Halloween is approaching and the nights are drawing in. So this is the perfect time to discover some spooky stories and supernatural superstitions reported in the Statistical Accounts of Scotland. There certainly are plenty!
Even though Halloween is widely believed to be more of an American tradition, there is a long tradition of celebrating All Hallows Eve in Scotland, and there are mentions of Halloween in both Statistical Accounts. One example is that of the parish of Logierait, County of Perth, (OSA, Vol. V, 1793 – p84) where the evening of the 31st October was marked by a special fire ceremony:
Heath, broom, and dressings of flax, are tied upon a pole: This faggot is then kindled; one takes it upon his shoulders, and running, bears it round the village; a crowd attend: When the first faggot is burnt out, a second is bound to the pole, and kindled in the same manner as before. Numbers of these blazing faggots are often carried about together, and when the night happens to be dark, they form a splendid illumination.
In the parish of Cullen, County of Banff, Halloween celebrations were sporty and involved the young people of the community and surrounding districts playing games, such as football, running, throwing the hammer and playing bowls (NSA, Vol. XIII, 1845 – p.331). Unfortunately, bowls, which was played by rolling or throwing a cannon ball, was later forbidden by magistrates as one year a man was accidentally killed by the ball! By 1845 the parishioners kept to playing golf, shinty, football and target shooting.
However, not everyone amused themselves with games and pagan ceremonies for Halloween. In the parishes of Broughton, Glenholm, and Kilbucho in Peebles, people observed Halloween with “a kind of religious scrupulosity”. (NSA, Vol. III, 1845 – p.89)
There are some amazing ghost stories in the Statistical Accounts. In one of my favourites, funeral mourners battle it out to ensure that their deceased loved one is not burdened with ghostly duties:
In one division of this county, where it was believed that the ghost of the person last buried kept the gate of the church-yard ’till relieved by the’ next victim of death, a singular scene occurred when two burials were to take place in one church yard on the same day. Both parties staggered forward as fast as possible to consign their respective friend in the first place to the dust. If they met at the gate, the dead were thrown down, ’till the living decided by blows whose ghost should be condemned to porter it.
(Appendix for Monquhitter, County of Aberdeen, OSA, Vol. XXI, 1799, p. 144)
In another, an unfaithful lover asks for help to posthumously fulfil a vow:
About the middle of the last century, a man was buried in the island. For several nights after, the dead man disturbed the whole neighbourhood in Glenco, calling in a most dolorous strain, on a certain individual, to come and to relieve him. The man at last set off for the island, in the dead hour of night, and having arrived at the grave, found the dead man with his head and neck fairly above the ground: “What is your business with me,” says the Glenco man “and why are you disturbing the neighbourhood with your untimely lamentations after this fashion?” “I have not,” says the dead man, “rest night or day since I lay here, nor shall I as long as this head is on my body; I shall give you the reason. In younger days I swore most solemnly, that I would marry a certain woman, and that I never would forsake her, as long as this head remained on my body. At this time I had hold of a button, and the moment we parted, I separated the head of the button from the neck, thinking that then all was right. I now find my mistake. You must therefore, cut off my head.” The other, fetching a stroke, cut off the head close to the surface of the ground; and then the dead man dragged the rest of the body back to the grave, leaving the head to shift for itself. This story is as firmly believed in Glenco this day, by some people, as any truth of holy writ.
(Laggan, County of Inverness, NSA, Vol. XIV, 1845, p. 427)
You could not make up better stories! Obviously, there are many more mentions of, ghosts and all other kinds of supernatural happenings which you could search for in the Statistical Accounts. It’s interesting to note that in both the Old and New Statistical Accounts such stories were reported with a sceptical tone as the folk tales of previous generations or as outmoded superstitions: perhaps this illustrates a growing faith in Enlightenment rationality, but it is equally likely that the Christian ministers who compiled the accounts simply refused to accept that their parishioners continued to hold ‘heathen’ beliefs. In any case, these fantastical stories and superstitions have been handed down from generation to generation, and the accounts themselves continue this process. They are part of the history of Scotland and so it is wonderful that these stories have not been lost.