Hogmanay high jinks all a matter of tradition in Scotland

Eating, drinking and making merry as the clocks strike midnight.
Eating, drinking and making merry as the clocks strike midnight.
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Scotland is famous the world over for its celebrations of the last day of one year and the first of the next, says Alison Campsie

IT has been said that Hogmanay is a Godless Christmas celebrated to excess – and Scots have long known how to celebrate the New Year with devotion.

With the old feast of Christmas generally discouraged by the Kirk following the Reformation, special focus was placed on New Year with the period running up to Hogmanay, and its aftermath, always celebrated as a holiday period in Scotland.

This period was known in Scotland as the ‘daft days’ – a time given over to celebration, merriment and excess, with licence given for enjoyment during the often bleak midwinter.

This dedication to the good times, and bringing the light into the dark months, has led Scotland’s Hogmanay celebrations to become world famous.

Some believe the word Hogmanay was first used by the Celtic Druids and could be derived from terms of the celebration for the turning year used by the Icelandics, Saxons and Gauls.

In the 18th century, it was recorded that children out and about on 31 December in Scotland would shout out: “Hogmanay, Trollolay/Give us your white bread and none of your grey.”

Robert Chalmers, in Popular Rhymes of Scotland, suggested the word Hogmanay was derived from the song sung the last day of the year in France which includes the line ‘Aui Guis Menez’ which roughly translates as “to the mistletoe I go”.

The world ‘trollolay’ from the Scots song may also come from the Icelandic word trolldir which denotes a troll or evil genii who devoured mortals who strayed into their territory.

Fantastic records exist on how Hogmanay was celebrated in Scotland over time.

In the Highlands and Islands, the seven days from Christmas to the New Year were known as Nollaig.

During the “easy-going olden times” no work was done during the period but men gave themselves up “to friendly festivities and expressions of goodwill,” according to John Gregorson Campbell’s The Gaelic Otherworld.

A common saying of the festive period was often shared: “The man whom Christmas does not make cheerful/Easter will leave sad and tearful.”

Hogmanay was referred to as either ‘night of the candle’ or ‘night of blows’ given the popularity of one ritual which involved a man having a dry cow hide placed over his head before being beaten like a drum as he and his friends moved around their village.

Usually led by a bagpiper, the group would move around each house, turning anti-clockwise, striking the walls and reciting rhymes to raise the householders.

As doors opened, the group would pile into each home to receive refreshments, such as oatmeal bread, cheese, flesh and a dram of whisky.

The leader would then give the man of the house the ‘caisein uchd’ or a shinty stick wrapped in the breast stripe of a sheep or tail of a deer. This was then singed in the fire, put three times anti-clockwise around the family and then held to the noses of all in the room, Campbell said.

“In this style, the villages, men and boys, went from house to house – preceded in many cases by a piper, and drowning the animosities of the past year in hilarity and merriment,” according to Campbell.

Fancy dress and guising was a popular element of Hogmanay in Scotland through time. The rich would dress for fun, while the poor would dress up to entertain and collect food for their last feast of the year.

Holly and cheese were other elements of a traditional Hogmanay. Holly was hung in the belief it would keep the fairies away with boys whipped with a branch of the greenery. Every drop of blood spilled counted the years the boy would live. Although it sounds fairly grim, it was reportedly a ritual practised in good jest among friends.

A slice of cheese cut at this feast was considered to have a “special virtue” if the piece contained a hole.

“A person losing his way during the ensuing year, in a mist of otherwise, has only to look through the hole and he will see his way clearly,” according to Campbell’s account.

Sometimes the owner of the lucky cheese would place it under their pillow for good luck.

Hogmanay night was sometimes referred to as New Year’s Night with the fire in the home playing a central part in the superstitions during the countdown to midnight. It was feared that letting the fire go out would invite bad luck into the home with only householders – or a friend – allowed to tend it. 
Candles were usually lit as back-up to ensure a flame remained in the house with 31 December often referred to as Candle Night as a result. If the fire went out, no one was allowed to ask a neighbour for kindling to start another.

New Year’s Day, like the first of every quarter of the year, was a great ‘saining’ day across the Highlands and Islands when rituals were at their most intense to protect cattle and houses from evil.

Juniper was burnt in the byre, animals were marked with tar, the houses were decked with mountain ash and the door-posts and walls and even the cattle were sprinkled with wine.

Campbell said: “Nothing was allowed to be put out of the house this day, neither the ashes of the fire nor the sweepings of the house, nor dirty water, nor anything else, however useless or however much in the way.

“It was a very serious matter to give fire out of the house to a neighbour whose hearth had become cold, as the doing so gave power to the evil-minded to take away the produce from the cattle.

The morning of 1 January started with a dram poured by the head of the household with a spoon of half-boiled sowens given for luck. A young man entering with a armful of corn was considered a joyful omen but a “decrepit old woman asking for kindling of her fire was a most deplorable omen,” Campbell’s account said.

It was unlucky for a woman to enter the house, or anyone to come in empty handed, with a form of the superstition evolving into Scotland’s tradition of ‘first footing’.