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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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!