Trick-or-treating in the Scottish Highlands

Rare witch sighting in daytime

Rare witch sighting in daytime

The first thing you need to know about trick-or-treating in Scotland is it’s not called trick-or-treating, it’s called guising. And you don’t get it for free just by waving your bags out, you have to sing a tune or recite a poem.

And though we made our kids up and took to the streets with our American reusable grocery totes we brought from Germany, there was nary a soul to be seen on the streets, they scraped them clean, and when our kids pawed the darkened doors no one answered their timid knocks — the totes remained empty as a bagpiper’s bladder with no breath to it, flat.

“Some Fantasy Violence”

At the dollar store in downtown Inverness (“Poundland”), where everything’s a pound, it’s a mash-up of Halloween and Christmas in the main aisle with plastic chainsaws, kid sized, right next to the garlands and tinsel that’s been picked through, unraveled, three cans of baked beans for a pound, jars of sweetened onions, oxtail soup — the beep of the scanner up front with six open tills and lots of suspicious looks from the Scots as I stand in the middle of it all taking notes, watching the girl restocking the energy drinks, leering — a two pack of blood tubes advertised A Screaming Value!

Lily says she wishes there was a Starbucks here and just like that, there is, in the mall with the other boutique brands, the retail anchors, it’s advertising a Vampire Frappuccino (“All Treat, No Trick,” a ghoulish hand and nail marks on the border), and I wonder if that’s truly a sanctioned Seattle thing from the HQ or another example of rogue, local marketing — how the company, the brand, could dip into what resembles such flagrant “QSR,” such McDonalds-like marketing?

But we sit there and watch our kids suck down their drinks and the baristas in costume bussing the tables, always busy, you can tell the management team right away, and I watch them log on to their laptops in the table next to us, firing up the same PGP encryption screen I did for work every day, then waiting, as everyone else around the world does the same, logs on and waits.

I get turned around the first night looking for a grocery store and have to lower myself to ask for directions from two guys in their 20s having a smoke outside a music shop, and on the checkout the girl says May I ask whereabouts you’re from, and goes all glowy when I say Seattle, makes a kind of trill sound, and doesn’t find it odd when I ask her to write the name of the town she’s recommended on my palm because I can’t understand them when they talk, it’s better to just write things down.

I start to learn the side streets though, and cut down them with confidence to look like a local, and there’s a modern day Diagon Alley with people out in costume already, some with garish facial wounds and hollowed-out eyes, others who look that way normally — and after shopping at the local co-op, I squeeze into a pub with a bunch of old guys crowded around the bar and a couple women behind it, serving them.

“End London Rule”

There’s an old stone archway out front that’s smooth and worn down from the butchers sharpening their knives on it centuries ago, and ads for Halloween parties with girls wearing blood-splattered bridal gowns, a jagged line across their throat — and on the Glamis castle tour we learn they kept pageboys in a small room off to the side, to attend to their masters when the wax started to melt or their wigs went limp, the wax to conceal pockmarks and scars, and so they’d step into “the powder room” to have their faces redone, the head lice picked out, and leave the boys in there shivering and out of the way, with the lice.

The men are bent over the bar with bad posture and dark jackets, leaning into their 1664 lagers, their Tennent’s and Strongbows, an old man with bent teeth just interrupted my writing with a grunt, nudged half an uneaten sandwich in my face as an offering, hard-boiled egg with ham on rye, but when I decline he just shakes his head and looks sad, sits back and sags like he’s been lanced on a battlefield and can’t get up.

I let the sound of the dialect wash over me, and don’t understand a word of it but for the occasional fuck or feck, spat right on the floor for good measure with a slap on the back and a smirk from the women behind the bar — it’s my kind of place, I fit in. One of them even looks like my mom’s brother Dave which is possible, her side are Scots, and there’s a worn-down resilience to them that may come from being the last part of Europe to be colonised, it took that long for it to thaw, and once it did, they had the Vikings to contend with, biting midges to feed off your blood.

One of the guys at the bar is blind, the first blind man I’ve ever seen at a bar, and clearly blind-drunk, as he uses his hands in a fashion seeing people don’t, they’re like feelers for an insect or a deep underwater creature, how he drums the bar with them, feels for his mates when he throws his arm around them to steady himself, gazes in the direction of the flatscreen above my head that’s got a match on, just smiles and blinks.

All Souls Avenue

The kids have high expectations for Halloween and we walk along the river to the island of Ness where there’s the largest Halloween festival in Northern Ireland they say, and there’s a gloom that’s set in because there’s no candy in our totes, and the wind’s kicking up, and it’s a half an hour walk but feels longer than that, and Lily’s missing her friends back home, Halloween in the suburbs, where there’s so much at the end of the night we have to hide the loot and then donate it all a week later. Buy it and then sell it back or something, I don’t know.

But after walking through the festival, watching impromptu skits in the dark of the forest with the trees under-lit, some with spiders projected on them, or a figure of the Headless Horseman galloping in the trees, we’re changed I think, our concept of Halloween. There’s some girl with face paint inside a tree waving her limbs to scratchy, agitated music that sounds like Schoenberg, and a re-enactment of a witch being burned at the stake with dried ice as smoke, and all of it’s free, and OK for small kids, and there’s no alcohol and not much for sale, just a bouncy thing and some cotton candy.

It’s called guising, souling or mumming — more about dressing up and going out than loading up on candy I think. But I’m not 10, and never will be again.



Categories: humor, travel

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

22 replies

  1. Thank you for writing this. I am only familiar with my own country tradition, and my immigrant spouse from south England. It’s interesting to hear what tradition is like in your homeland which is a beautiful area. Looking forward to reading more. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much Deborah! We’re from the States, from outside of Seattle in the suburbs, Microsoft-, Starbucks-land. We’re taking a kind of mid-life break to live in Europe for nine months as expats, and traveling throughout the UK over the winter since we don’t have visas to stay in the Schengen. Glad you enjoyed the post, was fun writing it. Best, – Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, Bill – really enjoyable. How do you write your descriptions so well? I felt like I was sitting on your shoulder in that bar – fantastic and a skill I shall have to crib from you 🙂

    The Halloween festival sounds brilliant. My son went out trick or treating and came back with a sack of sweets … Which will be hidden on a top shelf and hopefully last him til Christmas at least.

    We had a Death Day ourselves yesterday – an exhibition on Death traditions at our local museum (complete with shrunken heads and a section on assisted dying – GRIM). Then we went down to a Zombie walk outside our cathedral – a few hundred people dripping with gore, latex, false body parts (and a zombie Star Wars stormtrooper!) who then shuffled through the centre of Bristol, stopping traffic and bemusing tourists. Fun all round.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your time in Bristol sounds fabulous Lynn! Thanks for the kind words – so much to learn and steal from one another, makes for a rich life. Just discovered my first engorged tick on myself! Picked it up outside of Arbroath I think, had to use some Scotch on it and damned expensive, couldn’t get the mouth out. Mighty grim.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hell – just watch out for those Lyme Disease symptoms. We don’t want you having to enjoy the dubious pleasure of our NHS system while you’re here 🙂 Loving your posts.


      • I’m glad you’re loving them Lynn and I’m loving your comments, so thank you! Yes, not looking forward to looking at the back of my knee again, as if I ever were. Hoping it’s a non-event and that’s the end of it.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. love to read about how other cultures celebrate the holidays that we think everyone celebrates in the same way. i took my aussie grandies out trick or treating this year, their first time in the states an they could not believe it. absolutely gob-smacked.


  4. Souling. That’s lovely. The Danes have taken to Halloween like there’s no tomorrow. And they give out beer to the adults!


    • That’s a great tradition, beer for the adults. I’m in. Halloween is so lovely in so many ways, just feels we’ve taken it too far, but perhaps I’m just an old fart about it. I liked our festival here in Scotland just fine, last night.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. How cool! It sounds like a twisted fairly tale.


  6. Such a fun read. I love the idea of making kids sing for their candy.


    • Thank you Erik! I had fun with it and glad you did too. Probably our only Halloween we’ll spend in the Highlands, truly memorable. Thanks for joining and sharing your comments. – Bill


  7. I can’t believe they missed the chance to call it “Poundtown.”

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Loved the shot you got of the ghoulish pumpkins floating in the dark. Nice.


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