The origins of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (summer’s end), celebrating the end of summer and the harvest. It also marked the start of a new Celtic year and the start of winter. Also known as ‘An t-Samhain’, it is believed that ‘Halloween’ comes from a Scots contraction of All Hallows’ Eve (All Saints Day).
At this time, when the days are short, the boundary between the world of the living and spirit world is said to be at its thinnest. These boundaries which normally prevented faeries, witches, bad spirits, and the tortured souls of the undead from roaming freely in the real world were capable of being breached.
Thus Samhain, the night of 31st October, was one of the times that you might come across the Scottish baobhan sith (pronounced baa’-van shee), also known as the ‘White Woman of the Highlands’ – a blood drinking fairie with vampire tendencies. This may have influenced Diana Gabaldon’s characterisation of Claire as ‘La Dame Blanche’ – ‘The White Lady’, another European medieval folklore. The White Lady is said to help or hinder those who encounter them. “She is called a wise woman, a healer. And yet… she sees to the centre of a man, and can turn his soul to ashes, if evil be found there” explains the butler to Claire in Diana Gabaldon’s novel Dragonfly in Amber.
Large bonfires or ‘Hallow Fires’ were lit in each village on Samhain (or Samhuinn) in order to ward off any evil spirits. A according to McPherson’s ‘Primitive Beliefs in the North East of Scotland’, published in 1929, fires were generally lit on high points of the landscape far from homes and steadings and were seen an attack on the ‘powers of darkness’ at a time of shortenings days and weakened sun.
There are many traditions associated with Samhain. It was traditional to slaughter animals for winter food provisions. The sprinkling of blood from a slaughtered animal – usually a rooster, goose or sheep – onto the threshold of your house (on 11th November) is an Irish tradition – an offering to St Martin. Up until the 19th century, this was one of the great feast days of the Church – as important as Christmas – decreed so by Pope Martin 1 in the seventh century.
All house fires were put out and new fires lit from these great bonfires. This led to the more modern tradition of ‘neep lanterns’ (turnip lanterns), which are also supposed to ward off evil spirits. The American influence on this tradition resulted in pumpkin lanterns.
A common Halloween tradition was for an engaged couple to each put a nut on the fire. If the nuts burned quietly then the marriage would be happy, however if the nuts spat and hissed then the marriage would be stormy.
Until recently, ‘trick or treat’ was unknown in Scotland. Instead, children dressed up and pretended to be evil spirits and went ‘guising’ (or ‘galoshin’). The custom traces back to a time when it was thought that by disguising children in this way they would blend in with the spirits that were abroad that night. Children arriving at a house so ‘disguised’ would receive an offering to ward off evil.
The Witchcraft Act of 1735 contained a clause preventing the consumption of pork and pastry comestibles on Halloween. The act was however repealed in the 1950s so it is now legal to also offer pork pies or sausage rolls to children as treats!
‘Dookin’ for apples’ is a Halloween party game which involves taking an apple floating in a basin of water without using your hands, either by spearing it with a fork held in your teeth or by biting it. This is another Halloween tradition with its roots in pagan times. The origin of bobbing for apples stems back to the ancient Celts who held apples as sacred.
The Samhuinn Festival in Edinburgh is an annual event marking the Celtic New Year. Presented by the Beltane Society, the event features a spectacular procession of fire, music, dancing, theatre and fireworks and takes place along Edinburgh‘s famous Royal Mile.
Other traditions of Samhain include:
• Folk would walk the circuit of their fields with burning torches on Halloween to ward off evil and ensure fertile land for the following year.
• Burning suspected witches – feared to be at full power at this time. Boys would go door-to-door asking for peat to burn the witch.
• The Celtic water spirit Shoney was gifted a pot of ale on Halloween to bestow blessings on the local fisherman.
• Pulling the kail castoc – or cabbage stalks, which were used to read fortunes and for other localised customs.
Many of these customs were immortalised in the writing of Robert Burns. His poem ‘Halloween’, one of Burns’ longest, was published in 1786 and explores many of the festival’s eeriest stories and traditions.
In the very first episode of Outlander, Frank and Claire arrive before dawn on Samhain to watch the Druid dancers perform their secretive and mystical dance at the stone circle at Craigh na Dun.
Perhaps this ‘liminal’ portal to spirit world explains why we may have witnessed the ghost of Jamie Fraser on that wet evening in old Inverness. Who knows…?
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