It is once again the tail end of the year, where the clocks go back, the days get darker, and spirits come ever closer to the waking world. In the Celtic calendar the year was divided into two halves: the dormant and dark winter; and the bright and vibrant summer. This was split again into quarters that marked the seasons. As people believed that darkness preceded the light, the year started in winter, at what was known as Samhain (or summer’s end), on the 31 October – now commonly known as Halloween.

In the past these festivals and events were more closely tied to the natural world and the cycle of food production. The beginning of winter marked the end of the harvest, when herds would be culled and penned, and the storing of crops would begin in preparation for the coming winter. As the natural world began to decay and wither, with the leaves burning orange and falling, and the sun disappearing, is it any surprise that thoughts turned to death and the dead?

At this time, it was thought that the boundaries between the living world, and the world of spirits, super-naturals and the dead dissolved. This marked a period of remembrance for those family members who had passed on, with the possibility of their ghosts coming to visit you, but also a time of mischief when people and places had to be protected from the influence of the ‘otherworld’. Witches, fairies and otherworldly beings were abroad on these nights, and traditions and customs were created to ward against them:

  • Lighting a bonfire and carrying a candle or firebrand around an area or subject could purify and prevent the influence of witches and faeries
  • Tying sprigs of a rowan tree (well known in Scotland for discouraging witches) or holly over the doorposts or lintels of a house would stop malevolent spirits entering
  • Sprinkling the threshold with salt or urine was supposed to ward off evil, although we can perhaps be glad that this is no longer practiced

The most familiar Scottish custom which still features in today’s Halloween, is guising. People, afraid of returning or malevolent spirits recognising them, would only dare venture out in disguise as a form of protection. Food would be left out as an offering to appease those spirits that sought to visit. Today this custom of going out in ‘guise’ is mostly enjoyed by children and families, who dress up in costume and tour houses as guisers. Unlike the blackmail of ‘trick or treat’, guisers must perform to receive a reward and may tell jokes, or sing songs before receiving a sweetie. This could be in the form of nuts, apples or nowadays chocolate and sweets.

Portrait of actor Charles Albert Fechter (23 October 1824 – 5 August 1879) in costume as Hamlet (Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, GD268/1045/19a)

While some mischief-making in the form of pranks, and jump scares still happen today, guising is generally welcomed as a friendly and harmless event. However, in the early 1900s, before this tradition was codified to one day of the year, newspaper reports suggest that guising could occur for several weeks, and that people were alert to the possibility of this tradition acting as a cover for child begging.

A case reported in the Aberdeen Press and Journal on the 31 October 1929, titled ‘Legality of Guising’, describes the case of “guisers” accosting people on the street. The parents of the child involved are accused of contravening the ‘Children’s Act’ for allowing their child out to guise.

In the early 1900s, the Liberal Party were in power and they sought to introduce a series of social reforms to address the distress and cruelty the impoverished in society were often subjected to. The work they undertook illuminated the often appalling conditions in which the poorer classes lived and worked, with the brunt of ill treatment seemingly reserved for women, children and the less able bodied. One of the reforms introduced was the Children Act (also known as The Children’s Charter) 1908 that wrote into law many new protections for children, including preventing adults using them to procure ‘alms’:

“If any person causes or procures any child or young person, or, having the custody charge or care of a child or your person, allows that child or young person, to be in any street premises, or place for the purpose of begging or receiving alms or of inducing the giving of alms, whether or not there is any pretence of singing, playing, performing, offering anything for sale, or otherwise, that shall, on summary conviction, be liable to a fine not exceeding twenty-five pounds, or alternatively or in default of payment of such fine, or in addition thereto to imprisonment, with or without hard labour, for any term not exceeding three months”

Children Act 1908, Part II, 14. ‘Begging’

In this case, the charge against the parents was dismissed and a distinction made between asking for ‘alms’ and guising for Halloween. There is further correspondence in the papers that suggest that guisers were perceived by some as a nuisance, with some being physically attacked, with different correspondents bemoaning “the silly and objectionable practice” and others coming to its defence.

The Arbroath Herald, Thursday, 11 November 1897 (Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

It is interesting that the Sheriff’s advice, recorded in the Aberdeen Press and Journal, was to limit any guising before the 31 October, to avoid the children being seen as pests, and the parents falling within the legislation set out in the Children Act 1908. Perhaps this is why guising eventually became associated with Halloween, 31 October, only?

Sadly this year, the annual tradition will not proceed as we remain in the grips of COVID-19, and seek to protect the vulnerable in our communities from a virus, rather than from malevolent spirits. However, I doubt this will stop those eager to mark the occasion from creating costumes, dressing up and sharing their ‘guises’ online; and hopefully we can look forward to revisiting this custom in 2021. Until next year!

“Wi’ merry sangs, an’ friendly cracks,
I wat they did na weary;
And unco tales, an’ funnie jokes
Their sports were cheap an’ cheery:
Till butter’d sowens, wi’ fragrant lunt,
Set a’ their gabs a-steerin;
Syne, wi’ a social glass o’ strunt,
They parted aff careerin
Fu’ blythe that night.”

Robert Burns, ‘Halloween’, 1785

Jocelyn Grant

Archivist

Further Reading

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