Memoir Contest Winner: Guising and Galoshens by Mairi Neil

by Matilda Butler on May 3, 2012

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #180 – Women’s Memoirs, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Halloween from a Child’s Perspective — Memoir Contest

Mairi Neil brings us the charm of a Halloween story from Scotland via Australia. Women’s Memoirs is especially pleased to publish another of Mairi’s stories. We learn something each time. Thank you, Mairi for this one submitted to our October 2011 Memoir Writing Contest.

If you like Mairi’s story from her childhood in Scotland, be sure to click the LIKE button (Thumbs Up icon) at either the top or the botton of this page. We appreciate knowing you enjoyed the story and the author does as well.

Want to enter one of our contests? Click here for details. We hope you’ll enter.

by Mairi Neil

Not last night but the night before,
three wee witches came to my door.
One with a hatchet and one with a gun
and one with a pancake stuck to her bum!

[Or, if within earshot of Mum and Dad, the pancake was stuck to her thumb!]

I'm 3 years old in 1956, standing by our home on Davaar Road along with my three sisters

I'm 3 years old in 1956, standing by our home on Davaar Road along with my three sisters

I chanted this ditty as a child in Scotland as the seasons changed and we prepared for Halloween. An exciting time when children dressed up, ate special foods, played games and stayed out late visiting neighbours. The latter privilege made us feel grown-up.

October in Scotland has nights growing darker earlier. Chill winds of winter whirl from the hills and sea, foreshadowing the cold cruel months ahead. Nightfall begins late afternoon and fog descends or the rain we Scots euphemistically call mist. I can remember wishing that the bright paper lanterns and the carved turnips made at school would magically light the way home.

memoir, Mairi Neil, treacle scones, Halloween memoir contest, memoir writing contest winnerHalloween, which the pre-Christian Celts called Samhain, signifies the end of summer. Feasting and bonfires mark the night when witches and warlocks have free reign, and the souls of the dead escape at midnight — the witching hour. Ancient folk blackened children’s faces to meld with the shadowy spirits, the disguise keeping them safe. Adults gifted children food to ward off evil; lanterns carved from turnips scared the undead. Pagan customs absorbed into Christian festivals, a vivid part of my Scots Presbyterian childhood and included dressing up (guising) for Halloween (galoshens), dooking (ducking) for apples, and biting treacle (molasses) scones suspended from the ceiling while blindfolded with hands tied behind your back!

I taught my daughter Anne how to bob for apples.

I taught my daughter Anne how to bob for apples.

Apples bobbing in a tub of water targeted with teeth, or speared with a fork held in the mouth and dropped as you knelt on a chair placed to require skill and surreptitious help from Mum, if necessary. All the fun accompanied by encouraging chants, groans, and cheers. Halloween a rowdy night when children didn’t have to ‘haud yir wheesht’. (Lallan Scots for be quiet!)

Highland Dad and Irish Mum imparted a Celtic heritage steeped in the mythology of fairy folk lore; our culture birthed from paganism woven in and out of Christian practices. Growing up in the west coast, I went out guising after rummaging through Mum’s wardrobe and the ragbag. No one wore store-bought costumes in our working class neighbourhood. What a thrill traipsing up the street to visit neighbours, clip clopping in an old pair of Mum’s high heels and holding a too-big dress aloft like a princess; accompanied by fellow ‘guisers’: my sister and three brothers.

The highlight always which one of us could snaffle the tired old brown fox fur with crooked paw and one red beady eye, to drape around our shoulders and scare any nervous ninny we met on our travels. I can smell Foxy’s soft fur now, tinged with Mum’s favourite Blue Grass perfume that permeated her wardrobe. The fox fur, inherited from a distant relative, lay in the bottom of the dark wardrobe and only got an airing when we played dress ups.

On our Halloween sojourn, we carried a school satchel for the rewards — nuts and fruit (and sometimes sweeties) from ‘surprised’ neighbours after we performed a poem or song practised to perfection during the long summer holidays at backyard concerts.

These concerts rotated in various gardens in a street where most mums did not ‘go out’ to work and large families were common (the baby boomers). The Davaar Road Gang boasted nearly a score of regulars and our mothers would carry a kitchen chair and set themselves up in the ‘back green’ of the concert host beneath a flowering Rowan or a shady oak whose leaves were yet to turn golden.

A penny entrance fee paid, and the money later divided (topped up if we were lucky!) amongst eager performers. The anticipated trip to Peter’s shop three streets away and debate of what to buy made the sweets bought all the more delicious. Striped humbugs or purple gobstoppers kept us quiet while mums caught up with news over a cuppa. They’d devour tasty scones, shortbread, or whatever their individual baking skills produced and we ate the leftovers, of course!

Television, still a fledgling industry with viewing controlled by parents, was often referred to as ‘that idiot box.’ We made our own evening entertainment. Halloween became extra special if my train driver Dad was home to teach us skills like playing a tune on a comb transformed into a mouth organ when tissue paper was folded over its teeth, and rattling out a tune with dessertspoons balanced between the fingers. Dad had a fine tenor voice and loved to sing and recite especially the poems and songs of Scottish bard Rabbie Burns and we absorbed them all.

Dad could also yodel, a skill we tried to emulate but our attempts produced more laughter than melody. Mum’s Halloween tricks were more basic, challenging us to touch the tip of our nose with our tongue — brother Iain the only one out of six siblings to successfully inherit this ability. To this day, thank goodness, none of us can copy Mum’s other trick of popping out her false teeth and sucking them straight back in again, a move guaranteed to have us doubled over with laughter.

Being tone deaf Mum couldn’t sing in tune but she could recite all of Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shallot — and remembered every word well into her eighties!

On the last Halloween celebrated in Scotland in 1962 prior to our leaving for Australia, according to the family pecking order, sister Catriona, the eldest led the singing with the soothing love song Flow Gently Sweet Afton by Rabbie Burns. A month past her thirteenth birthday, the rendition oozed angst:

Flow gently, sweet Afton! among thy green braes,
Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream—
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.
Brother Iain followed pretending to be a soldier and sang a rousing verse of Sir Walter Scott’s Bonnie Dundee:
To the Lords of Convention ’twas Claverhouse spoke.
“Ere the King’s crown shall fall there are crowns to be broke;
So let each Cavalier who loves honour and me,
Come follow the bonnet of Bonny Dundee.
Iain’s hat (or should I say Dad’s best Homburg purloined for the night) flew upwards with a flourish then as if it were a butterfly, he grasped it mid-air before bowing low. When brother George was introduced, he marched on the spot singing Andy Stewart’s Scottish Soldier. The dramatic pathos guaranteed to bring a patriotic tear to the eye:

There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier
Who wandered far away and soldiered far away
There was none bolder, with good broad shoulders,
He fought in many a fray and fought and won
Dressed in Mum’s tartan skirt and wielding Foxy to good effect, I recited My Heart’s in the Highlands, another poem by Burns,

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer -
A-chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.
Our bag bulged with monkey nuts (peanuts still in their shells), juicy red apples, homemade tablet and sweeties by the time it was baby Alistair’s turn. Six years old and sporting a cherubic face to melt the hearts of all the mums in the street, he peeked from behind Catriona’s oversized skirt. After prising pudgy fingers and wiping his constantly dripping nose, we pushed him forward whispering ’don’t forget the actions’:

I have a sausage, a bonnie Heilan’ sausage
I put it in the oven for ma tea,
I went to the lobby to see ma uncle Bobby
And the sausage came running after me!
Alistair shot out the door without his treat, as if chased by ‘auld Nick’ (the Devil) instead of an errant sausage. He ignored the bats circling the street lamp, the inky swirling cloud shapes resembling monsters, and did not stop until he reached home. He was only supposed to run to the neighbour’s gate and return! This comical retreat earned us extra treats and the tale absorbed into neighbourhood legend — repeated to me when I returned for a visit in 1973!

My daughter MJ carried on the family tradition of dressing for Halloween

My daughter MJ carried on the family tradition of dressing for Halloween

In November 1962, we farewelled family and friends, unaware we were also saying goodbye to many traditions taken for granted. Halloween lost its magic in the southern hemisphere where October is spring. Mum salvaged what she could but there were few houses and even fewer children in our new neighbourhood in Croydon, a bush town on the outskirts of Melbourne. I continued the salvage operation and taught some of the customs to my daughters.

In this shrinking global village, dressing up and party aspects of Halloween are gaining popularity, however, Australians think Halloween and ‘trick or treat’ is an American invention but as a child growing up in Scotland, I know otherwise!

© Mairi Neil

storytelling, memoir, memoir writing

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Rachel May 3, 2012 at

Thank you Mairi for this beautiful memoir and your magical childhood tales!

Rita Cordeux May 4, 2012 at

Fantastic lovely memories so proud of you xxx
Just one point I can also touch my nose with my tongue x x x x

Brigita May 4, 2012 at

Wonderfully heartfelt and nostalgic account. Reminds me of my childhood.

Mairi Neil May 4, 2012 at

Thank you Rachel and Brigita, I was blessed with a magical childhood and hope my daughters will feel the same about their childhood when they write their memoirs!

Mairi Neil May 4, 2012 at

My apologies Rita – shows how fickle memory can be:)

Lou Versteegen May 4, 2012 at

Dear Mairi, what wonderful memoeies you have. Am still trying to get mine down,before old age creeps up on me. Would love to read a full sized novel of your life, love LOU.

Maureen Hanna May 4, 2012 at

Dear Mairi,
Congratulation on winning and I must say what a delight it was to wake up with you and your family. I noticed your sister, the girl in the centre of the three in the first photograph, is squabbing around in your mum’s high heels – no sparkly plastic pink or purple heel heels for children in the fifties. More please – much more.

Mairi Neil May 4, 2012 at

Dear Lou, thank you – and yes get those memories down onto paper or computer! xx

Mairi Neil May 4, 2012 at

Dear Maureen – actually the three girls are my big sister’s friends and yes I think the pic is very 50s – what fun we had wearing mum’s old shoes – and dad’s! Mind you I remember wishing I had sparkly glass slippers like Cinderella! x

Glenice May 5, 2012 at

Thank you for a heartwarming, beautifully crafted cameo of childhood memories, Mairi. I love the attention to detail and the inclusion of the poems and songs. You are a gifted storyteller. xx

Mairi Neil May 5, 2012 at

Thank you dear Glenice and the compliment is returned – every writer needs a critical friend and I’m glad you’re mine:)

Pat Rattray May 5, 2012 at

What beautifully written reflections of your happy childhood Mairi. Halloween is an unfamiliar custom to me. You describe it with colour and flair. Congratulations on winning this memoir contest.

Margaret Birch May 6, 2012 at

Loved your story Mairi, was transported to the Scottish neighbourhood of your childhood. Enjoyed the concert, a tradition my own Father took part in = in the very early nineteen hundreds…..congratulations

Ronda Armstrong May 6, 2012 at

So fun to read about your memories! Illustrated to me the importance of sharing so we better understand other’s backgrounds and also the importance of passing on memories and traditions. Thanks, Mairi and Congratulations!

Mairi Neil May 6, 2012 at

Dear Pat and Ronda, thank you both for your kind comments and I’m glad you enjoyed reading about my family’s celebration of Halloween – it is wonderful how our writing can give others a glimpse but also enable us to capture and keep the memories alive.

Betty Nelson May 6, 2012 at

No wonder you are our teacher and we are your students. Vivid memories we can all share. We Aussies don’t even have Guy Fawkes night now. Oh, for a Scottish childhood.

Mairi Neil May 7, 2012 at

Dear Betty and Margaret
thank you for your kind words you both have some wonderful childhood memories to share – keep writing them down:)

Jillian Rhodes May 8, 2012 at

Wonderful work !! As always, Mairi, your stories leave us transfixed to the end. Made me want to be with you in your childhood, even though I’m sure there would have been many hardships along the way. The joy of having fun with your family, the neighbours and locals, has obviously left you with such marvellous memories, thank you for sharing them with us all.

Anne May 8, 2012 at

Simply beautiful Mum! So proud of you and your magical way of transporting the imagination. Would also like to point out I am glad you decided to put a pretty picture of me up (haha)! XX

Mairi Neil May 9, 2012 at

Dear Jillian, thank you for your kind comments – I am so glad you are recording your stories too!

Mairi Neil May 9, 2012 at

Darling Anne – glad you took the time from your travels to read this – and don’t you know from a mum’s perspective evey photo of you is beautiful:)xx

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