Gaelic and Celtic Customs
from the Hebrides and Beyond

Fada's Farsaing (Far and Wide) is a series of articles by Liam O Caiside in English but with Gaelic words and phrases interwoven in the text. The articles describe a wide range of Gaelic and Celtic customs. These pages were originally published in the "Scottish Radiance" e-magazine and have been reproduced here with the kind permission of the Scottish Radiance editor, Sharma Krauskopf.

Hallowmas / Halloween

This was the celebration of the beginning of winter known in the time of the Druids as 'Samhain', a corruption of 'Sainfuin' - sain (summer) and fuin (ending) = summer's end.

Originally the Romans celebrated their Ferralia, in February. They visited the graves of their relatives to offer up prayers and sacrifices were made at bonfires. In 993 A.D. the Christian Church decided to change this to November the second and converted it into All Souls Day.

The Druids were supposed to believe that the Lord of Death gathered all the spirits of the dead who had been made to enter the bodies of animals as punishment for their sins and redistributed them, on Hallowe 'en, the last day of the Celtic year.

It was also believed that the spirits of the dead came back to their old haunts at this time. Fires were lit to guide them home and to frighten away evil spirits. The dead were offered food and drink - a custom now followed by children guising. The Christian Church then named this All Hallow's Eve and the day following, All Saints Day but the old customs remained. These often conjured up witches and ghosts in the minds of those participating and unnerved the more sensitive souls who, carried away by their own imagination, told amazing tales of what they thought they had seen. It was a chance for the mischievous to play tricks.

Hallowe'en, the poem by Robert Burns, gives a vivid description of the majority of the rites which were common to most of Scotland on that bewitching night. Under pressure from the kirk elders of the Church of Scotland men were punished by the kirk for dressing up or taking part in some of the divination rituals and through time these customs were abandoned and left, in a watered-down fashion, for the children to carry on.


Fire of Peace
The original fire which was lit by friction; using no metal, was a fire for sacrifices to the sun god as a thanksgiving for a good harvest. It was called the fire of peace.

Home fires

At one time, as recorded in Glenlyon in 1882, every house lit its own bonfire in front of the door. Bracken or heather torches were lit from this fire and the family walked in procession --headed by the father, mother, and each child in order of age plus any other relatives living there - three times sunwise around the house, carrying this torch in their right hand, to protect the house and family, including the livestock, from the evil eye, illness or death. After this they threw the torches into a heap and started a bonfire around which they danced. Queen Victoria took part in this ceremony at Balmoral. (Graphic of a bonfire is via Wikimedia)

A farmer sometimes accompanied by his herds would circle the boundaries of each field to ensure prosperity for the oncoming year. This was a throw-back to the calendar of the Druids who considered that Samhain was the first day of the new year.

In Paisley boys built bonfires on pockets of land in the little 'islands' in the middle of the White Cart River to chase away the witches. (graphic of island in the White Cart at Paisley by Thomas Nugent via wikimedia).

Herdsmen, waiting to be paid at the Martinmas fairs, sang a traditional song on All Hallow's Day as as they scattered the ashes of the Hallowe'en fire.

This is Hallaeven
The morn is Halladay
Nine free nichts till Martinmas
As soon they'll wear away.

Ristin' the Hallow fire
Stones were buried in the ashes of the fire. These were marked, as on other occasions, so that they could be identified by their owners. When the fire was smoored the stones were examined for omens.

Wild behaviour
The young farmworkers, often through too much drink, became wild and enjoyed leaping over the fire and chasing each other with the lighted brands. However, on occasions, there were complaints that they did damage to property with their wild behaviour, setting stooks on fire and scattering them about.

The old customs. . . have now become almost obsolete, and the sooner they disappear altogether the better it will be for the peace of the community in general, if what took place in Campbeltown on Tuesday night is a specimen of the proper thing to do on such occasions. A noisy band of youths ran howling and screaming through the quieter streets, smashing every door they came to with sticks and stones, whereby the peaceably disposed inhabitants were very considerably alarmed and disturbed.
Campbeltown Courier, November 1882

Black Mass
There were supernatural associations with Hallowe'en. It was thought to be the most dangerous time when a crack would appear between this world and the other-world. (graphic below of Black Mass via Wikimedia)

Further on there stands a kirk, sinister and grim
Like the empty shell of man when life is leaving him.
Shadows hover in the porch and the place is cursed;
By the door an image hangs, a crucifix reversed.
Cobwebs drape the rotting pews; thick upon the wall
Whispering bats and spiders swing; sleepy blowflies crawl.
Fear and silence fill the church, such as ghosts inspire -
Yes, I swear that something moved in the darkness by the choir.

Close to the crumbling altar rail the grisly figure stands
And holds a book in shadow claws that once were human hands,
The pews are filled with crouching men, lit by the ragged moon,
The organ groans an anthem dim, a tune that is no tune.
Far through the night a human cry echoes in terror wild;
The cry is of an aged man, it issues from a child,
And down the aisle six votaries in slow procession stalk;
Their foot is silent and they leave no footstep as they walk.
Legends of the Scottish Borders
, Francis MerriIees, 1947

Turnips have always featured at Hallowe'en, possibly because of their availability. In the United States of America the pumpkin serves the same purpose. (Picture of turnip lantern via Wikimedia).

The inside of a turnip is scooped out until only the thinnest skin is left. Two eyes, a nose and a mouth are cut out to make a face as gruesome as possible. Straw or twine is placed on either side of the face to make a handle for carrying it. A small candle is placed at the bottom and, when lit, it gives a yellow glow to frighten away the evil spirits. Ghouls, goblins and strange beasties were believed to move around freely that night.

In Lewis, the boys carried turnips and cut wands from rowan. They challenged each other to a fight - the winner was the one who snatched away the turnip.

A false face, usually depicting a ghost, devil or witch, was originally worn so that the real identity would be hidden and the person would blend in with the evil spirits who were abroad; This allowed the adult, as this was an adult festival in the past and not only for children, to roam the streets or cross the fields unmolested by the spirits.

These were rough hatchet-shaped stones found in rivers, usually worn down by friction. They were hung up in the stable on Hallowe'en to prevent the horses from being ridden by an old hag, a witch called The Mare.

Food and drink
Fruit and nuts
The use of fruits and nuts comes from the Roman Festival of 'Pomona', dedicated to the goddess of fruit trees. These, especially apples, chestnuts and peanuts, are still popular at Hallowe'en.

Dooking (Ducking / Bobbing) for Apples

The apples were placed in a basin of water and each person in turn tried to lift one out with their teeth or else drop a fork from their mouth to spear an apple as the fruit was stirred round to make the task more difficult. This was usually done kneeling over the back of a wooden chair. (Graphic of apple dooking via Wikimedia).

Tatties and neeps
The turnip, removed from the inside of its skin, is boiled and pepper and salt and butter are mixed in as it is mashed. It is served with mashed potatoes. At one time trinkets were hidden in the mixture.

This potato dish was always a favourite. It is potatoes cooked with onions, usually in dripping and in some places pieces of meat or sausages are added. Trinkets were often put into this mixture. The picture of stovies here is from Wikimedia.

Cheese pudding
A sort of souffle made with eggs, bread, cheese and milk.

Broken bannocks and blessings
It was considered very bad luck if an oatcake or bannock should break on a saint's day. The left-over meal was placed in a stocking and sprinkled over the sheep with a blessing to protect them against the evil eye.

Treacle scones
These scones or even pancakes spread with treacle were hung from a beam or pulley by a cord and everyone had to try to take a bite as it was swung.

Divination - Salted herring
In Lewis it was customary to eat salted herring on Hallowe'en in the hope that a future spouse would appear that night in a dream.

Divination - Hot lead
Molten lead was dropped through the hole at the top of a key and whatever shape it made was interpreted to be a tool of the trade of a future spouse.

Divination - Straws
Two straws were stood upright in the ashes of the fire. They were named for a couple. If they burned at the same pace the couple would marry and live in harmony. If not, their marriage would be stormy.

Divination - Lucky dip
A bowl of oatmeal and cream was made and the girl rolled up her sleeve and plunged in her hand hoping to find a trinket - a thimble, ring, button or silver threepenny. Eggs, apples, nuts, bowls filled with water and soot, and even herring fat were used to discover a future spouse.

Divination - Harrows
Three harrows were lined up outside a barn at midnight. One young man was blindfolded and passed back and forth through the harrows then pushed through the barn window. He waited there alone and on hearing a noise or a voice he removed the blindfold. He must never reveal what he saw or heard or he would die.

Divination - Kail stocks
The company set off for a field where they were blindfolded and moved across as they pulled kail stalks. These were pulled after dark. If the stalk was crooked or straight, long or short this would be the stature of their future spouse. Sometimes a lad and lass who were courting held hands and pulled a kail stalk together. If it had plenty of good rich earth around its roots their future would be prosperous. Graphic here is of a field of kail by Philip Halling via Wikimedia

Divination - Oat stalks
Girls would gather oat stalks and count the number of seeds to find out how many children they would bear. Each seed equalled a child.

Divination - Blue clue
After a ritual selection by the time honoured 'you are out' rhyme or by drawing the short straw, a girl was chosen to go alone to a dark, lonely corn kiln, climb to the upper ridge of the kiln-logie, and wait there in darkness. The girl let down a long thread and asked, 'Wha hauds?' The answer was supposed to be the name of her future spouse.

She thro' the yard the nearest taks,
An' to the kiln she goes then,
An' darklins grapit for the bauks,
And in the blue clue throws then,
Right fear't that night.
An' ay she win't, an ay she swat,
I wat she made nae jaukin;
Till something held within the pat,
Guid Lord! but she was quaukin!
But whether 'twas the Deil himsel,
Or whether 'twas a bauk-en',
Or whether it was Andrew Bell,
She did na wait on taihin
To speir that night.
RobertBurns, 1786

Divination - Nuts
Sweethearts placed a pair of nuts on the fire. If they burned quietly they would have a happy marriage but if they sparked it would be a fiery one. Boys, in Galloway, collected wrackboxes which clung to seaweed. They would add a peat to the fire, especially if the nuts were for their brother or sister, and underneath it they placed these boxes. When they exploded the unfortunate couple believed that it was the nuts and that their union was doomed until they were let into the secret. The graphic of hazelnuts is via Wikimedia

Divination - Tricks
Doors were battered with kail-staiks and window rapping was practised as well as more inconvenient tricks such as placing a divot on a chimney which made the smoke blow back into the house. Hollow stalks of seawrack were also used to blow smoke through letter boxes of houses in the nineteenth century.

In Scotland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, witches were not vague supernatural beings. Intelligent and educated people, including ministers of the Church of Scotland, believed implicitly in their existence and that they were minions of the Devil. Many women and a few men were put to death for imagined deeds. The Hallowe'en witch, however, was older than these and was synonymous with the Blue Hag of Winter. St Bride held sway throughout the spring and summer months but in autumn she was overcome by the old 'Cailleach' who devastated the land and who imprisoned her within Ben Nevis.

It is this traditional witch with her black cat and broomstick who appears on cakes and decorations and whom children impersonate at fancy -dress parties. Graphic via Wikimedia.

Fun and frolic still are rampant,
Lanterns, guisers, aye are seen;
Baith in country and in city,
There's honour paid to Hallowe 'en
Melodies and Memories
, John Black. 1909

Source: Scottish Festivals by Sheila Livingstone

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