Collecting the folklore and uses of plants


It is apparent that what people mean by ‘turnip’ varies in different parts of Britain and Ireland; the standard turnip has a small white-fleshed root, standard swedes are larger and have pale orange flesh, but they can be referred to as ‘turnip’ in some areas.  It even seems as if people who normally refer to orange-fleshed roots as swedes make what they call ‘turnip lanterns’ from them.*  Thus it is probable that all of the turnip lanterns mentioned below were, in fact, made from swedes.

1. Turnip lanterns were certainly still being made in Herefordshire in the early 1950s.  I remember passing the river bridge on the way back home from the local village and there was always a scarey grinning turnip face with a candle in it every Hallowe’en … by the 60s it had become a plastic doll’s head with a candle, but still on the same bridge [e-mail, November 2017].

2.  As kids in the 1980s growing up in Aberdeen we had never seen a pumpkin [Cucurbita maxima].  At Hallowe’en we were given turnips to carve.  They were so hard that my parents would use a hammer and chisel – this would involve a great deal of swearing.  My dad was so fire safety conscious we were not allowed candles but used mini torches inside the neepie lantern [Walthamstow, London, October 2015].

3.   When I was a small child living in North Wales [round about 1979, when I was around 5 years young and we lived in Wrexham] my brother and I were extremely ill with whooping cough, our mother was very worried but would never go down the allopathic route unless absolutely necessary.
One evening the doorbell rang and our mother opened the door to a gypsy selling this and that; she heard us whooping in the house and told my Mother to use this family remedy to heal our coughs: it consisted of a ripe turnip, cut in half, enough of the inside should be scraped out and filled with a sugar, wrapped in foil and left overnight, a syrup would form, this should be fed to the patient like a medicine every hour. She said this would make us better (I do not remember the timescale). It did! [e-mail, December 2012].

4. [Cure used by my father-in-law’s grandmother, around Melton Constable, Norfolk, about 60 years ago] Take a large white turnip. wash it and slice it … Lay the slices around the sides of a dish … Sprinkle each slice with brown sugar (demerara). A liquid will in time … run into the centre of the dish. Drink this to cure the cold [West Stow, Suffolk, January 1991].

5. Turnips, as far as I can remember, should be sowed before the 15th June (locally the Feast of St Columcille) [Daingean, Co. Offaly, January 1985].

6. Turnip lanterns are still made in this area. Indeed, I assumed it was fairly common throughout the country. Certainly our children always made them until they grew too old for that sort of thing, but, as far as I know, it was only on Hallowe’en, and I have not seen them around on Guy Fawkes’ Night [Corbridge, Northumberland, January 1980].

7. Turnips should be singled by Crewkerne Fair (4 and 5 September) [Thorncombe, Dorset, September 1977].

* Amy Stewart Fraser, who was born in 1892 and spent her childhood in Glen Gairn, Aberdeenshire, recorded in her The Hills of Home, 1973:  ‘We always had great fun at Hallowe’en.  The making of turnip-lanterns was essential, as it still is, for the correct observance of the festival.  Scooping out the inside of a large swede, eating a great deal of raw turnip in the process, carving eyes, nose and mouth, occupied a considerable part of the day.  When we had fixed a handle of string, and put a piece of lighted candle inside, which revealed the grinning mask, we strutted round exhibiting our lanterns to admiring adults.’

Image: Porto, Portugal; January 2015.