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Turnip lanterns <em>Picture: Paul Stainthorp</em>

Turnip lanterns Picture: Paul Stainthorp

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Once again Halloween is upon us, when witches and ghosts and cats and bats go from door to door, hoping for gifts of sweets or money. All this is very traditional, but some things have changed over the years.

Take the lantern, for example. A few decades ago the traditional Halloween lantern was a hollowed-out turnip, or neep in Scots, with a face carved on it and a candle placed inside it. The phrase “hollowed-out” sounds relatively effortless, but this is far from the case with regard to turnips, known in England as swedes.

I don’t know whether you have ever tried hollowing out a turnip, but the task is not for the faint-hearted or for the gentle-fingered. It is hard work and unsuited to anyone who lacks patience – and certainly unsuited to anyone who cares about the state of their hands.

The inside of a turnip is very hard and the word excavating, or better still the Scots howking out, is a much more appropriate description of the task than hollowing out.

No wonder then, in these days of speed and convenience, that the turnip has had to take a back seat when it comes to shedding light on Halloween. Our native vegetable has been usurped by an interloper, the pumpkin. This has undoubtedly made the making of Halloween lanterns much easier, since the flesh of the pumpkin is soft and easy to remove.

The pumpkin lantern has another advantage over the turnip lantern – although I am not sure if this was a factor in its takeover. It does not have the powerful and unpleasant smell that burnt turnip acquires as time goes by.

However, I personally prefer the turnip lantern. Perhaps this is partly because I faced the formidable task of making them for so many years and see no reason why others should not suffer as I did. But I also think that the turnip lantern looks more sinister and so more appropriate to the spirit of Halloween. The plump pumpkin can look altogether too jolly.

Other aspects of Halloween have also become less sinister-looking over the years. One of these relates to dressing up as a witch. Hitherto, the Halloween pretend-witch was meant to be a really ugly, scary creature with long black garments, a big hat and a broomstick. The black garments and the accessories remain, but attempts have been made to reduce the ugliness factor.

While staying more or less true to her roots, the Halloween would-be witch has frequently become glamorised. The flowing black garments are often now made of some flimsy material and shortened to at least knee level. Some are even trimmed with pink or other pastel colour.

This could be a result of the influence of Barbie and the like, but it could also be put down to the influence of commerce. Time was when children and parents raided the cupboards and put together home-made Halloween costumes. Some still do, but many more make their way to the relevant supermarket shelves or click on the internet.

This glamorisation of witches could also be something to do with the fact that more adults now seem to celebrate Halloween and dress up as witches and the like – although I think the practice is more common south of the border, where the American custom of Trick or Treat has become popular. It is certainly not the aim of adults with freshly made-up faces and expensively coiffed hair to look ugly and scary – hence the proliferation of glamorised witches.

It is not just at Halloween that the scariness has gone out of witches. When I was a child – which, admittedly, was a long time ago – I was absolutely terrified of witches, as many children were. I was haunted by a picture in a book depicting a Hansel and Gretel-style witch and was convinced that such a creature inhabited my wardrobe or the space under my bed. You may or not recall that a wicked ugly witch shut Hansel up in a cage to fatten him up with a view to eating him. Such was the image of witches then.

How things have changed. Now children’s fiction has several witches who present a benign, friendly image. Winnie the Witch, for example, may look quite scary, but she is presented as a well-meaning, harum-scarum creature with a good heart and a sense of fun. My witch was never like that.

Perhaps witches no longer cut it in the scary stakes because there are so many scary things around in children’s fiction and on DVDs, where terrifying monsters and aliens seem to abound. Maybe some of them will join the witches and ghosts and bats and cats in the quest for goodies on Halloween. Make sure you have stocked up with a plentiful supply of these.

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Snow tyre tracks picture by Steve Karsch

Snow tyre tracks picture by Steve Karsch

WITH trains not venturing north of the central belt and Edinburgh airport closed for the best part of this week, the sirens have been heard complaining – why can’t we cope

Maybe the answer lies to our northeast? The Swedes have been dealing with snow efficiently and effectively for generations.

Maybe we could apply some of their solutions here.

• Apparently, the first and most practical answer Swedish solution is to employ a part-time legion of snow ploughs. What the Swedish Government appears to do is pay an annual fee to farmers. In return, the farmers equip themselves with detachable snow ploughs which they can fix on to the front of their tractors.

When the snow comes, the farmers have an obligation to get out and clear the rural roads around their farms. They know which roads they have responsibility for, so do the official snow-clearing authorities, who steer clear and have the time and resources to clear the rest.

The farmers get a financial bonus, the rural areas are kept running and it doesn’t cost nearly as much as fully-fledged council snow-clearing equipment.

• Snow tyres. This is a trickier proposition. Most Swedes have snow tyres which they put on when the snow falls and keep on until it lifts several months later.

Most Swedish snow tyres have steel studs sticking out of them to provide grip but, apparently, Europe takes generally a dim view of these things and only lets the Swedes get away with it because they asked for, and were given, special dispensation. Other forms of snow tyre, with deeper tread than normal tyres, are also available.

The problem for Scotland is that the snow, when it comes, doesn’t tend to stay around all winter so motorists could be putting their snow tyres on and taking them off several times in a winter season.

They would, though, provide more grip and cause fewer accidents than normal tyres and there are already garages in Edinburgh selling the non-steel versions this season.

• Better driving. Swedes have to take at least part of their driving test on ice, or on simulated icy conditions. They have to show they can handle ice and snow. Not only does this make sure everyone knows what to do in the snow but it gives them the confidence not to panic when their car starts to slip for the first time.

If only more motorists in Scotland could drive in the snow. I have lost count of the number of motorists I have seen revving their cars in first gear until the engine screams as the wheels spin on the ice when a simple shift into a higher gear would give them the necessary torque to bite on the road and get moving. One easy (but not infallible) answer does seem to be: get into the highest gear possible but be ready to engage the clutch and free up the wheels if a slide starts.

The Swedes also do other things, like provide plug-in heater points in carparks and triple glaze their houses but we don’t need to do that yet, not unless the Gulf Stream keeps heading south and we are faced with this weather all winter for the foreseeable future.

But a little foresight, particularly regarding farmers and snow clearing in their areas, as well as better information for new drivers on coping with the snow, probably wouldn’t hurt.

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Up Helly Aa: another Scandinavian import. <em>Picture: Anne Burgess</em>

Up Helly Aa: another Scandinavian import. Picture: Anne Burgess

Tories usually look on Sweden with an expression of horror. Intelligent, progressive and humane, the Nordic nation stands for everything they detest. At least, that’s situation normal. However, abnormal developments are afoot, as the Swedes start to lose the plot and tinker with their “too good to be true” state.

This has attracted the attention of our impish Conservatives, ever eager to impose wrong and unnatural things on Scotia.

During an education debate in Holyrood yesterday, waspish Elizabeth Smith (Con) announced: “I hear on the grapevine that it is very difficult this weekend to get a flight to Scandinavia.” She seemed to be suggesting that most of the seats had been booked by Scottish ministers and Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott.

They were a bit late, she averred. Former Tory leader David “Taxi!” McLetchie had made the same flight years ago, and had learned all there was to know.

And what was that? Well, according to Elizabeth, the Swedes had improved their education system by giving parents the choice – ah, the “c” word; already I smell an “r” word – of different education providers. “They have got it right,” she hollered triumphantly. They were driving up standards rather than being content with the lowest common denominator. What’s wrong with the lowest common denominator? Never did me any harm.

It wasn’t just Sweden, she said. The Netherlands and Canada were also at it and they, like Sweden, are traditionally not very Tory-style countries (the conservatives in them are usually somewhere to the left of our Labour Party; mind you, isn’t everybody?).

Said Elizabeth: “I fully acknowledge that in Sweden it took eight years to convince a sceptical public that the new freedoms in the state sector would work.” She claimed that even socialists in these countries backed the system now. One fears that, in the matter of choice, they have no choice.

My view is that Sweden has started to lose its nerve in recent years. Traditionally light years ahead of the murky Europeans, it was nagged relentessly by followers of the so-called Anglo-Saxon, dog-eat-dog model of life to drop their progressive palaver and get real. One of the first casualties was the postal service, now privatised to a level of ludicrous inefficiency.

Now they were mucking up their schools, much to the Tories’ delight.

Elizabeth hollered: “Doing nothing is not an option.” Oh, don’t say that, gal. It’s only when politicians do something that all the trouble begins. Better to say: don’t just do something, sit there.

Education secretary Michael Russell acknowledged that he was going to Sweden, and indeed Finland, this weekend, to ask teachers there about strengths and weaknesses in their systems.

The aforementioned McLetchie rose and said: “Are schools in Finland and Sweden not closed at the weekend?” Mike let the laughter linger and acted as if he’d been caught out, before explaining that, while he was flying forth on Sunday afternoon, he’d be visiting the schools on Monday and Tuesday.

I like to think he’ll be going out on the piss on the Sunday night but I expect he’ll just sit in his room and keep telling himself: “I must not spend the taxpayers’ money.”

He rejected an accusation that he and Mr Spock look-alike Ken McIntosh (Lab) were having “a socialist love affair”. I’m not quite sure what that is. Do you have to queue for your conjugal rights? Are there forms to fill in? A tax on every snog? Whatever the case, Michael insisted there was nothing “x-rated” going on between him and the Vulcan.

However, he stunned the mob with this telling confession: “I was at a rather odd school.” You would never have guessed. Marr College, he said, was a grant-aided comprehensive. He said it admitted every child in Troon, but nobody from outside it, which sounded rather sinister. What had they to fear?

All this fearfully entertaining fare came to an end when top dullard Des McNulty (Lab) rose to drone. I wondered why the security guards were locking the doors and scurrying away. Even the pigeons on the roof flew off. He said he admired Sweden – it is, to be fair, a boring country – but was not impressed with the educational reforms.

In maths, he said, it had suffered the biggest drop in standards after Bulgaria. Maths. Bulgaria. Des. I was losing the will to live. I don’t mind Des being boring, but he’s double-boring because he keeps repeating his own words. At last, thankfully, he said: “I am at the end end of my time time.” Yeah, ta-ta, ta-ta. Don’t hurry hurry back back.

Bubbly Margaret Smith (Lib Dem) is always a breath of fresh air. She breenged in with a quotation from that Aristotle, to wit: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” This was rather reminiscent of the definition of a gentleman: someone who can play the accordion, but chooses not to.

Margaret went on: “We have heard a lot about Swedish models.” Oh, talk to me about it. Really, don’t go there. In my experience, they just use you and break your heart.

Adenoidal Bill Aitken (Con) rose to declaim: “Presiding orifice, to paraphrase what they say in Yorkshire: when something is broke you do fix it.” I see. And your point, baldie? “All is not well in Scottish education.” Well, cripes, we know that. No one produces more neds and thickies than us. Even Bill referred to “childrens” at one point. I kids you not.

He said that he, “a boy from a poor area”, had gone to a grant-aided school that was so successful it was shut down by socialist Glaswegians. They didn’t want to hear about … aw, shurrup.

Christina McKelvie (SNP), declaring herself a fan of Swedish pop music, invited Elizabeth to “Take a Chance on Me” and embrace other Swedish models, such as progressive taxation. It was “Money, Money, Money” which funded their education system, and she was sure John “Super Trouper” Swinney would love to pump millions into Scottish education. I’m getting an image of the accountant-style finance secretary dancing and snapping his fingers. Most distressing.

Karen Whitefield (Lab), who speaks like a four-year-old, described Sweden as “the country for which the Tories want us all to look”. Aw, isn’t it sweet to hear them struggling with the language? By next year, when Karen starts attending school, I’m sure she’ll be chorusing with the rest of us: “Du gamla, Du fria, Du fjällhöga nord/Du tysta, Du glädjerika sköna!” That’s from the Swedish national anthem. It’s a song I know well. It means: “Du-doobie, du-doobie, doobie-doobie-du.”