The Condenser

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Scottish Halloween Traditions

If you've spent any time reading up on European and British folk traditions, you're probably familiar with the myriad ways in which you're supposed to be able to catch a glimpse of your future spouse. Finding out who you were going to marry - whether it was seeing their face in a mirror, or over your shoulder, or reading their name in the tea leaves - was such a massive preoccupation of pre-modern westerners, in fact, that we Condensers typically gloss right over them. Crack open any book of folk-practices, and you'll likely have a hard time finding any spell or conjuring trick that doesn't end with your fiance-to-be popping up behind you.

It is, however, interesting to see some Halloween-specific ones, so we're bending our no-spouse-conjuring rule today to give you some interesting Scottish variations - plus some fun bonfire and childbirth items. Taken from Curiosities of Superstition, and Sketches of Some Unrevealed Religions by William Henry Davenport Adams (1882).

...The Halloween customs which still survive may be traced back to a hoar antiquity. For instance, various kinds of divination are practised, and chiefly with apples and nuts. Apples are a relic of the old Celtic fairy lore. They are thrown into a tub of water, and you endeavour to catch one in your mouth as they bob round and round in provoking fashion. When you have caught one, you peel it carefully, and pass the long strip of peel thrice, sunwise, round your head; after which you throw it over your shoulder, and it falls to the ground in the shape of the initial letter of your true love's name.

As for the nuts, they would naturally suggest themselves to the dwellers in mighty woods, such as covered the land of old. Brand says it is a custom in Iceland, when the maiden would know if her lover be faithful, to put three nuts upon the bar of the grate, naming them after her lover and herself. If a nut crack or jump, the lover will prove faithless; if it begin to blaze or burn, it's a sign of the fervour of his affection. If the nuts named after the girl and her swain burn together, they will be married.

In Strathspey, a lass will steal away from the kitchen fire, make her way to the kiln where the corn is dried, throw a ball of thread into it, and wind it up slowly, while uttering certain words. The form of her future lover will take hold of the end of the thread, and reveal itself to her. The most arduous part of this charm is, that no speaking is allowed either on the outward journey or the return.

Children born on Halloween were formerly supposed to be gifted with certain mysterious endowments, such as the power of perceiving and conversing with the "dwellers on the threshold," the inhabitants of the World Invisible.

Once upon a time, all over Scotland a bonfire was lighted on every farm; and often the bonfire was surrounded by a circular trench, symbolical of the sun. Every year these bonfires decrease in number; but within the recollection of living men no fewer than thirty could be seen on the high hilltops between Dunkeld and Abergeldy. And a strange weird sight it was, worthy of the pencil of a Rembrandt,—the dusky figures of the lads and lasses dancing wildly around them, to the hoarse music of their own voices! Miss Cumming writes that in the neighbourhood of Crieff, the balefires, as the people call them, still blaze as brightly as ever; and from personal observation we can assert that they are still lighted in many parts of Argyllshire.

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