Robert Burns, Halloween

burns and halloween.jpg

Robert Burn’s poem Halloween was in many ways a sidelong glance at many of the rites, ritual and superstitions of an Ayrshire lad and farmer’s son in a Christian community of  1785 rural Scotland.

Some merry friendly country folks

Together they convene,

To burn their nits and pon their stocks,

And haud their Halloween.

Of course you could tell a lot about a person by the type of lice they had. And in his poem To A Louse it showed that the wee beasties were no respecter of rank. Each nit is named after a lad or lassie and those nits that burn together prophesies they will stay together. Those nits that jump and start from one another imply the courtship will be fiery and perhaps come to grief.

The auld guidwife’s weel-hoordit nits

And round and round divided,

And many lads’ and lasses’ fates,

Are that night  decided.

But the first ceremony of Halloween is the pulling of the kail (kale). Hand in hand partners must go with their eyes shut and pull out the first kail they touch. Its root crooked or straight, big or small will spell out their future husband or wife. The runts of the kail crop are placed above the head of the door and visitors to the house are given the honour of placing them and alluding to the runt in question and who will meet their match.

Then first foremost through the kail,

Their stocks maun a’ be saught ance,

They stuck their een, and graip and wale,

For muckle anes and straight anes,

Poor hav’rel Will fell aff the drift,

And wander’d through the bow-kail,

And pou’t for want o’ better shift,

A runt was like a sow-tail,

Sae bow’t that night.

You can tell a lot, of course, from a man or maid’s corn or oats. They have a pick of three and each will tell what kind of courtship will be and whether the maid will remain a maid, or unmade.

The lasses staw frae among them a’

To pou their stalks of corn:

The hempseed spell is an invocation that brings the future beloved to the mind’s eye, or indeed puts in a personal appearance. By sewing hempseed and harrowing it behind you and repeating the invocation: Hempseed I saw thee, hempseed I saw thee; and him (or her) that is to be my true love, come after me and pou thee. Looking over the left shoulder the invoker of the spell will see their true love.

He got hempseed I mind it weel,

And he made unco’ light o’t;

But many a day was by himsel,

He was sae sairly frighted

That very night.


Then up get fetchin’ Jamie Fleck

And he swore by his conscience

That he could saw hemp seek a peek

For it was a’ but nonsense


…He roared a horrid murder-shout

In dreadfu’ desperation

And young and auld came runnin’ out

To hear the sad narration:

He swore ‘twas hilchin Jean McCraw

Or crouchie Merran Humphie,

Similarly the winnowing of corn can be a predictor of fate. This charm must be done alone. Opening the barn doors and taking them off the hinges if possible so as not to trap unwanted spirits inside with you and do you harm. Take the wecht, the instrument used to winnow corn and go through the ritual of flinging the corn in the air and letting the wind blow through it. Repeat the action three times. On the third attempt an apparition will pass through one door of the barn and out the other. From its appearance or retinue the person casting the charm will be able to tell his or her future prospects in life.

Meg fain wad to the barn hae gaen,

To win three wechts of naething;

But for to meet the deil her lane,

She puts but little faith in


… A ratton rustled up the wa’,

And she cried Lord preserve her!

And ran through midden hole and a’,

And prayed with zeal and fervour,

Fu’ fast that night.

A similar spell involved stacking of crops, fashioning it in a particular way so that in the last attempt the invoker will for a second catch in his arms his future partner yoked to him.

They hoy’t out Will, wi’ sair advice;

The hecht him some fine braw ane;

He chance’d the stack he faddom’t thrice,

Was timmer-propt for thrawin’

Other spells involve the elements of water and fire. Here ‘the wanton widow Leezie’ dips her left shirt sleeve in a south-running stream. By the fire that night she hangs the wet sleeve to dry. At midnight her future beloved or object of desire will appear and turn the sleeve to dry the other side of the garment.

She through the whinns and by the cairns,

And owre the hill gaed scrievin,

Where three lairds land meet at a burn,

To dip her left sark sleeve in

Was bent that night.

In the final stanzas Burns pokes fun at poor auld Uncle John. I guess the laughs on us, poor auld Uncle John is probably aged about 30. A charm is made with three buckets representing three future outcomes. He or she is blindfold and led to the hearth and he or she dips his left hand into one of the three buckets ranged in front of him or her. If he picks clean water his wife will come to the marriage bed a virgin. Dirty water means she’s not a virgin, perhaps a widow. If he dips his hand into an empty bucket then he will remain unmarried. Great care is taken in swapping the buckets about and the blindfold man or maid repeats the same action three times in a row.

In order, on the clean hearth-stane,

The luggies three are arranged.

And every time great care is ta’en

To see them duly changed:

And Uncle John, wha wedlock’s joys

Sin’ Mar’s year did desire.

Because he gat the toom’s dish thrice,

He heaved them on the fire

In wrath that night.

Casting spells, conjuring ghost and predictions of the future, for farming folk, for Christian folk, Halloween was a bit of fun, which they took seriously always looking over their left shoulder and waiting for the devil to appear.

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