared offerings that were left outside villages and fields for fairies, and would dress as animals and monsters so that fairies were not tempted to kidnap them.

In Scotland, this tradition survived for a long time as guising or ‘galoshin’: children would disguise themselves as evil spirits by blackening their faces and dressing in old clothes, actively hiding from evil spirits by pretending to be one of them. So prepared they would go from door to door reciting a song, poem or joke before being rewarded with a sweet treat – sounds familiar?

Scottish Halloween Traditions - Fire
Scottish Halloween Traditions - Guising

Modern Scottish Halloween traditions

Apart from guising, which is still fondly remembered by many in Scotland, there were many traditions that evolved through the modern times. The protective fires were lit up on hills well into the second half of the 19th c. (on our tours we often visit one of those special spots in Balquhidder), even though in many cases they “travelled” a few days in the calendar to fit the commemoration of the thwarting of Guy Fawkes’ conspiracy. Smaller protective flames burned in many homemade lanterns – in Scotland it has been custom to carve them out of ‘neeps’ or turnips, which industrious pumpkin farmers in America later adapted to the grimaced versions we know today. 

The magical time of Hallowe’en meant it was perfect for all sorts of premonitions and fortune-telling. A lot of it revolved around future prosperity (of the harvest or animal stock), but the traditions that stood best against the test of time were related to love life and marriage. One popular custom designed for single youths was peeling an apple in a continuous strip and tossing the peel over the shoulder – the shape in which it landed would reveal the first letter of the future spouse. If a couple was already engaged, it could find out the nature of their union by tossing a nut each into an open fire. If they would quietly smoulder amongst the flames the marriage will be a good one, but hisses and crackles would augur a rocky road ahead…

Scottish Halloween Traditions - Pumpkin
Scottish Halloween Traditions - Tarots

What to do for Halloween in Scotland? 

Scary elements of Scottish culture and history can be enjoyed all year round – takes any dark evening in Alloway, for instance, to vividly imagine the dance of witches and warlocks from Rabbie Burns’ Tam o’Shanter and places like Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh are always ready to bring you horror thrills. The end of October brings even more different-flavoured events celebrating the ancient roots of Halloween and its more modern guises. Sadly due to the coronavirus outbreak many of them won’t take place this year, but if you’re one of the people planning their trips well in advance you might want to include them in your itinerary for 2021.

In Edinburgh, he Samhuinn Fire Festival marks the transition from Winter to Summer with a fireplay, drumming, and immersive theatre on top of Calton Hill since 1995. Every year’s performance is different, but their stories usually follow the overthrowing of Summer by Winter, with a dramatic stand-off between the Summer and Winter Kings and their respective courts. This is overseen by the Cailleach – a Celtic representation of the Goddess, or Divine Hag – who ultimately decides each King’s fate and ushers in the colder months. The symbolic conflict and reconciliation of the seasons draws heavily from the traditions of pre-Christian Scotland and is an unforgettable experience for all lucky to visit the capital in autumn. 

A more contemporary interpretation of the holiday takes place near Glasgow, where a family-oriented  Paisley Halloween Festival brings colourful crowds to enjoy fireworks and top-class street theatre. Many castles and visitor attractions all over the country prepare special Halloween events, including Scone Palace in Perthshire and Traquair House in the Borders. It’s always worth checking the Historic Environment Scotland and National Trust for Scotland websites for their offer of themed events, but obviously there’s one more way to make a turn-of-seasons trip special without all the hassle of research and planning: drop us a line and we can prepare a spooky itinerary just for you and guide you through all the scary places stepped in Scottish folklore and legend!

Scottish Halloween Traditions - Edinburgh