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6 Oct 2018

Oidhche Shamhna – a South Uist Halloween

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie
Traditional Hebridean guisers show off their costumes and dance to a Halloween port a beul (mouth music).
Margaret Fay Shaw depicts a traditional Hebridean Halloween with her images and film of South Uist in the 1930s.
Halloween inspiration for guisers in 2018?
Halloween inspiration for guisers in 2018?

In 1929 Margaret Fay Shaw of Pennsylvania wanted to find ‘pristine’ Gaelic folksong. She went to live in a tiny glen in South Lochboisdale, South Uist, determined to immerse herself into the daily life of a crofting family. Living with two sisters, Peggy and Mary Macrae, in their tiny blue-doored croft house called Taigh Màiri Anndra in North Glendale, she encountered a way of life that she could previously have only imagined. There was a stark contrast between her privileged upbringing as the daughter of a well-off steel manufacturer and her life in South Uist – no electricity, no running water, dirt floors and living alongside dogs, cats, cows and sheep.

Taigh Màiri Anndra, North Glendale
Taigh Màiri Anndra, North Glendale

As well as carrying out her quest to ‘hunt’ for folksongs, Margaret was also determined to record the lives of the community in which she was living, on celluloid and film. She was to become one of the first female photographers of the 20th century. Her collection of almost 9,000 images is kept in the archives of Canna House on the Isle of Canna, where she lived with her husband, the renowned Gaelic folklorist John Lorne Campbell, from 1938 when they bought the island. She died in 2004. 

Canna House, 1938
Canna House, 1938

‘On the evening of the last day of October, I was sitting by the fire reading when I heard a knock at the door and looked up to see a horrible face. Mary laughed at me and I remembered it was Hallowe’en …’

 Margaret was particularly fascinated with  local folklore customs and in 1932 she decided to take images, still and film, of the local children as they dressed up to celebrate Halloween or Oidhche nan Cleas (‘Night of Tricks’). Her film and photos are a rare record of these children in their sheepskin garb, haystack wigs and rope scarves. This was a time before ‘scary movies’, mass-manufactured fairy and monster outfits, and ‘trick or treating’ … these are real gìsears or guisers! Guisers who ‘dooked for apples’ and ate treacle scones on strings. Guisers who ate ‘fuarag – thick cream and oatmeal in which was put the silver sixpence, the thimble and the button’ to bring luck. Guisers who foretold future loves by burning nuts in the fire to see if they exploded together or away from one another.

 Sheepskins – including the scraped-out skull and ears – were commonly used to hide the identity of a guiser. The gìsears 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 scone or a bannock. 

The latest in South Uist Halloween fashion
The latest in South Uist Halloween fashion

Here you can see the images and some of the film that Margaret took of the North Glendale gìsears. Music was an important part of any Hebridean celebration and you can almost hear the pipes that would have accompanied the reeling! Peigi Macrae can also be heard singing a fine example of traditional Gaelic ‘puirt a beul’. Eminently suitable for Halloween, this little song sings ‘the children of the town are out sporting in their shirts’.

 Meal e! Enjoy it!

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