The night of October 31. Most call it Halloween, a carnival of flickering pumpkins, sugar and rambunctious guising. But, for some, it’s all about Samhuinn, the Celtic festival marking the New year and start of winter. It’s a night on which “the veil between this world and the next" is at its thinnest; remembrance and connection to the dead; the light receding and darkness deepening.

It is, in a performance that will take place on Holyrood Park on Tuesday, the enactment of a battle between the winter king and the summer king: flames, body paint, performers dressed as sheep, a symbolic old hag and the thunder of rhythmic drumming.

The 5000-strong audience set to attend this year is a small indicator of a shift that is taking place across Scotland and other parts of the world. Paganism and nature worship are on the rise.

According to Màiri McKay, a long-term member of the community that creates the Beltane and Samhuinn fire festivals, for many involved, there is “a strong awareness of the element of the festival that is about the changing seasons.”

“When I talk to people and say, what does Samhuinn mean to you?” she said. “Some of them will say, ‘Well, I have seasonal affective disorder and Samhuinn is my reminder to prepare for winter and to wrap up and think about looking after myself. It’s a way to acknowledge it and not just see it as this big, scary dark abyss. But to find the joy in it.’

The Herald: Samhuinn fire festival. Image: Gordon Terris

In Scotland's 2011 Census, 5,282 people identified as Pagan or a related belief, a jump of over 3,000 from the previous decade – and we can expect an even bigger rise in the recent census, as pagans successfully lobbied MSPs to have their faith officially listed as an option.

According to data from the England and Wales 2021 census, the fastest-growing religion is shamanism, which had a twelvefold rise in popularity over a decade. Pagans, the census showed, now number 74,000 people, up from 57,000 in 2011.

An Oxford dictionary definition of paganism describes it as “a modern religious movement incorporating beliefs or practices from outside the main world religions, especially nature worship. The Pagan Federation dubs it as no less than  "the ancestral religion of the whole of humanity".

Most of us, of course, follow some pagan traditions – we decorate Christmas trees and deck the halls with holly. The old beliefs were always there in the backdrop, having been borrowed or reworked by Christianity.

Paganism is also on the rise throughout Europe and America. I saw it in Ireland, where earlier this year I attended a mass full moon swim that brought over 500 people together to experience a shamanic journey before plunging into the Irish Sea under a rising moon. I also saw it at a witchy full moon circle held in Touchwood House, Inverness, two years ago, where I met a Canadian who was travelling Europe researching pagan practices.

Some credit this surge to social media, and the rise of “WitchTok” (currently at 48.6 billion views). for connecting pagans; others to growing eco-anxiety and a response to a world of climate and ecological crises.

It was while I was researching my book about wild swimming, The Ripple Effect, with photographer Anna Deacon, that I became acutely aware of a growing pagan sensibility in Scotland – people who were coming to the sea to connect with nature in some sacred way, or who were marking the pagan calendar with group swims.

Among them was Kenny Neilson, a recovered alcoholic, who showed me the figurine of Mother Nature he now prayed to each morning and called his favourite waterfall pool “the church”. Or, there was Marc Millar, who had set up the male mental health group, The Blue Balls, and described the weekly group swims as “Sunday Service”. Not all of these people, I suspect, would mark themselves down on the census as pagan, but their acts and statements suggest a pagan sensibility.

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During the pandemic, many people reconnected with their local parks, woods and shores, and nurtured the kind of wonder and appreciation of nature that is at the heart of paganism.

One swimmer who followed the pagan calendar is Edinburgh-based Sasha Udell. Though she now celebrates the festivals of the ‘pagan wheel’ in the sea, wears flower crowns and creates her own rituals, her relationship with nature wasn’t always like this.

“I’ve never been religious," she said, "but there is definitely a very spiritual feeling going into the sea, almost like that feeling of awe. You never take it for granted, and it’s constantly changing... There is that feeling of something that’s more powerful than you all of the time. I’ve developed more of a sense of spirituality based on the cycles of nature and the strength of the sea.”

The Herald: Swimmers from a Portobello group that swim at sunrise and on key days in the pagan calendar, fromSwimmers, including Sasha Udell, from a Portobello group that swim at sunrise. Image: Anna Deacon, from The Ripple Effect 

Initially, when she and friends started swimming together during lockdown, they would entertain themselves by wearing fancy dress. “But gradually we started to move away from the frivolity and focus in on the changing of the seasons. Then we began marking the calendar events on the pagan wheel. They began with Imbolc one year and kept on going. It was marking the points of the year and also the changing of the seasons.”

Ms Udell was not alone - many others practised full moon swims or solstice dips, or followed the pagan wheel (a calendar that was only created in the last century).

Among those I met was Sarah-Alexandra Teodorescu, an American yogi and shamanic practitioner. She had arrived at the sea already immersed in nature religion and her small group would not only dip on key dates, but drink ceremonial cacao, talk for hours, consult oracle cards and share stories and emotions. The moon, she said, had always held magic for her. “No matter what phase the moon is in, I am always in awe of her.”

The Herald: Swimmers from Sarah-Alexandra Teodorescu's women's circle, who swim naked under the full moonSwimmers from Sarah-Alexandra Teodorescu's women's circle celebrate midsummer

“Awe” was often expressed by people I interviewed in relation to nature. It’s a word, like wonder, and even enchantment or ‘re-enchantment’,  that is increasingly being used around our relationship with nature. It provides some insight into why the experience of nature may lead to a spiritual view, even in an otherwise secular life.

READ MORE: Meet the pagans ... inside the secretive world of Scotland's real-life witches at Halloween

American professor  Dacher Keltner, in a podcast titled Wonder and Awe, described the goosebumps reaction sometimes provoked by nature. “This awe response and wonder response in our nervous system,” he said, “I think, dates back to the shift in our evolution some eighty thousand years ago when we started to make art, sing and be together in ceremonial ways.”

Professor Keltner has researched what is going on in our brains when we have these feelings which some describe as like being in touch with the divine.

“The deep thing that happens in the mind,” he explained, “be it in looking at a tide pool or in dancing with a bunch of people at a concert, or in thinking about a big idea that unifies thoughts, is that your mind’s narrow focus on itself, self-interest and separateness, suddenly dissolves in experiences of awe and wonder. And you feel connected and part of something large.”

Samhuinn performer Ms McKay also expressed an experience of that awe. “One thing I’ve found as I’ve got older is that I notice the change of the seasons more – and I have this astonishment every time spring appears and there are tiny little buds appearing on the tree.”

A former maths teacher, McKay studied mathematical physics at the University of Edinburgh. “I’ve had a massive love of and belief in the mathematical universe and the interconnectedness of all things from an equation point of view. But I was always focussing in on the tiny things like particle physics, or the big things like cosmology and not really thinking about the human aspect and the kind of earth and sun aspect.”

Since she became involved with Beltane, she has, she said, developed a different sense of the year and her place in the universe “In Edinburgh we go from having 17.5 hours of daylight at one end of the year, and seven hours of daylight at another end of the year. That’s a massive change and it’s something that affected me that I didn’t understand and through things like Beltane I’ve been able to process it better.”

Pagan sensibility, in all its forms, is blossoming. We also see a rise in animism – the viewing of other living entities, and even ecosystems as possessing spirit and a kind of personhood.  

That animism was there, in Northern Ireland, in a recent ‘wake’ staged for Lough Neagh, the UK’s largest lake, now so devastatngly polluted that some have described it as "killed". It was there, perhaps too, in some of the reaction to the felling of the Sycamore Gap tree. It’s there, too, when people talk of Gaia, or on a climate protest when someone is holding up a placard speaking for Mother Earth. 

A recent article in the Catholic Herald even described “climate alarmism" as "the new paganism”. 

Alongside this rise in soft paganism has also been the ascendance of the witch. It’s astonishing to think that until the repeal of the witchcraft act in 1951, it had been illegal to practise, but now the witch is all over social media – and it’s a shift that has been driven as much by feminism as pagan thinking. 

The world of paganism, I’ve observed, stretches far wider than those who would put anything like it down in their census entry, and is not just confined to the druids, heathens, wiccans, shamans and witch covens. It also includes, very often, women’s circles, wild swimming sunrise groups, those who plant a tree to mark a life event, those who make their own Christmas wreath. 

Paganism - even neo-paganism -  is not new. But something appears to have given it a bit of a push.

Is it Tiktok and other social media? I don't think so. Not entirely.

More likely it’s also a shift in the sense we humans have of what we call nature – a feeling that we are now living in a fragile world, players in an Anthropocene that seems to be pushing natural systems to the edge.

 The climate crisis, certainly, was something that concerned Ms McKay. “Some people in our community,” she said, “just want to celebrate Samhuinn and Beltane and do all the nice nature things and carry that forward without bringing climate concerns with it. But I think most people are interested in bringing elements of climate protest into the festival, because it is about nature, how we live, the seasons. Four years ago, our May Queen, when she first appeared, was wearing fire fans. They were there to symbolise this rage at the burning of the planet.”