I’ve celebrated 8 spooky Halloweens in Scotland. While its celebrations are less flamboyant than what I’m used to in the States (and I love me some over the top events – especially of the scary variety), there’s something to be said for Scotland’s understated acknowledgement of the holiday it invented.
Halloween’s origins are Celtic. Before the Catholic Church turned the festival into All Saints Day, the Celts paid homage to the changing of seasons with Samhuinn. The 1st November marked the end of the abundant summer and harvest period for the Celts and the beginning of the lean winter months. It was then that the souls of the dead from that year could pass over into the afterlife. But it also meant that ghosts and evil spirits could crossover and wreck havoc on the living. And so, the Celts protected themselves by disguising themselves from the spirits and lighting the dark sky with fire.
In fact, some of these Celtic practices are even being celebrated to this day in one form or another.
Pumpkins are a New World, Americana thing. But we got the pumpkin idea from the rutabaga-carving (Swedes to the English, turnips to the Scottish) Scots! To ward off evil spirits when the spirit world’s veil was at its thinnest, Scottish communities would light bonfires and carves lanterns out of rutabagas, a hard root vegetable.
Children were vulnerable to attacks from the spirit world during this time. And so, to protect kids from the evil lurking outside, they would hide under sooty, dirty faces and old clothes.
Bobbing for apples.
If you’re in Scotland, it’s called “dookin’ for apples” and just like in the States, most people will have experienced this Halloween tradition.
Among the Celts and other ancient tribes from Europe and Asia, the apple was seen as sacred as its blossoms brought forth warmer spring weather and its autumnal fruit could be eaten fresh, boiled, baked, fermented or dried – which could provide food (and hard cider) throughout the winter months.
During Samhuinn, people wondered if the seasonal darkness would be eternal. And so, every year, offerings were made to the sun god to encourage him to return next year. Bonfires were lit, apples were tied to evergreen trees and food were offered to the gods. You can read more about Halloween apples here.
Visiting Edinburgh during Halloween
Should you find yourself in Scotland during Halloween, head to the nation’s capital and check out the following ghostly treats in the country where it all began.
This community performing arts festival has been running for decades and is a retelling of Samhuinn – the setting of the sun god and the rise of winter while evil spirits roam.
The procession floats through the streets of the Royal Mile with fire and the beat of drums on Halloween. It makes its way to Parliament Square where the performance begins. The time may change from year to year, but it’s held in the evening so check the website before making arrangements. Dress for the weather (plan for rain, wind and chill) and grab a pint to warm you up before heading to the procession.
There’s plenty of bloody history hiding around and under Edinburgh’s closes (Scottish for alleys). I’ve done my fair share of ghost tours over the years when friends and family visit. It’s a must do when visiting the capital as the storytelling is often unbelievable and macabre history sounds too over the top to be real.
2 Warriston’s Close, High Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1PG
Tickets: £13.95 Adults, Students & Seniors: £12.50 and Children (5-15 yrs): £8.25
This is more a history tour and less of a ghost tour but it still leaves eerie feels when you arrive back in the fresh above ground air. Tour Edinburgh’s underground city – tread on unused and once used alley ways, enter houses and hear about the Plague’s impact on the city. The close even has its very own ghost, or so mediums say, so you may want to bring a stuffed animal for the ghost. You’ll find this close across the Royal Mile from St Giles Cathedral.
Nightly from the large tour sign outside St Giles’ Cathedral on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
Tickets: £10 adults, £8 students/seniors and £6 for children (12+ with an adult)
This was my first Edinburgh ghost tour and it still remains my favourite. The tour company offers a variety of tours but my favourites are: the graveyard or the underground tour. The graveyard tour is my favourite. The guides paint a picture of medieval and Stewart Scotland (post-Queen Elizabeth I) and bring you to one of old town’s graveyards. While they direct you to the locked section of the graveyard, they tell you of the Mackenzie poltergeist and the many documented attacks on people. And then you enter the Covenanter’s Prison and head to the Black Mausoleum – the poltergeist’s comfy home. You may even leave with some bites or scratches…
The underground tour takes you to another hidden area of Edinburgh – the South Bridge vaults. Here stories of poverty, sadness and perhaps even run into the entity that is said to make the vaults its home.
Buy tickets online or outside St Giles Cathedral (where you will also meet for the start of the tour). Tickets sell out fast during peak times (summer, Halloween, December) so book early to avoid disappointment. Wear comfortable shoes and warm clothes as you’ll be walking on unsteady land for about an hour and a half.
Do you have a favourite Halloween haunt in Edinburgh? Or did you have a ghostly encounter on an Edinburgh ghost tour? Share your story in the comments below as I’d love to hear!