Christine Grahame: The real Halloween – carving a nicked tumshie

Edinburgh guisers warm their hands over their tumshie lantern in 1956
Edinburgh guisers warm their hands over their tumshie lantern in 1956
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As the shops heave with pumpkins and supermarket aisles fill with ready-made outfits for guising – it’s not “trick or treating” – I reflect on the differences for children today as 31 October approaches.

For £5 or so you can transform instantly and effortlessly into a witch, a ghoul, a skeleton. Your pumpkin is easy-peasy to carve and you can even buy artificial varieties with inbuilt lighting.

Christine Grahame is SNP MSP for Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale

Christine Grahame is SNP MSP for Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale

My granddaughter, for example, will probably have the hale shebang: fancy dress, those “trick or treat” parties, the perfect pumpkin and, knowing her, alternative routines to perform. Gone are the days when you fearfully nicked a tumshie from a nearby field and all but amputated a finger or two hacking through the unforgiving flesh. Then there were the accidental grotesquely carved features, mainly due to the aforesaid resistance of the tumshie.

Once that battle was over, came the insertion of the candle or “caunle”. Mair travail as it was too fat or too long and wouldnae stand up.

The lid, such as it was, would be replaced once the caunle was lit and the aroma of burning tumshie filled the air – the unmistakable scent of Halloween. Next came the dressing up. Pleas to “borrow” a sheet would be met at first with a flat no. But annoying persistence would pay off and, with promises to bring it back intact and unharmed, we were on to phase three, ‘sooting up’ your cheeks and nose to look a bit of a ghoulie and disguise yourself.

In those days of open fires with coal and briquettes there was plenty of that and, with soot everywhere and already falling onto the precious pristine sheet, we were off. An unbreakable and unwritten rule was not to go out except on Halloween itself.

Then it was a matter of assessing which doors were “favourable” and which to avoid. “Please to help the guisers” we would chant, usually pushing a reluctant pal to the front to face the inhabitant because you were not always certain about the reception you would receive.

Sometimes there was no answer though we could see the lights were on, but we’d take that in our stride. We’d just mark that one off our list for next year. Other times we were simply handed some sweets or a coin or two without having to do a turn.

But, on occasion, we would be invited in and put through our paces. That was when we drew on our very limited repertoire. A bit of a dance, a Christmas cracker of a joke, “what sits at the bottom of the sea and shakes … a nervous wreck!”

The only poem I could recite without a thought was that McGonagall stalwart “The moon was roon, the moon was square, the fishes swam frae Troon tae Ayr, the moon was square, the moon was roon etc…”.

It was my fall-back poem and was usually enough. Afterall, the performance was mainly symbolic and part of the ritual.

Afterwards we would rendezvous under a street light, count and then divvy out the takings. Back home I would find I had not only dirtied the sheet, but torn it, in several places, with my mother vowing I would not be given a sheet next year. Bless her, she always did.