Glimpsing your true love on Hallowe'en

Spring is most often considered the romantic season but perhaps it would be more accurate to say from an Orcadian viewpoint that Hallowe’en marks the start of the real season of love. We are a romantic lot here at Scott’s House so this week’s column will be looking at some Halloween courting customs, their origins, and how young Orcadians traditionally tried to find out who their true love would be.

Halloween was traditionally a marker of the end of the harvest, the cessation of all the hard work of the summer. A long winter stretched ahead and young women in particular had plenty of time to wonder who they might marry. The importance of Hallowe’en in all this was allied to the old Celtic tradition of the time of Samhainn, when the veil between the worlds of the natural and the supernatural was lifted aside for a time. Timing and tradition joined together to make Hallowe’en the perfect time for divination rites in Orkney – many of which are not practised anywhere else and indicate the strong nerves and steely purpose of the Orkney maiden in pursuit of her man. The men seemed content to be claimed by the women – there are no records of any specifically male divination rites of this sort.

It should be noted that there could be a sting in the tail of these rites – the answers were not always favourable! Why bother, you might ask? Well, long ago, the three most exciting things that could happen to you were birth, marriage, and death. The only one you had any control over was marriage – so why not seek to influence the end result as much as possible?

Divination rites in Orkney tend to fall into two categories: finding out any information about the beloved, often using seasonal produce; and (nerves of steel to be deployed) conjuring up an apparition of him. They often appeared to be very successful. This was due to the limited number of partners available and the fact that once somebody had been singled out by a divination, matchmaking attention was drawn to them!

From childhood’s earliest hour, the Orkney lass practised divination rites that would give her any fragment of information on her future beloved.  The information gleaned could be as basic as the direction in which the loved one lived – or just the colour of his hair.

We have various written records of rites involving peats for example – a peat carried home from the Halloween bonfire rites would be steeped in a bucket of water – or urine - and then placed on the door lintel overnight. Taken down in the morning and broken open, any hair found within would be the same colour as that as the beloved. Given the colour of peat, this would surely be a result for the redheads!

Another Hallowe’en classic rite involved three maidens walking backwards into a cabbage patch and pulling up cabbages. The nature of the stalk is key here – a gnarled stalk meant an old husband, a smooth stalk a young husband, and little or no stalk meant no husband at all!

Of course, it would be much easier if the actual name of the beloved were known… How many of the ladies reading this peeled an apple in one strip, threw it over their shoulder (always the right one, of course) and peered with bated breath to see which initial was formed by the peel?  This would be the first letter of your future husband’s name. Fortunate were those girls who fancied a Colin or Stuart, or even David. Those girls with their eye on a boy with a more angular initial, such as K, were likely to be disappointed, though!

It is interesting how often apples feature as a means of divination or a means of traversing from the realm of the natural to the supernatural. They represent arcane knowledge in so many cultures. In classical tradition, the Golden Apples of the Hesperides are the most sought after fruit of all, bringing eternal life with them (a motif used again by C. S. Lewis in one of his Chronicles of Narnia); and, of course, Aeneas must use the apple to enter the Underworld in Virgil’s Aeneid. In the Christian belief system, the apple is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden; in the Celtic tradition the apple represents fertility and nobility; and, in an interesting link with classical tradition, the Norse believed in a goddess called Iduna who tended her apples of youth. There are many other examples, as far back as the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. The famous Scottish ethnologist James Frazer called his folklore collection The Golden Bough in homage to the apple. There can surely be no more significant supernatural fruit in the history of the world!

There was no resting on your laurels once you had your man, it was imperative to ensure his fidelity. One way to test this was to place two hazelnuts named for the lovers in the fire at Halloween. The hazelnut in Celtic mythology represents fertility and wisdom.  If the nuts burned steadily together, your love would be true; if one burned brighter than the other, one loved more than the other; and, if one jumped away from the other, no need to order a wedding dress…….The frugal Orkney variant was to use straws.

I’d like to turn to the other kind of rite now – the ones involving fylgias or fetches, which seem to have had a higher prominence in the Northern Isles than in the rest of Scotland, which is not surprising given their Norse origin. A fetch is not the same as a doppelganger – the latter is yourself and seeing it is very bad luck, whereas the former is someone else – and, in the case of the Hallowe’en divinations, the all-important future beloved.

Girls were prepared to invoke the fetch within the home as well as outside. The rites in the house usually involved the fetch performing some service for the inquirer – such as turning the dampened sleeve of a garment as it dried before the fire or bringing a glass of water to the imprudent maiden who had consumed a salt herring before retiring.

The apple motif is also seen in the invocation of fetches in Orkney and across Scotland. At midnight on Halloween, the maiden in question seated herself before a mirror with a candle on either side. She then took an apple and cut it into nine pieces. After eating eight pieces, she put the ninth on the point of her knife and passed it over her right shoulder to the apparition of her future beloved who stood behind her, who would eat his portion. Tradition does not tell what happened next…

Invocations outside the house usually involved the barn or stackyard. Our gallus Orkney maiden would go to the barn in the dark where she stood pretending to winnow using a sieve containing a knife and a pair of scissors. The barn doors would be open and a fetch of the future beloved would walk past the opening.

If the girl’s nerves were up to it, another rite involved running round the stackyard up to three times with her arms open wide. At the end of her run, her arms would be filled with a fetch of the man of her choice.  These seem like fine recipes for a heart attack.

My personal favourite – and one which admirably highlights the steely determination of the Orkney lass after her man (and perhaps the resource of the Orkney male) – is the rite of the clew. A clew (or clue) is a ball of wool, and the name originally comes from the ball of wool that Ariadne gave Theseus to guide him out of the Labyrinth of Knossos. A clue in any shape or form is therefore a means of unravelling a mystery. In the case of the Orkney Halloween rite, it is the mystery of love. Our heroine approaches the kiln end of the barn on Hallowe’en, clutching her ball of wool (often blue as that is the colour of witchcraft). Keeping hold of one end, she throws the other end into the dark recesses of the kiln. She then winds up the clew until the other end goes taut. With quavering voice she asks, “Wha’s got the end o’ me clew?”

A ghostly voice from the depths should utter the name of a likely local such as “Wullie o’ Quoydunt” which then directs the maiden’s fancy towards the man in question. This particular rite, which does not involve the physical manifestation of the fetch, merely an audible one, was open to misinterpretation by enterprising youths keen to promote themselves as matches – or just keen to give a lass a fright!

Charms and divinations are man’s attempt to retain some control or direction over the forces of the universe or to placate the forces that shape our destinies. Having looked at the rites above, who can doubt the determination of the Orkney maiden in pursuit of her man, or that she would succeed in shaping her own destiny?

Happy Halloween from Northern Studies!

Professor Donna Heddle