Reading the Eggs on Oidhche Shamhna

full-frame-shot-of-eggs-royalty-free-image-1578332350Oidhche Shamhna — the Eve of the feast of Samhain in Gaelic tradition and Halloween in English — is upon us again, though in the midst of a pandemic we might not see soo many samhnairean or “guisers,” known in North America as “trick-or-treaters.”

There’s plenty of debate about the origins of trick-or-treating customs, with some arguing the tradition was invented in the US fairly recently to counter rampant pranks, mischief and vandalism, but many Halloween customs clearly originate in the rural Gaelic traditions of Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man.

Oidhche Shamhna was in fact one of several holidays when groups of young people (not necessarily children) would go from house to house asking for food and drink in return for admission, such as Oidhche Challainn or New Year’s Eve in Scotland.

But there were other important traditions that have been more or less forgotten in the hyper-commercialized modern version of Halloween. For the Gaels, Oidhche Shamhna was a time for fortune-telling, especially to determine who one was going to marry.

The following account from the December 1872 issue of An Gàidheal, a Gaelic magazine published in Scotland in the early 1870s, describes one man’s failed attempt to discover who his bride would be by seeking out a woman who could “read the eggs” (leughadh nan uibhean) on Oidhche Shamhna.

“Bhrist a’ chailleach ubh, agus gu cùramach, leag i leis a ghealagan ruith do’n ghloinne (aig an am cheudna glé thoigheach nach gluaiseadh am buidheagan, oir nan tuiteadh boinne dheth ‘s a’ ghloinne maile ris a’ ghealagan ‘s ris an uisge, cha bhiodh a’ chùis cho math.) An deigh do ‘n ghealagan a bhi mar bu mhiannach leis a’ chaillich, chuir i a bois air beul na gloinne ‘s chraith i i gu h-iollagach aig an àm cheudna ‘g ainmeachadh araon “Mhic-Shimidh” (air ainm ‘s air a shloinneadh) agus an fhir nach tig an comunn nan criosduidhean. Leag i ‘n sin leis na bha ‘s a’ ghloinne stòladh, ‘s shìn i-fhéin air aithris rann no ubag air chor-eigin. Leugh i ghloinne, ‘s dh’innis i do “Mhac Shimidh,” ma tha e fìor, a nì ‘na dhuine sona e, cho fada ‘s a bhios ‘anail a’ dol sìos a’s suas. Air a’ mhodh cheudna, leugh i mo ghloinne-sa ach ‘s duilich leam nach d’thug i misneachd sam bith dhomh.”

The old women broke an egg, and carefully, she let the egg white run into the glass (at the same time being very watchful that the egg yolk wouldn’t move, for if a drop of it fell into the glass with the white and the water, things wouldn’t be so well.) After the egg white was as the old women wished it, she put her palm over the mouth of the glass and shook it sprightly while at the same time naming “Mac Shimidh” (his name and descent) and the man who won’t appear in the company of Christians. She then let what was in the glass settle, and she began to recite a verse or charm of some sort. She read the glass, and told “Mac Shimidh,” that if true, he would be a happy man, as long as his breath would go down and up (in and out). In the same fashion, she read my glass but unfortunately for me she gave me no confidence at all. (translation by Ó Caiside).

The article this extract came from was written by one “Mac-Dhomhnull Duibh,” and the “Mac Shimidh” mentioned in the text was a friend (the inference is Mac Shimidh was not his actual name).

This Mac-Dhomhnull goes through several other misadventures trying to learn who his future wife might be — from bobbing for six-pence and apples to roasting and cracking nuts and more. He had no luck, and gives the following plea to An Gàidheal’s readers:

An nis a Ghàidheil shuairce tuigeas tu-féin mo staid, a’s theagamh gu’n cur thu focal math asteach air mo shon ri aon de na h-òighean maiseach a tha leughadh do GHÀIDHEAL. Ma gheobh thu eolas air tè a shaoileas tu ‘thaitneas rium, abair rithe gur ann innte-se tha ‘n éis, ‘s nach ann annam-sa.”

And now kind Gaels you understand my state, and perhaps you will put in a good word for my sake with one of the lovely maidens who reads your GÀIDHEAL. If you get knowledge of a woman you think would please me, tell her that if there’s any hindrance it’s with her, not me.”

We’d like to think he was successful … ach cò aige a tha fios?

This article was brought to our attention by Baile nan Gàidheal/The Highland Village in Cape Breton adn Shannon MacMullin, Amber Buchanan, and Hannah Krebs, who on a weekly basis read selections from the newspaper Mac-Talla on Facebook Live.  Tapadh leibh!

— Liam Ó Caiside

Registration for 2020 Online US National Mòd Opens

Registration for the first online US National Mòd, which will be held via Zoom Nov. 6-8, is now open on this website.MOD-Logo-v8


The Mòd this year will feature six competitions:

  • A beginning song competition for first-time competitors/singers (one song, own choice);
  • A general competition for more experienced singers (have competed before);
  • A storytelling competition (traditional Gaelic story, up to five minutes);
  • A poetry recitation competition (from Maraiche nan Cuantan by Flòraidh Nic Phàil);
  • An original poetry competition (submit your own poem)
  • A sight reading competition (read a piece of Gaelic prose selected by the adjudicator)

You may register through this online form, also available on the 2020 US National Mòd page.

The cost is $25 to attend the Mòd, from our Friday night Zoom cèilidh through Sunday’s workshops. Competitors will pay an additional $25 fee for a total of $45 to compete and attend.

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We’re excited to bring you this three-day event – Tha sinn air bhioran!

Those entering the poetry recitation competition will receive materials. If you are entering the song competitions, please send us your song lyrics and sheet music, if available, by Oct. 24.

Contact Mòd registrar Liam Ó Caiside with any questions.

Gillebrìde MacMillan, Rachel Walker to adjudicate ACGA Online Mòd

Plans are quickly taking shape for ACGA’s first Virtual US National Mòd on Saturday, Nov. 7. Two of Scotland’s leading Gaelic singers and educators, Rachel Walker and Gillebrìde MacMillan, will judge competitions in Gaelic storytelling, poetry, and song, and each will offer workshops as well.

The entire event will be conducted through the Zoom video conferencing app, just like ACGA’s Grandfather Mountain Song and Language Week and the North Carolina Provincial Mòd in July.

Rachel Walker won the women's gold medal at the 2017 Royal National Mòd.
Rachel Walker won the women’s gold medal at the 2017 Royal National Mòd.

Rachel Walker is a Gaelic singer, songwriter and tutor living in the Scottish Highlands. A member of the quartet Cruinn and the group Skippinish, Rachel was voted Gaelic Singer of the Year at the Scottish traditional Music Awards in 2013.

She became involved with Gaelic song from a very young age, competing at local Mòd’s and performing at local cèilidhs. She studied Gaelic song with renowned tutor Kenna Campbell at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She has adjudicated at regional Mòds in the United States.

Gillebrìde MacMillan hails from South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. He is a lecturer at the University of Glasgow teaching Gaelic language, literature, and song. He also is the winner of the men’s gold medal at the Royal National Mòd in Scotland, and a former adjudicator at the ACGA Mòd.

Gillebrìde MacMillan with US National Mòd Women's 2015 gold medallist Connie Smith.
Gillebrìde MacMillan with US National Mòd Women’s 2015 gold medallist Connie Smith.

Gillebride also is a translator, a piper, and an actor, playing Gwyllyn the Bard in Starz Outlander.

We expect the online US Mòd, untethered by a physical location, to draw people from all over North America. We hope you will join us, either as a competitor or an attendee to learn more about Scottish Gaelic culture and the “vocal arts” of song, poetry and storytelling.

Registration information will be available shortly.