Oidhche Shamhna — the Eve of the feast of Samhain in Gaelic tradition and Halloween in English — is upon us again, though in the midst of a pandemic we might not see soo many samhnairean or “guisers,” known in North America as “trick-or-treaters.”

There’s plenty of debate about the origins of trick-or-treating customs, with some arguing the tradition was invented in the US fairly recently to counter rampant pranks, mischief, and vandalism, but many Halloween customs clearly originate in the rural Gaelic traditions of Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man.

Oidhche Shamhna was in fact one of several holidays when groups of young people (not necessarily children) would go from house to house asking for food and drink in return for admission, such as Oidhche Challainn or New Year’s Eve in Scotland.

But there were other important traditions that have been more or less forgotten in the hyper-commercialized modern version of Halloween. For the Gaels, Oidhche Shamhna was a time for fortune-telling, especially to determine who one was going to marry.

The following account from the December 1872 issue of An Gàidheal, a Gaelic magazine published in Scotland in the early 1870s, describes one man’s failed attempt to discover who his bride would be by seeking out a woman who could “read the eggs” (leughadh nan uibhean) on Oidhche Shamhna.

“Bhrist a’ chailleach ubh, agus gu cùramach, leag i leis a ghealagan ruith do’n ghloinne (aig an am cheudna glé thoigheach nach gluaiseadh am buidheagan, oir nan tuiteadh boinne dheth ‘s a’ ghloinne maile ris a’ ghealagan ‘s ris an uisge, cha bhiodh a’ chùis cho math.) An deigh do ‘n ghealagan a bhi mar bu mhiannach leis a’ chaillich, chuir i a bois air beul na gloinne ‘s chraith i i gu h-iollagach aig an àm cheudna ‘g ainmeachadh araon “Mhic-Shimidh” (air ainm ‘s air a shloinneadh) agus an fhir nach tig an comunn nan criosduidhean. Leag i ‘n sin leis na bha ‘s a’ ghloinne stòladh, ‘s shìn i-fhéin air aithris rann no ubag air chor-eigin. Leugh i ghloinne, ‘s dh’innis i do “Mhac Shimidh,” ma tha e fìor, a nì ‘na dhuine sona e, cho fada ‘s a bhios ‘anail a’ dol sìos a’s suas. Air a’ mhodh cheudna, leugh i mo ghloinne-sa ach ‘s duilich leam nach d’thug i misneachd sam bith dhomh.”

The old women broke an egg, and carefully, she let the egg white run into the glass (at the same time being very watchful that the egg yolk wouldn’t move, for if a drop of it fell into the glass with the white and the water, things wouldn’t be so well.) After the egg white was as the old women wished it, she put her palm over the mouth of the glass and shook it sprightly while at the same time naming “Mac Shimidh” (his name and descent) and the man who won’t appear in the company of Christians. She then let what was in the glass settle, and she began to recite a verse or charm of some sort. She read the glass, and told “Mac Shimidh,” that if true, he would be a happy man, as long as his breath would go down and up (in and out). In the same fashion, she read my glass but unfortunately for me she gave me no confidence at all. (translation by Ó Caiside).

The article this extract came from was written by one “Mac-Dhomhnull Duibh,” and the “Mac Shimidh” mentioned in the text was a friend (the inference is Mac Shimidh was not his actual name).

This Mac-Dhomhnull goes through several other misadventures trying to learn who his future wife might be — from bobbing for six-pence and apples to roasting and cracking nuts and more. He had no luck, and gives the following plea to An Gàidheal’s readers:

An nis a Ghàidheil shuairce tuigeas tu-féin mo staid, a’s theagamh gu’n cur thu focal math asteach air mo shon ri aon de na h-òighean maiseach a tha leughadh do GHÀIDHEAL. Ma gheobh thu eolas air tè a shaoileas tu ‘thaitneas rium, abair rithe gur ann innte-se tha ‘n éis, ‘s nach ann annam-sa.”

And now kind Gaels you understand my state, and perhaps you will put in a good word for my sake with one of the lovely maidens who reads your GÀIDHEAL. If you get knowledge of a woman you think would please me, tell her that if there’s any hindrance it’s with her, not me.”

We’d like to think he was successful … ach cò aige a tha fios?

This article was brought to our attention by Baile nan Gàidheal/The Highland Village in Cape Breton and Shannon MacMullin, Amber Buchanan, and Hannah Krebs, who on a weekly basis read selections from the newspaper Mac-Talla on Facebook Live. Tapadh leibh!

— Liam Ó Caiside