HOGMANAY may one of the most distinctly Scottish celebrations on the calendar, but there is a whole lot more to this age old mid-winter celebration than First Footing or watching Phil and Aly on the telly every 31st December.
So Strathpeffer based storyteller and musician Bob Pegg found as he explored the season for his new book, The Little Book of Hogmanay, his follow up to previous book Highland Folk Tales.
What makes the Scottish Hogmanay unique? Or is it actually as distinct as we like to think?
There are celebrations for turnings of the seasons all over the world, but Hogmanay has been exported like no other because of the great number of Scots who have emigrated to other countries over the last few centuries, whether they left under their own steam or were forced to leave. For them and their descendants, this is a time of the year when their country of origin can be celebrated.
There are lots of accounts of ex pat Scots in distant lands celebrating Hogmanay in quite unlikely circumstances. One man in New Zealand wrote that he had been sitting eating strawberries and cream in the evening sun, while wishing he could be back home eating oatcakes and ham, as the hail beat against the windows.
And I don’t think you need to have been born in Scotland to appreciate the spirit of Hogmanay celebrations (pun not intended). In very basic ways they tap into both the need to rejoice and to share hospitality, and the need to reflect, at the turning of the year. Hogmanay also has its wonderful name, with roots that no-one has satisfactorily untangled; unique, instantly recognisable, and I think it adds a bit of glamour to the season.
Famously Hogmanay became Scotland’s most significant winter festival because of the Kirk’s disapproval of celebrating Christmas, but how deep do you have to scratch beneath the Presbyterian surface to find its pagan origins?
Yes, the celebration of Christmas was banned by the Kirk in 1560. At the time there was a very flexible period of midwinter celebration known as Yule, which could extend from before Christmas until close to the end of January.
People got up to all kinds of mischief during Yule, playing music and making a racket in the streets, lighting fires, cross-dressing and so on. I suspect the powers that be, back in the 16th century, thought ending Christmas celebrations would also put a stop to this wild behaviour, but the effect was to shift it over and concentrate it around the New Year period.
Some of these old customs, like the fire ceremonies, still go on today in isolated cases, like the Burghead Clavie, and they certainly don’t appear to have anything to do with Christianity or any other modern religion, so I suppose they could be called pagan in a broad sense; and there could well be a link back through the Festival of Fools, the widespread period of midwinter license that was tolerated by the early church, to the Saturnalia of
Was there a uniformity to how we celebrated Hogmanay in the past or would you find big differences from how the end of the Old Year was celebrated from one region to another?
Some practices were pretty much universal, like going round visiting houses. This still goes on to an extent today, though it’s nothing like as common as it was even a few decades ago.
People, often particularly the young folk who had plenty of stamina, would set off after midnight — the Bells — and range far and wide, visiting the houses of friends and relatives where there was food prepared specially for them, and drink too, though not in excess. They could keep going all night and well into the next day if necessary. There were other visitors too, Guisers and so on, who would do the rounds at New Year, but here there would be regional differences.
In Shetland the Skeklers were dressed entirely in costumes of straw; the Galoshins mumming play was confined to the Lowlands; while in the Western Isles up until the early years of the 20th century, the gillean Callaig — the Hogmanay lads — would go into the houses and do a circuit round the central hearth, while one of them wearing a calfskin or sheepskin on his back was beaten with sticks and ladles.
And of course the New Year’s Day shinty match, still very popular, is very much a thing of the Gaeltacht, and could be quite an epic battle.
There’s a beautifully written account of the last midwinter shinty match on Iona in 1881. It was played on the Machair, which the writer compares with the plains of Troy.
Did we even agree when Hogmanay was?
In 1752 the official calendar was put back 11 and then 12 days. In lots of places people felt they had been robbed of those days, and continued to celebrate New Year on the old date. This was quite a widespread thing until the latter part of the 20th century, where neighbouring communities would have their Hogmanays at different times.
Even today the Burghead Clavie, where a blazing tar barrel is carried through the streets of the Moray village, is held on 11th January, Old New Year’s Eve.
Are there any lost Hogmanay traditions you would like to see revived?
There are, but I fear modern Health and Safety regulations wouldn’t allow them.
One of my favourites is the Dingwall Crate. On New Year’s Eve a wooden crate full of inflammable material was dragged up the High Street to the mercat cross, where it was set alight. The lads accompanying it, whose leader was dressed as a Red Indian, would dance around whooping and playing whistles, triangles, tambourines and tin box drums. It was put a stop to by the police over 100 years ago — understandably, as some of the nearby houses were built of wood, and in danger of going up in flames.
More practically, the Galoshins mumming play is a great piece of folk drama, with lots of comic elements, and great fun to perform, for children and young people in particular. It’s been revived to an extent in the Central Belt, and I think it could be a great success further north too, maybe as the culmination of the kind of street parade, with music, fire, and exotic costume, that once used to be common at Hogmanay.
There are quite a few spooky stories attached to Hogmanay, like Alec Williamson’s The Man Who Kicked the Bone, and it would be good to hold some intimate gatherings where they could be told again, as people would have done round the fire not so long ago. And there was also the widespread custom of different communities having their own Hogmanay bonfires.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to stand at the top of Craig Phadrig fort and see the blazing fires dotted about all over the landscape?
What of today’s Hogmanay: is it still a significant date in the Scottish calendar or is what we celebrate in our homes and see on our television screens on 31st December just a pale imitation of Hogmanay’s past?
If you speak to anyone from past generations brought up in Scotland until, say, the 1960s, they’ll tell you emphatically that Hogmanay isn’t what it used to be. Customs like cleaning out the house, first-footing, special food, visiting neighbours, offering hospitality which could include vast amounts of baking, have all declined enormously over just a few decades. I’m sure the television Hogmanay "experience", a bit of a second-hand thing, is partly responsible.
But if you look at the history of Hogmanay, it’s plain that it wasn’t always celebrated in the same way — customs died out and were sometimes revived, or they were replaced by new fashions. The pull of that moment when the dark days give way to the light is too strong for the celebrations to disappear, and I think we’ll see a gradual re-establishment of smaller scale community events to go along with larger spectacles like Edinburgh’s Hogmanay.
• The Little Book of Hogmanay is published by the History Press, priced £9.99.