Category Archives: Halloweentide

Custom demised: Lating the witches at Pendle, Lancashire


Lancashire Folklore, 1882 by John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson., it was formerly believed that witches assembled on this night to do “their deeds without a name,” at their general rendezvous in the forest of Pendle, a ruined and desolate farmhouse, denominated the Malkin Tower, from the awful purposes to which it was devoted. It is said in Hone’s Year Book 1838 that:

“This superstition led to a ceremony called lating, or perhaps leeting the witches. It was believed that, if a lighted candle were carried about the fells or hills from eleven till twelve o’clock at night, and burned all that time steadily, it had so far triumphed over the evil power of the witches, who, as they passed to the Malkin Tower, would employ their utmost efforts to extinguish the light, and the person whom it represented might safely defy their malice during the season; but if by accident the light went out, it was an omen of evil to the luckless wight for whom the experiment was made. It was also deemed inauspicious to cross the threshold of that person until after the return from leeting, and not then unless the candle had preserved its light.”

Pendle of course is famous for its witch trials but what is unclear is whether this was a custom or before that. It would appear that if there was a large scale belief of witches in the area why would you want to go across the moors on this night anyway. One wonders whether this was some sort of initiation or dare based custom. When this custom died out is unclear but I am sure that people are still wary of the witches in this area.

Custom revived: The Wild horse of Antrobus and the Soulcakers


I have previously reported on soulcaking before but the most famous team, the Wild horse of Antrobus. When I first got into calendar customs it was via books like Homer Sykes’ Once a Year and Brian Shuel’s National Trust Guide to Traditional Customs. From the later I was enthralled by what he called the Wild Horse of Antrobus:

“The nine players dress in character. When I saw them back in 1972 King George looked like a bandsman, the Black Prince – mysteriously like an old fashioned police constable, the Quack doctor as normal for the part. Mary was a ‘splendid old woman’ bag to disguise his masculinity. Beelzebub was a dreadful old man with a big black beard. Derry Doubt not only dressed like a schoolboy but very probably was one. The letter in did not appear to be in costume at all. The driver was resplendent in full and immaculate, hunting pink, The Wild Horse , was a man bowed forward from the waist beneath a canvas cover which was attached to a real horse skull. This was painted shiny black and mounted on a pole which the man held. Thus with two black legs, a bulky canvas body, one front leg and ferocious snapping head, a reasonably convincing – if bizarre – horse was achieved.”

Now I had seen the Warburton soulcakers and similar ‘horses’ with them, the Winster Guisers and the Poor Owd Oss, of course, but this the oldest of the revived teams haunted me. So this year I finally decided to get myself organised to see them and they did not disappoint.

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Soul for the caking

For those unfamiliar and who have not read my earlier post on the topic. Soul caking is a custom now largely confined to the North-west of England, in particular in Cheshire. Chris Eyres in a piece on the website explains:

“As far as Soulcaking is concerned, we believe that these rituals will have changed over time and the characters in such ‘plays’ will also have changed to reflect the good and bad omens and heroes of the day. It is also likely that, during the middle ages, in order to curry favour with communities, the Church will have ‘hijacked’ some of these beliefs and Christianised them in some way and added them to the Church calendar. It is clear that such rituals would have been an important part of village life and ones which all villagers would have looked forward to. It is also significant that the play is performed after harvest time. This would have been a time of great celebration within a rural village community. There would also be some concern that the earth would be required to produce crops for the following year. The raising of the dead in the play and the inclusion of a horse are believed to relate to superstitions surrounding fertility.”

There are now around half a dozen souling gangs surviving in Cheshire, they were once much more common.  It seems that many large villages had a gang until the start of the 20th century.  Most of today’s groups have arrived in the folk revival of the 1960s-70s, though Antrobus Soulcakers are claimed to be an uninterrupted tradition since the late 19th century, that is not strictly true as the evidence appears to be that they were revived in the 1930ss after a brief hiatus which could have seen it gone for good. Like many customs it was the First World War put an end to almost all of the Soulcakers but at Comberbach, the old tradition survived into the 1920s, when Major A Boy heard it and published the text in 1929. Following his encouragement several young farmers clubs in the Antrobus area undertook to carry out the performances and the revival begun. The revival was noted by Christina Hole noted that:

“On October 31st 1934, the Comberbach Soulcaking play was broadcast from Frandley House near Northwich, the home of Mr. W. A. Boyd. Mr Boyd

The Comberbach soulcaking play was that undertaken by the Antrobus Soulcakers and so the revival continued.

Popped in…not souled out

Arriving at the venue it was a wet Friday evening. Like many times with such plays one never knows if they came early and missed it. However, soon a minibus loomed into view and out poured not dissimilar to the arrival of tour bus of some famous band; one by one in their curious costumes. They assembled themselves around the front of the pub for their entrance. Quite often with such plays the reception can be variable, but here quite a crowd had assembled awaiting the Soulcakers. The team was much as described by Shuel:

“The dress of the characters is modern King George appearing in Khaki, and the Black Prince in a bandsman’s tunic and a spiked helmet. The characters in this version are the Letter -in, who announced that ‘there’s going to be a dreadful fight’, King George, who in many versions has taken the place of St George, and who, in this case is the slayer, the Black Prince the victim, and Old Woman, his mother and the Quack Doctor who raises the corpse to life. In addition there are dairy doubt and Beelzebub, the Driver and the Wild Horse.”

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Horse play

The main draw of the Antrobus Soulcakers is the Wildhorse. The horse is described as having been bred from Marbury Dun, a famous animal who really existed and is buried at Marbury Hall, not far off.  As Steve Roud in his 2005 The English Year notes the play is standard until the end when the Wild horse and his Driver appear:

“In comes Dick and all his men,

He’s come to see you once again,

He was once alive and now he’s dead

He’s nothing but a old horses head,

Stand around Dick and show yourself,

Now ladies and gentlemen just view around,

See whether you’ve seen a better horse on any ground,

He double ribbed sure footed

A splendid horse in any gears

And him if you can

He’s travelled high, he’s travelled low,

He’s travelled through frost and snow,

He’s travelled the land of Ikerty Pikkery.

Where there’s neither land nor city….

The horse was bred in Seven Oaks

The finest horse e’er fed on oats,

He’s won the Derby and the Oaks,

And now pulls an old milk float,

Now I ask you all to open your hearts to buy Dick a newsprung cart,

Not for him to pull, oh dear no! For him,

To ride in. If you don’t believe these words I say ask those outside here They’re better liars than I am.”

Indeed much of the play’s charm and enjoyment came from this wild horse who certainly lived up to his name as he threw itself around the pub to equal amounts of fear and laughter. It was remarkable how a skull, a stick and blanket can have the appearance of something alive. Indeed, one woman found the whole experience a little too weird and was quite scared of it! I myself never stopped laughing as its handler resplendent in his hunting pink pulled and yanked at its chain and tried to keep it under control. The audience were soon getting their phones out to film this curious encounter and it was clear that the team bounced off the rapport in such venues.

There is certainly something otherworldly in the Wildhorse with its black head, gnashing teeth and staring white eye. A good mix of horror and hilarity and may it long entertain the Cheshire pubs.

Custom demised: Hallowe’en offerings of ale to Shony, Isle of Lewis


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In the village of Bragar, on the Isle of Lewis at Hallowe’en was perhaps the British Isles most peculiar custom which involved a sea creature called Shony . The main source is Martin Martin’s Description of the Western Isles (1703):

one of their number was picked to wade into the sea up to his middle, and carrying a cup of ale in his hand, standing still in that posture.

He notes that once in the sea he would cry out with a loud voice saying:

“Shony, I give you this cup of ale, hoping that you’ll be so kind as to send us plenty of sea-ware for enriching our ground for the ensuing year”,

Then the ale was thrown into the sea. John Cameron in the 1900 Gaelic Plants of Scotland adds it was Mulvay church and that it was sanctioned by the Church of Scotland indeed, Thisleton-Dwer 1900 Popular British customs present and past adds that it was

“performed at night and on his return to land the people went to church and put out the candle burning on the altar, then went to the fields where they drank ale and spent the rest of the night dancing and singing.”

When the custom died out is unclear but interestingly Fiona Mcleod in her 1912 Iona tells of a Hebridean nurse who told her about Shony and she adds:

I was amused not long ago to hear a little girl singing, as she ran wading through the foam of a troubled sunlit sea, as it broke on those wonderful white sands of Iona:-
“Shanny, Shanny, Shanny,
Catch my feet and tickle my toes!
And if you can, Shanny, Shanny, Shanny,
I’ll go with you where no one knows!”

It is clear that Shony and Shanny was the same. Interesting it is also the name for a blenny fish! She added that its power was not forgotten:

whose more terrifying way was to clutch boats by the keel and drown the sailors, and make a death necklace of their teeth. An evil Shony; for once he netted a young girl who was swimming in a loch, and when she would not give him her love he tied her to a rock, and to this day her long brown hair may be seen floating in the shallow green wave at the ebb of the tide. One need not name the place!”

Cameron suggests that the Shony was

“Sjone a Scandinavian Neptune. This offering was a relic of pagan worship introduced into the Western Isles by the Norwegians.”

One wonders what Shony’s response is now that it is now regularly celebrated!

Custom demised: Cakin Night

Cakin Night mask courtesy of Shirley Samworth from Storrs and Dungworth Facebook page

Cakin Night mask courtesy of Shirley Samworth from Storrs and Dungworth Facebook page

It’s always terrible to hear about the demise of custom, especially as its one which may have very ancient origins and dies out not in the Victorian times, nor after the First World War, neither the Second World War…but the early 1990s!

On the other side of the coin, we have the survival of Mischievous night may be alive and kicking – indeed going through a burst of perhaps unwanted energy, a similar native Hallowe’en custom appears to have disappeared – this is Cakin Night, Neet or Kay Kayling (the later taking the first three letters from a phonetic spelling of cake of course). The custom is still reported as current and alive in a number of sources, especially on-line but all avenues of enquiry suggest it is now extinct which is a real shame…but it is one which could easily be revived.

I have discussed before how Trick and Treat is not an alien interloper but a rebranding of something more traditional and Cakin Neet was testament for this. Clearly a separate and related custom emphasised for the fact it was always undertaken on the 1st of November – All Souls rather than the 31st. The custom does appeared to be a confused one in all accounts but it shows a tradition in flux, change and ultimate demise. Early accounts recall something very familiar.

On a scouting forum, Stocky scouts recalls:

“As a kid in the late 60’s early 70’s (seems so long ago when you look at it), we didn’t have Halloween or Trick or Treat. Our village had Cakin’ Neet. It was a very old tradition celebrated on November 1st where the children in the village used to go around dressed up to houses. The kids would sing the cakin’ song and then the householder would give them a bit of cake..”

This song went as follows:

“Cake, copper, copper, cake, copper, copper, if you haven’t got a penny, a half penny will do, if you haven’t got half penny, then God Bless you.”

As the poster notes:

“By the time I got round to doing it, it was money you got. It was an event we all looked forward to immensely….

Caking house visiting 1st November Stockbridge Copyright Ruairidh Greig

Caking house visiting 1st November Stockbridge Copyright Ruairidh Greig

The poster is not exactly correct, it was not just one village but the distribution was remarkably restrictive, if the last vestiges were to go by: Deepcar, Bradfield, Stannington, Dungworth and Little Matlock, small parishes on the west of Sheffield

Another forum contribution added:

In the 1960s, when I was a child, only the children carried on the custom in my village of Deepcar. We would wear home-made papier maché coloured masks and go door-to-door singing the ‘cakin neet’ song — this referring to the ‘soul cakes’ the ‘surrogate spirits’ formerly were given. The householders would have to try and guess who we were, and if they failed to guess right then they would have to give us a little money — in place of the ‘soul cakes’ of yesteryear.”

Cakin guisers 1960s courtesy of Shirley Samworth from Storrs and Dungworth Facebook page

Cakin guisers 1960s courtesy of Shirley Samworth from Storrs and Dungworth Facebook page

I was informed by a Steve Moxon on Facebook a fascinating personal account of the earlier form of the custom which shows it survived until at least the 1960s:

“I myself went out on what in Deepcar was known as ‘Kay Kay’ night, in the early 1960s with my younger brother, when we’d be somewhere between aged 7 and 10, I think. We had papier maché mask-making sessions in lesson time at Deepcar School specially for the occasion, so clearly it was a still a whole-community custom for children at this time. We sang the traditional ditty, obviously much truncated from what it had been:

‘Kay kay kay, Hole in mi stocking, hole in mi shoe, please can you spare me a copper or two, if you haven’t got a penny an halfpenny will do,  if you haven’t got an halpenny, god bless you’.

We received money from householders.”

What is interesting is the following comment which suggests perhaps a tongue in cheek attempt to dissuade children (akin to the tune on the ice-cream van means it has sold out!)”

“I think (if this isn’t a ‘constructed’ false memory) that if a householder accurately guessed who we were then they were not obliged to give us any money: but perhaps this was a myth adults told to make sure the kids upheld the tradition of being properly disguised — my dad disputes all this; he used to go out himself as a child in Stocksbridge, singing the very same ditty in the late 1930s.”

It is an interesting observation and an intriguing reason for the custom. The tradition was clearly supported locally and he added that:

“The masks we had, btw, were whole-face ones, with slits for the eyes, and I think they were painted red.”

And it is interesting that the local schools supported it, but this may not have lasted long. Perhaps a push for more curriculum work, change of ideologies, but what happened the custom changed. At least by 1974, captured by renowned photographer Homer Sykes,  it appears to have switched to just a fancy dress competition. Indeed oddly the last stages it appears to have developed into an adult custom, which is the converse of other customs. This was focused around three South Yorkshire pubs Robin Hood Inn, Little Matlock; Fox and Glove, Stannington; The Royal, Dungworth. This custom consisted of local adults in heavily disguised in costume who would then stand or move around the bar in silence as fantastically captured by Homer Sykes (, who notes on the Tate website his personal observations:

“Competitors concealed their identity by wearing a mask or fancy dress, which by tradition had to be of local significance. Having paraded silently from lounge to public bar and back again so their voices didn’t give their identity away, the competitors went upstairs to be judged. In this picture the judging had taken place and one participant, still disguised, was supping a pint of beer through a straw. I liked the neat surreal nature of the disguise. His gloves contrasted with the couple in their woollen jumpers, slacks and pointy collars.”

Cakin Guisers courtesy of Shirley Samworth from Storrs and Dungworth Facebook page

Cakin Guisers courtesy of Shirley Samworth from Storrs and Dungworth Facebook page

This was clearly a homage to the idea of children being rewarded if not recognised. It was possibly for the last time by David Bocking above, and a local search for personal photos so far has failed. Perhaps one of the last people to witness Cakin night was fellow folklorist John Roper. He noted that children were still involved contrary to Homer Sykes observations at other locations. He informed me that it consisted of:

“Fancy dress for adults and children with prizes  at the Robin Hood….adults only I seem to remember at the Crown and Glove ,Stannington  ; Halloween themed”

When it ended is not clear, but it appears The Robin Hood Inn was the last to stage one. David Clarke  (2000) in his Supernatural Peak District may have been the last to describe the custom, he writes:

“On one dark autumnal night every year the bar of s country pub in the hills to the north-west of Sheffield is transformed for half an hour into a scene from the pagan past. Hidden away at the end f a long and winding country lane and seemingly built right in the middle of nowhere, the Robin Hood at Stannington is one of the last places to celebrate the old Celtic festival of Samhain. Toy skulls and skeletons peer from windows, bats and spiders hang from the ceiling and in the bar gather a motley collection of locals dressed in a range of costumes which look as if they have been brought from the set of a ‘Hammer House of Horror’ film. These have included over the years hideous cowled witches, werewolves, Frankenstein and even the Devil himself. The characters simply stand and sit in eerie silence, creating a brief but unsettling atmosphere which harks back to earlier times. The faces of the ‘guisers’ are hidden behind elaborate masks which are central to the tradition, awaiting the judgement of the landlord which will break the spell and return the pub to normality.”

 When the Robin Hood closed the tradition died with it. Hallowe’en events have surpassed it, such as Sheffield’s fright night but enquiries thanks to Ron Clayton of Sheffieldhistorytours and East Peak Traditions and Bradfield Parish council state it is no more!

Why only here?

“When I went to secondary school I was astonished to find that the tradition was only in our village. Everyone else did Halloween. I think the tradition has more or less disappeared and replaced by Halloween – sad.”

Why the tradition survived here is unclear, but there has been considerable evidence of the survival of pre-Christian, Celtic beliefs in parts of Derbyshire. The date being focused on Samhain, the first day of the Celtic year and the spirits of the dead needed to be celebrated. The giving of cakes, soul cakes, placated these ghosts in the way that a wake ‘sin eats’ for the recently deceased. If this is so it is a shame that our only surviving native Hallowtide custom is no more.

Yet, the Royal is still thriving and discussion on the web suggests it’s popularly remembered….it could be ripe for a revival. If anything deserved it and could be done so simply it would be Cakin Night.

Custom contrived: Sheffield Fright Night

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A nice couple

The urban city landscape can be a scary place for some. As the nights draw in, all manner of strange personages, loping characters and menacing youths appear from the shadows…in Sheffield the week before Hallowe’en these are the attendees of Fright Night, the country’s only Hallowe’en parade! This is a parade attracting over 40,000 people to the town, the majority dressed for the occasion. The whole of the city centre appears to be swallowed up by this spooky spectacle.

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Bit of a youth problem?

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How long have you been a crazed psychopath?

Fright on time

I arrived as the day’s light was fading. The first thing which hits one if the funfair and in this case the ghost train is not the scariest thing! Then bang coming towards you is a youth with bloody clothes and an axe. Usually I’d hide or run, but you quickly realise that its Michael Myers of the Hallowe’en film franchise and it’s nothing to worry about!! Tonight the city is full of crazed lunatics, monsters and aliens in the name of celebrating this ancient tradition of remembering the dead.

Fright thing to do

Fright night begun in 2001 in a city with perhaps the strongest pre-Stateside trick or treat tradition for the villages around and perhaps most of the city celebrated Cakin Night, which appears to have died out in the 1990s. Fright Nights almost laissez-fair attitude to the appearance of goblins, werewolves, superheroes and vampires is much in keeping with that tradition, almost normalising dressing up, indeed the people wandering around had a certain ‘we do this all the time…don’t you’. So perhaps this is a sort of revival and hopefully those in the ‘anti-US trick or treat’ camp may realise this soon rather than condemn it as another Americanisation! Halloween is a European tradition (see October’s post last year)

Death walks amongst us!

Unlike the Stateside versions, namely that regularly done in NYC, there is no real parade as such…rather a catwalk. Here, a local DJ calls on the stage a cavalcade of curious concoctions and in typical radio fashion asked things like ‘how did you make your open wound so realistic?’ or ‘what are you?’ in some cases as the costumes ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Those who had put the most effort in were more than happy to pose for photographs attempting their best fearsome grimace often under layers on impenetrable make up.

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A digital monster!

The festival has a number of different aspects including a Zombie enclosure, a living dead chorus line and most impressive sight of all a ghost galleon which glided down the streets with its crew menacing peering out and staring with dead eyes with all those seen. Another highlight was the impressive carved pumpkins, not just grinning faces but even scenes as well, putting my efforts deep in the shade.

More scary than you first thought!

More scary than you first thought

Fright Night, perhaps the UK’s greatest commercialisation of this odd day and although the closest to the US, has still a very English style and needs to supporting especially as it’s free.  Finally the best thing perhaps about Fright Night is that most years it’s always before Hallowe’en meaning when you’re stuck for ideas you’ll get your inspiration here. Come along a feel the thrill! Happy Halloween!

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

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Now that’s a pumpkin!

Custom revived: Halloween Guisering or Trick or Treating



Damn American custom…Japanese Knotweed of festivals

Ask any person on the night of Halloween and many will be against Halloween’s most famous tradition; Trick or treat. Many will give the reason as being that it has no basis in English tradition, but of course they are wrong…trick or treating did begin in Britain.


In the US, the first record of children Guisering is recorded in a newspaper in 1911 from Ontario, but interestingly by 1919, an author directly references that the customs undertaken are Scottish, as visiting other people’s homes to collect cakes, fruit and money was recorded in 1895 in Scotland.  However, the first reference of the term was in 1927 in Alberta. I have been unable to find the earliest English record of the import, it would be nice to think it came over with the American service men during the war, but as the custom itself was still not widespread in the US, being restricted to the western states, by that time this seems unlikely. The only hint of this is in Maureen Sutton’s excellent Lincolnshire Calendar, where a correspondent speaking on their childhood in the Stamford area in the 1950s notes:

“There used to 20 of us, going around one of the bigger houses of the village…we used to spend the day before hollowing out pumpkins: we used the inside to make pies and put candles in them to show a face through the hole. And we used to decorate witches hats and broomsticks and hold competitions for the best…”

The making of lanterns still continues in Somerset with Punky Night, and appears to have widespread being also recorded in Hertfordshire. However, none of these accounts explicitly refer to Trick or Treat. As regards this as a custom, it was certainly it was established in the 1970s and well established by the 1980s.

Pagan origins of the day

There is no debate on the ancient origin of the custom, a Christianised tradition based on the pagan Samhain, a Celtic celebration which was their equivalent of New Year’s Eve, when the end of the summer was recognised and winter begun. As such livestock were slaughtered and consequently the date was associated with death and the date was seen as a gateway between living and dead. It is believed that often Celts would wear animal skins and skulls and this disguise may have been the origin of the dressing up aspect of trick or treat. It was also believed that when the elementals were free to travel the real world, they dressed as beggars and asked for food door to door. It was thought that those who gave food were rewarded but if they did not the elementals would punish them, and this appears to be the origin of the trick or treat itself. However, the true origins of the custom appear after the establishment of All Saint’s Day by Pope Gregory IV on the day after the pagan tradition and thus hoping to deflect from the practices on that day. This was not successful so it appears that an establishment of Old Souls Day, honouring the non-saintly dead resulted in converting Samhain to All Hallow’s Eve and Hallowe’en was born.

But what about the Trick?

The Trick aspect of the tradition, appears to have arisen also from a Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire tradition of Mischief night. In this tradition generally associated with the day before Guy Fawkes Night is clearly has origins in the ancient Hallowe’en and perhaps was shifted when the calendar was moved in 1752. Alternatively the custom is associated with the mischief caused by the Gunpowder Plot perpetrators. Whatever its origin the rather structureless custom of tying doorknobs together, removing signs to slightly more destructive shoving fireworks through letter boxes or defacing public property clearly is the Trick of the custom

What about the treat? 

A custom established in this Christian period was providing food and drink for the spirits of the dead, this was called souling and local people would go door to door, asking for soul cakers, food for the dead. This would assist the souls of the dead through Purgatory and it is clear that after the Reformation, the practice befell the children who in Sussex they begged for a spiced bun, milk or ginger beer. Their begging song went:

“Soul! Soul! For a Soul-cake! Pray good mistress for a Soul-cake! One for Peter, two for Paul, Three for Him who made us all!”

However, it would appear that in Cheshire, the last place where this tradition has survived in England, that in exchange for the food a play would be enacted. However, in other areas the custom was a simple form a begging except for in Sheffield where the night became Cakin night. This without a doubt is the where the modern Treat tradition begun. Children would move from house to house in disguise, if they were recognised they gave a cake, but if they were not they received pennies or perhaps sweets and as such the treating was born.

A remix!

It is clear that something happened to those colonists who got their traditions mixed up, Guisering for cakes or money predates that in the USA. It is significant that many of these colonists came from Lincolnshire and Somerset where Mischief  and Punky night were still undertaken.  Thus the traditions of Mischief Night mixed with that of Soul caking, probably in a big bowl of pumpkin soup!