It’s almost upon us. That most Scottish of warding traditions, which, having crossed the Atlantic, has returned, a wee bit sullied, yet nonetheless popular.
Marking the end of the summer and the beginning of winter, the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was considered sundered on the night before the Feast of All Saints; effectively allowing the dead to walk among the living. It was also a night on which the “people of the air” (the fairy folk) held a great conventical, and it was, therefore, just as important to avoid causing offence to the Fey on Halloween as it was to exorcise the spirits of the dead.
As protection against any evil abroad, bonfires were traditionally lit. All hearth fires were extinguished and then relit from that communal bonfire. Lanterns, carved from a turnip, were used to keep wandering spirits away from the home (the ease of utilising a pumpkin for the same purpose loses something through lack of effort expended to keep evil out!)
Guising, by which children dressed up and pretended to be evil spirits; effectively allowing them to move, unmolested, among any actual spirits abroad. Visiting neighbouring houses thus disguised, the child would receive an offering in order to keep evil from the house.
As a festival marking harvest end, Halloween was largely a rural tradition, which included many elements, now largely forgotten, of using the potential of the night to divine future happiness, or otherwise; particularly by those (both male and female) yet to be wed, by means of various charms and spells. It was a night of much merriment, with many a tryst…
One unusual custom, usually conducted early in the night, was for courting couples to enter a kale field with their eyes closed, hand in hand. The first plant they encountered was pulled from the ground. The characteristics of the plant they chose; size (big or small), shape (straight or crooked), the girth of the main stem (or lack thereof); was considered indicative of what the young lady should expect on their marriage night. In addition, the amount of dirt adhering to the rootball reflected the financial fortunes of the match and the taste of the heart gave a clue to the disposition and natural temper of their partner in marriage.
The night then continued with a visit to the barn where the young ladies would pull three random stalks of oat from the stack. If the third stalk was missing the grain at the top of the stalk, then they were destined to enter the marriage bed “un-maided” beforehand; a “prophecy” no doubt often abused to the young man’s advantage that very night!
A favourite charm, whilst sitting around the fire, was for sweethearts to place a pair of hazelnuts together on the fire. Whether the nuts burned quietly together, or “spat” apart in the heat, was considered a reflection of the future path of their courtship.
Young ladies, sweet on a young man who showed her no attention, could slip out alone to the dying embers of the communal fire to cast a spell to divine whether he would ever turn his head. Throwing a bolt of blue yarn into the embers, she would wind the yarn back out of the ashes. Should the other end be caught on something she could demand (of whatever “spirit” held the other end of the yarn) the name of her future spouse.
Another way of divining a future spouse was that of “eating an apple at the glass.” Again, this was done alone, with a candle in front of a mirror. By eating the apple whilst combing her hair, it was believed that the face of her future spouse would appear in the mirror as if peering over her shoulder.
Indeed, many of the spells cast that night were devised for this purpose and involved a variety of props; ranging from hemp seeds (cast with the words “I sow thee, I sow thee, and him (or her) that is to be my true love, show me!” at which point the individual was to look over their left shoulder to see a vision of their future spouse); through carrying out the actions of “winnowing nothing” (three times) in the barn to see an apparition, and an indication of their station, of a future spouse pass through the barn; to traversing thrice round a barley stack in order to catch a vision of a future spouse in your arms. All of these spells had to be carried out alone to be successful.
Some spells were considered “social spells” and were often quite complex.
One such, the last of the night, involved dipping a left shirt sleeve into a south running spring, rising at the junction of three properties. The diviner then had to go to bed in sight of the fire, in front of which the wet sleeve had been hung to dry. At some time near midnight, an apparition of the future spouse would appear and turn the sleeve to dry the other side.
One of the most detailed involved three dishes; one filled with clean water, one with foul water, and the final left empty. The dishes were arranged in front of the hearth and the blindfolded person was led to them. They were then invited to dip their left hand in one of the dishes. If they by chance dipped in the clean water, their future (husband or) wife would come to the marriage unsullied; dipping into the foul water indicated their spouse would be a widow(er). If the empty dish was chosen then they would remain unmarried. This divination was completed three times, with the arrangement of the dishes changed each time.
As rural populations migrated to towns and cities, the folk traditions of the young adults fairly quickly disappeared. Little could remain beyond the children’s dress-up, the bonfires, and the lanterns.
This summary of lowland Scots traditions largely gleaned from Robert Burns’ “Hallowe’en”, one of his longest works, which contains in the introductory notes of the 1786 “Kilmarnock Edition” a clear indication that even by 1785, when he was writing, that many of the traditions were no longer generally considered.
“The following poem will, by many readers, be well enough understood; but for the sake of those who are unacquainted with the manners and traditions of the country where the scene is cast, notes are added to give some account of the principal charms and spells of that night, so big with prophecy to the peasantry in the west of Scotland. The passion of prying into futurity makes a striking part of the history of human nature in its rude state, in all ages and nations; and it may be some entertainment to a philosophic mind, if any such honour the author with a perusal, to see the remains of it among the more unenlightened in our own.-R.B.”
The full poem (along with a handy translation for the non-Scots speakers) can be read here.