Traditions of Hallowe’en


Take a walk back in time away from the hype of Hallowe’en to discover its origins and traditions. This festival is not traditionally a part of Australia’s culture, so I was fascinated to discover more about it whilst on our trip to North America this time last year.
My only other connection occurred when we lived in Edinburgh, a decade ago, and I gave some trick or treaters fruit, having run out of lollies (candy). They proceeded to show their displeasure by pelting it at the house! I won’t do that again!
In the early part of the nineteenth century after the blight of famine, Irish immigrants brought to their new homeland in America a rich bevy of tradition and belief. One of these was Hallowe’en – thought to be based on the pre-Christian 2000 year old Celtic tradition of Samhain (pronounced Sah-win), Gaelic for summer’s end. Presumably, its roots lie in a celebratory harvest festival. These formed important markers of transition and survival in rural calendars. Traditionally, villagers would carve turnips and place a lump of peat inside to scare off the ghost of Jack, a drunken farmer who had lost his way ‘twixt heaven and hell.
Pranks were played and folks would dress up in the old ‘mummers’ tradition – ‘guising’ – to ward off the spirits of the dead. Sometimes divination games were played such as bobbing for apples in a water-filled pail: the first to pick out the fruit would be the first to marry. Maidens would also peel an apple in a continuous strip and throw the peel over their shoulder; as it fell, it would shape the first letter of a future husband’s name
These supernatural ventures, meant as harmless fun and recreation after months of hard work in the fields, coincided with the Christian celebration of All Hallows Eve.
In medieval times, another custom existed of ‘souling’ where poor people would knock on doors asking for food. Prayers for the dead were offered in exchange.
Historically, the Catholic church often layered a Pagan festival with their own. And this seems to have brought about the amalgamation of traditions into the Hallowe’en of today.
In the case of the tribal Celts, their beliefs lacked the sinister Christian belief in Satan, but historians believe they hoped their ancient burial mounds might open to reveal the secrets of the underworld on that special eve.
During our trip, we saw pumpkins everywhere – gorgeous golden globes lying in the fields or piled up in tubs outside shops, or gracing homes and restaurants with amazing displays. Their prevalence in inner city food markets was a joy as well, bringing richness and colour to the streets. When the Irish emigrants found these wonderful vegetables in such abundance, they must have been well-pleased.
Now the carving of Jack O’lanterns has become an art form in its own right. And the Hallowe’en display at New York’s Chelsea Market proved a prime example. Perhaps the blend of these ancient (and new) traditions add just the right note of light-hearted fun and humour to lighten the challenges and transitions of our own twenty first century lives.













The Stuff of Nightmares!

Take a moment to imagine a space – eight steps long and as wide. You are crouched on a rough wooden platform. Bars of wood and iron form the sides of your enclosure. You perch, like some hunched, hideous creature, high above the ground. And the Scottish weather, in all its extremes and vagaries, is your constant companion. How would you stay warm and dry and sane in your strange nest? So lived Mary Bruce, sister of Scotland’s King Robert I for at least four of her eight years of imprisonment, hanging from the walls of Roxburgh Castle. It would have been the stuff of nightmares but, for her, it was real!
I had been to Roxburgh Castle before but until recently had not explored the high mound, sited between the confluence of two rivers, the Teviot and the Tweed, in the embattled Scottish Borders. And what history it has seen. Founded by King David I, the Scots held possession until the capture of King William the Lion when it passed into English hands.
During of the first War of Independence, it became Mary Bruce’s prison. How she must have longed to be rescued but the heavily guarded castle was beyond her brother’s capacity.
In time, it seems Edward II might have taken pity upon her plight, relocating her to another, probably more secure, place of imprisonment as the Bruce resistance grew in strength.
The Scots’ lack of siege equipment meant that castles had to be taken by subterfuge. And in February, 1314, Sir James Douglas and his men concealed their approach under dark cloaks. Legend tells that a sentry saw these moving figures and commented about the restless oxen in the fields below the castle walls. Over the walls, they clambered using hooks and ladders, taking the castle…
On the day of my visit, the surrounding fields could not have looked less sinister. A few jagged fangs, remnants of the massive rock walls, stood testament to the importance of this strategic site. And with so many layers of history, it struck me that a healthy imagination might be an important requisite for any visitor. Many castles, like Roxburgh, were demolished by the Scots only to be rebuilt by the English. Indeed, Edward III used it as his base in the ongoing wars.
Below the castle site, the rivers stretched out on either side; fishermen stood thigh-deep in the waters, intent on catching a few tasty salmon or trout for their dinner whilst couples strolled along the riverside path enjoying the idyllic afternoon.
I wandered about – carefully, for the nettles were waist-high in places. Perhaps the beauty of the vista might have sustained Mary, in some small way, in her hours of solitude and pain. Deprived of hope, the experience must have seemed an impossible torment to endure. But Mary Bruce survived this nightmarish experience. She went on to marry (twice) and when she gave birth to her son in 1316, it must have seemed nothing short of a miracle.







Are you intrigued by old fishing villages?

Come with me to a corner of Scotland, the glorious East Neuk of Fife. Crail is just one of a number of smallish fishing villages, washed by the outer reaches of the Firth of the Forth. Straddling a bay midst low red cliffs, its cobbled precincts and narrow lanes wind down to a compact harbour.
Now I find myself at a tiny cottage cafe. A few tables dot its minuscule garden. The rhythmic pull of waves upon a pebbled shore offers a soothing backdrop. Nearby, hens cluck and peck at the odd snail. Surely a little slice of heaven! But things were not always this peaceful…

Beyond Crail’s choppy waters lies the shadowy, grey-green outline of the Isle of May. Its grim past intrigues and I long to visit its rocky shores. Mass burial mounds hint at some very early occupation and an ancient site of pilgrimage. But it was in 875AD that history records the butchery of the monks at St Aidens Priory by a Viking raiding party.
Many centuries later, ‘witches’ met their fate, bound up, in a nearby testing pool. If they broke free, they were in league with the devil; if not, they were deemed innocent and received a sanctified burial. Doomed either way!
Only the cries of nesting seabirds might disturb you now if you take the short boat ride over for a visit. Puffins and guillemots are amongst the many birds which breed here each year, protected by the island’s National Nature Reserve status.
A sturdy stone lighthouse, built in the early nineteenth century by that enterprising engineer – grandfather of the writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, protects the ships that roll in from the North Sea. But back in 1791, in an earlier lighthouse, one of its three keepers – and five of his six children, perished from the fumes of ash and clinker which had built up near their sleeping quarters – set smouldering by hot coals falling from the twelve metre high beacon. Miraculously, the sixth child was found alive days later. In the nearby village of Anstruther, the three year old grew to adulthood and it was from there that she and her husband emigrated to America. A happier ending, I hope, to such a tragic tale…

Crail’s history is intertwined with fishing and artisan crafts. Set between the ancient political centre of Dunfermline and the religious might of St Andrews, it was granted Royal Burgh status by Robert the Bruce around 1310, allowing it to hold a market under royal protection. Some say it was the largest in Europe at the time.
Imagine the town centre bustling with stalls and merchants and craftsmen! Now, the site is marked by a simple mercat cross, topped by a unicorn. In later years, trading links with Holland proved fruitful. Ships with tiles and bricks, presumably for ballast, came to unload and receive other cargo – wool, hides, honey, salt and the like. Now the red pantile roofs and crow-stepped gables of the buildings form a unique feature of the town’s architecture, reflecting the Dutch influence. Some of Crail’s weavers also exported their hand loom skills directly to the European tapestry trade…

The old kirk of St Mary’s was at one time hung with tapestries which were torn down in 1559 after a sermon delivered by the fiery preacher John Knox, on the evils of fishing on the Sabbath. I wonder what he thought of the Blue Stane, a boulder which lies near the church? Legend suggests it was thrown by the devil from the Isle of May; a circular depression on its surface, holding the mark of the devil’s thumbprint.
Also in the churchyard, the later Mort building is of macabre interest. It housed the newly-dead (three months in winter or a few weeks in summer) to protect them from those who traded in fresh corpses for the medical fraternity in Edinburgh.
Nowadays, various Pictish stones have been relocated to the village which probably would upset the reformer’s sensibilities as well…

Fast forward to Crail’s wartime efforts – January 1918: within sight of the little East Neuk villages, a collision occurred off the Isle of May between Royal Navy warships. Within the space of an hour, two submarines sank with heavy loss of life and various ships were damaged. Perhaps some of the sailors lie buried in St Mary’s graveyard along with others whose livelihoods depended upon the sea – victims of contrary weather conditions and treacherous waters.
During the second world war, the Navy used the strategic base of the Isle of May as a detection centre for German U-boats and above-surface vessels. And the Royal Navy Air Station situated at Crail – HMS Jackdaw, proved its worth as a torpedo training base. Don’t forget the German airforce was busy on its bombing raids then and used the Forth as a flight guide to the Glasgow ship building area. In the process, the Forth Rail bridge was very nearly bombed during a raid. Fortunately, the bombs missed their target and landed on a nearby rocky isle.
It was still not over for Crail – in the 1950s, the dread of the Cold War brought the base back to life as a Joint Services school for linguists. How the world has changed since then…

From my vantage point, a part of me hoped to spot some of the area’s grey seals on the shoreline below. Perhaps I’ll just sit here a bit longer and order more coffee and a delectable slice of cheese cake!












Hidden Treasures

Imagine digging in your own little piece of earth – the wind, fresh upon your face; the sun warms your skin; your thoughts are in delicious free-fall. A hard, echoey clink startles: your heart literally skips a beat…
Throwing the spade aside, you bend down, peering into the shadows. Inquisitive fingers reach in, clearing away the grit. What can it be? An old rusty nail or the hard metal lip of something bigger?
Who isn’t entranced by finding something old, something buried?
Some treasures are uncovered by happenstance, others through endless hours of planning and toil. Perhaps a wild Atlantic gale does the work as at Uig on the west coast of the Scottish Hebrides where the Lewis Chessmen first saw the dim light of day.
I’ve walked these rolling sand hills and often wondered how such treasures came to lie beneath the billowing, wild flowered machair, hidden for almost a millennium in a dark, snug place.
What Viking hands wrought (and played) with these pieces? And what drama led to their hasty burial?
Fortunately, an array of these chess pieces can be seen in the British Museum in London and the Scottish Museum in Chambers St in Edinburgh. Look closely at the pieces, and you will see that the walrus ivory was worked by metal tools for such material was dense, requiring the tusks to be cut by a saw and carved with a chisel. Great skill was also required to avoid the unsightly substance – secondary dentine – filling the cavity of the tusk; a material, coarser grained in texture.
Museum experts suggest the craftsmen used old stores of ivory from long dead walrus.
These tusks were highly valued and a likely source was Greenland, colonised by the Norse for its huge walrus population. Craftsmen in markets towns such as Trondheim and Bergen in Norway would have worked such precious items, portable and light, for sailors and merchants to while away long nights. They held boredom at bay, required intricate, strategic thinking and probably consolidated relationships with friends and family.
We see these gaming pieces now and perhaps think them quaint and charming, the faces, oddly grotesque, but they had real value for their owners.
Our throw-away society holds our tools of entertainment – computers, TVs, play stations and the like in such high esteem; expensive, complex technology, often resulting in fragile and unreliable equipment, dependent upon finite resources, which tends to separate us from the warmth of face to face human companionship. Who is to say which is better or more durable?