We craft and tell stories because we’ve stood on the uncertain edge between the waking world and our imagination, between enchantment and fear. And we remember other stories that help us build our own stories, scraps of lumber and fragments of narrative we gather together to make stories for ourselves.

Scottish Halloween Matchmaking

Scottish Halloween MatchmakingScottish Halloween

All Hallows’ Eve has long cultivated folk rituals and folktales of all varieties. Like the midsummer and midwinter festivals, this autumn feast day seems to invite attempts to peer into the future, past the veil of the material and the temporal to catch a glimpse of—well, who knows what, exactly?

Robert Burns celebrates aspects of the Scottish divination traditions in his poem ‘Hallowe’en’ (1786). His description of a rural Ayrshire Halloween night contains so many games and rituals, it seems incredulous that a single celebration could include them all. Along with such familiar games as bobbing for apples are nearly forgotten rituals, such as putting nuts in the fire with names written on them, and ‘according as they burn quietly together, or start from beside one another, the course and issue of the courtship will be’.

Burns, in fact, makes nuptual fortune-telling the central feature of ‘Hallowe’en’ (1786); all the lads and lasses rush to engage in various tricks and techniques to scry who they’ll marry—and, more urgently, who might be interested in going to bed with them evening.

‘Hallowe’en’, in a way, is two texts—or, more correctly, a single text with two conflicting speakers. There is, of course, the poem itself. But then there are Burns’s notes. He provides running commentary on the events of the poem in a series of lugubrious footnotes, clarifying and expanding on deft allusions to folk traditions. In his introductory note, he explains:

The passion of prying into futurity makes a striking part of the history of human nature in its rude state, in all ages and nations; and it may be some entertainment to a philosophic mind, if any such honour the author with a perusal, to see the remains of it among the more unenlightened in our own.

If this sounds like a fussy enlightenment pedant sneering at the unenlightened ‘folk’, that’s almost certainly exactly how Burns meant it to sound. Burns the Folklorist seems to write in opposition to Rab the Rhymer; the heavy academic English of the notes contrast sharply with the lively, cheeky Scots of the poem. After describing the lads and lasses nervously getting dressed in their best in hopes of catching some roving eye, the poem declares:

Then, first an’ foremost, thro’ the kail,

Their stocks (5) maun a’ be sought ance;

They steek their een, and grape an’ wale

For muckle anes, an’ straught anes. (lines 28-32)

There’s an immediately recognizable, and sympathetic, vigor and anxiety as the young people ‘steek their een, and grape an’ wale’ to find the biggest and straightest stalk to pull. (And, of course, there’s that cheeky, very Burnsian double entendre.) But note 5 ponderously explains:

The first ceremony of Halloween is pulling each a “stock,” or plant of kail. They must go out, hand in hand, with eyes shut, and pull the first they meet with: its being big or little, straight or crooked, is prophetic of the size and shape of the grand object of all their spells—the husband or wife. If any “yird,” or earth, stick to the root, that is “tocher,” or fortune; and the taste of the “custock,” that is, the heart of the stem, is indicative of the natural temper and disposition.

Interesting, but a bit fustian—it’s hard to imagine someone writing this note going out to pull stocks themselves. The narrator of the notes is all a bit condescending at first. When the poet begins:

Upon that night, when fairies light

On Cassilis Downans (2) dance,

Or owre the lays, in splendid blaze,

On sprightly coursers prance;

Or for Colean the rout is ta’en,

Beneath the moon’s pale beams;

There, up the Cove, (3) to stray an’ rove,

Amang the rocks and streams

To sport that night;

The note-maker adds two tedious disclaimers:

(2) Certain little, romantic, rocky, green hills, in the neighbourhood of the ancient seat of the Earls of Cassilis. —R.B.

(3) A noted cavern near Colean house, called the Cove of Colean; which, as well as Cassilis Downans, is famed, in country story, for being a favorite haunt of fairies. —R.B.

These comments have the mild condescension of an eighteenth-century travel writer, wittering on about ‘romantic, rocky, green hills’ and brushing aside a glimmer of fairy lore as ‘country story’. It is indeed the voice of ‘a philosophic mind’ finding ‘some entertainment’ from the ‘more unenlightened.’

But as the poem goes on, the voice changes. In stanza 13, for instance, a little girl, somewhat frightened despite having fun, wants to join in the games—so long as her grandmother will go with her:

Wee Jenny to her graunie says,

“Will ye go wi’ me, graunie?

I’ll eat the apple at the glass, (10)

I gat frae uncle Johnie:”

And the note is decidedly helpful:

(10) Take a candle and go alone to a looking-glass; eat an apple before it, and some traditions say you should comb your hair all the time; the face of your conjungal companion, to be, will be seen in the glass, as if peeping over your shoulder. —R.B.

The remaining notes adopt a similarly instructive tone:

(11) Steal out, unperceived, and sow a handful of hemp-seed, harrowing it with anything you can conveniently draw after you. Repeat now and then: “Hemp-seed, I saw thee, hemp-seed, I saw thee; and him (or her) that is to be my true love, come after me and pou thee.” Look over your left shoulder, and you will see the appearance of the person invoked, in the attitude of pulling hemp. […]

(12) This charm must likewise be performed unperceived and alone. You go to the barn, and open both doors, taking them off the hinges, if possible; for there is danger that the being about to appear may shut the doors, and do you some mischief. Then take that instrument used in winnowing the corn, which in our country dialect we call a “wecht,” and go through all the attitudes of letting down corn against the wind. Repeat it three times, and the third time an apparition will pass through the barn, in at the windy door and out at the other, having both the figure in question, and the appearance or retinue, marking the employment or station in life. […]

(14) You go out, one or more (for this is a social spell), to a south running spring, or rivulet, where “three lairds’ lands meet,” and dip your left shirt sleeve. Go to bed in sight of a fire, and hang your wet sleeve before it to dry. Lie awake, and, some time near midnight, an apparition, having the exact figure of the grand object in question, will come and turn the sleeve, as if to dry the other side of it.  —R.B.

The note-maker has moved from talk of ‘more unenlightened’ to ‘our country dialect’, shifting his identification from the reader of the poem to the country folk within it. Burns seems to slyly assume that the readers will have grown interested enough that they’ll want to try the spells themselves. The shifting perspective of the notes seems to suggest that the ‘entertainment’ to be had on Hallowe’en night is not, after all, sitting and chuckling at the quaint ways of the folk, but getting up and joining in the game.


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