TODAY is October 31, celebrated in many countries across the world as Halloween (sometimes spelled Hallowe’en), which acknowledges its etymology as the evening of All Hallows, the Christian feast of All Saints.

I was recently asked by a reader to try to tell the history of various days that we celebrate in Scotland, and I will be looking at some of them in forthcoming columns.

First up is Halloween – I’ll keep that as my punctuation machine is overworked – and today I am going to make the sensational claim that we Scots invented Halloween.

Surely not, I hear you exclaim!

Is it not enough that we gave the world the telephone, television, penicillin and so much more without claiming Halloween as a Scottish invention?

Read on and follow my logic … You’ll see that I wrote “we Scots” because most historians accept that Halloween has its origins in ancient Ireland with the Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced sow-in), which is a Gaelic word meaning summer’s end.

In Irish Gaelic to this day, Samhain is the word for November, while in Scottish Gaelic, November is An t-Samhain, proof of the importance of Samhain to our Gaelic ancestors.

READ MORE: Storm Babet floods in Brechin were always going to happen

Samhain was the most important of the four great festivals of Ireland’s Gaels, the others being Lughnasa, Bealtaine and Imbolc.

Those acquainted with the early history of our country will know that in the early part of the first millennium, Gaelic-speaking Scots came from Ireland to establish and occupy their own kingdom of Dalriada – Dal Riata, which means “Riata’s portion” – covering Argyll and part of what is now County Antrim in Northern Ireland.

It is known that before St Columba brought Christianity to them in the sixth century, the Scots followed Celtic pagan rites, and as the observance of Samhain is attested to in the earliest Irish literature. It is inconceivable that the Scots ignored this important element of their native culture which dated back many hundreds of years.

READ MORE: Why Paganism is rising in Scotland

Sadly we do not know what the Scots’ neighbours the Picts did for festivals and perhaps that might be the key to solving the riddle of the Picts – find their Samhain and we might yet discover the Pictish language. So, like their cousins in Ireland, the early Scots were keen on Samhain and, unlike the followers of modern Halloween, they took the event very seriously indeed.

That’s because it was a huge point of division within their year, the marking of the end of summer and the beginning of winter.

We know that Celts everywhere believed in the supernatural and they felt there were days in the year when the spirits were closer to the real world, just across the liminal threshold between mortal life and the paranormal.

Samhain events

One of those liminal days – indeed, the most important of them – was Samhain. Nor was it just one day. Later chronicles make it clear that Samhain was usually held over three days, with priests of the Druidic rite starting the events by lighting huge bonfires.

The blazes summoned people from far and wide, and communal feasting took place.

Cattle were slaughtered to feed the community and some people left out food and drink “for the bogles” – ghosts or bogeymen. The bonfires also attracted bugs, which in turn were chased by bats, hence the association of Halloween with bats and now vampires.

The National: Samhuinn fire festival in Edinburgh

Ancient Scots very much believed in spirits such as fairies and gods and goddesses associated with places such as rivers and forests. At Samhain, the tradition was that people could reach out to these spirits, while another aspect was the commemoration of the dead of a family or tribe.

One theory about Samhain is that it was part of the annual cycle for agriculture that was followed by the ancient Celtic tribes and marked the point that was halfway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice.

I wonder why more people do not recognise that modern Halloween draws much of its ritual from Samhain.

The National: High Priestess Siusaidh Ceanadach (left) and Priestess Vicki McFall (right) take part in a pagan ritual held by Druids to celebrate the Pagan festival of Samhain or Halloween in Pollok Park

It probably does not fit the American mindset that Halloween is their modern secular invention, but let me show evidence that it derives from ancient Scottish and Irish tradition – most sensible American historians don’t dispute that Halloween was brought across the Atlantic by Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Trick or treat, for instance, is a relatively recent newcomer to Scotland where its predecessor was the centuries-old practice of guising.

That was very much an activity associated with Samhain, during which people wore a disguise, usually animal skins, horns and mud or paint, to make themselves terrifying so they could pretend to be evil spirits who in turn would bypass them.

Pumpkins as jack-o’-lanterns?

The National:

The custom derives from the old Scottish way of arming yourself against the dark side, using a hollowed-out turnip, or tumshie, with a menacing face carved on one side and lit from within by a candle.

Legend has it that the name comes from an ancient Irish legend about Stingy Jack who did a deal with the devil so he would never go to hell, only to find that when he died he wasn’t wanted in heaven. He was condemned to wander the Earth forever, and the devil very kindly gave him a tumshie lantern to help him on his way.

Black cats and Halloween?

Usually now ignored, that tradition came about because of the Scottish association of black cats, often with a white chest, with witches.

Apple bobbing, or snap apple, or apple on a string?

We know it as dooking for apples and again it was a part of Samhain, signifying the end of the harvest, though the game may have started with the ancient Romans as it is recorded as being part of the festival of the goddess Pomona, the deity of fruit trees and orchards.

There is somehow a feeling of circularity if we believe the Romans brought apple dooking to these islands, because we gave Samhain to Rome, where the Christian church appropriated it, just as it seized upon other pagan festivals and rites and made them Christian.

For example, the ancient Roman festival for commemorating the dead, Lemuria, was transformed into a feast to remember the saints and martyrs which was held in May.

READ MORE: Rishi Sunak condemned over new oil and gas licences

One tradition of a Scottish Halloween that dated back to Samhain was the picking of cabbage stalks and using them to foretell the future. That tradition has long since been lost, showing that Halloween has developed down the centuries.

We know that there was no fixed date for Samhain except that it was usually held in late October, but along came missionaries such as St Patrick, St Columba and their followers. Rather than decree that Samhain should be stamped out, those early Christian leaders knew that would be counter-productive, so they made a feast day of Samhain and dedicated it to all the saints.

By the ninth century All Saints (All Hallows) had become an important feast in the British Isles, and we know it was celebrated on November 1.

A learned and energetic Pope then gave us the date October 31 as Halloween. That’s because Pope Gregory IV, whose papacy lasted from 827 until his death in 844, persuaded Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne and king of the Franks, to promote the worship of the saints throughout his empire.

Pope Gregory, having learned of the traditions based on Samhain, decreed that All Saints’ Day would be celebrated on November 1 and would be a feast day to be observed by the whole church. It is still a feast day and a public holiday in many Catholic countries.

The National: Church candle with stained glass window in the background.

The church back then usually held vigils to be observed the evening and night before major feast days and thus All Hallows’ Eve came into being. Obviously there was no longer a pagan belief system at play, but Christianity could not suppress all the rituals associated with Samhain, and Halloween began to be celebrated.

In the 11th century, St Odilo of Cluny insisted that his monasteries should observe November 2 as the feast of All Souls, when the dead are remembered and their souls prayed for.

Thus Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day became the three days of All Hallowstide – just as Samhain originally lasted for three days.

In one sense, we Scots really did “invent” Halloween because the word has an important Scottish element. Sometime in the 16th century, the Old English word Hallows, meaning saints, was combined with the Scots word e’en, meaning evening or eve of, and some etymologists say Hallowe’en was in use about 1550 in Scotland – the first time anywhere.

Prior to that, in 1517, Martin Luther had posted his famous Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, to start the Reformation. He chose the date carefully – October 31, All Hallows’ Eve, and it is still celebrated as Reformation Day by many Protestants.

There were other rituals associated with Halloween. I like the story on the entertaining Spooky Scotland website which states: “On the Isle of Lewis, it was not only the spirits of the soil which had to be propitiated. At Bragtar, the inhabitants made a libation to a sea god named Shony at Hallowtide.

“A family member would wade into the sea carrying a cup of ale. The supplicant then called in a loud voice: ‘Shony I give you this cup of ale, hoping you will be so kind as to send us plenty of seaware for enriching our ground for the ensuing year.’ The cup of ale would then be thrown into the ocean.”

Not a practice I would endorse …

Halloween as a Scottish time of magic and mystery gained that reputation largely due to one man, Robert Burns, who included his poem Halloween in the Kilmarnock Edition.

The National:

It’s largely a saucy rhyme, recounting which men and women got it together on a local Halloween night but here’s the first few verses.

Upon that night, when fairies light

On Cassilis Downans dance,

Or owre the lays, in splendid blaze,

On sprightly coursers prance;

Or for Colean the rout is ta’en,

Beneath the moon’s pale beams;

There, up the Cove,to stray an’ rove,

Amang the rocks and streams

To sport that night;

Amang the bonie winding banks,

Where Doon rins, wimplin, clear;

Where Bruce ance rul’d the martial ranks,

An’ shook his Carrick spear;

Some merry, friendly, countra-folks

Together did convene,

To burn their nits, an’ pou their stocks,

An’ haud their Halloween Fu’ blythe that night.

The lasses feat, an’ cleanly neat,

Mair braw than when they’re fine;

Their faces blythe, fu’ sweetly kythe,

Hearts leal, an’ warm, an’ kin’:

The lads sae trig, wi’ wooer-babs

Weel-knotted on their garten;

Some unco blate, an’ some wi’ gabs

Gar lasses’ hearts gang startin

Whiles fast at night.

Then, first an’ foremost, thro’ the kail,

Their stocks maun a’ be sought ance;

They steek their een, and grape an’ wale

For muckle anes, an’ straught anes.

Poor hav’rel

Will fell aff the drift,

An’ wandered thro’ the bow-kail,

An’ pou’t for want o’ better shift

A runt was like a sow-tail

Sae bow’t that night.

Burns correctly associated Halloween in Ayrshire with the sexual shenanigans of the time, but there was no moral backlash against Halloween by the Presbyterian churches.

And to complete this account, there is no truth in the legend that the Witchcraft Act of 1735 banned the consumption of sausage rolls.

In any case, the Act was repealed in the 1950s so tonight please enjoy your apples, toffee or not, and your sausage rolls, for Halloween is a Scottish thing to do.