The lost and sometimes madcap customs of a Scottish Hogmanay

From holly whipping to lucky cheese and a strange procession led by a man covered in cow hide, Hogmanay celebrations in Scotland have long been madcap affairs.

Tuesday, 26th December 2017, 8:34 pm
Updated Tuesday, 26th December 2017, 8:48 pm

With the old feast of Christmas generally discouraged by the Kirk following the Reformation, special focus was placed on the turning of the 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.

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The Stonehaven fireballs procession continues a tradition of fire being at the heart of Hogmanay night. PIC: Flickr/Creative Commons/Chris Street.

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

Fantastic records exist on how Hogmanay was celebrated during the late 18th and early 19th Century in the Highlands and Islands, where the seven days from Christmas to the New Year were called 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.”

First footing: the quality of the guest and the first gift brought over the threshold after midnight was thought to determine the luck of the household during the year ahead.

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, according to Campbell.

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.

Juniper was burnt in byres on New Year's Day to protect cattle from evil. PIC: Creative Commons.

“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.

Holly and cheese were other elements of Hogmanay in the Gaeldom. 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 hol 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,

Holly was used in a thrashing game on Hogmanay when drops of blood spilled indicated the lifespan of those taking part. PIC: Flickr/Creative commons.

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 December 31 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.

“Indeed it was ominous that death would occur in the household within the year. .”

The Stonehaven fireballs procession continues a tradition of fire being at the heart of Hogmanay night. PIC: Flickr/Creative Commons/Chris Street.

The morning of January 1 started with a dram poured by the head of the household with a spoon of half-boiled sowens, or oatmeal husks, which were considered the poorest of all the foods, given for luck.

This tradition was still followed in central highlands, Lorn, Mull, Morvern and the Western Isles during the early 19th Century.

It was unlucky for a woman to enter the house, or anyone to come in empty handed. 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.

Today, thankfully, the ritual of first footing after the midnight bells of Hogmanay feels a little less risky.

First footing: the quality of the guest and the first gift brought over the threshold after midnight was thought to determine the luck of the household during the year ahead.
Juniper was burnt in byres on New Year's Day to protect cattle from evil. PIC: Creative Commons.
Holly was used in a thrashing game on Hogmanay when drops of blood spilled indicated the lifespan of those taking part. PIC: Flickr/Creative commons.