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Scottish Halloween traditions

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The atmospheric Alloway Kirk floodlit at night , Ayrshire.

The eerie Alloway Kirk in Ayrshire, scene of The Witches Dance in Tam O’ Shanter by Robert Burns

Of all the seasonal holidays, Halloween is one of my favourites. It might not have the spiritual significance or inspire the same giddy expectation 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 array of haunted castles, peculiar superstitions and occasionally morbid history, it’s not surprising that Halloween first took root here.


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 (Samhuinn in Gaelic), 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.

Samhuinn Fire Festival 2012, Edinburgh à Klara Osickova ***** VisitScotland use only *******

Samhuinn Fire Festival, Edinburgh | © Klara Osickova


Here are some other old fashioned Halloween traditions from Scotland that you might want to incorporate into your own festivities this year:

Fires and ‘neeps lanterns’  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.

Carved turnip lanterns

Carved turnip lanterns

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 with 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 a 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.

Apple dooking

Apple dookin’

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.

Check out the graphic below for some more unique Halloween traditions to inspire you this year.

Infographic Halloween;ofh

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.


  • 55 North Photography

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

    • Marissa G

      If you look up the Witchcraft Act of 1735, there is no mention of pork. But, my guess is because back then, for some people, eating pork was a sin (It still is in some religions). And maybe for the Scots, it was only a sin on Halloween. And so if you were to eat pork, people would perhaps have the right to assume you were evil or practiced witchcraft.

    • kibblecross

      They weren’t, it’s nonsense (and by the way, content editor, the past tense of “forbid” is “forbade”!) However, for some reason, pigs are traditionally viewed as unlucky in the Highlands, even associated with the devil. Maybe that’s something to do with how this bizarre factoid crept in.

  • Kathleen Gallagher

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

  • me


  • me

    Worst information/ All lies!!!!

  • Lorraine Thomson

    ‘Trick or treat’ is an American invention! ‘Please to help the guisers’ is what we in Scotland said. Hallowe’en has, unfortunately, been taken over by commerce. It was once a cosy festival for the children in the family. Toffee apples and dooking for apples and nuts were the main attractions.

    • DylanFest Moville

      Trick or treating stems from the Middle Ages – well before America was discovered.

      • Hugh Bowman

        And your evidence?

        Growing up in 50s Scotland, I went out “guisin'”. “Trick or treat” was quite unknown.

        NB the festival was never celebrated in England – they got their Halloween from the US.

    • Hugh Bowman

      Indeed. Fruit & nuts – and no sweeties. If only it were so easy today to get some fruit and nuts into children!

  • Stuart Glass

    trick or treat sounds better than GUISIN what even is that word all about?

    • Hank Immortal

      Read what it says: “children would literally disguise themselves as evil spirits”. Can you see a word in there that has a similar sound to guiser (sounds like “guys are”)? Think.

      • Hugh Bowman

        “Guisin'” is, of course “[dis]guising”.

        This is not connected with “penny for the guy”, where the “guy” is a shortened version of the name Guido, as in Guido Fawkes.

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