Neep Lanterns Through Lanarkshire: Imagining Hallowe’ens of the Past
A young couple in Kirkfieldbank throwing nuts in the fire. Youngsters pulling kale from the fields surrounding the steep gorges at Chatelherault. An empty chair and plate of food left out for a recently deceased relative in a mansion overlooking the Clyde. Neep lanterns twinkling at windows in Dalserf and village bonfires illuminating the dark autumnal sky throughout the valleys.
What did Hallowe’ens of yesteryear look like in the Clyde and Avon valleys?
A quick google of ‘Hallowe’en in the Clyde and Avon valleys,’ bears no fruit. However, reading up on the particularly Celtic roots of Hallowe’en, helps paint a picture of what past local Hallowe’ens might have entailed - far from supermarket bought princess outfits and carved pumpkin Americanisms that are recognisable today.
All Hallow’s Eve is said to have its roots in the Celtic Summer’s End Samhuinn Festival. It heralded the Celtic New Year, and much like our modern day New Year, involved reflecting on the past as well as looking to the future.
The festival was rooted in the agricultural landscape as dictated by the seasons. It was believed that Summer and Winter deities would battle for control of the seasons, signalling the end of summer and harvest, and was time to bring animals in from pasture before the bad weather set in. Harvest markets around this time would provide a social occasion for people to get together before winter weather set in.
Traditional Irish Jack-o’-lantern by Rannpháirtí anaithnid at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
The transition between seasons celebrated at Samhuinn was also a very spiritual celebration. It was thought to be a time when the boundary between the world of the living and the dead was thinnest. It was believed that spirits of those who had left the living world in the previous year would visit one last time, but that malevolent spirits would also take advantage of the close link between the living and dead to roam the earth during this time.
Some rituals associated with Samhuinn have survived the passage of time whilst others have been left behind in the mists of the past.
Empty chairs and plates of food would be left out for the spirits of peaceful and recently deceased relatives and bonfires in each village and neep lanterns in windows were lit to ward off evil spirits. Children would dress up in costumes and masks to disguise themselves to any roaming spirits, predating modern guising.
Dookin’ for apples is thought to be connected to the Celtic belief that apples were sacred. After apples were bitten and ‘caught,’ the skins of apples would sometimes be peeled in a singular length and thrown over the shoulder, and believed to land in the shape of the initial of a future partner.
The 1785 Robbie Burns poem, ‘Hallowe’en’, gives us an insight into a number of other national customs associated with future sweethearts:
Some merry, friendly, countra-folks
Together did convene,
To burn their nits, an' pou their stocks,
An' haud their Hallowe’en
Fu' blythe that night. (V2, 14 – 18)
To burn their nits, refers to the ritual of young couples each throwing a nut into a burning fire to determine what their future would hold. If the nut quietly burned, a happy future was said to be ahead of them. If they were to spit and hiss a different fortune would be deduced!
‘Pou their stocks refers to the tradition of pulling up stalks of kale whilst blindfolded on this date too. The length and shape of the stalk is said to have represented the height and stature of a future partner, whilst soil predicted wealth.
I hope that thinking about Samhuinn as an end of year celebration very much rooted in an agricultural landscape dictated by the seasons as well as the more other-wordly elements that we associate with Hallowe’en today, has helped paint a picture of Hallowe’en in times gone by in the Clyde and Avon Valleys.
And whether you’re a believer in the other-wordly or not, surely you can’t deny that the Clyde and Avon valleys are a good setting for Hallowe’en with creepy castles overlooking ancient shadowy woodlands with lonely mansion estates popping through. Join in on local ghost story swaps on the CAVLP Heritage or Lost Houses of the Clyde Valley facebook pages (click on ‘related links’ to the right).
- Sarah O’Sullivan, CAVLP Communications Officer