Scotland’s Spooky Season:

Traditional Oidhche nan Cleas, the Night of Tricks costumes, photographed by Margaret Fay Shaw, South Uist, 1932, part of National Trust Scotland photographic archive of over 9000 images

Samhain, Halloween and Oidhche nan Cleas

Some Definitions: Samhainn / Halloween / Oidhche nan Cleas, the Night of Tricks

Oidhche nan Cleas is a way of celebrating Halloween in the Hebrides,  where children would make costumes from sheepskins and sheep ears, masks by scraping out sheep skulls, wigs were made from hay. Children dressed up were called Gisears (guysers) and they visited neighbours, “doing a turn” doing a trick or singing a song, or telling jokes for them.  Games included dooking (bobbing) for apples, eating treacle scones hung up on strings and ‘fuarag’, thick cream and oatmeal with a hidden treat inside.

Samhain or Samhuin is a Gaelic festival celebrated in Ireland and Scotland marking the end of harvest (hairst in Scots)  and beginning of winter.  The first written mention of the festival dates to the 9th century.

Harvesting in rural Scotland  was an activity everyone took part in, young, old, men, women and even those whose trades were not in farming, supplemented their income by working in the harvest, including tailors, shoemakers and blacksmiths.  First hand accounts, from 18th and 19th centuries,  of entire villages working to crop the fields make note of the songs sung while working, which ranged from bothy ballads to hymns. It was a time of hard work as well as joyfulness and community, providing a great opportunity for celebrating and feasting together after the hard work was done. Although, sometimes hairst dragged on into November and binder days, when the crop was bound with twine.

Above: from Charles Murray’s poem ‘Hint o Hairst’

In the ‘Celtic’ calendar Samhain was celebrated to mark the beginning of the year and therefore was the most important festival out the four main festivals, the other 3 being: Lughnasadh (1st August), Beltane (1st May) and Imbolc (1st Feb)

There are a number of Neolithic tombs in Ireland and Scotland which are aligned with sunrise around the time of Samhain, which many academics believe demonstrates the antiquity of the festival. In Irish mythology one of the Irish Gods Dagda would ritualistically couple with the Mórrígan the Goddess of War.  In both Scottish and Irish traditions it is the time of year when Faeries and Fae spirits are most active, most likely to come into your house. It’s also a time for divination.

Halloween as we know it today, incorporates much of the traditions of Samhain and Oidhche Nan Cleas with additional ones related to All Saints Day.

‘Halow’ is an old Scot’s word for a saint. Halloween is celebrated around the time of Allhallows, all saints day, the day set by the Church of Rome to honour All Saints and pray for the souls who are believed to be in purgatory.

Halloween Bleeze is the name for fires lit at Halloween.  All over Scotland bonfires would be lit of hill tops to celebrate Halloween. The fires were a vital part of remembering the dead, the saints and a way of pleasing the spirits and warding off evil ones.

It is also very similar to the ancient Roman festival of Feralia, originally celebrated on 21st February, which was changed to 1st November by the Church.

Interestingly, Anglo Saxons celebrated November as Blotmonat, “the month of sacrifice”. So it’s fairly possible that, as quite often happens, older beliefs and festivities were incorporated into Christian ones. In Feralia, according to Roman sources such as Ovid, offerings, prayers and sacrifices were made in honour of the dead. Torchlit processions made around burial grounds with poems, songs and speeches made to honour the dead. The Roman belief was that should these things not be done, the dead would rise and demand it by howling and moaning and leaving their graves.

Exert from ‘Eilean, The Island Photography of Margaret Fay Shaw’

In the Roman festival the activities had very little to do with love. However in the Scottish and Irish traditions it was the best time of year for seeking out who would be your further partner and so activities would take place like pulling kail stocks to find out what your wife or husband would be.

Examples of Love Divination Traditions at Halloween:

Cabbage & Kail

After dark go to the place where kale or cabbage grows, bend down and pull the first stock your hand touches. If it’s long, your partner will be tall, if it’s short, your partner will be short, if there’s lots of earth clinging to the root, your partner will be wealthy.


Couples would throw them into the fire and if both nuts exploded at the same time it meant the couple would marry each other.

Sowing Hemp (or other) Seeds

While sowing the seeds say the rhyme:

“Hempseed I sow, hempseed I hoe,

And he that is my true love,

Come after me and mow.”

4 Plates:

Blindfolded, a girl was to be placed in front of the plates and allowed to choose with her fingers out of the following:

One empty plate – no spouse

One with clean water – a single lover

One with dirty water – a divorcee

One with earth in it – a windower

Photo by the author

That same night you shout eat salt herring and dream of your future lover bringing you a drink.

Wild orchids were also used for love divination and the root was then used to create a love potion. However, the belief was that the potion only worked temporarily and once it wore off, love would turn to hate, so it was generally inadvisable.

Halloween was traditionally full of songs, music and poems. One of our best known poems about this time of year was written by Robert Burns and the notes to it contain a lot of information about the superstitions surrounding Halloween.  You can read the poem here:

One the strongest beliefs held was that Halloween was when the faeries had their raids.

Exert from Jamieson’s Scots Language Dictionary, 1818


In Scottish folk tradition, two worlds of the living and the dead are interwoven and so the  oldest Scottish ghost stories portray ghosts as continuing on  as they were in life. Particular families and clans are associated with specific ghosts like familiars are now associated with witches. It was common belief that you could sit and talk with the dead as if they were still flesh.

This changed during the witch trials in 16th century Scotland and although we still have the old ghost stories where the dead and the living talk with each other freely, people did not do so in public lest they attract accusations of witchcraft and devilry.

However, there was a return to the familiarity with spirits of the dead from late 18th century onwards and Samhain traditions of setting an extra place at the table for visiting spirits returned too.  The main fear was not familiar spirits but faeries who could take any form and we’re likely cause harm. One brilliant source for faerie belief in Scotland is the writing of 17th century minister Rev Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle, who recorded extensively his parishioners folk beliefs and he himself died mysteriously on the faerie hill he studied so closely.

Belief in Faeries

I recently did a talk for Bute Museum, where I spoke about the belief in faeries in Scotland and Ireland. A member of the audience asked if our faerie stories were really more aimed at children as it was hard to imagine adults being so frightened of faeries.

However, faeries as we hear of them today, the pretty things with wings who grant wishes or swap teeth for money are nothing like the faeries in Scottish or Irish tradition. (In fact traditionally Scotland has a mouse collecting your fallen teeth instead of a tooth fairy). Our Scottish faeries were associated with the underworld, with ancient burial cairns, with the restless dead and the Western wind. Our faeries could take many forms, they could be as tall as a mortal human, as small as wren or as huge as a giant. Fae folk could be spirits, lights, dogs, cats, white cattle, green ladies, any form they wish to take they can.

Oatcakes cooking on an open fire. Photo by the author

And because of their talent for shapeshifting there was a real fear for them entering your house by the window, door or chimney. Even locking the doors and windows wasn’t enough to keep the faeries out because they could call upon the help of the last cake or bannock made from the days baking.

The faeries could also call upon the help of the spinning wheel to unlock doors and windows. The way to stop the bannock or spinning wheel from assisting the faeries was to poke a hole in the last bannock made and to take off the band from the spinning wheel at night.

To stop faeries coming down your chimney, fire smooring was used. The coals in the fire covered in ash correctly, so as to insulate them and keep the heat and charms recited such as this one recorded by Alexander Carmichael:

One brilliant source for faerie belief in Scotland is the writing of 17th century minister Rev Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle, who recorded extensively his parishioners folk beliefs and he himself died mysteriously on the faerie hill he studied so closely. Please see the PDF for a copy of this.

The last handful of grain cropped at the end of harvest time was made into a Harvest Maiden. This was then hung up in the house until the next harvest, when a new one was made to replace it.

In some rural areas of Scotland this was done in the 19th and 20th centuries to protect the house from faeries. It comes from a much earlier belief surrounding the Cailleach, the great mother goddess of Scotland. At the end of harvest time the last person to crop their field in the village had to make one of these Harvest maidens to represent the Cailleach and keep it and treat it like a living creature until the next harvest, to keep favour with the Cailleach.

Woollen maidens from ‘Cottage Crafts’ by Barbara Ireson

Cailleach: Scotland’s Mother Goddess of Winter

The Cailleach, the mother goddess of Scotland, is a giantess with blue skin, teeth of rust and a mane of white hair that looks like frost. She is a crone and has one huge eye in the middle of her head.

Around Samhain / Halloween she arrives with her staff of blackthorn and everywhere she touches with that staff is covered in frost. She is thought of as bringing winter in this way.

Her actions stop new growth on plants and trees and she raises huge storms, which clear the land and often bring floods.  In some stories she travels around Scotland on the back of a wolf to spread frost and raise storms.

There is lots to be said about the Caileach because she is one of the most important figures in Scottish folklore, associated with Winter and Spring, representing death and rebirth.

However, for the purposes of this essay, it’s important to point out a few things about her, which relate to Halloween & Samhain as we know these festivals today:

  1. Her staff is of blackthorn, associated with witchcraft and uncanny magic, as we associate Halloween with witches now
  2. She brings the first signs of winter, and it’s true the first frosts begin to appear at the end of October / start of November
  3. She is a crone goddess, her name in Gaelic has come to mean “old woman”, again similar to the kind of witches we are familiar with at Halloween.
  4. Her name comes from a Latin root ‘pallium’, meaning ‘a veil’ and so translates literally as ‘Veiled One’.

This is the only veil mentioned in Scottish Folk Tradition, that is the traditional culture of Scotland going far back into antiquity. There is no veil in our tradition between our world and the other world as is often mentioned in other belief systems such as Wicca.

Honouring the Dead

The talk of ghosts is because the folk belief in Scotland is that the dead are always with us, not behind a veil, but alongside us always. An important part of Samhain and Halloween is remembering / honouring the ones no longer with us.

In Scottish folk tradition the belief is that time is multidimensional and stories a form of memory, accessing all times and enabling us to bring the past with its traditions into the future.  The concept was beautifully summed up by Hamish Henderson:

‘Maker, ye maun sing them….Tomorrow, songs Will flow free again, and new voices Be borne on the carrying stream.’

It’s a theme in many of our folk stories and traditional beliefs regarding the dead too.

We think of our bodies as being conduits for experiencing life, think of memories as running through us and the landscape like rivers, connecting us to past present and future and the land, carrying everything forward.

So, to talk about the departed is a way of connecting and being with them, even though physically they are gone. My grandmother always said no one really goes, they just become harder to spot and there are days when I feel her influence or disapproval!

I wrote a poem based on this belief and inspired by Hamish Henderson’s words. It’s called You Are The River, which was turned into a short video with images from Jannica Honey, available on my Instagram page (@eileenbudd) or on the PDF download of this article.

From Past to Present

Samhain and Halloween celebrate and enact the folk beliefs in faeries and spirits. A time for dressing up to fool or appease these spirits, to be thankful for harvest, mindful of the change in season and how it affects us as part of the natural world. It’s also a time of song and celebration. Here are some traditions you might like to include in your celebrations this year:


Traditional Halloween / Samhain food in Scotland depends on the harvest, generally it included; turnip, lots of bread such a thing called  shearer’s baps, which are huge bread rolls, cream crowdie cheese, ale, milk, stovies, seasonal fruits like apples, berries, pears and nuts.

A mixture called Harvest Home was a large basin full of ale, sweetened with treacle and handfuls of oatmeal stirred in. This was then left overnight for the oats to soak up the ale and treacle. In the morning a good measure of whisky was stirred through it.

A ring was added into the bowl and mixed in.

The whole thing was served at the end of the feast and the ring foretold marriage for whoever found it in their dish. 

Stovies are a very warming traditional food made with mashed potatoes, meat, vegetables and butter all mixed together. At Halloween / Samhain charms would be mixed into the stories, like we do with Christmas pudding, so chewing was done carefully!

After eating, came ghost and faerie stories, music and rhymes, examples of which are again on the PDF.

Tumshies & Jack o Lanterns

In Scotland turnips are available in October, so carving a tumshie (turnip) into a lantern and using the innards for soup or mashed with a meal is a tradition that still exists. Although it has to be said that pumpkins are much easier to carve and so the pumpkin dominates in the Jack o lanterns.

Carved turnip Jack o Lantern from 1850


It was a custom to make fire torches from pine and at midnight every member of a household had to walk around the outside of their house with their torches lit, clockwise 3 times, to protect their house and belongings from evil until next Halloween.

Queen Victoria took part in this Halloween activity each time she visited Scotland and so we have good records of this saining and protecting ritual taking place, particularly around Balmoral.

At the end of this torch lit procession all torches were piled into a heap, more wood added to make it a bonfire and then dancing began around the fire, with young and old taking part, while reels were played on pipe and fiddle.

Eileen Budd

Eileen is an author, folklorist and storyteller based in Angus.

Instagram: @eileenbudd


Scottish Folk Podcast:

Scottish Book Trust Author Profile:

Please download the PDF for further reading and listening recommendations.

Burning the River

Breac a linne, slat a coille, Is fiadh a fireach,

Meirle anns nach do ghabh Gaidheal riamh nàire

(A fish from the river, a wand from the wood, And a deer from the mountain,

Actions no Gael was at any time ashamed of.)

It can be challenging to find information on old Scottish poaching techniques. However, it’s something that interests me greatly because there are so many folktales in Scotland about poaching.

From the 1820’s onwards, folktales of poaching tell of a heroic man of the hills, stealing from the rich to feed the poor. It’s portrayed as romantic and a way of getting one over on wealthy landlords.

‘Poaching’, in the 18th & 19th centuries was seen by rural communities as a means of supplementing livelihood. Taking salmon from rivers like the Tweed, for example, was a common right for centuries.

However, by the late 1820’s landlords sought to change the laws, in order to ensure exclusive rights to the fish in the river.

Centuries of culture came head to head with new economic  legislation.

Perhaps little wonder then, that although poaching is part of our folk tradition, hardly anything has been written about it from the ordinary folk’s point of view in the 19th century.

So over the last few months I’ve been seeking out poachers for their stories and researching archived court cases.

Which is how I was recently given a very rusty leister, a homemade iron fork used for poaching fish out the river, using a technique called losgadh nan aibhnichean (burning the river), which was practised in Scotland right up into the 1960’s, though seldom done anymore.

Cruisie or brazier for burning the water

You would need 2-3 men: one to hold the leister, one to hold the bleis (the torch made of dried pine wood wrapped in cloots) and one to carry the dried bracken and moss to get the torch burning. You and your 2 pals would go out one Autumn night and walk the river, the fish would come to the surface, attracted by the torch light, held close enough to the surface and that’s when you’d strike the fish with your leister, skewering it.

The leister looks a lot like a pitchfork, except a leister has barbed ends and they are generally very homemade looking. Because for the most part, they were. They had to be! Leisters were illegal and it wasn’t fair or right to ask your local smith to make you one, unless he was the guy holding the torch.

A handmade leister

Now, I say “guy”, it could just as easily have been a lass.

In the 19th century there were a high number of women who were expert poachers, not just fish, but birds and rabbits too.

Court records of that time from all over Scotland mention women on trial for poaching. Some were single mothers, some professional poachers selling the meat, feathers and fur to make a living. All were very skilled at their art, such as Mary McGibbon in Renfrewshire, who’s skill at catching grouse was noted in a Renfrewshire court in 1839.

Just like that Gaelic proverb, not one poacher was ashamed to be hunting on the land they once knew to be public land, land which had since been cleared of its population by absent landlords and managed as leisurely hunting estates.

The crofters weren’t making the landlords enough money, you see, so they cleared them off to make way for sheep.

Once the sheep stopped making them money (after only 3 years), landlords cleared those too, making way for deer.

Anyone trying to take from the land was a criminal. Unless you were the landlord of course. Gamekeepers were sworn in as police constables, with powers to enter private property to investigate alleged offences. Anyone who heard of poaching taking place in the area, were expected by law to report it.

However, in a small community, where everyone knows each other, clyping on your neighbours was not in anyway respectful. So in reality local gamekeepers were known to turn a blind eye to people taking to feed their families. There are even stories of gamekeepers helping poachers or helping themselves as ex-poachers were often recruited as gamekeepers.

As far as the communities were concerned, the problem of poaching wasn’t taking one or two to feed yourself, but the poaching on industrial scale, from theives coming in from the cities.

Landlords deplored both.

In 1884 the Highland Land Law Reform Association (Land League) had this to say about poaching:

“The fish that was yesterday miles away from land was claimed by the landlord the moment it neared the shore, and so were the birds of the air as soon as they flew over his land. The law made it so, because the landlords themselves were the law makers, and it was a wonder that the poor man was allowed to breathe the air of heaven and drink from the mountain stream, without having the factors and the whole of the country police pursuing him as a thief.”

Last weekend I was taught how to catch a rabbit with a ferret and a homemade purse net.

It’s a wonderfully clever and simple device, you pop the ferret down the rabbit hole, you place the net over the rabbit hole and when the ferret chases the rabbit out the hole, the rabbit runs into the net, the running force from which closes the net, trapping the rabbit.

A purse net for ferreting rabbits. The net was acquired for the Travelling Folk Museum but not the essential ferret, so all surrounding rabbits are safe.

Ferreting is legal in Scotland, as long as you have the land owners permission, because, unlike deer or salmon or grouse or pheasant, the landlords see the rabbits as pests.

They can’t make much money from them.

If you’d like to hear a Scottish folktale about a poacher, you’re in luck, there are hundreds! And one can be found on our IG pages.

Eileen Budd

Eileen Budd is an author and storyteller. If you’d like to know more about the Travelling Folk Museum or book a visit see:

Or find out what she’s up to on Instagram: @eileenbudd

Eileen is currently driving around Scotland listening to a mix of Shostakovich, Yelle, Beastie Boys, April March, The Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, Ordinary Elephant, Johnny Cash and the Gypsy King’s Hotel California.