Samhain Customs in Scotland

The great Celtic fire festival of Oidhche Shamna, or Samhain night, is sadly little remembered or understood by most people living in the modern Celtic lands today. Yet, if you mention ‘Halloween’ then suddenly everyone conjures up images of apple dooking, ghost stories and mischievous children going from house to house with a ‘trick or treat’. Halloween tends to invoke mixed feelings in people, from ridicule at such nonsensical pranks, to a kind of paranoia concerning the ill effects that such ‘glorification’ of ghosts and ghouls can have on our young children. The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere between these two extremes.

The Samhain festival that was observed by our Celtic ancestors bears little resemblance to this Halloween legacy. Nevertheless, there are reasons for everything, and every custom must have had its origins somewhere in our past. In this article I would like to consider a selection of Halloween customs and offer up some possible explanations on their origins from the Celtic festival of Samhain. Despite attempts by the Church from the seventeenth century onwards to stamp out such customs, they continued to be widely practised well into this century, long after their original significance had been forgotten.

Of the four ancient Celtic fire festivals, Samhain held the most significance. It occurred at the start of the winter, when the seasonal powers of darkness, decay and death began to take hold on the land. From observation of the land it became a natural step to reflect on death within human society, and so this time became the Feast of the Dead, the festival held in honour of the ancestors. The Christian church later incorporated many aspects of this ancient Celtic festival into its own Feast of All Souls, or All Hallows Eve.

Honouring the ancestors played an important role in all native religious cultures. It was believed that the world of the spirits and the ancestors could have effects, either beneficially or adversely, on the world of the living. Therefore it was important to keep in contact with the ancestors and maintain good links between the worlds. We can see traces of this belief amongst Celtic peoples well into this century:

“Both in Ireland and in Brittany the belief exists that the souls return after death to visit all the places that they have known in life. The room must not be swept or dusted for fear of throwing out the soul; food should be left for it; but any vessel of water should be kept covered, lest the soul should drown in it. The spirits may be heard carrying on their ordinary occupations, weaving, ploughing or carpentering when they make the circuit of their old dwellings and farms. They must not be spoken to or interfered with; and any passage through the house or farm that they have been accustomed to pass through must never be closed up, otherwise....they will certainly take their revenge.”
[Hull, p.246]

The custom of making a ‘tumpshie’ (turnip) lantern is another interesting legacy from the Celtic Feast of the Dead. The top of a large turnip is first sliced off, and the inside of the turnip is hollowed out. Then a skull-like face is carved into the turnip. When finished, a candle is placed in the centre to give out an eerie light. Nowadays it has become more common to use a pumpkin, but the symbolism of the face of death, of the souls that have passed over to the other side, is still strong.

Samhain was also the Celtic New Year. This time held great symbolic meaning as the threshold between the old and new year. The Celts viewed the world in terms of two opposing forces, one represented by order, logic and light, the other by chaos, primeval instinct and darkness. If we consider how life began on Earth, this is not so far off the mark. Out of a chaotic sea of elements the initial blueprint for all life forms slowly developed.

This threshold time at Samhain was a vulnerable one. As the powers of the dark season gained ascendancy, there was a real fear that the ordered world could be overturned and plunged back into chaos. It was known in some parts of Ireland as oidhche na h-aimiléise, the night of mischief or confusion (Hull). Some of the pranks that we hear of on this night, such as moving farm animals or equipment from one field to another, or pretending to ‘smash’ windows (when in reality it is a bottle) may be viewed as a symbolic re-enactment of this return to chaos.

However, the darkness could be driven back by the power and light of the element of fire, and so we have the Halloween bleeze, or bonfire, being lit on hilltops the length and breadth of the Celtic countries. The physical boundaries of the ordered world could be reaffirmed by carrying burning torches around the farms and homesteads, marking out the boundaries of each township. In Perthshire the Halloween bleeze was made from heath, broom and dressings of flax tied upon a pole. Several of these torches were kindled and carried through the villages.

Fire was also seen as a means of purification and protection from the malevolent forces that were abroad. In ancient times all hearth fires were extinguished at this festival, and relit anew from the great communal bonfire, or teine eigin.

As the threshold time, Samhain was also the night when it was believed that the spirits of the dead and the hosts of the sidhe, the sluagh, were abroad. This was the night when the living world and unseen spirit world were in close proximity, and it was easy to cross over from one world to the other. In the Hebrides, the bier on which a corpse was carried was broken to prevent the sluagh using it to carry away the dead. To venture outside on this night was to risk being ‘taken’ by the sluagh. This probably explains the age-old custom of ‘guising’. The young men of the village would put on grotesque masks, or blacken their faces, before travelling out, to avoid being recognised and ‘taken’ by any of the spirits.

With the barriers between the world of the living and the world of the dead temporarily suspended, it became a time for divination into the future. In ancient times this would no doubt have been the preserve of the druids, and took many forms, but the main concern would have been the destiny of kings, chiefs and nobles. Many of the Halloween customs practised today are clearly a legacy of these early divination practises, though in modern times the main preoccupation seems to have been in order to ascertain the name of a young person’s future spouse.

It is quite striking how many versions of what is essentially the same custom can be found from one area to another. A notable feature of these rural divination rites is the extensive use of natural ingredients for such practises, many of which would have been harvested in the preceding weeks. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of these foods have symbolic associations with Samhain and were highly esteemed by our Celtic ancestors. Apples and nuts are very common, along with eggs, kail, corn and herring, as the following practises demonstrate:

‘Riddling the corn’ - A young person would go to a barn alone at midnight, leaving two opposite doors open. They must stand between the doors and riddle the corn. They would soon see their future spouse entering through one door and going out through the other.

‘Sowing Hemp Seed’ - A young woman sows hemp seed over nine ridges of ploughed land, all the while repeating: “Hemp seed I sow thee, hemp seed I sow thee, and he that is my true love come behind and harrow me”. She must then look back over her left shoulder to see the figure of her future husband. [Guthrie]

‘Pulling the Green Kail’ - young men and women go hand in hand into the garden of an unsuspecting bachelor or spinster, and pull up the first kail stalks they find. If the stalks are healthy and straight, it is a sign that their future spouses will be good looking. But if the stalks are stunted or crooked, with no earth at the roots, the future spouses will be lacking in both looks and fortune. If the stem is sweet to the taste, the temper will be likewise. This custom was very common in Islay, but also in many other regions. In order for it to be effective, though, it was important that the kail stalks be pulled without the knowledge or consent of the owner. This reminds me of the mythological stealing of the cauldron from the Otherworld that we find in Irish legends, for that which sustains us in this world is not given away easily. There is also perhaps the idea of sustenance for the community being ‘common property’, and the right of everyone in that community to have their share.

Another example of the importance of ‘communal’ sustenance can be seen in the custom of eating fuarag. This was a large dish of oatmeal and cream that was made in Barra, South Uist and many of the other Scottish islands at Samhain. The fuarag would be made in a large bowl (in some places mashed potatoes were used instead of cream), and into the bowl would be placed a wedding ring, a sixpence and a button. All the boys and girls would sit round the table, supping with spoons, until all the objects had been found. Whoever got the wedding ring would be the first to get married, while the one who found the sixpence would always have riches. No-one wished to find the button, for this meant that the person would never marry.

There are many Samhain customs which involve the fruit of one of the most sacred of the Celtic trees - apple, as the following shows:

“ the clock strikes twelve, go alone into a room where there is a looking glass. Cut the apple into small pieces, throw one of them over your left shoulder, and advancing to the mirror without looking back, proceed to eat the remainder, combing your hair carefully the while before the glass...the face of the person you are to marry will be seen peeping over your left shoulder.....” [Guthrie, p. 70]

Other versions involve throwing the rind of an apple over your left shoulder. It will fall in the shape of the initial letter of the first name of your future partner.

Another very common practise involving apples is ‘aipple dooking’. You must duck for an apple in a tub of water - not an easy task! When you have your apple, the first name you hear on raising your head from the water will be the name of your future partner.

There are many legends of Otherworld women bearing apples or apple branches to mortals. The apple branch represents poetical inspiration, the seeking of your heart’s desire. King Cormac was given such a branch, with nine apples of red gold on it: “and it is delightful the sound of that branch was, and no one on earth would keep in mind any want, or trouble, or tiredness, when that branch was shaken”. [Lady Gregory, p.107]

As you might expect, customs involving nuts are also common. The hazelnut was especially revered by the Celts as the source of poetic wisdom and knowledge of all arts and sciences. The custom of ‘burning nuts’ involves two nuts being placed in the fire, one is to bear your own name, the other that of the person you love. If the nuts burn quietly side by side then the relationship will be prosperous.

The salmon was revered by the Celts. It was from eating the Salmon of Knowledge that Fionn mac Cumhal gained his wisdom. The salmon has been substituted by the herring in modern Scottish Samhain customs. You must eat a raw or roasted salt herring, in silence, just before going to bed. You will dream of your future partner offering you a drink of water with which to quench your thirst. A similar version is found in the Isle of Man:

“A Manx girl should eat a salt herring, bones and all, without drinking or speaking; she must then retire to bed backwards; in her dreams she will see her future spouse coming to bring her a drink.” [Hull, p. 237]

In the Hebrides, the salt herring may be substituted with the Bonnach Salainn (salt bannock) - a cake made from meal, with a substantial amount of salt added.

Practises involving eggs are also common. ‘Dropping a Pullet’s Egg’ consisted of holding an egg that had been pricked with a pin over a wineglass filled with water, and allowing the white of the egg to drop into the glass. From the shapes that formed in the glass, the ‘guidwife’ could ‘see’ what the future held in store for that person. Certain conditions had to met. Usually the egg had to be the first that had been laid by an eireag (pullet). If the egg sinks, it is a sign of bad luck. Only the white of the egg must fall through; if any of the yellow yolk fell into the glass, this was also a sign of bad luck. In some areas (such as Lewis) the eggs had to stolen in order to be effective, just as in the custom of pulling the kail.

The significance of eggs in Celtic belief is alittle harder to track down, since they don’t make such a notable appearance in ancient myths in the way that apples or hazelnuts do. However, eggs do frequently occur in Scottish Gaelic folklore and tales. In my article on The Sea (Dalriada, Bride 97) I mentioned the well known story of the Maighdean na Mara, or mermaid, in which we learn that the soul of the mermaid is contained within an egg. If the egg gets broken, the mermaid will die. There are other tales of people encountering fairy women, and asking them what virtue there is in the white of an egg. (It is interesting to note that in the Samhain customs, it is only the white of the egg that must be ‘dropped’ into the glass). In every case, the fairy woman will not reveal this closely guarded secret! The ‘secret’, is of course, that the egg is a symbol of Otherworld knowledge. ‘Serpent eggs’ (which were not really eggs at all, but, supposedly, balls of serpent spittle), were highly prized by the druids [McNeil].

There are two more customs that I would like to briefly mention, both of which I personally found very interesting, due to their very obvious connection with ancient Celtic myth.

The first custom is known as ‘Dipping the Shirt Sleeve’. You must go to a stream where three boundaries meet, and dip the left sleeve of your shirt in the water. Without speaking a word, you must then lay out your shirt to dry before the bedroom fire. Go to bed, but stay awake, and wait for the figure of your future partner to enter the room and turn the sleeve so that the other side may get dried. Could this be a legacy of the bean nighe, the Washer at the Ford? In the Tain, she is the Morrigan, washing the cloth of warriors about to die. Perhaps this folk custom once had more sinister associations.

The second custom is called ‘Throwing the Clew’. You go alone at night to a kiln, and throw in a ball or clew of blue thread, then wind it onto a fresh clew. When the thread is almost all wound up, you will feel someone grasping hold of the end of the thread in the kiln. You must ask who is holding it, Wha hauds? or Co e siud th’air mo ropain? and you will hear the name of your future partner pronounced.

This custom reminds me of the legend of the voyage of Bran mac Febal, who journeys across the sea to the Otherworld Land of Women. It is by the thread thrown by one of the women that he manages to go ashore.

‘And they saw the chief one of the women at the landing place, and it is what she said: “Come hither to land, Bran, son of Febal, it is welcome your coming to us”. Then the woman threw a ball of thread straight to him, and he caught it in his hand....and she pulled the curragh to the landing place”. [Lady Gregory, p. 106]

One unfortunate young girl from the Isle of Lewis, when she threw in the thread, and called out who had hold of it, the answer came back: “Is mise, an t’eug caol ‘s glas” - It is I, death, shrunk and livid.[MacLeood-Banks]. The girl died shortly after this event, a cold reminder that for those still living, the Otherworld gateway at Samhain is also the gateway to death.

Lady Gregory. Gods and Fighting Men
Guthrie. Old Scottish Customs
Hull. Folklore of the British Isles
MacLeod-Banks. British Calendar Customs (Scotland)
McNeil, F. M. The Silver Bough

Copyright: 1997 Lorraine MacDonald
[First published in Dalriada magazine, November 1997]