Scotland’s Most Spooktacular Halloween Traditions14th Oct 2021
By Simon Bendle, Mercat Storyteller
Halloween has been a highlight of the calendar at Mercat for decades. It’s the time of the year when the ghosts of the Blair Street Underground Vaults are most active, when we pull out all the stops to offer what we believe are the best ghost tours in Edinburgh.
But Scotland’s creepy Halloween traditions date back much further than that of course. They go back centuries to a time when ancient pagan people celebrated a festival of feasting called Samhuinn. Samhuinn marked the end of summer and the start of winter. The hard work of gathering in winter stores of food was over and it was time to party before the dark months set in. Samhuinn was also a time when the souls of the dead were thought to return from the afterlife. Bonfires were lit on hilltops to scare them off. People left empty chairs and food out for the ghosts of departed ancestors who might come home for the festivities. Many of Scotland’s old Halloween customs have faded now. But a few do still survive. Here are three that people still enjoy today:
Guising: For centuries Scottish children have put on disguises and paraded door to door giving little performances in return for treats. The word guising simply comes from “disguise”. Originally kids would have covered their faces with ash, worn old clothes, and collected nuts and fruit rather than sweets. So guising is like American trick-or-treating – but with added jokes and songs.
Dookin’ for apples: A time-honoured game where players try to pluck apples from a basin of water with their hands tied behind their backs. People either use their teeth or spear the fruit with a fork held in their mouths. Back in the day, it was said that the first young person to get an apple without using their hands would be the first to marry.
Neep lanterns: Scots have been carving scary faces into hollowed-out neeps – or turnips – for centuries. The more hellish the face the better as this is once again all about scaring off ghouls. Today many prefer American pumpkins to neeps. Who can blame them – pumpkins are a lot easier to carve.
But however you choose to celebrate on 31 October – whether you’re carving neeps or pumpkins, guising or trick-or-treating – we wish you the happiest of Halloweens! Book now to join one of our Edinburgh Halloween tours