Meet Stingy Jack – the reason we carve pumpkins on Hallowe’en
You may have already bought a pumpkin or two to carve this Hallowe’en. It’s a seasonal tradition – or is it?
In fact, for a large proportion of the period in which Auchindrain was still inhabited, jack o’lanterns carved from turnips (or neeps) would have lit the entrances of homes here, and all over Scotland, on the 31st of October.
Jack O’Lanterns at Dover Castle (Photograph: English Heritage)
The tradition has its origins in Irish folklore, potentially dating back to the 17th century. A drunken blacksmith named Stingy Jack, so the story goes, ran into the Devil one night at a pub, and invited him to drink with him. The ‘stingy’ part of Jack’s name was apt: rather than paying for the Devil’s drink, he convinced him to turn himself into a sixpence that could be used to pay for the ale. In exchange, Jack promised the Devil his soul (which seems like a steep price to pay to avoid buying a round!).
The Devil agreed to this deal, and promptly turned himself into a shiny silver sixpence. But Jack had no intention of keeping his side of the bargain. He pocketed the demonic sixpence, and the silver cross he was carrying in the same pocket prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack later freed the Devil, under the condition that he would leave Jack alone, and make no attempt to reclaim his soul, for ten years.
A decade passed, and the Devil found Jack at a crossroads. Jack knew the Devil was here for his soul. Playing for time, he asked the Devil to pick him an apple from high up in a nearby tree. The Devil, indulging what he thought were Jack’s last wishes, obliged, and climbed into its branches. Jack pulled out his knife, and carved a cross into the tree’s trunk. The Devil was now stuck in the tree, and Jack escaped again, with his soul intact.
When Jack eventually died, he wasn’t allowed into heaven, and the Devil, furious at being outwitted so many times, wouldn’t let him into hell. Instead, he is said to roam the earth, carrying a hollowed-out turnip with a coal inside (given to him by the devil) to light his way at night.
Jack O’Lanterns guarding a doorway (Photograph: Tumblr)
Hallowe’en was believed, by people living in rural parts of Scotland and Ireland, to be a time when spirits could cross over from their world into ours. The turnip lanterns, echoes of the one carried by Stingy Jack, were used to frighten away any spirits that might want to cause a family harm. The pumpkins we now carve have their roots in the same legend – it is thought that Scottish and Irish emigrants to North America took the tradition of making carved lamps from vegetables with them, but used the continent’s native pumpkins instead of turnips.