Saturday, November 2, 2013

Oidhche nam Bocan - A Night of Spooks at The Highland Village

As a child, I loved Halloween. I may have even loved Halloween more than Christmas. I looked forward to the night mom drove my sisters and I (and any friends who wanted to tag along) to my Grandmother’s neighborhood in town where there were more streets and more houses. More streets and more houses meant more treats and we usually ended up with three times as many pillow cases full of goodies as the kids who trick or treated in the sparsely populated village where I lived.

I moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland right after high school and my love of Halloween was taken to a new level with the grown up version of the celebrations that took place during the famous George Street Mardi Gras every year. Thousands of people dressed in costumes, that they must have worked on since the day after Halloween the previous year, came out and crowded that little street for the entire weekend closest to Halloween.

Now I that I am even older, trick-or-treating and large booze-fueled festivals like Mardi Gras, have been replaced with quieter activities that don’t involve waking up with a sick stomach from eating too much candy…or from drinking too much beer. Last Halloween, myself and a couple of friends dressed up in last minute costumes, drove to a graveyard in the country and took some Halloween-themed pictures and played hide and seek with a playful fox who happened to be roaming around. This year, I left town and ventured into the country for another different kind of Halloween celebration.
The Highland Village in Iona is a mostly outdoor museum depicting life as it was when the Scots first began settling the area. The area, which includes the villages of Grand Narrows, Iona and Christmas Island, lies along the shores of the Bras d’Or Lakes and the drive there takes one along a long stretch of deserted country road. During the day, especially in the fall months, the drive is peaceful and relaxing with colorful trees lining the road with old country farmhouses, many of them long deserted, tucked away near the treeline of large fields where one can often see deer grazing. At night, that drive has a kind of spooky feel, particularly if you are familiar with the folklore and many ghost stories that have been retold over the past few hundred years and passed down to future generations. I heard many of these stories so, wanting to partake in some Halloween-themed activities that didn’t involve heavy partying and knocking on doors begging for treats, I opted for a night at the Highland Village where a themed event called “Oidhche nam Bocan” or “Night of the Spooks” as it translates from Gaelic to English. For a fee of $12.00, the event included a nighttime tour of the Village with lanterns, skits, a storytelling session, tea and coffee, sweets and some traditional entertainment.
The tour started with a group of about twenty people sitting in a round circle discussing some of the history and outlining what we would be seeing throughout the night. We were then led outside by a guide who took us up the hill. The night was cool and breezy and the trees made an eerie sound when they moved in the wind. There was no moon but the sky was clear and filled with stars. There was no natural light and no cars speeding down the nearby highway so the combination of dark and quiet gave the feel of stepping back in time to when many of the luxuries we have today didn’t exist. A couple of characters dressed in period costume lingered around at the edge of the trail and behind buildings and made the experience seem even more authentic. We entered the first open building where a fire was lit and a few actors acted out a skit for us. These skits involved actors in period costumes acting out excerpts of popular folklore stories of those long gone days.
The walk through the village continued like that for about an hour ending in a meet-and-greet type setting in a hall near the main entrance. There were baked goods, tea and coffee and seats set up for everyone to relax and take in the next segment of the night. While everyone was getting settled, a fiddler played some traditional Scottish tunes. The storytelling segment was quite interesting because the stories were first told in Gaelic and translated into English. There are still a number of people who speak that mostly dead and forgotten language on Cape Breton Island and, even though I cannot understand a single word of it, I am still intrigued whenever I hear someone speaking the language of my ancestors. I learned many things that night and, although I’m sure my ancestors must have had valid reasons for believing the things they did, it still seems strange that anyone would believe in such things as forerunners or changelings. Nevertheless, their beliefs made for an interesting alternative to the bar scene that seems to be a major part of many grown up Halloween celebrations and, after experiencing the Highland Village at night, I am now determined to make seeing in the day a priority for next summer.

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