The Origins of Killieween

The Origins of Killieween by Lilian Anderson

The town I grew up in, Kilmarnock, located in the West of Scotland has many strange and interesting traditions, from the paper roses that the bride to be wears before marriage to the ‘Paper Roses’ that are sung at Rugby Park (the home of Kilmarnock F.C), to the obsessive cleaning of EVERYTHING before the bells at New Years, to the Killie Fair in the 1st week of July. But few traditions are as confusing or as unique as the phenomenon known as Killieween. 

Many a blow-in (a newcomer or recent arrival) is confused when anywhere up to a week before Halloween, the local kids will proudly knock on the door and demand trick or treats. Buy why?

Halloween in the UK is a strange mix of traditions and I often hear complaints that what we celebrate nowadays is largely an American import, however in reality it all stems back to ‘Guising’ a long held Celtic practice – which I explain in more detail in another piece which you can check out here

But Halloween is on the 31st October, right? I mean everyone in the whole world knows that. Unless of course that is, you are from Kilmarnock.

Kilmarnock is unique for celebrating Halloween (Killieween) on the last Friday of the month, the reason for this has been a source of great debate for local historians and housewives over the years, and there are many conflicting reasons that have been considered.

One suggested reason that we celebrate Halloween on the last Friday of October goes back to the Royal Charter in 1683. Charles II had just passed a law denouncing the burning of witches, but due to a number of witches (who allegedly) lived locally, who were accused of bewitching milking kai (coos), the Baron of Marnock asked for dispensation. This included a clause that locally, witches could still be burnt on the same day as the cattle market, which in Kilmarnock was the last Friday of the month. 

Obviously, the burning of witches died out but the last Friday of the month was always associated with witches, and thus Halloween was celebrated on that day in recognition of our links with witchcraft.

Spooky eh? Burning witches on market day to protect the livestock from bewitchment?

Another more mundane and practical reason for celebrating Halloween on a Friday is that Kilmarnock was a factory town, which even as late as the 80s manufactured everything from shoes, carpets, trains to whisky. While the town was prosperous, most families still budgeted their expenses, pay day by pay day. Back in the days before BACS and direct deposit, your wages were given to you in a little brown envelope at Friday lunchtime, with many factories closing shortly after allowing the workers a Friday bar lunch.

Now Killie weans might not always be at the top of the school league tables (although Kilmarnock Academy is one of only two UK schools to have educated not one, but two Nobel Prize winners, but that’s a story for another day) but they were savvy enough to realise that if the grown-ups got paid on a Friday, then the chances of a good sweet haul still being on offer the following Wednesday were slim. So they started guising on the Friday when folks still had cash, and they then had the rest of the weekend to recover from the sugar coma.

So what do you think? Witch burnings or savvy kids? Either way Kilmarnock enjoys its unique traditions and even this year during the COVID-19 pandemic, communities all across Kilmarnock have organised various safe and social distanced activities for the kids, so keep an eye on social media for ways to keep the spook alive.

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One thought on “ The Origins of Killieween

  1. This was so interesting to read; I often find that traditions and the stories behind them have exactly these two types of origin stories (the spooky/macabre and the more mundane/normal). I’m going with the burning of the witches, definitely the better reason for Killieween! Thanks so much for sharing this.


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