Burns, Robert

Burns, Robert (1759–1796)—Scottish poet most famed for his contribution to a song celebrating another holiday (the lyrics to “AULD LANG SYNE,” the NEW YEAR’S Eve favorite), but also author of perhaps the best description of a rustic, pre-industrial Halloween celebration. His 28-stanza poem “Hallowe’en,” written in 1785 documents the fortune-telling traditions and party customs of eighteenth-century Scottish villagers; it tells the sometimes amusing, sometimes bawdy, and sometimes frightening stories of a group of young people gathered together for the evening. Burns grew up on a farm himself (his father was a largely-unsuccessful farmer, and his brother, Gilbert, carried on the family tradition; Burns himself worked as a farmer and an excise-man), and so Burns had probably experienced such a Halloween gathering. His poem begins with a salute to the supernatural side of the holiday:

Upon that night, when fairies light

Then Burns moves on to the heart of the poem in the second stanza:

Some merry, friendly, countra folks,
Together did convene,
To burn their nits, an’ pou their stocks,
An’ haud their Hallowe’en

Over the next two dozen stanzas, Burns describes such FORTUNE-TELLING customs as pulling the KALE, the three LUGGIE BOWLS, burning NUTS, winnowing CORN and sowing HEMP SEED. His fortune seekers usually arrive at rather down-to-earth answers; for example, “fechtin Jamie Fleck”—the skeptic who is dared to try the hemp seed test—is scared half out of his wits by a pig. When Uncle John gets the empty luggie bowl THREE times in a row, he hurls the bowls into the fire. And young Leezie heads out to dip her sleeve in WATER “where three lairds lands met at a burn,” but is so frightened by the lowing of a renegade cow that she plunges right into the stream.

In the last stanza, Burns describes the rest of the evening:

Wi’ merry sangs, an’ friendly cracks,
I wat they dinna weary ;
An’ unco tales, an’ funnie jokes,
Their sports were cheap an cheery

Finally they finish with a dish of SOWENS and “a social glas o’ strunt” (liquor), and the party—and poem —come to an end.

Burns also penned, in what he considered to be his best work, the supernatural tale of “Tam O’Shanter,” an incorrigible drunk who sets off late from the tavern one night and stumbles on “warlocks and witches in a dance.” In his drunken state, Tam O’Shanter nearly joins in the mad revelries, but is saved by his horse Maggie, who narrowly escapes the pursuing fiends, losing her tail to them as she leaps over a brook (demonic creatures and their servants can’t cross running water).

Burns also mentions a classic Halloween divination involving WATER in the song “Tam Glen”:

The last Halloween I was waukin
My droukit sark-sleeve, as ye kin;
His likeness cam up the house staukin,
And the very grey breeks o’ Tam Glen!

The growing popularity of the work of Burns in the American West of the late 18thand early 19th-century (many American cities actually celebrated Burns’s birthday on January 25) may have been one of the factors that led to Halloween’s increasing popularity in that area during that time.


The Halloween Encyclopedia Second Edition written by Lisa Morton © 2011 Lisa Morton. All rights reserved