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Hogmanay customs

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Hogmanay Festivals

Edinburgh's Hogmanay
Glasgow's Hogmanay


The Silver Bough
A four volume study of the national and local festivals of Scotland by F. Marian McNeill
Vol. 3 Hallowe'en to Yule (also covers Hogmanay!)
ISBN 0-948474-04-1

available from:

Stuart Titles
268 Bath Street
Glasgow G2 4JR
Phone: 0141 332-8507

Full of things done by both Highlanders and Lowlanders in the olden days (and perhaps some still today) to celebrate the new year.

Auld Lang Syne

The original tune for Robert Burns Auld Lang Syne is available off and

Note, this is the tune which Burns wrote and which he set the lyrics to. It is not the version which most people currently sing, that version was imposed on Burns' lyrics by his publisher.

History of New Year's Day

In 1599 the Privy Council, "undirstanding that in all utheris weill governit commoun welthis and countreyis the first day of the yeir begynnis yeirlie upoun the first day of Januare, commounlie callit new yeiris day..."* resolved that Scotland should from 1 January 1600 start the New Year on January 1st. Prior to that time the New Year officially started on March 25th (Lady Day).
Ths change reflects the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in various European countries from the 1580s.

*See Register of the Privy Council 17 December 1599 _or_ Osborne & Armstrong: Scottish Dates. Birlinn, 1996.

If Jan 1 was already "commounlie callit new yeairis day" then perhaps Hogmanany was always celebrated on 31 Dec and the Lady Day date was simply a legal formality - somebody will surely know!

Oidhche Challuinn, Hogmanay, New Year's Eve

The Gaelic name for New Year's day is Calluinn, with lads who go out on Hogmanay being called "Gillean Calluinne". The name Calluinn is derived from the Latin "Calendae" (the first day of the month; the day announcements were called and is related to the word "call"). Thus there is a link between the Gaelic word "Calluinn" and the English word "Calendar".

The eve of New year's Day was on of supreme importance in the Highlands and Islands of the West and took precedence even over Christmas. It was a time of much ceremony and gaiety, but underneath the levity lies a sinister hint of the old ritual and sacrificial nature of the festival. The Eve of New Year was known as Oidhche Challuinn, and New Year's Day as La Challuinn. First Footing is still carried out, as in other parts of the Highlands, although, as elsewhere, it is a dying custom. Up to the beginning of the century at least, the festivities of New Year's Eve were fully in operation and people went round the houses in every town shop carrying dried cow-hides and chanting special rhymes continuously. They beat the skins with sticks and struck the walls of the houses with clubs; this ritual was believed to have an apotropaic effect and to keep at bay the fairies and evil spirits and hostile forces of every kind. The part of the hide used was the loose flap of the beasts neck; this was called in Gaelic caisean-uchd. This they used to singe in the fire and present it to the members of the family, each in turn; every member of the household was required to smell it as a charm against all things evil and harmful. One example of the type of rhyme chanted is as follows:

Great good luck to the house,
Good luck to the family,
Good luck to every rafter in it,
And to every worldly thing in it.

Good luck to horses and cattle,
Good luck to the sheep,
Good luck to everything,
And good luck to all your means.

Luck to the good-wife,
Good luck to the children,
Good luck to every friend,
Great fortune and health to all.

Carmichael gives the following example of a Hogmanay rhyme:

Tonight is the hard night of Hogmanay,
I have come with a lamb to sell -
The old fellow yonder sternly said
He would strike my ear against a rock.

The woman, better of speech, said
That I should be let in;
For my food and my drink,
A morsel due and something with it.

Apparently lads with no better rhyme used to chant the following:

I have no dislike of cheese,
I have no dislike of butter,
But a little sip of barley bree
I am right willing to put down!

The young people used to travel in groups round their own townships. In different areas, different rites would be performed at each house, but some form of Duan Challuinn, 'Hogmanay Poem', would always be chanted. There were two types of visitation; in one instance the duan was recited outside the house and the cant described the ritual of approaching and entering the house. Another duan was sung after the house had been entered, the caisean Calluig, 'Hogmanay Hide', was beaten. This is also called the Caisean a' Bhuilg, 'Hide of the Bag'. The basic form of the ritual was universal in spite of regional variants in ritual and terminology. These old practices have virtually died out, but the ancient and pagan ritual discernible in them requires no comment. The boys who took part in these rites were known as gillean Callaig. 'Hogmanay Lads', and the ceremony was performed at night. One of the boys was covered with the hide of a bull to which the horns and hooves were still attached. When they came to a house in some areas they climbed to the flat edge of the thatched roof and ran round it in a sunwise direction, the boy, or man, wearing the hide would shake the horns and hooves, and the others would strike at he bull-man with sticks. He was meant to be a frightening figure, and apparently the noise of the ritual beating and shaking of the hide was terrific. After this part of the ceremony was performed, the boys came down from the roof and recited their blatantly pagan chants; afterwards they were given hospitality of the house. The rhyme when the hide was in the process of being struck was as follows:

Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack,
Strike of the hide,
Strike of the hide,
Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack,
Beat the skin,
Beat the skin,
Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack,
Down with it, Up with it;
Strike the hide.
Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack,
Down with it, Up with it;
Strike the hide.
Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack,

The ritual rhyme was of course, chanted in Gaelic. Its very monotony imparted a certain eerie relentlessness to the ceremony.. When it was finished, another carol or chant would be sung at the door of the house; this would praise - in anticipation - the generosity of the occupiers and would request entry and reward. In some areas the skin was singed by the man of the house, and the fumes it gave off were believed to have powers of purification, imparting health to all the family for the next twelve months. A New Year's blessing, widely used and having a number of variants, could also be heard in both the island, and the Gaelic mainland. Pennant records, for the Dingwall region of Easter Ross, that he was told in the locality that on New Year's Day the people burned juniper before their cattle to protect them - another custom going back to Druidic times. He also learnt that on the first Monday of every quarter, the beasts were sprinkled with urine - a potent evil-averting substance. Campbell, in his Witchcraft, gives other details of the Hogmanay ceremony. He says the hide of a cow was wrapped round the head of one of the men and he went off, followed by the rest of the party who struck the hide with switches so that it made a booming sound, similar to the noise of a drum. Again, the procession went three times deiseal, or sunwise, round every house in each township, beating on the walls of the house and chanting their rhymes at the door. The amount of drink taken must have been very considerable and as the evening wore on, the noise and rowdiness must have been quite alarming. On entering each house each member of the party was offered refreshments of the traditional kind - oatmeal, bread and cheese, and meat, followed by a dram of whisky. The man of the house was then given the caisean-uchd, which Campbell described as the breast-skin of a sheep which was wrapped round the point of a shinty stick; this was, as in other instances, singed in the fire, and carried three times sunwise round the family, grasped in the right hand, and held to the nose of each person. This was the focal point of the ritual. Campbell also records that as many people who wished to do so could carry a caisean, and that it could be made of goat or deer skin as well as from the breast-skin of a sheep. The houses were decorated with holly on order to keep out the fairies always a troublesome race; it was believed that if a boy were whipped with the branch of this plant it was an assurance that he would live for as many years as the drops of blood drawn by the sharp holly - a painful way of ensuring longevity! Cheese, which as we have seen, was believed to have magical properties was an important item of the festive fare and the cheese eaten on this occasion was referred to as the caise Calluinn, the Christmas Cheese. A slice of it was preserved, and if this happened to have a hole through it, it was believed to have special virtues. This sacred slice was known as the Laomacha, and a person who had lost his way at any time during the ensuing twelve months had only to look through the hole in the slice and he would know where he was - this was especially valuable to one lost on the hill in the mist. It was regarded as a very magical festival in every respect, and games of all kinds were played.

Some of those concerned with the endlessly-fascinating desire to find out who one's future husband or wife was destined to be. Sometimes the boys in the a Hogmanay procession were preceded by a piper. No matter how long or short the chant was, some words at least must be recited. It was the tradition to keep the fire, which was usually 'smoored' or extinguished at night, alive all through New Year's night. Only a friend might approach the sacred blaze, and the candles were likewise kept burning in the house. This custom gave rise to another name for the festival, Oidhche Choinnle, 'Candlemass'. These various rites were performed in the belief that, by observing them, evil would be kept from the dwelling for the ensuing year. When the fire was being fuelled on this night, a special incantation was recited, but Campbell was unable to obtain an example of this. If the fire went out that night, it boded ill for the coming year, and no neighbour would provide kindling to light it on the following day. Ritual even accompanied the extinguishing or 'smooring' of the fires; the putting out of flames was called in Gaelic 'smaladh an teine'. The main fuel used in the Highlands and Islands was, of course peat; wood was scarce, and although much more coal is used today, peat is still burnt. The fire was not entirely extinguished but kept barely smouldering during the night. Until very recently the fire was in the centre of the floor of the so-called black houses, and the embers were smoothed out evenly on the hearth; these were then covered over with large peats and ashes to prevent the fire from blazing up in the night, but ensure easy kindling in the morning. The whole process was regarded with superstition, and was accompanied by many incantations. One incantation taken down by Carmichael invokes;

The Sacred Three
To save,
To shield,
To surround
The Hearth,
The House,
The Household,
This eve,
This night,
Oh! this eve,
This night,
And every night,
Each single night.

There are many variants of invocations for this important function of smooring the fire, all of a sacred nature, and going right back to the ancient pagan belief in the miraculous power of fire. The kindling in the morning, on which all domestic comfort depended, had it's own repertoire of charms and incantations for blessing:

I will raise the hearth-fire
As Mary would.
The encirclement of Bride and St. Mary
On the fire, and on the floor,
And on the household all.

Who are they on the bare floor?
John and Peter and Paul.
Who are they by my bed?
The lovely Bride and her fosterling.
Who are those watching over my sleep?
The fair loving Mary and her Lamb.
Who is that at the back of my head?
The Son of Life without beginning, without time.

Deeply and sincerely Christian as these devout Highlanders were, they managed to keep the essence of the old religion in being by turning from the many pagan gods and goddesses - although, as we have seen, some of these were retained underneath a veneer of Christianity - the many saints and angels, as well as the Virgin and the Trinity, thus continuing to surround themselves with divine protection, of a Christian kind, but according to the ancient pre-Christian formulae.

Campbell, in his Witchcraft, notes that Latha na Bliadhn' Ur, "New Year's Day" was also known as the Day of Little Christmas. After the family had got up in the morning, the head of the house gave a dram of whisky to each member of the household; then a strange custom followed in some areas; a breakfast was provided of half-boiled sowens - austere fare for a festive occasion. This was supposed to bring luck to the household. Campbell does say that this tradition was not observed on Mull, Morvern or the Western Isles. Then each member of the family exchanged traditional greetings and did likewise with every person they met. The boy then went off to play shinty and meanwhile a late and luxurious breakfast was prepared. Apparently, no substance of any kind was allowed to be removed from the house on New Year's Day - dirty water, sweeping from the floor, ashes and so on. If a neighbour's fire had gone out one must not give fire from one's own house to them; this was regarded as one of the most unlucky things that could be done. It would ensure a death within that family during the coming year; it also gave power to the black witches to take away the produce from the cattle. No woman should enter the house first on the portentous day.

Extracted from "The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands", By Ann Ross. 1976, Published by Barnes and Noble.

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