Trick or Treating and Pumpkin Jack o Lanterns are now familiar sights around Scotland on Hallowe’en*, but these are relatively new additions to the much older tradition of ‘guising’. Guisers would dress up in grotesque clothing (to represent the spirits who were thought to be roaming around on All Hallows Eve) and go from house to house offering entertainment (in the form of a story, song or joke) in exchange for fruit and nuts, and, if you were really lucky, some sweets. Sweets or chocolate really were a rarity though, most of the time your bag would be full of apples, tangerines and monkey nuts. Do any kids actually like monkey nuts? I know I didn’t!
Neep vs Pumkin Lanterns
Pumpkin lanterns were totally unheard of when I was a kid (not horrendously long ago!) – they’re not exactly widespread in Scotland. Instead we used neeps (turnips), which are much more plentiful. They’re also much more difficult to carve. Most of my early Hallowe’en memories involved my Dad bleeding over a half finished neep lantern after cutting into his hand instead of the turnip! Also, neep lanterns stink. Burning turnip is really not a good aroma. I can see why pumpkin lanterns have taken off, if I’m honest. This year, however, in a burst of nostalgia, I decided to try making neep lanterns again. Armed with an apple corer (figured it’d be as good as anything) and a sharp knife, I managed to make two wee neep lanterns without a drop of blood being shed. Quite proud of myself! Also, using LED tealights instead of real candles helps with the stink. Think we may go back to the traditional neep lanterns from now on. (Although our son did insist on a pumpkin one too).
Older Hallowe’en Traditions in Kintyre
There are other, even older Hallowe’en traditions in Kintyre though, most of which had completely died out by the end of the 19th century. Many of these Hallowe’en customs involved divination and fortune telling; girls would draw an oat stalk from a stack and count the seeds to find out how many children they’d have; or they’d eat an apple in front of a mirror in dull light, offering a piece over their shoulder in the hopes of seeing an apparition of their future spouse; pairs of nuts would be burnt in the embers of a fire to see if married life would be harmonious or not (some nuts would burn together peacefully, others might shoot apart).
Divination with eggs, by dropping the whites into a tumbler of water and interpreting the shapes, was also common. This might be followed by one of the girls filling her mouth with the water and running around the outside of the house to raise a vision. One story goes that when a girl from Glenlussa tried this she encountered a stranger in soldier’s uniform who asked her; “have you seen John?”. No one else was able to see the soldier. The following year the girl was at a market in Campbeltown when she saw some soldiers landing from a ship. One of them was the man in her vision, who she ended up marrying.
Men too could use the spirits to divine their future; they would dip their shirt in a ‘living and dead stream’ (a stream which a funeral procession had passed over) and then leave it to dry by the fire, hoping to see an apparition of their future wife (whether this was in the steam, or in the marks left on their shirts is unclear).
You can read more about Kintyre’s Hallowe’en traditions and other aspects of local culture in Angus Martin’s excellent ‘Kintyre Country Life’ which is available to browse in Campbeltown Library.