Halloween (Poem by Robert Burns)

the Old Poems

Halloween [1]
By Robert Burns

Upon that night, when fairies light
    On Cassilis Downans [2] dance,
Or owre the lays, in splendid blaze,
    On sprightly coursers prance;
Or for Colean the rout is ta’en,
    Beneath the moon’s pale beams;
There, up the Cove, [3] to stray an’ rove
    Amang the rocks an’ streams
                To sport that night.

Amang the bonnie winding banks
    Where Doon rins, wimplin’, clear,
Where Bruce [4] ance rul’d the martial ranks,
    An’ shook his Carrick spear,
Some merry, friendly, countra folks,
    Together did convene,
To burn their nits, an’ pou their stocks,
    An’ haud their Halloween
                Fu’ blythe that night.

The lasses feat, an’ cleanly neat,
    Mair braw than when they’re fine;
Their faces blythe, fu’ sweetly kythe,
    Hearts leal, an’ warm, an’ kin’;
The lads sae trig, wi’ wooer babs,
    Weel knotted on their garten,
Some unco blate, an’ some wi’ gabs,
    Gar lasses’ hearts gang startin’
                Whiles fast at night.

Then, first and foremost, thro’ the kail,
    Their stocks [5] maun a’ be sought ance;
They steek their een, an’ graip an’ wale,
    For muckle anes an’ straught anes.
Poor hav’rel Will fell aff the drift,
    An’ wander’d through the bow-kail,
An’ pou’t, for want o’ better shift,
    A runt was like a sow-tail,
                Sae bow’t that night.

Then, straught or crooked, yird or nane,
    They roar an’ cry a’ throu’ther;
The vera wee-things, todlin’, rin
    Wi’ stocks out-owre their shouther;
An’ gif the custoc’s sweet or sour,
    Wi’ joctelegs they taste them;
Syne coziely, aboon the door,
    Wi’ cannie care, they’ve placed them
                To lie that night.

The lasses staw frae mang them a’
    To pou their stalks o’ corn; [6]
But Rab slips out, an’ jinks about,
    Behint the muckle thorn:
He grippet Nelly hard an’ fast;
    Loud skirl’d a’ the lasses;
But her tap-pickle maist was lost,
    When kiuttlin’ in the fause-house [7]
                Wi’ him that night.

The auld guidwife’s weel hoordet nits [8]
    Are round an’ round divided;
An’ monie lads’ an’ lasses’ fates
    Are there that night decided:
Some kindle, couthie, side by side,
    An’ burn thegither trimly;
Some start awa’ wi’ saucy pride,
    And jump out-owre the chimlie
                Fu’ high that night.

Jean slips in twa wi’ tentie e’e;
    Wha ’twas, she wadna tell;
But this is Jock, an’ this is me,
    She says in to hersel’:
He bleez’d owre her, an’ she owre him,
    As they wad never mair part;
’Till, fuff! he started up the lum,
    An’ Jean had e’en a sair heart
                To see’t that night.

Poor Willie, wi’ his bow-kail runt,
    Was brunt wi’ primsie Mallie;
An’ Mallie, nae doubt, took the drunt,
    To be compar’d to Willie;
Mall’s nit lap out wi’ pridefu’ fling,
    An’ her ain fit it brunt it;
While Willie lap, and swoor, by jing,
    ’Twas just the way he wanted
                To be that night.

Nell had the fause-house in her min’,
    She pits hersel an’ Rob in;
In loving bleeze they sweetly join,
    ’Till white in ase they’re sobbin’;
Nell’s heart, was dancin’ at the view,
    She whisper’d Rob to leuk for’t:
Rob, stowlins, prie’d her bonie mou’,
    Fu’ cozie in the neuk for’t,
                Unseen that night.

But Merran sat behint their backs,
    Her thoughts on Andrew Bell;
She lea’es them gashin’ at their cracks,
    And slips out by hersel’:
She through the yard the nearest taks,
    An’ to the kiln she goes then,
An’ darklins graipit for the bauks,
    And in the blue-clue [9] throws then,
                Right fear’t that night.

An’ ay she win’t, an’ ay she swat,
    I wat she made nae jaukin’;
’Till something held within the pat,
    Guid L—d! but she was quaukin’!
But whether ’twas the Deil himsel’,
    Or whether ’twas a bauk-en’,
Or whether it was Andrew Bell,
    She did na wait on talkin’
                To spier that night.

Wee Jenny to her graunie says,
    “Will ye go wi’ me, graunie?
I’ll eat the apple [10] at the glass,
    I gat frae uncle Johnnie:”
She fuff’t her pipe wi’ sic a lunt,
    In wrath she was sae vap’rin’,
She notic’t na, an aizle brunt
    Her braw new worset apron
                Out thro’ that night.

“Ye little skelpie-limmer’s face!
    I daur you try sic sportin’,
As seek the foul Thief onie place,
    For him to spae your fortune:
Nae doubt but ye may get a sight!
    Great cause ye hae to fear it;
For monie a ane has gotten a fright,
    An’ liv’d an’ died deleeret
                On sic a night.

“Ae hairst afore the Sherra-moor,
    I mind’t as weel’s yestreen,
I was a gilpey then, I’m sure
    I was na past fifteen:
The simmer had been cauld an’ wat,
    An’ stuff was unco green;
An’ ay a rantin’ kirn we gat,
    An’ just on Halloween
                It fell that night.

“Our stibble-rig was Rab M’Graen,
    A clever, sturdy fellow:
He’s sin gat Eppie Sim wi’ wean,
    That liv’d in Achmacalla:
He gat hemp-seed, [11] I mind it weel,
    And he made unco light o’t;
But monie a day was by himsel’,
    He was sae sairly frighted
                That vera night.”

Then up gat fechtin’ Jamie Fleck,
    An’ he swoor by his conscience,
That he could saw hemp-seed a peck;
    For it was a’ but nonsense;
The auld guidman raught down the pock,
    An’ out a’ handfu’ gied him;
Syne bad him slip frae ‘mang the folk,
    Sometime when nae ane see’d him,
                An’ try’t that night.

He marches thro’ amang the stacks,
    Tho’ he was something sturtin;
The graip he for a harrow taks,
    An’ haurls at his curpin;
An’ ev’ry now an’ then he says,
    “Hemp-seed, I saw thee,
An’ her that is to be my lass,
    Come after me, an’ draw thee
                As fast that night.”

He whistl’d up Lord Lennox’ march,
    To keep his courage cheery;
Altho’ his hair began to arch,
    He was sae fley’d an’ eerie;
’Till presently he hears a squeak,
    An’ then a grane an’ gruntle;
He by his shouther gae a keek,
    An’ tumbl’d wi’ a wintle
                Out-owre that night.

He roar’d a horrid murder-shout,
    In dreadfu’ desperation!
An’ young an’ auld cam rinnin’ out,
    An’ hear the sad narration;
He swoor ’twas hilchin Jean M’Craw,
    Or crouchie Merran Humphie,
’Till, stop! she trotted thro’ them a’;
    An’ wha was it but Grumphie
                Asteer that night!

Meg fain wad to the barn hae gaen,
    To win three wechts o’ naething; [12]
But for to meet the deil her lane,
    She pat but little faith in:
She gies the herd a pickle nits,
    An’ twa red cheekit apples,
To watch, while for the barn she sets,
    In hopes to see Tam Kipples
                That vera night.

She turns the key wi’ cannie thraw,
    An’ owre the threshold ventures;
But first on Sawnie gies a ca’,
    Syne bauldly in she enters:
A ratton rattled up the wa’,
    An’ she cried, L—d preserve her!
An’ ran thro’ midden-hole an’ a’,
    An’ pray’d wi’ zeal and fervour,
                Fu’ fast that night.

They hoy’t out Will, wi sair advice;
    They hecht him some fine braw ane;
It chanc’d the stack he faddom’t thrice, [13]
    Was timmer-propt for thrawin’;
He taks a swirlie auld moss-oak,
    For some black, grousome carlin;
An’ loot a winze, an’ drew a stroke,
    ’Till skin in blypes cam haurlin’
                Aff’s nieves that night.

A wanton widow Leezie was,
    As canty as a kittlin;
But, och! that night, amang the shaws,
    She got a fearfu’ settlin’!
She thro’ the whins, an’ by the cairn,
    An’ owre the hill gaed scrievin,
Whare three lairds’ lands met at a burn, [14]
    To dip her left sark-sleeve in,
                Was bent that night.

Whyles owre a linn the burnie plays,
    As through the glen it wimpl’t;
Whyles round a rocky scaur it strays,
    Whyles in a wiel it dimpl’t;
Whyles glitter’d to the nightly rays,
    Wi’ bickering, dancing dazzle;
Whyles cookit underneath the braes,
    Below the spreading hazel,
                Unseen that night.

Amang the brackens on the brae,
    Between her an’ the moon,
The deil, or else an outler quey,
    Gat up an’ gae a croon:
Poor Leezie’s heart maist lap the hool!
    Near lav’rock-height she jumpit,
But mist a fit, an’ in the pool
    Out-owre the lugs she plumpit,
                Wi’ a plunge that night.

In order, on the clean hearth-stane,
    The luggies three [15] are ranged,
And ev’ry time great care is ta’en,
    To see them duly changed:
Auld uncle John, wha wedlock’s joys
    Sin Mar’s-year did desire,
Because he gat the toom-dish thrice,
    He heav’d them on the fire
                In wrath that night.

Wi’ merry sangs, and friendly cracks,
    I wat they did na weary;
An’ unco tales, an’ funnie jokes,
    Their sports were cheap an’ cheery;
Till butter’d so’ns [16] wi’ fragrant lunt,
    Set a’ their gabs a-steerin’;
Syne, wi’ a social glass o’ strunt,
    They parted aff careerin’
                Fu’ blythe that night.


[1] Is thought to be a night when witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings are all abroad on their baneful midnight errands: particularly those aƫrial people, the Fairies, are said on that night to hold a grand anniversary.

[2] Certain little, romantic, rocky green hills, in the neighbourhood of the ancient seat of the Earls of Cassilis.

[3] A noted cavern near Colean-house, called the Cove of Colean which, as well as Cassilis Downans, is famed in country story for being a favourite haunt of fairies.

[4] The famous family of that name, the ancestors of Robert, the great deliverer of his country, were Earls of Carrick.

[5] The first ceremony of Halloween is pulling each a stock, or plant of kail. They must go out, hand-in-hand, with eyes shut, and pull the first they meet with: its being big or little, straight or crooked, is prophetic of the size and shape of the grand object of all their spells—the husband or wife. If any yird, or earth, stick to the root, that is tocher, or fortune; and the taste of the custoc, that is, the heart of the stem, is indicative of the natural temper and disposition. Lastly, the stems, or, to give them their ordinary appellation, the runts, are placed somewhere above the head of the door; and the Christian names of the people whom chance brings into the house are, according to the priority of placing the runts, the names in question.

[6] They go to the barn-yard, and pull each at three several times, a stalk of oats. If the third stalk wants the top-pickle, that is, the grain at the top of the stalk, the party in question will come to the marriage-bed anything but a maid.

[7] When the corn is in a doubtful state, by being too green or wet, the stack-builder, by means of old timber, &c., makes a large apartment in his stack, with an opening in the side which is fairest exposed to the wind: this he calls a fause-house.

[8] Burning the nuts is a famous charm. They name the lad and lass to each particular nut, as they lay them in the fire, and according as they burn quietly together, or start from beside one another, the course and issue of the courtship will be.

[9] Whoever would, with success, try this spell, must strictly observe these directions: Steal out, all alone, to the kiln, and, darkling, throw into the pot a clue of blue yarn; wind it in a clue off the old one; and towards the latter end, something will hold the thread; demand “wha hauds?” i.e. who holds? an answer will be returned from the kiln-pot, naming the Christian and surname of your future spouse.

[10] Take a candle, and go alone to a looking-glass; eat an apple before it, and some traditions say, you should comb your hair all the time; the face of your conjugal companion, to be, will be seen in the glass, as if peeping over your shoulder.

[11] Steal out unperceived, and sow a handful of hemp-seed, harrowing it with anything you can conveniently draw after you. Repeat, now and then, “Hemp-seed, I saw thee; hemp-seed, I saw thee; and him (or her) that is to be my true love, come after me and pou thee.” Look over your left shoulder, and you will see the appearance of the person invoked, in the attitude of pulling hemp. Some traditions say, “Come after me, and shaw thee,” that is, show thyself; in which case it simply appears. Others omit the harrowing, and say, “Come after me, and harrow thee.”

[12] This charm must likewise be performed, unperceived, and alone. You go to the barn, and open both doors, taking them off the hinges, if possible; for there is danger that the being about to appear may shut the doors and do you some mischief. Then take that instrument used in winnowing the corn, which, in our country dialect, we call a wecht; and go through all the attitudes of letting down corn against the wind. Repeat it three times; and the third time, an apparition will pass through the barn, in at the windy door, and out at the other, having both the figure in question, and the appearance or retinue marking the employment or station in life.

[13] Take an opportunity of going unnoticed, to a bean stack, and fathom it three times round. The last fathom of the last time, you will catch in your arms the appearance of your future conjugal yoke-fellow.

[14] You go out, one or more, for this is a social spell, to a south running spring or rivulet, where “three lairds’ lands meet,” and dip your left shirt-sleeve. Go to bed in sight of a fire, and hang your wet sleeve before it to dry. Lie awake: and, some time near midnight, an apparition having the exact figure of the grand object in question, will come and turn the sleeve, as if to dry the other side of it.

[15] Take three dishes: put clean water in one, foul water in another, and leave the third empty; blindfold a person and lead him to the hearth where the dishes are ranged; he (or she) dips the left hand: if by chance in the clean water, the future husband or wife will come to the bar of matrimony a maid; if in the foul, a widow; if in the empty dish, it foretells, with equal certainty, no marriage at all. It is repeated three times, and every time the arrangement of the dishes is altered.

[16] Sowens, with butter instead of milk to them, is always the Halloween supper.

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