Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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On the shores of Loch Tay in Perthshire, Scotland, a chilling mist descended on the water as adults and children gathered round a woman with a foliage crown on her head, a sheepskin cape on her shoulders and a torch ablaze in her right hand. Our girls were dressed as the Addams Family’s Wednesday and as a witch. All around us, other kids waited as skeletons, zombies and the like. It was Halloween night but we were not celebrating Halloween – rather an ancient Scottish pagan ritual that later became Halloween. Samhain, the only Halloween in nature still celebrated.
With the moon barely emerging from the tree tops, all was pitch dark. My 7-year old clutched my hand. The blast of a horn split the night and silenced the crowd. Time to face our fears in the woods! In a joyous rumpus, we all entered the woods like wild things. These were the ancestral dark woods of Loch Tay where spirits lurked and ghosts hung from trees by barely two threads. Bring on Samhain, the Scottish pagan night when spirits roam the earth!
Photo gallery – please click on thumbnails to enlarge:
“Watch your feet for roots,” the organizers had warned us. And they were right to do so. With absolutely no light on the forest floor, we navigated the damp path carefully so as not to trip on creeping roots or stumps. Around a switch in the path, a white ghost hung in a tree, soon followed by three carved pumpkins. This was as close to Halloween as the night ever got. The rest was much more primal, in a fascinating way. Down by the loch, we were all brought to a stop on the shore where a man in a feathered mask seemed to be guarding a big haystack. The sheepskin woman joined him with her torch and we all formed a circle around them. Clearly, something was up but we weren’t sure what.
The burn of a sacrificial ram, that’s what we were in for, that and the unleashing of spirits in the mortal world. Samhain marks the end of the harvest season and the start of the long dark winter season. A night for divination and revelry, it was believed to be a special night when the door of the Beyond opened enough for souls of the deceased to return home for one night. Banquets were organized and empty seats set up by the hearth for wandering souls of loved ones. Preparing for the winter, farmers slaughtered their cattle and apples were placed on roadsides for spirits who had no loved ones to care for them.
Rather than slaughtering sheep, the Scottish Crannog Centre burns wicker ram effigies to follow the ancient Celtic tradition. In awe, we all watched as flames started licking the wicker ram whose feet were eerily disappearing in the dark cold waters of the loch. Within minutes, the ram turned into a big ball of fire and the water rippled red and yellow, flicks of fire flying away in the night. Fascinated by the bonfire, some kids – including mine – approached closer and I wondered in amazement at the total absence of fire safeguards. I mean – fire in the wild, kids in costumes? I guess the instinct of survival is deemed protection enough to prevent any accidents. Indeed, they progressively stepped back as the fire became too hot to bear.
When the ram had turned to ashes, we all walked in procession to another ram where the same burning ceremony occurred. Once the burning done, the revelry was about to begin. Not that it hadn’t begun earlier.
After our arrival at the center, my girls had taken part in two circle walks for a costume and a pumpkin carving contest. While they hadn’t anything at the costume contest, the 7-year old won one of the three spots of the pumpkin competition with her carved melons! She was all smiles when she received a pyramid of wrapped chocolates. So as you see, the night revelry had indeed started but we were now getting to more traditional fun.
Under a large canvas roof, we were offered vegetable soup with oat bread and as hot and peppery as it was, the four of us had seconds to warm us up in the frigid night. Brr. Clearly the locals had an edge on us when it came to facing the Scottish autumn night – they looked fine while we shivered. Further proof of the Scottish acclimation to the cold came when we spotted a bucket full of cold water by a wooden pole. “Apple dooking! Apple dooking!” people yelled with glee – by which they meant “Let’s go bobbing for apples in ice cold water.” A teenage boy went in the cold water without hesitation. I should mention he was only wearing a tee-shirt and came out of the water with his head all wet and an apple clenched between his teeth. Oh, he had a big grin too, so proud he’s bobbed for the first apple. Deep inside, I shivered even more.
All that was about to change as a woman called us in for “storytime.” I’ve never had a storytime like that. It took place on a crannog by the lake. Now’s a good time for me to explain what a crannog is. The Scottish Crannog Centre is a cultural and educational center that features an authentic reconstruction of an early Iron-Age loch dwelling. A round log construction on stilts, the crannog was visible from the shore and accessible via an elevated pier lit by lanterns. We walked along the pier and into a different age and time.
As we entered the crannog four feet above the water-line of Loch Tay, the world changed from a cold damp Samhain night to a warm sheltered Crannog night. Grateful for the shelter, organic building materials and uneven log floor, we moved inside. A small fire roared in the center of the timber and clay structure, casting long shadows on the circular walls. We sat down on a bench with my two daughters and waited for the storyteller, an old woman wearing a shawl, to begin her story of the giant Fionn Mac Cummheil.
Our bench faced the open door. Looking out on the gangway lit up by torches in the night, we were lulled by the woman’s low and rhythmic voice back to a time where myths and giants were how the world went round. Back to dark ages when families and clans slept huddled up in the crannogs living day to day with whatever the Loch and forest provided for food.
Such was the end of our Samhain night and to leave you with a different look on Hallloween as it was ages ago, I’ll quote Robert Robertson a Scottish poet:
A guest is as good as a ghost at this time,
at the hinge of the year when the gap
between the shades and the shadowed is just
— Robin Robertson (from Samhain)
If you liked this story, I strongly suggest you read a story on the same night by an American writer who stayed at the same B&B as us, Meg Pier. She interviewed the Crannog Centre’s managing director for her website View From The Pier and brings an entirely different perspective – and a beautiful one at that – on Samhain. It’s Connecting with the past at the Scottish Crannog Centre.