As crowds gathered by the Tron Kirn to await the “chappin’ o’ the twal,” she painted a vivid picture, where “barrows of fruit and the window of the fruit and sweet shops that have remained open all night make oases of colour in the dark northern light”.
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She added: “Hip bottles are freely proffered. As the hands of the clock approach the rubicon, a hush falls on the waiting throng; the atmosphere grows tense; then suddenly a roar rises from the myriad throats; the bells peel forth, the sirens scream: the New Year is born!”
It is a scene that bore all the hallmarks of a bustling 19th-century celebration, but what is most remarkable about Ms McNeill’s description is how recent it is. The passage captured the capital in the late 1950s and was published in The Silver Bough, the one-time SNP vice-president’s celebrated compendium of Scottish customs and festivals.
Although a little more than five decades have passed since the night in question, it seems positively alien in a modern era where Hogmanay has shorn many of its longstanding traditions in favour of organised ticketed events that have been carefully planned for months.
As we prepare to usher in 2015, this year is no exception. Around 80,000 revellers will pay £22.10 each to gather beneath Edinburgh Castle for the world famous street party, where musical acts such as Eddi Reader will provide the entertainment.
In an enclosure within an enclosure, those wishing to spend £41 can enjoy another line up featuring Lily Allen ahead of the traditional fireworks display at midnight.
In all, the glittering commercial spectacle – conceived in 1993 as a free, non-ticketed event – cost £1.3m a year to put on via a fixed price tender. It has inarguably become one of the most high-profile Hogmanay events of any international city, but it seems a world away from the words of Ms McNeill. How, then, has Hogmanay changed over the years, and where did it all begin?
There are few summaries of what Hogmanay means to the average Scot that are as eloquent and concise as the one offered up by Hugh Douglas, the author of The Hogmanay Companion. “The last stroke of midnight on the last day of the year is a very special point in any Scot’s life,” he explains. “[It is] a watershed, a turning of the ride, the opening of a dam to release all the tainted waters of the past twelve months and allow a pure new stream of life to flow in. It is the start of a journey into a pristine, unsullied year.”
The debate surrounding the origins of this momentous occasion have raged for centuries. Hogmanay itself seems to have a multitude of meanings – some describing an oatcake, others a song – that can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and the competing arguments as to its genesis are likely to be waged for a few centuries yet.
Some of the claims exhibit a mischievousness bordering on prejudice, such as the one in a 1930 article in the Hull Daily Mail which told its readers how “Hogmanay the Terrible was a Celtic tyrant of the second century BC who employed haggis as a means of ridding himself of his enemies.” It added: “Others claim that the name is derived from St Hogmanay, who accidentally invented the bagpipes and then journeyed barefoot to the Holy Land as a penance for it.”
However, new etymological research shows that the earliest citation of the word is found not in Scotland, but a few hundred miles south in – whisper it – Yorkshire.
A household accounts ledger from 1443 contains the first recorded instance of the word. The document is part of the estate of Sir Robert Waterton, whose family were trusted servants of the House of Lancaster.
In it, Sir Robert’s household manager describes payments for a large “hogmanayse” and a smaller “hogmanayse,” references to gifts of food. Back then, Hogmanay was a word shouted by young children as then went from door to door in search of treats and gifts over the New Year period.
As such, the Oxford English Dictionary recently updated its entry for Hogmanay to take account of the Yorkshire reference, a development that passed many people by.
“These historical dictionaries don’t get written or revised very often,” Dr Philip Durkin, deputy chief editor and principal etymologist of the dictionary, told The Scotsman. “The revision process takes a long time and it can take an even longer time for them to be picked up by people.”
For generations, it has been widely assumed that the definition of Hogmanay as a celebration was derived from the old French word, aguillanneuf, or one of its myriad variations, which also date back to the 15th century. Dr Durkin believes that is still a reasonable hypothesis to make, with the Yorkshire curios still to be fully explained.
“The Yorkshire citation does raise the question of whether the word came to Scotland as a result of the Auld Alliance and the country’s links with France, or whether it is something that existed earlier in English, used both sides of the border,” he added.
“I wouldn’t say the definite point of origination of Hogmanay was Yorkshire. But I think we’re probably still looking at British influence in the northern British isles sometime in the Middle Ages.
Whatever the truth is in the word’s parentage, there are no records of it in Scotland until 1604, when the word appeared in records of the Kirk Session in Elgin to describe the misdemeanours of a man called William Pattoun, charged for unbecoming behaviour which included “singing and hagmonayis.” It did not feature again for a further 88 years until the publication of the Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence. Although its spelling had changed, the meaning still suggested singing or shouting. The publication sternly observed how “it is ordinary among some Plebians in the South of Scotland to go about from door to door upon New Year’s Eve, crying Hagmane”.
The earliest instance of the word being used to describe the last day of the year is in 1681 when it appeared in a text written by the Sweet Singers, a Presbyterian sect which denounced Scotland’s religious orthodoxy.
Their book, entitled Blasphemous and Treasonable Paper emitted by Phanatical Undersubscribers, stated: “We renounce old wives Fables and By words, as Palm Sunday, Carlin Sunday, Peace Sunday, Halloweven, Hogmynae night, Valenteins even.” Again, Hogmanay was not welcome.
As the years passed, it seems attitudes to the end of the year merriment softened and Hogmanay shrugged off its rabble-rousing connotations to become a more accepted event.
Even so, the history books still contain surprises, not least given the way they show how some traditions we might assume to be several centuries old are in fact relatively recent inventions. What is more alarming is the way certain bizarre customs and superstitions were once widespread.
While some people insist upon ushering in a new year in a spotless, sometimes newly painted household, the obsession with cleanliness used to border on the extreme. Once upon a time, Mr Douglas notes, housewives would sprinkle walls, floors and doors with water fetched from a nearby well; others would go further and scatter droplets of urine around their home, the reason for which is lost in the mists of time.
A succession of plants were also used in methodical fashion as part of the pre-bells preparations. “Dried juniper was burned to cleanse the interior of the house,” explains Mr Douglas.
“Rowan was placed above the door for luck, holly to keep the fairies out, mistletoe to prevent illness and hazel and yew because of their magic powers to protect all who resided in the house. After the burning of the juniper, doors were opened to allow fresh air to drive out the fumes and only then was the house considered ready for the New Year.” Perhaps the most ubiquitous Hogmanay custom is first footing, which dictates that the first person to cross the threshold of a house brings either good or bad luck. But even that is unheard of prior to the turn of the 19th century. The Hogmanay Companion details just how exacting the profile of the ideal first footer had to be. The man best suited to the job, it reveals, “had to be tall, dark haired, but not a doctor, minister or gravedigger. Thieves and fey folk are also shunned. He must be healthy and without deformity or handicap, although an accidental disability is acceptable. A limp, deformed foot, blindness or deafness are all reckoned to bring ill luck, as are flat feet or eyebrows that meet in the middle.”
If by chance some poor soul who falls short of such strict specifications should be the first to enter a house, there is some hope for the unfortunate inhabitants. “Tradition allows for the situation to be saved by fixing a cross made of rowan twigs above the door as a precaution. If the unlucky first-foot actually enters, the host must speak before he or she can utter a word, bringing in the name of the Supreme Being three times.” A simpler remedy once called upon, the book adds, was to throw salt into a fire the moment the first-foot was seen or to burn a piece of straw up the chimney.
For those of us in the 21st century, it seems we will just have to take our chances as we prepare to see in 2015. Whatever the customs observed by new and old generations, the cry that Hogmanay is a dying tradition is hollered every year, yet still it continues. Its meaning and how we celebrate it is constantly evolving, but given it is a festival of renewal, that seems apt.
Wherever you are and whatever you do, The Scotsman wishes you a happy, peaceful and prosperous New Year.
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