Official Guide to Edinburgh

Halloween - a time for celebrating everything that goes bump in the night!

30 September 2020

Halloween is fast approaching and where better to celebrate than Edinburgh, one of Europe’s most haunted cities. We’ve compiled a list of all things Halloween to ensure you have a frightfully good time!

Halloween Edinburgh Mercat Tours Blair Street Underground Vault

The Origins of Halloween

Hugely popular in the United States and celebrated to a lesser degree in the UK, Halloween, or Hallowe’en, has strong Scottish connections.

Taking its name from All Hallows’ Eve, the night before the Christian festival of All Hallows or All Saints Day, it is possible to trace its origins back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, held on 1 November, which marked the end of summer and the harvest period with the beginning of winter when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts.

Edinburgh Halloween Traditions

Looking for ways to celebrate Halloween this year? Why not give these traditional customs a go:

Halloween Botanic Garden Edinburgh

[Image credit: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh]

The Scots tradition of Guising involves children going door to door dressed up as some kind of spooky character so that they can venture out safely without being detected by wicked spirits. After performing a ‘trick’ such as reciting a song, poem or joke they are rewarded with goodies.

To ward off evil spirits, carved pumpkins with scary faces are placed outside houses. While the use of pumpkins is actually an American invention, in Edinburgh it has been custom to carve lanterns out of ‘neeps’ or turnips.

Pumpkin carving in Edinburgh Halloween

[Image credit: Jackie]

Dookin’ for apples – a traditional game at Halloween parties across Edinburgh, the aim is to grab apples floating in a tub of water using your mouth, but with the added complication of having your hands tied behind your back. If you want to up the ante, you can try catching them with a fork.

Edinburgh Halloween Apple dooking bobbing

[Photo by Talal Ahmad on Unsplash]

Potentially very messy, the fun but sticky game of Treacle Scones involves again having your hands tied, while trying to take a bite out of treacle-covered scones dangling from a rope.

Who will you marry? According to folklore, if you peel an apple in a continuous strip and throw it over your shoulder, the shape of the apple skin when it lands will reveal the first letter of your future spouse’s name.

Edinburgh's Dark Side

If you delve deep enough, there are a huge number of stories associated with Edinburgh’s murky past, perfect for this scary time of year. Be warned – best to read these with the lights switched on!

Looming at the back of Greyfriars Kirkyard, can be found the Black Mausoleum. The tomb is said to be haunted by a particularly nasty poltergeist, that of the spirit of Sir George Mackenzie, the man who condemned many Covenanters to death in the 1600s. Visitors have reportedly collapsed, been grabbed by an unknown presence, and had unexplained bruises appear on their bodies.

City of the Dead Tours Greyfriars Kirkyard

[Image credit: City of the Dead Tour Facebook]

As light fades on Edinburgh Castle, the ghostly sound of drumming have been heard reverberating around the stone fortress. Legend has it that the sound is made by the Headless Drummer, and if his ghost ever appears in plain sight, it foretells disaster for the castle. The first time he appeared was in 1650 – the fateful year that Oliver Cromwell invaded Scotland and captured the castle following a three month siege.

In the 16th century, more witch burnings were carried out at Castlehill than anywhere else in Scotland.  King James VI was paranoid about witches and wrote a book about them, ‘Demonology’, which fuelled fears.  In 1591 he ordered the death of Dame Euphane MacCalzean for casting a spell to create the storms that prevented his wife from joining him from Holland. Today, you can visit the Witches Well at Edinburgh Castle Esplanade, which was erected in 1912 as a memorial to over 300 women who were accused, tortured and killed for suspected witchcraft.

91 Witches Well Hero

In the summer of 1836, a group of schoolboys hunting for rabbits on Arthur’s seat found a hidden collection of 17 tiny coffins each containing a carved wooden doll. The coffins have been the source of speculation ever since - was it ‘Satanic Spell Manufactury!’ as the Scotsman reported on 16 July 1836? Or were they land burials for the souls of sailors lost at sea? Since they appeared less than a decade after the Burke & Hare murder spree, many believed they represented their 17 victims. To this day they remain a mystery……

99 Coffin Hero

[Photo Credit: National Museum of Scotland]

In the oldest part of the Palace of Holyroodhouse is the tiny room where Mary, Queen of Scots liked to relax with her ladies in waiting and her secretary, David Rizzio. It was 1566, Mary was pregnant, but her happy marriage to Lord Darnley had soured, and a child would threaten his path to the throne. In yet another attack on an unstable Stuart monarchy, Darnley and his men burst into the room, dragged off the terrified Rizzio and stabbed him 56 times in front of the traumatised Mary, dumping his body in the next room. The darkened blood stain of this diabolical murder can still be seen today.

93 Rizzio Bloodstain Hero

[Photo credit: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017]

Things to do in Edinburgh this Halloween

We’ve compiled a list of things to do in Edinburgh this Halloween to ensure the entire family has a frightfully good time!

Watch a spooky screening over Halloween weekend! Drive In Movies are back with a special programme of Halloween screenings of family favourites and classic scares. There’s fun activities to join before your screening and all your favourite cinema snacks, so check the Drive In Movies line-up and enjoy your favourite Halloween movie from the comfort of your own car.

Drive -In Movies At Edinburgh Airport - Promo Graphic

Witness the Samhuinn Fire Festival from home: The Samhuinn Fire Festival is an Edinburgh Halloween Classic. This year the Beltane Society are running a digital fire festival, Hearth Fire. You can witness the drama and spectacle of the event from the comfort of your own home. Performances are live streamed and pay-what-you can tickets are available.

Samhuinn Fire Festival 736

Throughout October at Craigie Farm you can pick your own pumpkins and apples for carving, dooking and eating. Book online and then head down to find the perfect pumpkin for your doorstep. And in Scotland’s only commercial apple orchard you can find locally grown varieties that don’t show up on the supermarket shelves. Book online on the Craigie Farm website

Where’s Wally? In partnership with Kids in Museums and Walkers Books, the National Museum of Scotland has a spooky search activity this Halloween. Pick up an activity sheet and search the collections for that famous stripey sweatshirt. For further details see

Skip the scary bits with Surgeons Hall. If ghouls and jump-scares are not your thing, the Surgeons Hall Museum are running a series of cool science workshops online for kids and for adults. Learn about the bloody history of surgery and create cool science experiments from the safety and comfort of your own kitchen table.

Medicine and Blood – for kids

The Bloody History of Surgery – for adults

And of course there's the ghost tours!

Ghost tours are an Edinburgh classic. Tourists love them, but if you’re a local and you’ve never been, you’re missing out!

Uncover the dark side of Edinburgh's history >