How to carve a neep lantern

Written by Chris Thornton | 25th of October 2021
Neep carving in Scotland

Arriving at Tesco on a rainy October night, promising the kids a sweetie we passed through the rather spooky looking entrance and were immediately met with large containers full of pumpkins. The kids were on them like a shot. "Dad can we get some pumpkins to carve?!".

It hit me how Americanised Halloween had become in Scotland over the last 30 years, why didn't they gravitate towards the neeps? When I was little I had never even seen a pumpkin and it was not part of local traditions to carve pumpkin jack o lanterns in the October holidays. Instead, the humble neepie lantern was the project of choice and a mainstay of Halloween celebrations in our household every year in the north east of Scotland.

Halloween Celebrations

The local Women's Rural Institute would hold a fantastic Halloween party at their hall, and the neepie lantern competition was very popular with the judging table covered in many different designs all fluttering spookily with their candles.

The smell of burning neep that filled the hall still evokes fond memories of these parties.

Unfortunately, neep carving seems to be a dying art with most people deciding to carve the much softer and bigger pumpkins instead. I'm not going to lie, carving pumpkins is MUCH easier than carving turnips or swedes but we need to hold onto our traditions before they are steamrolled into oblivion. Pumpkin carving has replaced neep carving, and trick or treating has replaced guising.

Guising was all about telling a story, doing a trick or telling a joke all while wearing your homemade costume and as a reward, you were given a treat or other item as a reward, not just knocking on a door with an expectation of a reward for nothing.

What is a neepie lantern/turnip lantern?

Neep lanterns, sometimes called neepie lanterns or tumshie lanterns are hollowed out neeps with a scary face carved into them (What are neeps?). A candle or other light source is placed within the neep to create the lantern. Finally, the string is added to either side so it can be held like a lantern.

The lanterns were placed on doorsteps to ward off evil spirits. Immigrants took the idea with them to America. Finding that pumpkins were much easier to carve they used them instead to create Jack o Lanterns.

Turnip Lantern

In England, turnips were the vegetable of choice for carving, in Scotland and Ireland the humble swede or rutabaga were carved to celebrate Samhain by highly superstitious Celts.

Do you make a neep lantern?

Here are some basic steps on how you can carve your very own neep lantern and go traditional instead! Remember to be extremely careful when you are carving your neep, it is quite difficult and a lot of pressure and perseverance is needed... a blood sacrifice is not needed to complete your lantern!

1. Purchase a good-sized neep!

It's harder than you think nowadays to buy a decent neep. They used to be huge, sometimes as big as your head but today they are more like the size of a standard turnip... I'm not sure what has happened to neeps but you will have to shop around to find a midsize to large one. Small ones are OK but are a little more tricky to carve. Neeps are cheaper than pumpkins too, another bonus!

2. Create your base

Sharpen a Chef's knife and cut a disc from the bottom of your neep. They are rarely stable and with the amount of hacking and chopping, you are about to undertake it needs to be very stable to stop it tipping over.

Carving a tumshie lantern

3. Make a lid

Cut another disc this time from the top of the neep. This will be the lid of your lantern to retain this piece. Make it thick enough for a lid.

Neep jack o lantern, hollowed out turnip

4. Outline and score your scoop area

Using a knife mark out a boundary for the area you will remove from the neep. Make the outer edge thick enough so as not to weaken the neep structural integrity - you want the outer parts of the neep to remain strong.

Score some crosshatching into the neep to aid you in removing chunks.

Lantern from the irish folk tale where Jack died and created Jack o Lanterns

5. Begin removing neep chunks

Using knives, chisel away at the internal area of the neep. Keeping with the murderous Halloween theme, holding a knife upside down and stabbing the neep like a demented serial killer can help to soften it up. Some people recommend a sturdy spoon to scoop out the insides but I haven't had much success with this.

Keep removing material until you have a nice hollowed out neep, capable of fitting a tea light candle, or battery-powered light source. Keep in mind too you will be cutting a face into the side of the neep, so it needs to be deep enough so all your facial features light up nicely.

Retain your neep flesh to make some Haggis neeps and tatties or neep mash.

Turnip Lantern, why carve a pumpkin?

6. Carve your spooky face

Easier said than done on a neep. You can draw a design on with a pen if you like and try and come up with some elaborate design, but keeping it simple will make your life easier. Knives slip through pumpkin flesh like hot butter, but neeps require more of an aggressive sawing motion to get through. I used a steak knife on this occasion to cut through the side of the neep.

Jack o Lantern made from swede / rutabaga / neep

Choose a side of the neep that gives you space to make the design you want. Keep in mind the little root structures that grow from neeps can give it a nice effect too, looking like straggly hairs.

I have gone with the tried and tested method of "three triangles" to keep it simple... maybe I will attempt a fancier design next year!

The finished neepie lantern

Remember to cut a hole in your lid so the candle can breathe.

Conclusion

Carving a neep lantern is a fun Scottish tradition, sadly dying out. Why not give it a try this year! Send me a pic of your effort and I will add it to this article.

Please see my article on neeps here too for a more in-depth guide to all things neep.

Ward off evil spirits - carve a turnip

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