VILLAGE HALLOWEENS OF YESTERYEAR
Some say it is inevitable that old village customs will, in time,be superceded by different interpretations derived from the experiences of people new to the area and, even more so these days, by global media influence . Sadly there is evidence to support this contention in how Halloween is celebrated today in Lochwinnoch. I wrote an article for the Lochwinnoch Community Council Newsletter in November 2016 which I hoped would be the catalyst for a revival of an old village tradition. Sadly, it did not find favour with residents of our small dormitory town !
Pat and Brian invited me to include an update of this article in their excellent website and I’m happy to do so. This version does not seek to re-establish the old tradition; it merely aims to leave a record of the Halloween celebration which was unique to the old village of Lochwinnoch.
The streets of the village were as busy as usual at Halloween with groups of excited children dressed in a range of elaborate, shop-purchased costumes, calling at the doors of friends and neighbours to “trick or treat”. At houses where “trick or treaters” would be made welcome, a hollowed-out pumpkin and candle illuminated the doorway. And, with each passing year, it seems that more and more houses are decorated with symbols of the festival :- ghosts, witches, skeletons, black cats, goblins and scarecrows.
The Three Churches pub gave the grown-ups a chance join in the revelry by holding a
Halloween Fancy Dress Night. So once again the village had honoured a very old
festival....but not in the traditional village way !
“Trick or Treat” is generally held to have originated in the USA and has now become the
primary expression of celebrating Halloween here in Lochwinnoch and throughout Scotland.
A straw-poll of older residents of the village suggests that it was in the mid-1970’s when
Lochwinnoch succumbed to this new idea. Interestingly this is same time-frame often given for Lochwinnoch’s metamorphosis from working village to small dormitory town. So, prior to that, how was Halloween celebrated in the village and what marked it as a unique custom ?
Some background information about the GALOSHANS FESTIVAL which is held every year in Greenock will be helpful in explaining the old village custom.
GALOSHANS (in some dictionaries GALATIAN) was a folk -theatre play performed in many
parts of Scotland dating back to the early 1800’s. In the last days of the year, or at
Halloween, boy guisers dressed in paper hats and coloured sashes carrying wooden
swords, would take to the streets singing and reciting at house doors. Their songs and
poems were structured into a play whose hero was Galoshan.
Among the other characters were a Black Knight, a Doctor, and Judas the purse bearer. The tale is one of death and resurrection where Galoshan is killed in a fight over the love of a beautiful woman. He is brought back to life by a potion made up by the Doctor and all ends happily. If the play was performed well the guisers
would receive tokens of thanks such as fruit, sweets,nuts or perhaps a dram from those who had opened their doors to watch.
There is evidence that this tradition was still being enacted in the 1930’s in some parts of the country. Today, the only surviving Galoshan Festival is held each year in Greenock around the end of October. It is a week long event encompassing a range of spoken and musical styles but it’s origins lie in the older, simpler custom outlined
earlier. It cannot be claimed with certainty that the play was performed here in Lochwinnoch. There is no reference to it in any local history including Andro Crawfurd’s “Cairn of Lochenyoch Matters”. However, the way in which generations of village children celebrated Halloween is clearly linked to Galoshans and perhaps allows us to deduce that the play could have been enacted here in the past.
Until the 1970’s village children would dress in costumes almost exclusively made up from
items found in the house and take to the streets on Halloween knocking on doors with a
request to “ Act the Galoshes”. They’d entertain the family of the house with a song or recite
a poem before being rewarded with nuts, tablet or toffee, and maybe a piece of fruit Unlike
today there was no money involved.
At “posh” houses a variation of the request would be
“Pleased to Act the Galoshes” !
There is little doubt that the usage of the word “galoshes” in this context is directly linked to the Galoshan tradition.
Mention was made earlier that pumpkins are widely used during Halloween in the village these days. This is a vegetable native to North America and was rarely if ever seen in Lochwinnoch until relatively recent years. In keeping with the tradition in Scotland and Ireland. It was the turnip that was hollowed out to accept a candle and provide illumination for the Halloween festivities in the old village. This process was quite difficult given the consistency of a turnip. A sharp knife or chisel tapped into the vegetable with a hammer was often required to succeed ! In the days prior to Halloween small groups of boys would congregate in the
early evening darkness to “procure” their turnip in one of the many fields around the village
where they were then grown.
The excuse was that these turnips were at this time of the year, those being grown as winter feed for livestock. It was a known about part of the Halloween activities among the farming community and accepted as integral to “fun”.
When it was time to return home, there were further traditions to be upheld. While out “acting the galoshes” someone at home would have prepared two games in particular. The first was “dookin’ for apples”. A large basin full of water would be placed on the kitchen floor and filled with apples which bobbed awkwardly on the surface. Each child in turn would then kneel on a kitchen chair alongside the basin and drop a fork from their mouth in an attempt to skewer an apple. Thisapple would then be the child’s. When the basin was full of apples there was a reasonable chance of skewering one. It got a lot more difficult as the apples reduced in number. By the time the last apple was won the floor was, of course, very wet indeed!
The second game set up while children were out guising was “treacle scones” or “treacle buns”.Whichever was used, they would not only be filled but also covered with lashings of thick, gooey treacle. Each bun or scone was then affixed by a length of string in such a way hat they dangled just about head height. As most village houses had clothes pulleys attached to the kitchen ceiling, this is often where the string was attached. The aim was then, with hands behind the back to avoid any cheating, to sink your teeth into the treacle scone as it swayed on the end of the string. With each bite digested, it was a process repeated until the scone was scoffed ! The winner was first to achieve this but in reality no-one won or lost aseveryone’s face was covered in the treacle to an equal degree. Great fun and lots of laughs!
Most of the customs outlined in this article were of course not unique to the village. What did Totally differentiate it was the use of the phrase “ acting the galoshes”. Interestingly, friends whose families have longevity in neighbouring Kilbarchan, Beith, Bridge of Weir, Kilbirnie and the Howwood confirm that, in their recollection, “acting the galoshes “ was never used in these localities. Why the phrase prevailed in Lochwinnoch and was the only greeting used at Halloween by village guisers over generations is therefore a bit of a mystery. The uniqueness, however, engendered a sense of pride in this village custom which, sadly, is now an item in our social history.
Down in Greenock where the Festival was once again held at the end of October, the children would guise with their own version of “acting the galoshes”,“go Galoshans”. At least they did until they too succumbed to the American “ trick or treat”.
UPDATE : NOVEMBER 2019