In honour of the season, here for your reading enjoyment is an eerie Scots ballad by George MacDonald. A master of Gothic fiction and fantasy horror, MacDonald wrote from wide, lifelong familiarity with Scottish folklore and folk tradition. When he wrote a poem called ‘Halloween’—certainly following the example of Robert Burns and others—he celebrates a number of old, nearly forgotten Halloween customs.
Unlike Burns, however, MacDonald isn’t so much interested in the customs for their own sake, but in telling, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s words, ‘a fine bogey tale.’ The unco otherworldly presences are very much real in this poem, and perilous. No less a critic than Andrew Lang called this poem ‘one of the most moving ballads that ever caused a superstitious shudder.’
So, turn down the lights, open the door as wide as it goes, bundle up in a blanket, read to yourself in a whisper—and shudder.
by George MacDonald
Sweep up the flure, Janet;
Put on anither peat.
It’s a lown and a starry nicht, Janet,
And nowther cauld nor weet.
It’s the nicht atween the Sancts and Souls
Whan the bodiless gang aboot;
And it’s open hoose we keep the nicht
For ony that may be oot.
Set the cheirs back to the wa’, Janet;
Mak ready for quaiet fowk.
Hae a’thing as clean as a windin-sheet:
They comena ilka ook.
There’s a spale upo’ the flure, Janet,
And there’s a rowan-berry!
Sweep them intil the fire, Janet,
Or they’ll neither come nor tarry.
Syne set open the outer dure-
Wide open for wha kens wha?
As ye come ben to your bed, Janet,
Set baith dures to the wa’.
She set the cheirs back to the wa’,
But ane that was o’ the birk;
She sweepit the flure, but left the spale-
A lang spale o’ the aik.
The nicht was lown; the stars sae still
War glintin doon the sky;
The souls crap oot o’ their mooly graves,
A’ dank wi’ lyin by.
They faund the dure wide to the wa’,
And the peats blawn rosy reid:
They war shuneless feet gaed in and oot,
Nor clampit as they gaed.
The mither she keekit but the hoose,
Saw what she ill could say;
Quakin she slidit doon by Janet,
And gaspin a whilie she lay.
There’s are o’ them sittin afore the fire!
Ye wudna hearken to me!
Janet, ye left a cheir by the fire,
Whaur I tauld ye nae cheir suld be!
Janet she smilit in her minnie’s face:
She had brunt the roden reid,
But she left aneth the birken cheir
The spale frae a coffin-lid!
Saft she rase and gaed but the hoose,
And ilka dure did steik.
Three hours gaed by, and her minnie heard
Sound o’ the deid nor quick.
Whan the gray cock crew, she heard on the flure
The fa’ o’ shuneless feet;
Whan the rud cock crew, she heard the dure,
And a sough o’ win’ and weet.
Whan the goud cock crew, Janet cam back;
Her face it was gray o’ ble;
Wi’ starin een, at her mither’s side
She lay doon like a bairn to dee.
Her white lips hadna a word to lat fa’
Mair nor the soulless deid;
Seven lang days and nights she lay,
And never a word she said.
Syne suddent, as oot o’ a sleep, she brade,
Smilin richt winsumly;
And she spak, but her word it was far and strayit,
Like a whisper come ower the sea.
And never again did they hear her lauch,
Nor ever a tear doun ran;
But a smile aye flittit aboot her face
Like the mune on a water wan.
And ilka nicht atween Sancts and Souls
She laid the dures to the wa’,
Blew up the fire, and set the cheir,
And loot the spale doon fa’.
And at midnicht she gaed but the hoose
Aye steekin dure and dure.
Whan the goud cock crew, quaiet as a moose
She cam creepin ower the flure.
Mair wan grew her face, and her smile mair sweet
Quhill the seventh Halloweve:
Her mother she heard the shuneless feet,
Said-She’ll be ben belyve!
She camna ben. Her minnie rase-
For fear she ‘maist cudna stan;
She grippit the wa’, and but she gaed,
For the goud cock lang had crawn.
There sat Janet upo’ the birk cheir,
White as the day did daw;
But her smile was a sunglint left on the sea
Whan the sun himsel is awa.
For a glossary of Scots language click here