Halloween Tales From Orkney: ‘A Nicht O’ Tine’

One of Orkney’s most famous folklorists was F. Marion McNeill, publishing books on this subject and on cookery. As one of Orkney’s leading suffragists, A Vice President of the Scottish National Party, and a social reformer, Marion McNeill was often engaged to speak at events. In 1935 she addressed The Glasgow Orkney and Shetland Literary and Scientific Association on ‘Scottish Festivals’.

” At Beltane and Halloween, on the hill tops and in the presence of multitudes, the Druid priests lit great bonfires in honour of the Sun, or more correctly, of the creative spirit they believed to be enthroned in the hub of its golden wheel.

Fire, by virtue of its affinity with the Sun, was believed to have magical properties, and the object of the fire-rites was to control or appease the deified forces of Nature and thus ensure fertility in crops, cattle and Man, in addition to purify the air of malign influences. But though they had many features in common the two festivals differed considerably in character, for Beltane celebrated the rebirth of vegetation, whilst Halloween solemnised its decay, the one was a day for supplication for a good harvest and the other a harvest thanksgiving.

As the Celtic year began with Winter, Halloween was in fact the Celtic Hogmanay. At the season of Earth’s decay our forefathers remembered their dead, who were believed to visit their homes on that night. The fairies too were ‘out’ with all the uncanny creatures of the other world (symbolised today by the grotesque masks of the guisers). Above all it was a season of omens and auguries and many of the traditional ‘freits’ survive to our own times. Though in due course Druidism gave way to Christianity, the ancient fires have burned across the centuries in an unbroken chain within living memory.

The Beltane fires are now but all extinct, and most of the Halloween ones have descended from the hilltops to the village knolls, but to the children, at least, Halloween remains a ‘nicht o’ tine’, (Gael tein, fire) even if all that remains of its ancient splendours is the turnip lantern or the traditional ‘candle in a custock’.”

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Reference for this article: Orkney Herald and Advertiser 13th February 1935

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