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The History of Guising | Halloween

28th Oct 2022
The History of Guising | Halloween

By Madge O’Shea, Mercat Storyteller

With Hallowe’en upon us, and the veil between the living and the dead said to be growing thinner and thinner by the hour, many of you may be getting ready for our Edinburgh Halloween tours and focusing your minds (and your Amazon baskets) on your chosen costume.

While the act of dressing up is central to our understanding of this 'spooky' season, its’ origins are perhaps older than you might imagine! In fact, whilst our modern day ‘Halloween’ may seem a far cry from the traditions of old, the practices we continue to this day have ancient origins. The practice of ‘guising’ or dressing as something other than oneself has existed in Scotland for hundreds of years, as early as the 16th-century or perhaps even earlier in pagan traditions. The idea is simple and is as focused on safety as it is on fun and entertainment.

Guising & Samhuinn

As we find ourselves reaching the ancient Pagan festival of ‘Samhuinn’, meaning Summer’s End, belief dictates that the souls of our deceased may find themselves drifting across the line between this world and the next. However, as many horror movies show, not all spirits bear good will towards the living and this blurring of the lines of mortality and the afterlife is said to come fraught with its own set of dangers. Hence, during Samhuinn it was also thought that wronged spirits saught revenge on unsuspecting revellers. And so the question arises- How does one escape the angry eyes of an all seeing spirit? By disguising yourself as one of them of course!

As such, it was seen to only serve as common sense to protect the children and adults wandering the darkness of All Hallows’ Eve from such tempestuous spirits by dressing them as the spirits themselves. So, ghoulish masks were donned, costumes were crafted, and the practice of Guising sprung into being. Children would knock on doors in their costumers and receive treats to protect them from the spirits, usually fruit and nuts. People would also leave offerings on their doorsteps during Samhuinn, in the hopes the spirits would take them and leave them in peace. However, some pranksters from the past took advantage of this, dressing up as spirits in order to grab the goods.

Trick or Treating

Initially unique to Scotland and Ireland, the practice of Guising has evolved over the years and today is commonly known as trick or treating. Children continue to dress up and knock on the doors of their neighbours greeting them with a gleeful 'trick or treat' and performing a short act of their choice. In the past songs or short dances were common, and in exchange gifts are still given to reward the guisers. Though, today the reward is often candy instead of fruit. 

As with all traditions the enactment of the practice of Guising changes based on the locality of its practitioners. Many of Scotland’s regions have their own unique traditions- for example, Shetland historically celebrated using their Skekling costumes made from straw, derived from both Celtic and Norse traditions. The so-called ‘Skeklers’ would travel through the community performing their acts or tricks, crucially whilst obscuring their faces and voices so as to keep their identity a mystery to their audience until guessed correctly. The Outer Hebrides share many of the same traditions, occasionally adding sheepskins of skulls to add a little ‘spice’ to their costumes too.

Whilst Guising may be increasingly overshadowed by its’ younger, flashier cousin ‘Trick or Treating’, it is a tradition we uphold here at Mercat Tours where you can expect to see our storytellers and support team alike adorned with all of the finery of their best authentic Samhuinn disguises.

Unfortunately, however, we do not seem to have such good fortune in driving away unwanted spirits as The Blair Street Underground Vaults themselves are said to be a conduit for the souls of the departed... Our Storytellers may even carry tourmaline in their pockets - a stone often said in pagan tradition to have protective properties.

If an authentic Scottish Samhuinn is what you seek this Halloween, we may have just the tours for you- and perhaps you will even decide to dress up and partake in a bit of 'guising' yourself!

Book your five-star Halloween tour now and we'll see you soon. Plus, don't forget to sign-up to our fortnightly newsletter for more tales of Scotland's historic Halloween traditions.

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