October 2016 (Vol. 40, Number 04)
The Banner Says…
Scots myths, folklore and legends
As we go into this latest October issue, we realise what is soon happening in Scotland and around the world this month-Halloween. As we celebrate Halloween on October 31st around the globe, many may not be aware this holiday has very distinct Celtic traditions. Scotland is a land full of myths, folklore and legends which stretch far back into history and carry on today. Scotland has celebrated this time of year for hundreds of years and many of the Halloween customs we know and love today are in fact remnants of this ancient culture. Scotland has a long history of myths, legends and strange stories that occur throughout the year but at this time of year as the nights draw in sooner and we prepare for All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve (Halloween) we can’t help but think of the folklore that has helped shape this great nation.
The Loch Ness Monster
Certainly Scotland’s most famous and unsolved mystery of all, is the Loch Ness Monster. This large dinosaur-like creature is reputed to inhabit Loch Ness (‘Nessie’ as it is now affectionately called) in the picturesque Scottish Highlands. Of course, Loch Ness will, have many visitors watching its shores from those watching for the sighting of its giant beast. This creature was first reported being seen almost 1,500 years ago, when a giant animal was said to have leaped out of the lake near Inverness and ate a local farmer. Since then the myth of the Loch Ness Monster has magnified.
In 1934, a London doctor snapped a photograph that appeared to show a dinosaur-looking creature with a long neck emerging from the water of Loch Ness. Since that day dozens of sightings have been claimed – many of these having been hoaxes. Yet since then the myth of the Loch Ness Monster seems to have magnified. In 2009 a newspaper reader claims to have spotted ‘Nessie’ while browsing Googles Earth’s satellite photos of Loch Ness. Regardless of the truth, the suggestion of the monster’s existence, today makes Loch Ness one of Scotland’s most popular tourist attractions, with thousands visiting its shores each year in the hope of catching a rare – and much favoured glimpse of its famous monster. Nessie is certainly forever linked to Scotland and continues to have a great impact on tourism and business for the Highlands.
Robert the Bruce
When Robert the Bruce became King of Scotland in 1306, Edward the 1st took immediate action against him. The King forced Bruce into hiding, and according to legends we have inherited at some point, while he was on the run and at his lowest ebb, Bruce hid himself in a cave. Whilst he was there, according to legend, he watched a spider spinning himself a web from one part of the cave to the other. He watched the spider try and try again to build his web before finally succeeding. This spider is said to have inspired Bruce to succeed in continuing to carry out fighting the English, which he did. After the death of Edward 1 in 1307, Bruce defeated Edward 11’s armies at Bannockburn in 1314.
The legend of Sawney Bean
The story of Sawney Bean is one of the most gruesome of Scottish legends, which wouldn’t be out of place in a modern horror movie. Unfortunately it is unknown whether Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean was actually a real person or just a creation of Scottish folklore, but the story certainly has a lot of intrigue. According to legend, Sawney Bean was the head of a criminal, cannibalistic, family in the 15th century, during the reign of King James 1 of Scotland. It has been claimed that he, his wife and 46 children and grandchildren killed and fed on over a thousand people before they were captured and executed. However there is more on this hungry man in this issue so keep reading!
Halloween-Fires, neeps and lanterns
Of all the seasonal holidays, Halloween is one of many favourites – both within Scotland itself and also within the Scots people themselves. It inspires spiritual significance or that same giddy expectation as one may have with Christmas. There is some macabre theatricality about it which never fails to bring out the big ‘child’ in many of us. Scotland certainly also celebrates the season, with its atmospheric landscape and array of haunted castles, peculiar superstitions and occasional morbid history – it’s not surprising Halloween first took root there.
Robert Burns, the famous Scottish poet, wrote about the myths, legends and traditions associated with Halloween in Scotland in his poem Halloween about this topic in 1785. Halloween in Scotland is all about supernatural witches, spirits and fires. In this poem Halloween, can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (summer’s end) held on November 1st. The Celtic year was determined by growing seasons with Samhain (Samhuinn in Gaelic) marking the end of summer and the beginning of harvest season with the onset of winter.
The next season was the beginning of the dark and cold winter. This festival symbolised the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead. It was during those years that the Celts believed that on the night of October 31st ghosts of the dead would walk amongst them. Large bonfires were lit in each village to ward off evil spirits. All fires were put out and new fires lit from the new great bonfires. Today the Samhuinn Fire Festival in Edinburgh is an annual event marking the Celtic New Year, and is presented by the Beltane Society. The event features ancient Celtic traditions which include a spectacular procession of fire, music, martial arts, drumming, dancing, theatre and fireworks, all taking place in Edinburgh’s Old Town.
Today bonfires are still used to scare away the un-dead in some areas of Scotland. These are more usually “neep lanterns” (turnip lanterns) are made by scooping out a turnip and cutting a trough in the skin to create eyes, nose and mouth with creepy grimaces. A candle is then lit inside to make the lantern. These lanterns are also supposed to ward off evil spirits. Nowadays thanks to the influence of American culture, pumpkins are as common as turnips for lanterns.
The Witchcraft Act of 1733
Until recently, ‘trick or treat’ was unknown in Scotland. Instead children dressed up pretending to be evil spirits and went ‘guising’ (or ‘galoshin’). The custom traces back to times when it was thought that by disguising children in this way they would blend in with the spirits that were abroad that night. Children arriving at a house so ‘disguised’ would receive an offering to ward off evil. Today it is expected that the children, as well as dressing up, also perform a party trick – a song or a dance, or recite a poem, for example – before they are offered a treat which might be fruit, nuts or more commonly nowadays, money or sweets. The Witchcraft Act of 1733 contained a clause preventing the consumption of pork or pastry on Halloween. However, this act was repealed in the 1930’s, and today it is now legal to offer pork pies or sausage rolls to children as treats.
“Dookin’ for apples” is a popular Halloween party game and involves taking an apple floating in a basin of water, without using your hand, either by spearing it with a fork, held in your teeth, or by biting it. This allows another Halloween tradition with its roots in pagan times. The original bobbing for apples still continues to stem back to ancient Celtic traditions.
Scotland undoubtedly is one of the most haunted nations on earth and offers a Halloween experience as spooky as it gets, from family friendly silliness to genuinely spine tingling escapades. Take your pick from a range of events and activities guaranteed to make this Halloween one you won’t forget in a hurry. In this issue you will find some more content on Scottish myths and legends which we hope you will enjoy. Wherever you spend your Halloween, I wish you a wonderful time, with many fine Scottish legends and treats to enjoy – no matter which myth you choose to believe (or not)!
This month also marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month and includes our pink tartan cover, the Scottish Banner will be donating proceeds from this issue to help this great cause, and we thank our readers for their support.