In times past, superstitions were widespread, even endemic, especially in some rural areas. Yet if our mindset these days is generally much more pragmatic, next week will doubtless see many young folk especially, reverting to activities which may indeed be connected to long held superstitions...or even the occult! Children across the country will be tricking or treating; the 'pumpkin patch' has been overwhelmed as thousands of folk have tramped through the mud to pick their very own pumpkins in preparation for next Tuesday evening.
All Hallows Eve, more popularly known as Halloween, harks back to the Celtic Festival of Samhain, later to be embraced by the Christian church as All Saints. In pre-Christian times, this last day of October marked the end of summer and was the time when cattle began to be slaughtered rather than kept through the winter because of a lack of fodder. And of course, it was exclusively that on this night the ghosts of the dead returned to earth and when witches might make merry!
Indeed a day or two ago I thought I saw covens of witches soaring boldly into the sky on their broomsticks but it was only a little group of rooks, defying first the winds generated by storm Ophelia, and then again as the remnants of storm Brian blew. However, the resemblance seemed uncanny. And there I also saw a hare loping across the field below. Was it a witch too I wondered, for the ability of witches to turn themselves into hares was once a widespread belief. Rooks, of course, like nothing more than to flirt playfully with the strongest of winds. They not only defy the storms, they simply revel in the challenge the wind presents throwing themselves about like aerial dancing dervishes. The mood of Halloween suits them very well!
Rooks are not the only members of the corvid clan claiming connections with the mysterious history that is behind the rituals of Halloween. The loud 'kronking' of ravens is a familiar sound to those who dwell in Highland glens, yet here in the Lowlands, those sonorous tones can also often be heard. Do they foretell disaster? Our ancient forebears clearly thought so.
In his 'Scottish play' Shakesepare has the raven 'croaking the fatal entrance of Duncan'. The English bard also refers to the raven as it hovers over a doomed army in 'Julius Caesar'. In those days of bloody, very physical conflict, swords were the principal weapons of battle. Thus, where conflict occurred, countless bodies lay. Ravens accordingly, were a constant if gory presence.
But then crows, as an entire clan have also long been viewed with the deepest of suspicion. That they still are suggests, that despite today's less spiritual genre, in many minds there still lurks a natural fear and perhaps a superstition concerning black birds. Such fears also extend of course, to bats. They too are black and furthermore they are nocturnal and silent, which adds that extra aura of mystique to their presence. Bats are ubiquitous, their 'hanging' presence in dwellings often unknown to the human inhabitants. Occasionally a bat will accidentally make its way into a house, becoming the cause of considerable consternation, not to say fear, verging on terror!
And if I thought those rooks flying off to challenge the wind,, could well have been witches on their broomsticks, the cackling laughter of magpies, now a regular addition to the sounds of nature hereabouts, certainly sounded like another coven of witches preparing themselves for Halloween. Of course, magpies too have generated much in the way of lore and indeed there are many folk who still to this day, acknowledge some of the old magpie customs. There are those for instance who automatically touch their forelocks or caps, at the arrival of magpies in the vicinity and indeed also offer respectful greetings to the birds.
The magpie, often these days described as the bird most people love to hate (!), has given rise to many verses...'One's sorrow - two's mirth - Three's a wedding - four's death; Five's a blessing - six hell - Seven the deil's ain sel' is just one example. The magpie is of course, an enigma. If the black members of the crow clan may automatically be tagged with an aura of evil, then the apparently black and white magpie (there are of course, hints of iridescent green in the 'black') should in all conscience be part good - the white - and part bad - the black.
Palpably, there are few folk who take the former view. But that harsh, cackling laugh most surely gives the magpie a role in the traditions linked with Halloween! Yet magpies have another, perhaps more benign side to them and may even on occasions, hold funerals for a compatriot, dead magpies. They are known sometimes for instance, to foregather quietly round such a body and even lay bits of foliage or grass across the corpse. Maybe that is their white side?
The coming of Halloween certainly marks both beginnings and endings. Those much-feared bats should, by the end of October, have already opted for an ending to active life for a few months by hibernating but the mildness of autumn thus far has kept them flying for longer than usual. When I looked out from my window the other morning in bright sunlight. I was surprised at the number of wee flying beasties there still were - food of course, for bats. And if you are travelling around in the dark, you will I'm sure, notice how many moths your car headlights might pick out. Those moths may well encourage many of the bats to stay awake beyond Halloween.
And there have been monsters roaring from the deepest recesses of the nearby woods! If red deer are normally associated with Highland glens, increasing numbers of them are opting for life in Lowland woodlands. Here we have a substantial, mature conifer forest. It is dark dank and indeed disorientating, creating an atmosphere, which those of a nervous disposition might have nightmares about, especially as, during past days, those dark woods have echoed dramatically to the sonorous roars of invisible monsters - rutting red deer stags. At night it is indeed a frightening place, where monsters may loom out of the frequent mists and murk - Halloween monsters by the dozen - with massive sets of antlers to boot!
Those unearthly woods also echo to the screeches and hoots of tawny owls, noises which can quickly be the cause of the hairs on the back of necks to suddenly stand erect, especially if those weird sounds abruptly issue from such dark and mysterious recesses. It is perhaps too early for the blood curdling screams of courting vixens to be added to this Halloween chorus yet it is surely another of our owls which visually paints the most ghostly of images.
I had a glimpse of a barn owl the other evening. Nothing surely provides a more ghoulish apparition - one of those returning spirits perhaps - more silently and phantom-like than a white bodied barn own hunting over field and hedgerow in gathering dusk. Except that of course, this floating white apparition is not an apparition at all but one of our most beautiful creatures.
If ghosts are therefore in short supply on Tuesday evening, that maybe because sadly our barn owls are in serious decline. So, will it be a trick or will it be a treat? Be not afraid of the witches, just say 'Black luggie, lammer head, Rowan tree and red thread; Put the witches to their speed!' - whatever that means!