Turnips, Treacle, and Burning Effigies: A Scottish Halloween

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As a child Robert Burns was regaled with spooky folk tales of monsters, ghosts, and witches by Betty Davidson, a friend of the family who lived with them in Burns Cottage. It is believed that he wrote Tam O’ Shanter inspired by the tales she told, while in other poems, such as Halloween or Address to the De’il, he showed his love of Scotland’s darker beliefs and traditions. Below we have listed 5 old Scottish Halloween traditions to introduce to the type of Halloween Burns would have enjoyed in his time.

www.marthastewart.com has a tutorial on how to create these traditional Halloween lantens.
http://www.marthastewart.com has a tutorial on how to create these traditional Halloween lantens.

1) Turnip Lanterns

Before pumpkins became popular, the people of Scotland made their Halloween lanterns out of turnips! These were called ‘neep lanterns’ and are just as spooky to look as the ones we make today and have the same intended function of scaring away evil spirits. One advantage about using turnip, though, is that they are lighter and easier to carry as you go out guising on Halloween night! However a disadvantage is that the turnip is harder to hollow out than pumpkin, and we don’t think neep pie would be as tasty as pumpkin pie!

This engraving shows couples throwing their nuts in the fire. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween_(poem)
This engraving shows couples throwing their nuts in the fire.
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween_(poem)

2) Bonfires

Lights in the shape of lanterns and bonfires were all used to scare away the spirits that rise on All Hallow’s Eve. But where does the word ‘bonfire’ come from? Apparently it comes from the times when animal bones would be gotten rid of by burning them in a fire and the word is recorded quite frequently in Middle English. Of course, now we associate them most closely with Guy Fawkes Night, but bonfires often took place in the winter when the nights were dark. On Halloween night couples would throw nuts into these fires. If the nuts burned silently then the relationship would be smooth but, if the nuts hissed or spat, then the relationship would be a rocky one! Burns mentions this tradition in his poem, Halloween:

The auld guid-wife’s weel-hoordit nits
Are round an’ round dividend,
An’ mony lads an’ lasses’ fates
Are there that night decided:
Some kindle couthie side by side,
And burn thegither trimly;
Some start awa wi’ saucy pride,
An’ jump out owre the chimlie
Fu’ high that night.

As this woodcut from the North Berwick witch trials of 1590 show, that witches were a very real thing to people in old Scotland.
As this woodcut from the North Berwick witch trials of 1590 show, that witches were a very real thing to people in old Scotland. Source: http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/unioncrownsparliaments/northberwickwwitchtrials/index.as

3) Burning of the Shandy Dan

In addition to the bonfire, there would also be the burning of an effigy, just as we still do on Guy Fawkes Night. However, instead of a Guy, a ‘Shandy Dan’ was burnt. This was the word used to describe an effigy of a witch!

The Glasgow Women's Library had a go at this in 2007! Source: http://womenslibrary.org.uk/2007/11/08/mucky-pups/
The Glasgow Women’s Library had a go at this in 2007!
Source: http://womenslibrary.org.uk/2007/11/08/mucky-pups/

4) Treacle scones

You have probably all, at some point, taken part in apple dookin’ – the art of grabbing an apple with your teeth while your hands are tied! The activity with the treacle scones is similar. The scones are covered in treacle and are then placed hanging on a rope. The children, once their hands are tied and their eyes blindfolded, must try and get the scones down from the line using their teeth. One added devilish trick on the adult’s part was to jangle the line up and down while they tried!

A recipe for these Halloween cakes can be found here: http://www.yourculinaryworld.com/leading-stories/2013/10/28/soul-cakes-are-the-perfect-halloween-treat-for-the-black-hat.html
A recipe for these Halloween cakes can be found here:
http://www.yourculinaryworld.com/leading-stories/2013/10/28/soul-cakes-are-the-perfect-halloween-treat-for-the-black-hat.html

5) Dirge Loaves

Another tradition connected to this time of the year were Dirge Loaves (or Soul Cakes in England). These were connected to the All Saints Day traditions (the day following Halloween) and were usually made with ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. These were handed out to children as they visited each house in the neighbourhood, supposedly offering up a prayer in memory to Jesus and his disciples. It is thought that this activity inspired, or is connected to, the tradition of guising on Halloween night. Although this was a catholic tradition originally, it was kept up in many regions regardless of denomination.

Do any of these traditions interest you? Ever carved a turnip or grabbed a treacle scone with your teeth? Let us know!

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6 thoughts on “Turnips, Treacle, and Burning Effigies: A Scottish Halloween

    […] and traditions associated with its celebration in Scotland. Please head to their blog by clicking here to read about Turnips, Treacle, and Burning Effigies: A Scottish […]

    Margaret MacArthur said:
    October 31, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    Whoever wrote this obviously knows very little about recent traditional Hallowe’en celebrations in Scotland. Writing an exclamation mark after making lanterns from turnips makes this sound like some weird activity from long ago, whereas some people still make traditional tumshie lanterns. I personally have never made a pumpkin lantern & I never shall. I loved Hallowe’en as a child in the fifties & sixties but for me it has been spoiled by the Americanised version that has been forced on us by the influence of television & supermarkets.

      robertburnsnts responded:
      November 4, 2015 at 4:30 pm

      Hello,

      Some of our members of staff who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s recall making tumshie lanterns and putting treacle scones on a line, however, this was written to introduce these concepts to a generation brought up with the very Americanised Halloween that you describe. We hope that, after reading this blog, people might be inspired to bring some of these tradtions back and have a go themselves!

    […] Source: Turnips, Treacle, and Burning Effigies: A Scottish Halloween […]

    James Osborne said:
    November 1, 2015 at 2:58 am

    Thanks for sharing!

    Bob Howie said:
    November 1, 2015 at 11:02 am

    I remember guising as a boy, ducking for apples, much better than the American trick or treating where kids just expect to get something for nothing but that is the American way.

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