Back to Journal

Oidhche Shamhna

Posted on

Traditional Hebridean guisers show off their costumes. Image © Margaret Ann Shaw 1932. Via

Oidhche Shamhna (Oy-hya How-na), is the eve of the ancient Gaelic festival of An t-Samhain (Un Tav-een) and the root of all things spooky and Halloween.

In the old Celtic calendar, the 31st of October marked the end of the harvest season, the beginning of winter, and was always celebrated with fire and great festivities.

It was believed that on this night, the boundaries between our world and the Otherworld overlapped, allowing ghosts and faeries to move freely between the two. One practice was to leave a place set at the table to welcome the souls of dead relatives.

Halloween in South Uist, 1930s by Margaret Ann Shaw © Canna House Photographic Collection

Needless to say local traditions here in Harris have changed as the centuries go by, each generation having different ways of celebrating this long-held cusp in the island year.

But it's always been a fun time for village children, whether it was devilish disguises and turnip lamps, songs and scary stories, or just plenty of mischief.

Local writer Kenneth McDonald recounts his experience at the turn of the 20th century as he and his friends would save up their money and buy apples and nuts before choosing a blackhouse in which to hold a secret party, blacking out the windows with a dark shawl.

Inside a Hebridean blackhouse.

Here they would be found plunging headfirst into a bucket of water and trying to bite their bobbing apples. These were then peeled and thrown over the shoulder, the shape in which they fell spelling the initial of a future spouse.

There was fortune-telling using egg whites and a glass of water, and nuts were placed side by side on the glowing peat embers of the fire. Whoever’s nut jumped and cracked first was to get married first and if two jumped together the two owners were certain to get wed!

After midnight, the real fun began. Peat stacks were mysteriously relocated to the other side of the road overnight. Chimneys would be blocked with turf, and handcarts would be wheeled away a mile down the road.

More disguises from a Hebridean Halloween. © Canna House Photographic Collection via

There’s even a story that one short-sighted old crofter arose on the morning of the 1st November and found herself trying to milk the neighbour’s pony…

Photographer Margaret Fay Shaw of Pennsylvania documented the Oidhche nan Cleas (‘Night of Tricks’) celebrations in the islands just to our south in 1932. Her film and photos are a rare record of local children dressed up in spooky sheepskins and wild corn wigs. 

The gìsears of Uist would carry lit peats to guide them from house to house, where they gave a song or told a fealla-dha (joke) in return for a treat, usually a bannock.

A traditional Scottish turnip lantern.

They also ate treacles scones hung from a string, and ‘fuarag’ a thick combination of cream and oatmeal in which hid a silver sixpence, a thimble, and a button to bring luck.

For most of us here in the islands it was always ‘guising’, dressed in costume and going door to door armed with a song or an instrument, and some jokes to earn sweets and other goodies for our swag bags.

And, we carried a fragrant, hollowed-out turnip (or neep) with a candle in it, and there was usually some dooking for apples thrown in for good measure.

New island Halloween traditions of today © Mairi MacKenzie.

Today, Halloween remains much the same, except the old turnips have been replaced by the easier-to-carve pumpkin, and costumes are a little more likely to be shop-bought than sheepskin-made.

But, the current COVID crisis has brought one big change, as we try to stay safe and avoid mixing households. The first virtual Halloween is being held here in Harris this year, with local kids and their costumes being shared online instead of on doorsteps.

However you're celebrating this age-old festival, enjoy your old traditions and new, and be sure to raise a glass of our supernatural spirit to this most ancient of Gaelic festivals when it's all over. Wishing you all a happy Hebridean Halloween!


Thanks to the National Trust For Scotland. More info via

Basket Alert

Go to basket