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29 Oct 2020

A Hebridean Halloween

A black and white photograph of three people dressed in unusual Halloween costumes. The figure on the left wears a long dark skirt, a wool jacket and a mask made from a sheep's face. The figure in the centre has a tight leather mask tied over his face. The figure on the right is almost completely covered by a large, shaggy fleece, and carries a walking cane. All are standing outdoors in a field, with croft houses just visible in the background.
© Canna House Photographic Collection
The otherworldly magic of a traditional Hebridean Halloween was captured on camera by Margaret Fay Shaw, who amassed a huge collection of Gaelic song, poetry and images when she lived in the west of Scotland from the 1930s onwards.
A Hebridean Halloween


This was Halloween on South Uist in 1932.
In Gaelic Halloween was Oidhche nan Cleas, the Night of Tricks.
Children made homemade costumes from sheepskins, haystack wigs, scraped-out skulls and sheep ears.
One boy spent an entire day peeling the skin from a sheep skull to make his mask.
Gisears would sing songs and tell jokes.
They dooked for apples, ate treacle scones on strings and 'fuarag', thick cream and oatmeal with a treat inside.
[Singing in Gaelic]
Like any other Hebridean celebration, they would sing traditional songs.
Including the traditional Gaelic 'puirt a beul'.
[singing stops]
The haunting collection of photos and recordings were captured by Margaret Fay Shaw.
The priceless collection on the Isle of Canna features almost 9,000 images.
She passed away in 2004 aged 101.
Images from the Margaret Fay Shaw Photographic Collection and audio from the Canna Sound Archive, by permission of Canna House, National Trust for Scotland.

Margaret and her husband, Gaelic scholar John Lorne Campbell, bought the Isle of Canna in 1938, donating it to the Trust in 1981. Their collection, archived at Canna House, includes images and film of Halloween, or Samhain, festivities in South Uist.

The roots of Halloween in Scotland go back to the Gaelic festival of Samhain. ‘There are lots of theories about the origins of Samhain, but the overriding idea is that it was a time when the boundary between this world and the other world could be crossed,’ says Canna House archivist and manager Fiona Mackenzie.

“That was the origin of dressing up – you were disguising yourself from the spirits and trying to please them, so they’d look after you during winter.”
Fiona Mackenzie

‘Costumes were usually made out of sheepskin or whatever was lying around the croft. Unravelled rope was used to make headpieces. In Margaret’s photos you can see someone dressed entirely in sheepskin. She wrote in the 1930s about watching a boy skin the head of a sheep, leaving the ears intact. He lifted it over his head and looked just like a sheep,’ continues Fiona.

A black and white photograph of two figures standing in a boulder-strewn field, next to a large sheep. Both boys wear costumes. The one on the left wears a round piece of sheep fleece completely covering his face. The boy on the right has a crudely shaped metal mask.
Traditional Samhain costumes © Canna House Photographic Collection

Fiona adds: ‘There’s a lot of food involved in Samhain too, both as a feast day for yourself but also to leave food out for the spirits.’ One tradition was to leave a place set at the table to welcome the souls of dead relatives.

Food for Halloween (the word comes from the Scots shortening of All Hallows Eve) included a pudding shared by the family, with a silver sixpence, a thimble and a button hidden inside. There were also traditions to do with romance. You could foretell the future of two sweethearts by throwing two nuts into the fire. If they exploded at the same time, it was said ‘they were away together’.

Find out more about Halloween traditions in Scotland

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