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12 November 2016updated 30 Jul 2021 6:13am

My pagan prayers at the turn of the Celtic year

Hallowe’en, or All Saints’ Eve, or el Día de los Muertos, or – as I pointed out to everyone’s surprise – the Scottish festival Samhuinn marks the beginning of winter.

By John Burnside

At October’s end, I found myself with an international group that began discussing the different ways in which people observed Hallowe’en, or All Saints’ Eve, or el Día de los Muertos, or – as I pointed out to everyone’s surprise – the Scottish festival Samhuinn, which marks the turn of the Celtic year and the beginning of winter.

My friends had assumed that Hallowe’en was an American import and they were bemused to hear that, as an honest pagan, I not only remembered the old customs but observed a few rites of my own to honour my dead, as well as the land from which they came and to which they had now returned

They asked me how common this was, if I belonged to some kind of cult and whether these rituals were Christian in nature. I told them that I didn’t know anybody else who observed Samhuinn, but that there was a woodland dell near my house where people left offerings to mark the Celtic festival days. I assured my friends that my practice was of the natural and not the supernatural order.

I have observed Samhuinn all my life, ever since my mother explained to me that the fire we lit on Hallowe’en night was intended not to frighten away evil spirits but to warm the returning dead when they came back to their home place on this one night of the year. I don’t think she literally believed that ghosts were hovering around us as the flames rose, but she was very attached to the notion that we should honour our predecessors on the land, as well as that place to which they, and we, belonged.

Beech trees surrounded our small plot. Every night, tawny owls came to hunt, and foxes passed through frequently, drawn to the poultry farm that was a few yards along the road. We were poor, but we had enough ground around our leaky prefab to be aware of the Earth and its non-human denizens.

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Now, my mother, whom I loved, and my father, whom I fought constantly, are remembered in my Samhuinn meditations, as is that lost garden at the edge of Cowdenbeath in Fife, along with various other places where I have dug, sown, planted saplings and raked leaves. I think about land that is under threat from “development” and pray, in my own manner, for the restitution of those lands that have recently been despoiled.

I am sure that, to many, this will sound like a quixotic enterprise but I persist in my foolishness. A decade ago, I added to my list land at Menie in Aberdeenshire devastated, with the full co-operation of the Scottish government, by Donald Trump and his golf course. I pray for the people who live there now, the land around them in ruins; one family is still without water after builders working on the course “accidentally” cut off the supply. (For more details, see Anthony Baxter’s brilliant documentary You’ve Been Trumped and its follow-up, A Dangerous Game.)

Speaking to the Huffington Post in 2015 about the continuing developments, Baxter claimed that the former first minister Alex Salmond cancelled several interviews scheduled for both films, so he was unable to explain why standard environmental protections and planning procedures were swept aside for the Menie course.

No surprise there, but many people feel that the Scottish National Party’s failure to defend a priceless national treasure, not to mention the people who fell victim to Trump’s greed, is, at the very least, dishonourable.

In our oldest traditions, people in Scotland saw Samhuinn as a moment to honour their land and the continuity of all who lived there. To be cursed with a government that has done nothing at Menie to win back its sense of honour is a bitter pill to swallow at the turn of the Celtic year.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

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This article appears in the 10 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse