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Scottish Halloween traditions: Samhain, guising and predicting the future using a bowl of oats

Many Halloween traditions originate from the Pagan festival of Samhain

Although Halloween is now widely viewed as an American celebration, many of the traditions associated with the day can be traced back to a historic Celtic festival.

In fact, the classic Halloween activities of carving pumpkins, trick or treating and apple bobbing all evolved from customs practiced in Scotland as far back as the 16th century.

The celebration takes its name from All Hallows’ Eve and was not brought to North America until the mass immigration of Scots and the Irish in the 19th century.

Over the years, the customs have adapted, but many are still associated with Halloween today. How many of these October 31 traditions do you know about?

Have you heard of Samhain?

Many theorists believe that the roots of Halloween stem from the Gaelic festival Samhain – pronounced sow-in.

Sunset on October 31 marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter in Scotland, which was a significant date in the Pagan calendar.

It was also a night when the spirits of the dead would mingle with the living weakening the boundary between them.

On Samhain, the spirits of the restless dead, known as the Sluagh, would venture out when darkness fell and people believed they were at risk of being taken away by them.

Others viewed it as a time to remember those who had passed and would leave an empty chair at the dinner table as an invitation for their ancestors to join.


A group in Inverness dressing up for Halloween in 1988, which stems from the Scottish tradition of guising. Photo: Aberdeen Journals.

Many children across the world spend their Halloween dressing up in scary costumes and visiting their neighbours to gather sweet treats.

Trick or treating, as it has become widely known, originates from the Scottish tradition of guising.

Guising or “galoshin” gets its name from “disguise” which also dates back to the Samhain festival. To “disguise” themselves from evil spirits on October 31, children would dress in old clothing or sheepskins so they would blend in.

Meanwhile, young men would would wear masks or blacken their faces to avoid being recognised by the Sluagh if they went out after dark.

Traditionally people would go door-to-door to collect food for the Samhain feast, known as the “Feast of the Dead”, with children performing tricks to be rewarded with a treat, usually fruit, nuts or scones.

An example of a guiser’s mask from 1978. Photo: DCT.

Keep spirits away with fire

Carving pumpkins is another Halloween tradition which can be traced back to Scotland and is still popular in many locations today.

In the past, Scots would carve scary faces into neeps or turnips and add a candle to create lanterns.

When Halloween celebrations were adopted by the Americans, they started using pumpkins instead. They were found to be more readily available and much easier to carve.

In years gone by, carved pumpkins were believed to scare away evil spirits during a relgious festival which has its roots in long-standing pagan traditions. Photo: David Cheskin/PA.

It was believed that evil spirits hated the light so lanterns and bonfires were a regular occurrence during Samhain.

In the Scottish Highlands, hilltop bonfires were built and fires called samhnaghan were lit by most houses to keep the spirits away.

Fire was also viewed as cleansing so people would walk between bonfires while others would carry burning turf around their homes for protection.

Party games

There are some games which are considered a staple at children’s Halloween parties today that have been played in this country in some form for hundreds of years.

Apple bobbing – or dooking in Scotland – dates back to the Pagan festival as the fruit was considered sacred by Druids.

The set up does not appear to have changed much since then, with players aiming to remove floating apples from a basin of water while their hands are tied around their backs.

Children dooking for apples in Bucksburn in 1991. Photo: Press & Journal.

Others would peel the apples and toss the skin over their shoulder to determine who their future spouse would be. It was said that whatever letter the apple appeared to land in would be the first initial of their future husband or wife’s name.

Another traditional game involved hanging treacle scones from a string and making children eat them without using their hands. More recently, jam or custard doughnuts have been used instead, but the same rules still apply.

Predicting the future

Peeling apples was not the only way Scots would try to predict their futures on Halloween nights of the past.

The Gaelic speaking communities practiced many rituals and games around Samhain which would often involve food.

Made in the Western Isles, fuarag, pronounced foo-ar-ak, involved mixing a bowl of oats with cream and sugar and hiding fortune telling items inside.

People would be blindfolded before taking a spoonful of the fuarag and whatever item they discovered would determine their future.

Whoever found a ring would be next to marry while the finder of a coin could expect great wealth. Anyone who scooped out a button would lead a bachelor’s lifestyle and a thimble suggested you would always be a spinster.

Similarly, the traditional Scottish Halloween cake would be baked with the same trinkets hidden inside.

Children dressed up for Halloween in 1985. Photo: DCT.

Happily ever after?

For recently engaged couples hoping to confirm they were meant to be, the Celtic tradition of nut burning was performed on October 31.

It was believed that placing a pair of hazelnuts or chestnuts named after the couple in a fire would predict their future together.

This custom is even mentioned in the Robert Burns’ poem “Hallowe’en” from 1785, which reads: “An’ mony lads an’ lasses fates/Are there that night decided”.

If the nuts burnt to ash the couple would have a happy marriage, but the nuts spitting and hissing suggested a stormy union was to follow.

Another Halloween tradition used to predict people’s romantic futures involved pulling kale stalks out of the ground. The length and shape of the stalk would represent their partner’s height while the soil showed their wealth.

Island traditions

In South Uist, children were told to stay indoors on October 31 to avoid the witches, goblins and fairies roaming around – all popular Halloween costumes worn in present day.

Another Samhain ritual which took place on the Isle of Lewis was performed to bestow blessings on the island’s fishermen and grant them enough seaweed for the following year.

Up to the 17th century, Christian families would gather on Halloween night to witness ale being poured into the water as an offering for the Celtic water spirit Shony – or Seonaidh.

After returning to the church, the islanders would drink the ale and dance the night away in the fields.