Pandemic halts old New Year celebration on tiny Scottish island tonight – but tradition still runs deep

Tonight on Berneray, there will be no festivities, no chapping of doors, no fancy dress or gifting of food or money as the pandemic cancels the traditional celebration of old New Year. The same poems that have been recited for generations will not be heard on the doorstep.

For as long as people can remember here, islanders here have celebrated New Year on January 12, but the pandemic has halted the old ways – for now, at least.

Donald MacLean, 59, remembers the Oidhche Challuinn celebrations as a young boy and said it was a big night on the island. It will be again, once more, he said.

Mr MacLean added: “It will be restarted for next year and the children that are here will bring it back. They will be encouraged to do so.”

Berneray in the Outer Hebrides, where New Year is traditionally celebrated on January 12. PIC: Creative Commons/Jkirriemuir

On the night of January 12, children and young people put on fancy dress to visit every one of the island’s 60 or so homes, with the group arriving at each house together.

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As has always been the case, the same Gaelic verse – or the Duan – is recited on arrival to request offerings, however little, from the householder.

After receiving money or food, a second verse is said on leaving, to wish the householder well.

Berneray, which sits off North Uist and has a population of around 130, is one of the last places in Scotland to observe old New Year.

When the old Julian calendar was phased out in the 18th Century and 11 days were lost with the introduction of the new Gregorian calendar, some decided to observe the original times of celebration, with New Year’s Day pushed to January 12.

On Berneray, the old ways have long endured and the traditions surrounding the celebration little changed, although girls and young women now take part.

While Mr MacLean, chairman of Berneray Historical Society, remembers walking miles to reach each house, leaving his home around 4.30 and getting to the last around 10pm, cars are more commonly used to ferry young people around

Children traditionally gathered at the last family home for some hot food and a little party before heading home in the dark. In more modern times, the end-of-night celebration is held at the Community Hall in Borve, where all the treats are shared out equally. Children are known to have taken home around £60 each in recent times.

Mr MacLean said he remembered girls joining the celebrations when older children started leaving Berneray to go to secondary school on Harris in the 1960s, leaving far fewer children on the island come January 12.

Hogmanay is still celebrated on December 31 on Berneray, which is now connected to North Uist by causeway.

Mr MacLean said: “The thing we don’t celebrate here is Halloween. The children celebrate old New Year instead. We want to keep the traditions alive. Up until a few years ago, we were an island and it was easier to do things and keep things locally.

"More people have moved onto the island and, even if they don’t speak Gaelic, they learn the verse very quickly and its great to see them take it into houses. I think even the families that have moved here like to keep see the old traditions.”

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