Halloween on the banks of the Clyde, chasing down a witch in swirling wind and spluttering rain, weather fitted for late October. Early evening is neither the witching hour nor the devil’s hour but this does not mean that a haunting would not take place.
Galoshans – guising – trick or treat in descending order of Scottishness – terminology for transactional temporary arrangements entered into between children and adults. Deals are made at this time of year – allowance to walk the street, dress up, paint faces, stay up late, demand sweets from friends and strangers, all in exchange for a performance, however feeble. These contracts may last for only minutes but can echo across a lifetime.
And so the pavements are alive with ghouls and vampires, superheroes and robots, and sometimes even wizards, warlocks and witches. But not midnight, more like just-after-dinner time, as more than likely this will be a ‘school night’ and even the generosity of parents can only be stretched so far.
To Gourock, the car park of the railway station to be precise. Here be Galoshans, giant puppets manipulated by three people, one anonymously buried deep inside the torso, the other two working the hands and arms with sticks. Jerking unnatural movements, always on the edge of falling over, vulnerable to puffs of wind and surges of enthusiastic children, the giants weaved their way back and forth, moving to the beat of George Ezra and Taylor Swift.
Kids followed the giants around the car park, safely protected from the real dangers of the world and the night by gazebos, catering vans, an ice cream van, even a minibus and a static portaloo. This was an enclosure, the children and their patient parents wrapped in the kinds of things children really like – ice cream, crap burgers, terrible pop music. Amidst the whirling and the screaming wandered a whole family, each with an illuminated pumpkin for a head.
The giants were weirdly scary – a pirate, a white-skulled ghoul, Mel Gibson from Braveheart, a creature that looked like a living giant white loaf. In the middle of it all was the witch that we were looking for – Granny Kempock. Her trio of puppeteers steered her around the car park, swaying to Lizzo, awkwardly posing for photographs. Her green horrible face was topped by straggly grey hair and a black pointed hat of the type that seems only to be worn by cartoon witches. Around her neck was a rope connecting green skulls, neon death jewellery. The arms had too many joints and were serpentine, the hands like five-headed snakes. Her clothing hung around her like dirty white rags, and this translucent garb meant that the operator inside was visible, almost as if the giant witch had swallowed a human who was then forced to wriggle through Granny’s guts to escape.
The looming witch and the other giants tirelessly roamed the car park compound even as we retreated. We had witnessed history – local history, but we had also seen reflected back on us prehistory, local prehistory.
Just a few hundred metres away from this street party, solace was to be found with a silent and altogether more dignified incarnation of Granny Kempock, a standing stone on the edge of a cliff overlooking the back of the main street in Gourock. Standing stones always transform in the dark, and this one is no different, even if it was illuminated by a sickly orange street light. Located within a caged enclosure, mimicked by the enclosure of facilities down at the railway station event, Granny Kempock remained immobile, completely un-moved by the new single from Lewis Capaldi. If local myths are to be believed however, a person is also trapped within this version of Granny, a petrified witch, consumed by stone.
The contractual nature of Halloween was evident here too – this is a standing stone that is fogged up with stories of deals made with the devil or god, promises of protection, blood vows, eternal life, lost souls. Salacious stories collected by local historians and repeated by generations of locals bring this stone to life as surely as if they were her puppeteers. Dressing up the stone as a New Year’s Day rite continued until the 1970s, another key point of the year where Granny Kempock rises from the dead and de-petrifies.
The dual nature of this late October evening was powerful and moving. Two Granny Kempocks, one alive with movement and rhythm, surrounded by children dancing with the scary witch. The other dead, danced around in the past only by the recklessly heathen. Traces of prehistoric cosmologies, ancient ways of understanding the world and the passing of the seasons, preparation for the cold dark winter where witches haunt the alleyways and car parks.
Two Granny Kempocks. Polar opposites, doppelgangers, still holding this small Inverclyde town in their spell after all these years.
The Galoshans Festival is an annual event in the run-up to Halloween held across Inverclyde. An element of this event is street performance by local musicians and the Galoshans giants, all based on local myths and legends. The street party I attended on evening of 28th October 2022 described above was a street party, one of three that weekend, with others in Greenock and Port Glasgow.
The Kempock Stone is a standing stone in Gourock town centre, almost certainly prehistoric, perhaps not in its original location. There are many local stories and myths and rites focused on this stone, including an association with Granny Kempock, supposedly a local witch. I have blogged about this stone before and working on a paper on the local value of this monument with geographer Tim Edensor.
Some of the photos from this blog post were taken by Jan Brophy. The book extract comes from Rev David MacCrae’s 1880 book Notes about Gourock, Chiefly Historical.