Happy Halloween

Halloween is very much en vogue these days. The tradition of carved pumpkins and scary costumes that is so popular in the United States has clearly influenced celebrations in the UK and even in continental Europe.

The custom of celebrating Halloween does, however, have its own roots in Europe, and in Scotland they are particularly strong. From Halloween lanterns made from neeps to dookin’ for apples, Halloween in Scotland has its distinct character – and one also recognised by Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, who wrote a poem on Halloween (click here to read the full poem):

Upon that night, when fairies light
On Cassilis Downans dance,
Or owre the lays, in splendid blaze,
On sprightly coursers prance;
Or for Colean the rout is ta’en,
Beneath the moon’s pale beams;
There, up the Cove,to stray an’ rove,
Amang the rocks and streams
To sport that night;


Wi’ merry sangs, an’ friendly cracks,
I wat they did na weary;
And unco tales, an’ funnie jokes
Their sports were cheap an’ cheery:
Till butter’d sowens, wi’ fragrant lunt,
Set a’ their gabs a-steerin;
Syne, wi’ a social glass o’ strunt,
They parted aff careerin
Fu’ blythe that night.

So important was the tradition of Halloween to many a Scot that it found its way to faraway climes in the cultural baggage of Scottish migrants. In Victoria, British Columbia, it was under the auspices of the First Presbyterian church choir that a Halloween concert was held in 1907. ‘In no way’, noted the local newspaper, ‘could it [Halloween] be better celebrated than by attending this Scotch concert.’ A little further south, in San Francisco in the United States, the city’s Thistle Club customarily celebrated Halloween with a ball. In 1904, ‘songs of bonnie Scotland were sung’, and ‘the club piper, Edward Ross, inspired recollections of the land of the thistle.’ A year earlier, at the Thistle Club’s 22nd Halloween Ball,  ‘about 200 lads and lassies [were] on the floor, who danced gayly to Scottish music played on Scottish instruments.’

Halloween was not confined, however, to the northern hemisphere. In Brisbane, Australia, in 1893, the Queensland Scottish Association came together ‘to take part in and witness many of the auld games common in Scotland at the Halloween festival 100 years ago … The superstitious game of the “three basins” caused great amusement among the young ladies present.’ A little later, in 1922, the Register from Adelaide, reporting on the Halloween celebrations held by the South Australia Caledonian Society, noted that ‘wherever Scotsmen foregather they love to keep in memory and celebrate the customs and festivals of their beloved homeland. Halloween, the night of October 31, being the eve before “All Saints’ Day”,’ is usually celebrated by Scottish folk and their descendants in whatever part of the globe they may be.’

In New Zealand, too, Halloween celebrations were customarily part of the varied cultural programmes organised by Scottish clubs and societies in the country. The festival was seen as a particularly good means for the promotion of the literature and poetry of Scotland. In Ashburton, as small settlement in Canterbury in the South Island of New Zealand, the local Scottish Society organised a Halloween celebration in 1910 for example. The patron, Mr P. Stewart, and a good number of members and friends were present, and an enjoyable evening was spent. Selections were given during the programme by the Scottish Pipe Band, which also played outside the hall. During the evening sprigs of heather, delivered especially from ‘the homeland’, were distributed, and an enjoyable evening closed with the singing of Auld Lang Syne. A good decade earlier, and a little further south in Dunedin, the Dunedin Burns Club held its annual Halloween gathering. As was noted in a report on the gathering, the Club’s President, Mr Gibson,  ‘in speaking of the festival of Halloween said it was one of the most ancient and honoured customs of Scotland.’ And so the tradition of celebrating Halloween continued among the Scots abroad – even in the Scottish diaspora’s farthest outpost.

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