Hugh Reilly: Street party or Only An Excuse?

BRINGING in the bells is now a very different proposition, writes Hugh Reilly, since the days of The White Heather Club, first-footing and McEwan’s Pale Ale...

Hogmanay used to be a bigger deal in Scotland than Chistmas. Picture: TSPL
Hogmanay used to be a bigger deal in Scotland than Chistmas. Picture: TSPL
Hogmanay used to be a bigger deal in Scotland than Chistmas. Picture: TSPL

Etymologists are stumped for words when asked to explain the derivation of “Hogmanay”. According to some palabra-anoraks, the word’s provenance lies in Gaelic, an aboriginal tongue that is still spoken by football commentators on BBC Alba and in Tennent’s Bar in Glasgow’s West End. Gaelic has been something of a lexical font for Lowland Scots, enriching English by dint of expressions such as “Och” (an exclamation of regret) and “ceilidh” (a social gathering to avoid if one is embarking on the 12-step alcohol recovery programme). However, other men of letters claim the origin of Hogmanay is down to some bloke called Norman French. Je ne sais pas, I say.


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Historically, bringing in the New Year was a bigger deal than Christmas; as a kid, hanging a knee-length football stocking at the bottom of the bed was a sign of outrageous optimism when, deep down, one knew that an ankle sock would be a more than adequate depository for parsimonious Santa’s gifts: an orange and a bar of chocolate.

However, hours before the last midnight of the old year, my parents and I would traipse from Easterhouse to my widowed aunt’s house in Possilpark – an odyssey across multiple areas of deprivation. In aunt Mary’s house, the throng dressed in their Sunday-best clothes would take turns to sing, the order decided by the capricious spin of a bottle. Uncle Jackie belted out San Francisco, his sonic booms causing my short trousers to tremble uncontrollably. Cousin Esther, eight years older than me, sat on a pouffe, one step up from the floorboard seating arrangement afforded to younger sprogs. Her beehive-hairstyle added inches to her petite frame, almost granting her pygmy status. She sang mournful love ballads such as Don’t laugh at me ’cause I’m a fool and, when emotion threatened to overwhelm the songstress, supportive audience members would shout: “Gaun yersel, hen!” Occasionally, the guests included an elderly gent called Jimmy Reid – not the famous one – who played the accordion with great aplomb, considering that he’d lost the top joints of three fingers in a workplace accident. He always brought a bottle bearing the label of a high-quality whisky but everyone knew he’d filled it beforehand with the type of cheap firewater that caused Sioux Indians to go on the warpath.

For us children, it was a night of excitement and audaciousness. We were de facto pub pot-men, collecting empty glasses and ferrying them to the kitchenette. In the few short yards between the living room and the kitchenette, we hurriedly gulped down the dregs of spirits, stout or, my favourite tipple, McEwan’s India Pale Ale. The taste was awful but for the feeling it imbued of being grown up it was worth torturing one’s palate.

Tradition demanded that Madeira cake and currant bun be available in large quantities, even though it was imprudent to watch the New Year’s televisual extravaganza, The White Heather Club, on a full stomach. Men in kilts pranced around with young women in long dresses and tartan sashes – it was pure keech, sorry, kitsch. Andy Stewart told jokes and sang as we sat on a threadbare rug with our hands to our ears in a forlorn effort to end the torment.

On the pealing of the bells, the party-goers embraced, shook hands and exchanged kisses. We waited for a dark-haired first foot. Fair-haired first-footers were unwelcome, a consequence of tenth century Scandinavian cruise trips to Scotland, when a midnight knock at the door heralded the arrival of a belligerent band of blond, promiscuous Vikings seeking sexual comfort in the bosom of maidens and intent on despatching forthwith any competing indigenous suitors to Valhalla. It was anticipated that a first-footer would bring a present of a lump of coal; yes folks, expectations were that low.

How times have changed. These days, first-footers at Patrick Harvie’s house bring a source of renewable energy – plastic windmills constructed in the environmentally friendly People’s Republic of China. We sit in front of the goggle-box watching Only An Excuse, hoping against hope that Jonathan Watson will finally defy his critics and actually sound like one of the folk he is endeavouring to impersonate. We constantly switch channels, desperately seeking to catch a fleeting glimpse of something that reminds us of our youth – a sporran-sporting man or a balding baritone bawling out Auld Lang Syne or someone who vaguely resembles Jimmy Shand – but, instead, all we get is a perma-smiling Jackie Bird, some be-cardiganed fiddlers and a pop group from yesteryear.

Little wonder, then, that thousands flock to street parties rather than sit at home and be bored to festive tears. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d believe that programming editors are in cahoots with those behind street party events; after all, entertainment promoters can live on the hog from the profits gained from New Year revellers. According to the organisers of this year’s Hogmanay jamboree in Edinburgh, for the giveaway price of just £22.10 (yes, the 10p bit startled me too), merrymakers can participate in “the original and best New Year celebrations in the world!” Call me picky, but I’d question the veracity of both claims. And wait – there’s more. As stated in the webpage, you can join the world-famous Street Party with 80,000 “friends” (that’s a lot of friends, but probably less than the average teenager has on Facebook). It all takes place “beneath the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle”. Yes, it does, right next to a Princes Street with a shopping experience that wouldn’t be complete without the noise pollution created by bagpiping mendicants. Apparently, you will “dance your way into 2015” – this probably alludes to ticket-holders queuing outside the toilets for a pee.

Being a party animal, at the bells I’ll have a bottle of beer and pop off to bed; Happy New Year text messages can wait till morning.

A guid New Year to you all.


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