Celebrating Halloween in Scotland

With its wild moors, haunted castles, heavy mists, and ancient stone circles, Scotland has always felt thrillingly spooky to me. I’m a Scorpio born the day before Halloween, so it’s little wonder that this windswept country haunts my imagination. When Tim and I visited Scotland two years ago, we timed our visit to coincide with both my birthday and All Hallows Eve. Celebrating Halloween in Scotland has particular significance, as Scotland was the place where this holiday began.

Celebrating Halloween in Scotland

Tracing Halloween’s Roots

Of course, back then, Halloween wasn’t its proper name. The ancient Celts celebrated Samhain (or Samhuinn in Gaelic), from the evening of October 31st through the evening of November 1st. Samhain marks the end of the harvesting season and heralds the coming winter. In celebration, Auld World Celts lit with special bonfires. They believed that on this day, the borders between the real world and the spirit world lowered. This allowed spirits or fairies, as well as the souls of the dead, to easily pass back through. They threw great feasts, leaving a place for the dead to join. And they wore costumes, though scholars aren’t sure if there were meant to imitate the spirits or hide from them.

Celebrating Samhain in Edinburgh

‘Twas indeed a dark and stormy night when, armed with a wide umbrella to fight a persistent drizzle and two whiskies to ward off the chill, we set off into the middle of Edinburgh to observe the celebrations. The year we went, the celebration was held in the square fronting St. Giles’ Cathedral. As we walked, we could hear the wild drumming from the Princes Street Gardens.

The square was lit by dozens of blazing torches and small fires. We joined the throng and pressed in close to watch a parade of painted dancers writhe towards Parliament Square, dancing and waving gigantic flaming torches.

The official write-up from the Beltane Fire Society sums it up nicely:

“The story follows the ideas of the overthrowing of Summer by Winter, with a stand-off between the Summer and Winter Kings. The Cailleach, a Celtic representation of the Goddess, or Divine Hag, oversees these battles. The energies and interactions of the Summer and Winter courts support the transformation of seasons through performance, music and dance. The narrative focuses on this conflict and its resolution, but also focuses on the transition that many aspects of life take during the changing of the seasons.”

The celebration was true revelry—energetic, untamed, and pure. So that everyone could see, the crowd put down the umbrellas. We stood with rain pouring down on our fire-lit faces, spellbound. I absolutely loved every minute of our Scotland trip, but this one shines bright in my memory.

In 2018, the Samhain festivities are held at Edinburgh’s Calton Hill for the first time, starting at 7pm and ending at 11pm. Expect ornate costumes, full-body painting, energetic drums, and lots and lots of fire. There is a charge this year: £6 advance, £9 on the day. Children under 5 are free.