My neep lantern last night.
Halloween on the island of Lewis, along with Hogmanay or Cailluinn are the only two remaining Celtic festivals that survive.
In the 18th Century it is said a custom prevailed that Shony, a sea-god with a Norse name was to appeased on the night of the 31st. Ale was brewed at church from malt brought collectively by the people. One took a cupful in his hand, and waded out into the sea up to his waist, saying as he poured it out: “Shony, I give you this cup of ale, hoping that you’ll be so kind as to send us plenty of sea-ware, for enriching our ground the ensuing year.” The party returned to the church, waited for a given signal when a candle burning on the altar was blown out. Then they went out into the fields, and drank ale with dance and song.
More realistically Halloween was an excuse for kids to get up to mischief. Kenneth McDonald in his book Peat Fire Memories recounts his experience at the turn of the century growing up in the village of Sandwick. He and his friends would save up their money and buy apples and nuts before choosing a blackhouse in which to hold a secret party, blacking out the windows with a dark shawl. Here they would eat and “dook” for apples plunging headfirst into a bucket of water and trying to bite the bobbing apples to remove them. The apples were then peeled and the peels thrown over the shoulder, the shape in which they fell spelling the initial of your future spouse.
The nuts were placed side by side on glowing peat embers. Whoever’s nut jumped and cracked first was to get married first and if two jumped together the two owners were certain to get wed! Then there was fortune telling with one old lady cracking egg white into a glass of water and telling each child their future…
After midnight the mischief began. He tells us stories of the pranks they played. In the first an old crofter threatens them with harm if they touch his prize cabbages. While he slept they tied string to them all and hiding at a distance slowly pulled the string. When the old crofter looked out he sees the cabbages making their own way out of his garden and turns white as a sheet and tells his wife the demons that infested the Gadarene Swine had entered his vegetables! In another they moved one man’s peat stack lock, stock and barrel and rebuilt it perfectly on the other side of the road. Chimney’s would be blocked with sgrath or divots, handcarts would be wheeled away a mile down the road. Finally he tells of one poor, old blind cailleach who would get up everyday and milk her cow in the byre. Except on the morning of the 1st November she made her way out and found herself trying to milk the neighbour’s pony…
For us it was always ‘guising, dressed in costume and going door to door armed with a song and some jokes to earn sweets and other goodies for our swag bags. We usually carried a hollowed out turnip or neep with a candle in it and there was usually some dooking for apples thrown in for good measure. I was laughing last night about the time my Mum and Auntie dressed me up as an old cailleach complete with tweed skirt, wrinkly tights, shawl, head scarf and a peat cutter. Very amusing for them too I’m sure!
It’s now 2008 and last night I carved a lantern from a good sized neep while myself and J and I sat in, eat chocolate witches cats and watched scary movies. No kids chapped our door and no tricks were played I’m afraid such are the joys of city life.