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Stories from the Scotsman
Folklore in the guise of good fun


IT’S that time of year again. Suddenly days are shorter, shops are stuffed with skull and witch masks, and animals quiver at cracking fireworks. Then tonight it all comes to a head: we carve zigzag smiles in pumpkins and go to costumed parties, while at our doors kids demanding "trick or treat" are sent away with coins or sweeties, for fear of nasty reprisals.

But who really knows what it’s all about? Why do we remember the dead and things that go bump in the night at Hallowe’en? Why do we dress as witches, set off fireworks and go "trick or treating"?

To understand the festival’s origins, we must revisit times when humans had a stronger connection with nature. Nowadays, the majority of us live in cities where we notice the passing seasons in terms of the amount of clothes we have to put on, whether the car starts first go, how little sunshine we’ve had. But when most folk kept cattle and grew crops to feed their families, the changing seasons meant a great deal more to them.

In Scotland, many folk traditions date back to our pre-Christian Celtic ancestors. Late October was known as "Samhuinn", meaning "Summer’s end" in Gaelic, the time of the "Little Sun" when the seven stars called the Pleiades rise at sunset and summer goes to its rest. By then the harvest was in, plants and berries gathered from the hedgerows, and cattle driven back to winter in the villages. So people would unite to celebrate with feasting and fires.

Samhuinn contrasted with the festival of Beltane six months earlier in the year when folk celebrated the return of the "Big Sun" and the Earth’s fertility. At Beltane, two fires would be lit and cattle driven between them out to fresh pastures. This had the purpose of purifying them, because fire was sacred to the Celts.

AT both Beltane and Samhuinn, ritual "neid fires" were also made. This involved the extinguishing of all the villagers’ hearth fires. Two special sticks were rubbed together to make glowing friction dust, which was placed in dry tinder to raise sacred fire. From this neid fire, hot embers - "clavies" - were then taken to relight all the hearth fires.

Like many people who live close to nature’s rhythms, the Celts also had an animistic attitude to the world. So they found spirits inhabiting trees, waterfalls and rocks around them. These spirits later took on the forms of giants, hags and faeries, said to dwell in faery mounds or hills.

In Celtic myth, two kinds of faery exist: "seelies", mischievous, but good-natured, and the malevolent "unseelies" who fly through the sky in dark clouds. In later Christian Celtic mythology, the spirits of the unforgiven dead were also said to reside with unseelies.

Mortals rarely see faeries, but at the threshold between seasons, the veil is believed to be thin. Perhaps mimicking the cattle-droving move at Beltane and Samhuinn, the faery courts are thought to move in processions from one hill to another. And at these times of flitting, human eyes can sometimes spy them.

Another figure connected with Samhuinn is the Queen of Winter, the blue-skinned hag, the "Cailleach Bheur", or "veiled and hidden one". Closely associated with Scotland’s landscape, she is still reflected in the Gaelic names of many wild Highland places.

Living in a cave, this bony old woman would, according to some myths, emerge at Samhuinn, travelling to the Corryvreckan. In this massive whirlpool, which Atlantic tides make most active in late October, the Cailleach washes her plaid until it’s white, before spreading it as snow on the Marmor Hills.

From there, wherever she passes, she brings frost and ice, and with her come nine hag companions, bringing storms and icy winds, featured in the following verse by Sir Walter Scott: "For on Hallowmas Eve the Nighthag shall ride, and all her nine-fold sweeping on by her side; whether the wind sing lowly or loud, stealing through moonshine or swathed in a cloud."

Late October was thus long associated with fires and the supernatural. With the arrival of Christianity, many customs merged with the new religion.

But it was the early Christians who introduced to Hallowe’en the element of the dead, by establishing November 1 as Hallowmas, the day commemorating martyred saints. Thus with the eve of All Hallows (Hallows’ Evening), Samhuinn and the Christian festival together became Hallowe’en.

Throughout the medieval period, Hallowe’en customs continued to develop. Amongst them were "Galoshins" plays, irreverent social satires with set characters, including Beelzebub , which were performed throughout Scotland. In them, youngsters wearing masks or "guises", carrying turnip lanterns and causing all sorts of mischief, often took part. And out of this grew the custom of "guising" or the modern "trick or treating".

HOWEVER, by the 16th century, the Reformation was eager to stamp out "the superstitious practices" of Catholicism. Under King James VI, son of the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots, the divisions between the Protestants and Catholics reached fever pitch.

Himself a target of assassination by Guy Fawkes, King James ruled amidst popular paranoia. Many men and women keeping old traditions alive were branded evil witches and burnt at the stake on Castlehill, where the Witches’ Fountain now commemorates them.

Thus by the late 18th century, many Hallowe’en traditions had disappeared. But in isolated pockets they survived even the ravages of the Highland Clearances. Scottish migrants took their customs to the United States, where they’re now just as important as in Britain. In Aberdeenshire, as recently as 50 years ago, flaming torches were carried into the fields at Hallowe’en.

Nowadays, rekindling Scotland’s traditions and Celtic myths is Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Society, which presents its Samhuinn procession on October 31 to mark the onset of winter. Synthesising the ancient with modern performance styles, the result is for some a vibrant alternative to jaded, commercial offerings.
 
  • Helen Moore is artistic director of the Beltane Fire Society's Samhuinn festival
     
  • Tonight’s procession begins at 9.30pm at the Lawnmarket and the performance ends at 11pm on Parliament Square. The event is free, but spectators are asked to contribute donations. The procession is followed by a party at Club Ego on Picardy Place with proceeds to support the society’s events
  • Helen Moore
    Thursday, 31st October 2002
    Evening News

    The Scotsman

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