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.
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.
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.”
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
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: https://www.robertburns.org/works/74.shtml
One the strongest beliefs held was that Halloween was when the faeries had their raids.
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.
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.
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:
- Her staff is of blackthorn, associated with witchcraft and uncanny magic, as we associate Halloween with witches now
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
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 is an author, folklorist and storyteller based in Angus.
Scottish Folk Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/scottish-folk/id1674005044
Scottish Book Trust Author Profile: https://www.scottishbooktrust.com/authors/eileen-budd