Do turnip lanterns still haunt Halloween?

By Steven McKenzie
BBC Scotland Highlands and Islands reporter

  • Published
neep lantern

With Halloween just around a shadowy, cobwebbed-cloaked corner supermarkets are jam-packed with orange pumpkins to be hollowed out as spooky lanterns.

But it was not always this way.

The staple of the 31 October vegetable-based lantern was a turnip, or swede - or a neep as they are fondly known in Scotland.

Is the tradition of hollowing out the much tougher innards of a neep now long dead, or does it still survive in Scottish households?

Donna Heddle, professor of Northern Studies, at the University of the Highlands and Islands, says she remains committed to the hardy turnip.

She says: "This is a very old tradition in Scotland and Ireland based on will o' the wisps and Celtic mythology which settlers and emigrants took to the USA and, not really finding neeps, used pumpkins.

"The whole Halloween celebration today has been taken over by the US version which bears no resemblance to ours."

Prof Heddle concedes that colourful pumpkins with their soft insides make for an easier proposition than a neep.

She adds: "Pumpkins are sold very cheaply up to Halloween.

"However, my husband uses a drill bit to hollow our neeps out."

Brief pictorial guide to making a neep lantern

A Halloween lantern from a turnip, or a swede, can be made with a basic kitchen knife and spoon. But kids, always have a responsible grown-up ghoul to hand when sharp utensils are being used.

For this demonstration, a little spooky werewolf assisted, obviously.

Rachel Chisholm, curator of collections at the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore, remembers fondly the making of neep lanterns in her home.

She says: "I remember making our lanterns - or rather my dad making the lanterns - as they were extremely hard thing to do."

After a search through the museum's archives for details on the tradition of turnip lanterns, she says: "The only thing I found was the fact that as the summer came to an end people celebrated the great festival of Samhain.

"It was at this time that it was believed the dead could return to earth so at that time you went out masked to scare the evil spirits and having a light would also help to keep you safe.

"It was a custom that bonfires were lit also to scare the evil spirits."

The curator says: "Last year, we held a Halloween day here at the museum and had children, and adults, making turnip lanterns.

"It was great to see the traditional lanterns rather than pumpkins."

On other Scottish Halloween tradition, she adds: "My mother grew up on Skye and she tells of tricks that were played by the young men of the village.

"Gates were removed and hidden in ditches and even cows were moved between crofts so that by morning you never knew where to find your cattle."