Posts tagged ‘trick or treat’

Oct 31, 2021

Guising or Trick or Treat – placating evil spirits and me on soul watch

Halloween or All Hallows’ Eve is big business nowadays. Where I come from in the Scottish Highlands it was always one of the major occasions in a year we children looked forward to; each 31st of October we went out guising. Guising – or rather disguising – dressed in costumes and wearing a scary face mask we would wander about the village and be invited in from the dark and spooky night to neighbour’s cosy livingrooms  to recite a poem, sing a song or tell a joke. Our adult neighbours would then attempt to identify us. One year one of the older boys had pulled on a white sheet with eye holes cut out which the rest of us thought was cheating as it was nearly impossible to identify him – and this ghostly creature was a terrifying sight back out in the dark . We were invited to dook for apples floating in a basin of water or catch them with our teeth as they dangled from strings. Our reward for entertaining our neighbours were gifts of apples, monkey nuts, a coin perhaps and maybe sweets or cake. I thought of these things as rewards but the Celtic roots of this festival had a more sinister meaning. Contact from a spectral being, albeit a child wearing a false face, had to involve a donation to the spirit to thwart their evil intentions.  

Scots who migrated to America held onto many of their traditions. It has become law in the US that any celebration must be made into a money-making opportunity and so it was with guising. America’s trick or treat hit the shops here. A Scottish tradition that stretched back thousands of years that few south of the Borders had heard of was rebranded as trick or treat in the UK as well. Instead of apples and monkey nuts came commercial sweets, instead of a cardboard or plastic false face and an old sheet came shop-bought costumes and instead of the howked-out neep with a candle in the middle came pumpkins. But the essence remained. A gift to placate evil or have evil done in alive in trick or treat.

Guising took place on the night before the Celtic festival of fire of peace, Samhain (Samhuinn in Gaelic), on 1 November when fires were lit at dusk and musicians played as people danced and chatter was mostly about foretelling the future. Over time the two celebrations merged as Halloween, originally All Hallows’ Eve – the evening before All Hallows’ Day (All Saint’s Day) is the name that lingers but the festival pre-dates this Christian celebration of All Saint’s Day as Samhain was an important event in the pre-Christian calendar.

Lots of similar festivities took place over a year which were participated in by people living through uncertain times with life and death at the whim of the elements, a poor harvest or series of poor harvests spelled illness and death to communities. Where people lack personal control over their lives and there is continuing uncertainty they look for ways to ensure good luck comes their way. In few places in the UK was life more fraught with threats to survival than in the Scottish Highlands. And so where people today might buy a lottery ticket in the hope of getting out of a financial fix, Highlanders in the past curried favour with the spirits they believed were all around and influenced life and death by making them little offerings.

Highlanders were very superstitious. They were also very vulnerable to all sorts of calamities from the natural world to unscrupulous lairds. Perhaps it is this that made Highlanders particularly humble people, not given to boasting and showing off because luck can change. Nothing was taken for granted. For folk who had next to nothing in material terms a loss of, say, their only cow would mean deeper poverty than they already endured and potentially death for the family. They lived life on the edge, at the mercy of evil spirits, gods – whatever. For anyone who dared push themselves forward, get above themselves, there was a price to be paid. An example of this rashness comes in a story concerning Mary Queen of Scots.

Queen Mary (Mary Queen of Scots) was visiting Ross-shire when a Mrs Monro introduced her to her 12 sons and 12 daughters – all strong and healthy young people which the mother pointed out to the queen, offering them as her devoted servants of squires and damsels. The queen quite taken aback that the poor woman had borne 24 children immediately rose out of her chair,

“Madam, ye sud tak this chaire, ye best ‘deserve it.’

The queen praised the large, handsome and healthy family. That was not done in Highland culture. To praise was fair enough but a compliment must be qualified with a nod to god such as “God bless the …” could be a bairn, 24 bairns, or the family’s single cow. The queen, not being a Highlander, did not understand this and the family’s fate was sealed, it is said they had ill-luck from then on.

Parents were particularly concerned over their newborn babies who were thought of as particularly vulnerable to the spirits and evil eyes. Some of those evil-doers were fairies. Fairies were wont to steal babies. To Highlanders fairies were not delightful little creatures but conniving spirits that would harm a person as quick as look at them. Babies were watched round the clock to prevent them being taken by these malevolent influences who would swap them for a changeling infant. And you didn’t want a changeling. Changelings weren’t human and sometimes not even children but elderly fairies disguised as infants to get affection and coddling from human mothers. They were evil beings, recognisable by their precociousness or unusual physical attributes. Only when a baby was christened was it thought to be safe. At the christening gifts were given to placate hostile spirits, simple things such as a piece of bread.  

To help forestall any malicious fairy intending harm or a poor harvest or sickness in the family cow a tribute to the spirits might be left at a place associated with the spirit world, such as a well or loch. In the Black Isle, the Clootie Well near Munlochy has for long been one of these places where fragments of clothing, ribbons and even food such as bread or oatcakes were left and a wish made to protect someone. This tradition goes beyond Scotland. I’ve seen the same in Siberia where bushes and trees have offerings in the form of scraps of material designed to deter bad luck and instigate good fortune.

The Clootie Well

Birth was fraught with menaces and so, too, was death. I learnt from my mother that when a person died their souls rose up to heaven. We lived next door to the village church and graveyard and on several occasions the young me would stand watching and waiting, no doubt arms akimbo, to see the soul of a recently buried person rising into the sky, heavenward. After weeks, maybe months of this, I complained to my mother that I never saw any souls in the sky only to be told they were invisible. What a let down! She did not say, perhaps didn’t know though being from Highlanders whose ancestors stretched back into the proverbial mists of time she probably did know that when a loved one died a window in the house was opened to allow the soul to escape. That information could have saved me hours of standing about in our garden on soul watch. The dead were kept at home in our village; their corpses prepared for burial by the next of kin or someone appointed in lieu of them. Not sure the practice of placing a plate of salt on the body to prevent it from swelling and bursting the bands of the shroud was still on the go when I was young, probably not. Mort cloths were long pieces of plain woven linen that covered the body or coffin. I have one from my Black Isle family that was never used – my mother’s cousin cut up another into dish towels. The linen was grown on the family croft near Cromarty. As with babies, family watched over the newly dead until burial, to prevent evil spirits doing them harm. This was known as the lyke wake during which relatives old and young would dance, slowly, in the proximity of the body.

Evil was likely to escape through someone’s mouth as well as eye. To kiss a mouth could prevent fore-speaking – expressing the future (usually bleak) and anyone suffering misfortune was said to have the ‘uncanny eye’ or ‘uneasy eye’ and nobody wanted to catch that. Any afflicted with the uncanny or uneasy eye were offered small gifts, such as bread, oatcakes or pieces of clothing, to keep them on side and encourage them to cast their evil somewhere else.  

Superstition was an everyday part of life for the Highlander as it was for most folk straddling that fine line between survival and death – think of fishermen, famously superstitious. A few superstitions live on in the 21st century. Halloween is a capitalist’s dream of a commercial bonanza but I’d like to see how they would handle another Highland tradition on All Hallows’ Eve in which young women were blindfolded and encouraged to select a cabbage to discover the size and physique of their future husbands. I think we can assume that is something that is definitely relegated to the past.