Halloween’s Scottish roots


Of all the seasonal holidays, Halloween is one of my favourites. It might not have same aura of giddy expectation or spiritual significance as Christmas, but there’s just something about its macabre theatricality which never fails to bring out the big kid in me.

Massively popular in the United States and celebrated to a lesser extent in the UK and other countries in various ‘guises’ - excuse the pun – people are often unaware of the celebration’s strong Scottish connections. With its atmospheric landscape and surfeit of haunted castles, peculiar superstitions and occasionally morbid history, it’s not surprising that Halloween first took root here. Just take a look at the third and final instalments in our fantastic series of ‘Spooky Scotland’ vines:

Halloween or Hallowe’en takes its name from All Hallows’ Eve, the night before the Christian festival of All Hallows or All Saints Day. But it’s possible to trace its beginnings back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain or Samhuinn, held on 1 November, which marked the culmination of summer and the harvest period with the onset of winter. Robert Burns’ 1785 poem ‘Halloween’ details many of the national customs and legends surrounding the festival, many of them pagan in origin, which had persisted even with the advent of Christianity.

One of the most enduring of these was the Celtic belief that it marked a time when the boundary between the living and the spirit worlds was at its most tenuous, and that the ghosts of dead, including supernatural beings such as witches and warlocks, would be able to walk the earth for this one night of the year. To ward off potentially malevolent entities, large bonfires were lit in communities and it is believed that this practice survives today in the tradition of carving pumpkin lanterns with creepy grimaces. While the use of pumpkins is actually an American invention, in Scotland it has been custom to carve lanterns out of ‘neeps’ or turnips. Here are some other old fashioned Halloween traditions from Scotland that you might want to incorporate into your own festivities this year:

Guising or ‘galoshin’ – instead of trick-or-treating, children would literally disguise themselves as evil spirits by blackening their faces and dressing in old clothes to go guising. According to folklore, this was so that they could venture out safely without being detected by wicked ghouls. Guisers also couldn’t simply knock on the doors of their neighbours yelling ‘trick-or-treat’ and expect sweets in return. They had to perform a ‘trick’ first by reciting a song, poem or joke before being rewarded in goodies

Dookin’ for apples – a staple of children’s Halloween parties across the country, this time-honoured game involves trying to grab apples floating in tub of water using your mouth with your hands tied behind your back. If you want to up the stakes have a go at catching them with a fork

Treacle scones – once again with your hands tied, this messy game challenges participants to take a bite out of treacle covered scones hanging from ropes

Nut burning – recently engaged? Find out if you and your beloved will live happily ever after. Toss a nut each into an open fire. If they quietly smolder amongst the flames your union will be a good one, but if they hiss and crackle you could be in for a bumpy ride!

Sausage rolls – the Witchcraft Act of 1735 forbid the consumption of pork pastries on Halloween. It wasn’t repealed until the 1950s and since then sausage rolls have been a popular treat at Halloween parties and gatherings

As carved pumpkins quickly replace turnips and increasing numbers of children turn up at peoples’ doors yelling ‘trick-or-treat’ without expecting to sing for their supper, the old Scottish traditions of Halloween may be waning, but I can’t think of a more perfect place to celebrate this spookiest of holidays.

Are you all set for Halloween this year or have anything special in store for your little ghosts and monsters? Let us know in the comments below or take a look at our helpful round-up of spooky family-friendly events and activities to see if there’s something happening near you.

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Sarah Clark

Media Editor
Sarah originally hails from West Lothian. When not extolling the virtues of Scotland, she enjoys discovering new places, watching classic movies, and getting lost in a good book.
  • 55 North Photography

    Lots of great information, but why were pork pastries forbidden on Halloween?

  • Kathleen Gallagher

    on the eve of all Saints day,.. some children will dress as their fave. Saint