Dark Roots: Memoirs of an Old Scottish Halloween

The gathering gloom swirled with crisply tumbled leaves and neep lanterns and candles began to flicker in the windows and on the doorsteps of the village. I was rushing to put the finishing touches to my turnip lantern, with the blood seeping through the plaster from an inevitable knife on finger accident sustained during the carving.

There was an expectant hush all through the streets, contrasting with the warm bustle of activity behind the coloured wooden doors. Once I had filled my turnip head with a glowing candle, and carefully placed it into the row already glowing outside the front door, I rushed to the mirror to finish off my guising outfit with suitable face paints. It was a scramble of excited hysteria, as we all jostled for position in front of the glass, and snatched and shared the precious crayons.

White for the base across my whole face, black in deep rings around my eyes and in the hollows of my cheeks and deep red across my lips. This year my brother had taken the easy option of a ghost, and so he leaned against the door frame watching our frantic activity from beneath and old sheet with two holes cut for his eyes. Very lazy, he didn’t deserve to get as much toffee for that as we did with our slaved over witches and ghouls outfits.

I pulled my tall pointed hat firmly onto my head and stood back to admire the effect. Brilliant, I was unrecognisable, and so would be safe from the malevolent spirits which were free to roam the streets tonight. I turned to my little cousin who was struggling to even reach the mirror through the crowd. I reached through the bodies and grabbed the black crayon, and then drew whiskers, a nose and cats eyes onto her excited face. She was my witches cat.

As we spilled out onto the pavement we were swallowed by the darkness, and we huddled close around the flickering glow of our lanterns. The distinctive smell of slightly cooking turnip wafted around us, and it truly felt like Halloween had arrived. We were sure we could see things moving in the shadows just beyond our reach, and we worked ourselves into a state of hysteria, running towards the nearest door and its pool of light.

We worked our way from door to door, past other groups of spirit disguised children, peering through the dim light to see if we could recognise who they were. We were ushered in out of the black night, to the warmth and cheer of crackling fires. Everyone had to sing or recite a poem or tell a story or a joke, and all of the adults would pretend that they didn’t know who we were until we were just leaving…”Oh its yourself under there, what a scare you gave me”…

Our bags and pockets filled up with treacle toffee, toffee apples, chocolate, apples and nuts, and between doors we would compare our hauls, until someone got spooked and set us all running again. We would exchange the location of generous houses and the types of haul, when we passed groups we recognised. In some of the houses we would have to douk for our apples, plunging our faces into a basin of water with our hands firmly behind our backs. The older you got, the easier this got, but lots of the little ones couldn’t manage. Others houses had sweet buns covered in treacle dangling from a string line, and again with hands clasped firmly out of the way we had to grab the sweet treats with our mouths. I’m sure you can imagine the mess we were in by the end of the night!

When we had exhausted the doors we made our way home with bulging bags, and headed to the bonfire which had been lit in the garden. The bigger the better, and we held magical sparklers in our cold hands, tracing letters and shapes into the darkness. Some of the adults told ghost stories around the fire as we waited for our foil wrapped potatoes to cook in the glowing embers. Whiskey was passed around the adults, and its distinctive smell mingled with the wood smoke to create a scent which to this day will transport me back to the Halloween of my childhood, on the West coast of the Scottish Highlands. It was the best and scariest celebration of the year.

My Granny used to tell me about the old traditions, and she always said it was an ancient Scottish tradition to view the day as beginning at sunset. So the evening of any celebration was when you celebrated big time….Halloween, Christmas Eve, New Years Eve….I think this was true across the celtic world, not just in Scotland. The daytime celebrations seem to have been added by the Christian church, and its emphasis on light, in an attempt to calm down the lively and free-spirited evening celebrations, which inevitably involved whiskey…at least in Scotland 🙂

She would set a place at the table, which she said was for any visiting souls or ancestors, and before I was bundled off to bed we would sit and try to peel one of our apples in a continual spiral. If we succeeded we would throw it over our shoulder to see what letter it formed….Granny said this was the Initial of our future spouse! It was said to be a good night for reading the tea leaves, to see what the future year would bring.

Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, replaced the earlier pagan name Samhain, but that it’s the same celebration, marking the end of one year and the beginning of the next. Viewed as a time when the veil between the worlds was at its thinnest, otherworldly creatures could roam freely among us, causing mischief and mayhem. The guising which I have described, was to hide the children from the spirits who might do them harm. Most of what we still do at Halloween is to help us survive the spirit infestation of this night. The turnip or pumpkin lanterns long, long ago replaced the ancient skull lamps which kept malevolent forces at bay. Nothing is quite as it seems at Halloween…..

Click here to see a news piece from 201o about the decline of the neep or turnip lantern

Here are some other spooky posts:

The Dare

Another Scottish Halloween


Halloween customs

Cute Halloween photos

And watch my blog to see our halloween neeps…..once we have carved them

About greenmackenzie

Hi, I'm Seonaid, and I share my home on the shores of Loch Ness deep in the Scottish Highlands with my husband, my son and a couple of dogs. I love art which is here now and gone tomorrow...like food and nature...but also have a passion for vintage and the ancient past! Nature is my favourite muse, with her wild ever shifting seasons. I have been using and teaching mindfulness and relaxation for over 12 years, and have yet to become any sort of expert :-) I'm a Psychotherapist and Cancer Support Specialist in Maggies Highlands
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5 Responses to Dark Roots: Memoirs of an Old Scottish Halloween

  1. As a fan of Halloween, I have to tell you that I LOVE the turnip lanterns and THAT is what I’ll do next year (if I can find a suitably sized turnip, that is.) Thanks for checking out my blog. Much appreciated.

  2. Cee Neuner says:

    Thanks so much for the pingback!!!

  3. oxherder says:

    This is a fantastic account! I love it!

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