‘The night of all the witches’

Hallow-e’een. [Shortened from All-hallow-even]. The eve of All-Hallows or All-Saints, the last night of October. In the old Celtic Calendar the year began on 1st November, so that the evening of October was ‘old-year’s night’, the night of all the witches, which the Church transformed into the ‘Eve of all Saints’ [OED].

Halloween was thought to be a night when witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings, are all abroad on their baneful midnight errands; particularly those aerial people, the Fairies, are said on that night, to hold a grand anniversary.’   A suitable night then for the Witches conventicle, for which kirkyards, like the one in Alloway, were believed to be a favoured location.

Burns grew up in a rural environment hearing such tales of witches, ghosts, fairies and the like; stories and superstitions which no doubt fed into his own tale of Tam O’ Shanter, and his lucky escape from the ‘hellish legion’ of warlocks and witches.  The mock moral of the story suggests perhaps that Tam’s supernatural experience may perhaps have had a more earthly explanation…

Dicks Standard Plays no. 532. Lib R 822082 DicTam O'Shanter

With its roots in traditional vernacular culture, the tale of Tam O’ Shanter was ideally suited to popular publications like broadsheets and chapbooks.

Halloween traditions and customs were about keeping the spirits in good order; chasing them away, with the aid of a lighted turnip; or hiding from them by ‘guising’, and foretelling the future. ‘Tam O’ Shanter: a tale’  was originally written to accompany, the antiquarian Francis Grose’s, account of Alloway Kirk.  And for amateur dramatists it was adapted for the stage, albeit it a small, domestic one, by Henry Addison ‘This play can be performed without risk of infringing any rights’. 

Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft

"Black John" Chastising the Witches. Letters on demonology and witchcraft: addressed to J.G. Lockhart, Esq. Sir Walter Scott. WS M 156, from the Bernard Lloyd Walter Scott CollectionThe idea, and fact, of witches and witchery long held strong sway in Scottish history and imagination.  Though most benignly expressed in folkore and custom, there were, until fairly recent times, not least in Aberdeenshire, more disturbing expressions of the belief. Historical beliefs and superstitions which Scott investigated in his Letters on Demonology and witchcraft, and which often took form in many of his novels, in the person of old hags and crones. They were reminiscent too perhaps of the three most famous Scottish witches