Alexander McCall Smith: Bring back ancient Scottish customs

It’s time to revive age-old customs like first-footing – and maybe invent a few new ones, writes Alexander McCall Smith.

It’s time to revive age-old customs like first-footing – and maybe invent a few new ones, writes Alexander McCall Smith.

One of the oddest news items to appear in the usually uneventful new period between Christmas and New Year was the announcement of efforts to revive the old Scottish custom of first-footing.

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Apparently memories of first-footing have been fading and many people no longer either know about it or practise it. As part of a programme to revive it, one supermarket chain in Scotland has been offering people lumps of coal – free – when they buy their New Year provisions. As many of us will recall, the lump of coal was the offering that you traditionally took when you visited your friends, or strangers, for the first time on the turn of the year. You were also encouraged to have dark hair as a first-footer, as dark strangers were particularly good luck.

There are various reasons why people might wish to revive ancient customs. One is commercial – and it would be difficult not to have noticed the commercialization of Hogmanay in Edinburgh over the last few years. That apart, there may be ideological reasons for saying that the more old Scottish customs there are the better, as this distinguishes us from those parts – without mentioning any – that do not have ancient Scottish customs. Or it may be that old Scottish customs were a good thing as they encouraged friendship and community – undoubtedly things worth having in an increasingly impersonal and culturally homogenised world.

Whatever the reason behind them, attempts to revive or indeed create new ancient customs are to be encouraged. Some of these have been quite successful, as is the case with South Queensferry’s famous Loony Dook, which occurs on 1 January and involves large numbers of people running into the Firth of Forth, splashing around for a few minutes, and them emerging in a nearly frozen state. People who embark on the Loony Dook with a pinkish skin tone, emerge blue. This might be tied in with first footing beliefs that the arrival at your doorstep of a blue stranger is particularly propitious.

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The origins of the Loony Dook, one of our finest ancient customs, are lost in the mists of time, but probably go back at least 20 years. More recent, but still very ancient, is the annual event organised in Edinburgh by the Association of Scottish Nudists. This is the annual New Year run around Moray Place Gardens. This event is not mentioned in the city’s promotional literature – largely out of a misplaced prudishness – but is a very popular custom that draws large crowds of supportive spectators. Creative Scotland will no doubt be approached in due course to give support for this event, and should be encouraged to do so. Ancient traditions of this sort must not be allowed to die out.

There are various other proposed ancient customs that are currently being assessed for implementation. These include Open Mike at St Giles’, where members of the public are invited to participate in the High Kirk’s Sunday service and either sing or preach to the congregation through the open microphone. There is no real restriction on what may be said – or sung – at these events, but there is a strong preference for theologically-themed contributions. That proposal has not yet been tried out, but there are said to be many people who are keen to institute this custom as soon as possible. If it is successful, it is possible that open mike sessions will be introduced – as long-established customs – at Holyrood. This will enable members of the public to question, and indeed correct, ministers and other politicians while they are addressing the Parliament. Public support for this proposed custom is very high indeed.

Finally, talks are at an advanced stage to investigate how the old Scottish custom of staying in Highland bothies might be extended and made more accessible. As we all know, the mountain bothy tradition is a fine one, allowing hikers to claim the shelter of these remote buildings, stay a night or two, and then continue on their way. That old custom is very much in accordance with the spirit of freedom of access to the wild places of this country, and it harkens back to a tradition of hospitality of the sort found in, for instance, Greek monasteries. Strangers should never be turned away.

Under the compulsory bothification initiative currently under consideration, householders will be encouraged – and possibly even required – to make their homes available for use as bothies for 14 days every year. This will mean that if a hiker appears at your door, he or she will be entitled to claim free hospitality for at least two nights. If you leave your house unattended, then a key should be readily available for hikers to gain access. Of course old customs like this require a certain reciprocity, and it will be very important for the success of the scheme that guests should leave the premises tidy and should wash up any crockery or cutlery they use. If all your bedrooms are currently occupied by you and your family, then accommodation should be provided in the living room. Camp beds are acceptable, provided they meet with certain health and safety criteria.

Further details of this bold customary initiative have yet to be released, which is not surprising. Public support is weak, but that is of course no grounds for not going ahead with the scheme. Some old customs take some time to catch on.