How Scotland invented Halloween

Scotland played a central role in developing Halloween. Pic: Jon Savage/TSPL
Scotland played a central role in developing Halloween. Pic: Jon Savage/TSPL
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IT SOUNDS like a bold claim to make, but evidence suggests that, if not for Scotland, Halloween would not exist – at least not as the world knows it.

In medieval times, the 31st of October was the last day of the old Celtic calendar. Scots druids referred to it as Samhuinn, a term which loosely translates as ‘summer’s end’. For comparison, the Scottish Gaelic for November is An t-Samhain.

It is believed that ‘Halloween’, a Scottish contraction of All Hallows’ Eve (All Saints Day) first entered common parlance in Scotland in 1745.

At this time of year, when the days were at their shortest, it was thought that the ethereal boundaries which prevented faeries, witches, bad spirits, and the tortured souls of the undead from roaming freely in the real world were breached. A place at the table with food and drink was reserved at night for any would-be spectral visitors from the underworld.

Ritual fires burned during the festivities to ward away evil and ensure that the sun would return in spring.

Early version of pumpkins first appeared in Scotland and Ireland during the 19th century. They were known as “tattie bogles” or “potato ghosts”, ghoul-like faces carved from potatoes and turnips – not a million miles away from modern-day pumpkins.

Although he was not the first to describe the festival in print, Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, is credited with popularising the concept of Halloween and the supernatural themes surrounding it. His poem ‘Halloween’, one of Burns’ longest, was published in 1786 and explores many of the festival’s eeriest stories and traditions. One of the lines, “what fearfu’ pranks ensue!”, makes mention of practical jokes at Halloween.

The tradition of ‘dookin’’ for apples, where children (and some adults) attempt to retrieve apples from a water-filled basin using only their mouths is thought to be a reference back to the days of the druids. In ancient druid lore, apples are one of the fruits held most sacred.

Another Scots’ ‘invention’ associated with Halloween is the globally-recognised custom of trick-or-treating. Until recent times, this was known exlusively in Scotland as ‘guising’, gaining popularity from the late 18th century onwards. Children would disguise themselves as ghosts and evil spirits in a bid to blend in with the free-roaming undead. Simple treats, such as fruit and nuts, would be offered in return for a song or performance at a person’s door.

Today, the guising tradition continues, though most kids would be disappointed to receive a bag of monkey nuts in lieu of a handful of dosh.

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