THE ancient Halloween tradition of carving turnips into grotesque, candle-lit faces is teetering on the brink of extinction.
That most American of fruits, the pumpkin, has all but banished the time-honoured “Tumshie lantern” when it comes to the annual celebration of ghosts and ghouls.
Such is the demand for jack-o’-lanterns carved from pumpkins that many Scottish farmers now turn over acres of their fields to growing the bright orange crop.
And one major supermarket has revealed that as the time for trick-or-treating approaches, pumpkins outsell turnips by 10 to one.
Carving a turnip into a Tumshie Lantern originated as a way of remembering souls held in purgatory.
The job takes sharp tools and patience, and poses a not inconsiderable risk to the fingers.
But even turnip growers admit the larger, softer and easier-to-carve pumpkin has wreaked Halloween-style horror on the Tumshie Lantern.
Ian Patterson, director of the Mr Neep turnip farm in Cockburnspath, Berwickshire, said: “In the last seven or eight years, there’s been a huge decline in the demand for turnips at Halloween. It used to be our busiest time of year but now it’s Burns night.
“It’s such a shame. The kids will grow up thinking the pumpkin is tradition now when actually it’s not at all.
“It’s always been the turnip. Pumpkins might look nicer and brighter but it certainly is a pity.”
Mr Patterson revealed he once spent £100,000 trying to save the October 31 tradition by developing a machine to carve turnip faces.
“You’d put a turnip in and the machine would carve off the lid to make the chimney,” he said. “Then it would rotate and cut the core out, and then the eyes and the mouth.”
Figures released by Tesco help explain why the machine quickly ended up as a museum piece. The supermarket said that 100,000 pumpkins were sold in the run up to Halloween last October compared with just 10,000 turnips.
And Wendy Fleming, Food Policy Officer for the National Farmers Union Scotland, admitted: “Traditionally turnip has been the lantern of choice in Scotland but in recent years this has been taken over by the larger, and easier to carve, pumpkin.”
The night of the dead is likely to be celebrated with particular relish on Cameron Laird’s farm in Cupar, Fife. The San Francisco native is pioneering pumpkin production on Scottish farms to meet the demand of the supermarkets.
Her farm has just produced 1,200 pumpkins ready for carving despite starting the crop just five years ago.
She said: “Turnips are ancient folklore – Scottish people have made the transition to pumpkins now.
“Nobody wants to carve a turnip anymore. You practically need a power drill to carve a turnip, but pumpkins are beautifully soft and are perfect for carving.”
She added: “Halloween is huge now so the demand for pumpkins has grown a lot. We don’t even bother growing turnips anymore because nobody wants to buy them.”
John Sinclair, owner of West Craigie Fruit Farm in South Queensferry, Edinburgh, is another convert to pumpkin production.
He said: “The demand for pumpkins is huge now. The only problem is that we won’t be able to keep up with it.”
Yet another farmer, Jack Cameron, has grown the crop on his farm in Dairsie, Fife, for the first time this year.
He said: “We decided to grow them because people always ask about them. They’ve done really well and we’re very pleased with them.
“They’ve become a bit of a tourist attraction because you can see them from the road. People often stop to have a look at them.”
But History Lecturer at the University of Glasgow, Dr. Lizanne Henderson said it was wrong to see the demise of Tumshie lanterns as the death of a tradition.
She said: “The Celts brought the carving tradition over to America when the Irish began to emigrate but pumpkins were more readily available there.
“So, this isn’t a loss of tradition, it’s more of a reinvention or re-jigging of an old one.
“Traditions are constantly evolving, and the pumpkin is just a modernized manifestation of the nostalgic Tumshie lantern.”