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Oidhche Shamhna – a South Uist Halloween

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie
Oidhche Shamhna – a South Uist Halloween


Oidhche Shamhna (Halloween) ann an Uibhist a deas (South Uist) c1933

Le Mairead Fay Sheathach, Eilean Chanaigh
by Margaret Fay Shaw, Isle of Canna

Halloween was a night of much jollity.

'One little boy spent the day carefully removing the entire skin of a head of a sheep so he could slip it over his own head like a bag.'

[Gaelic song plays]

Uilleam Dhona/Wicked Willie keeps watch over the guisers.

Port a beul sung by Peigi Macrae, 'Tha Clann Bheag a' Bhail' a muigh'

Quotes from Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist by Margaret Fay Shaw

Compiled by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna House Archivist

For the love of Scotland

Margaret Fay Shaw depicts a traditional Hebridean Halloween with her images and film of South Uist in the 1930s.
A black and white photo of two children in Canna in the 1930s dressed up for Halloween. They wear masks completely covering their heads, made from animal fur. They wear baggy woollen jumpers.
Some Halloween inspiration for modern-day guisers?

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.

A black and white photo of a stone cottage with a thatched roof, surrounded by croftland on an island.
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.

A black and white photo of the stone Victorian villa, Canna House. A flag flies from above the stone porch.
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.

A black and white photo of two people dressed up for Halloween, with their faces covered by fleeces.
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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