“A guid New Year to one an’ a’ and mony may ye see.”
Traditions are often things that we adhere to without knowing why. It feels right. Deep in our DNA we’re hardwired to respond to them.
The Scottish traditions of Hogmanay go further into our dark past than we realise, with mixed influences – Celtic, Scandinavian and surprisingly French.
There goes the sun
Hogmanay remains a far greater celebration in Scotland than Christmas, and two strands run through it.
One is sun worship. The long dark months and lack of light, food and warmth promoted the fear that summer, and plenty, would never return. The seasons have always governed the common man’s life and bad winters in a more basic hunter-gatherer world must have been terrifying.
As a result, Stonehenge and other ancient monuments were set up in line with the solstices, as their builders and re-builders followed the sun’s movement.
Bonfires and fireballs
So Hogmanay is about light and fire in the darkness, and sun worship. Last year the snow was cleared in Biggar, South Lanarkshire, for the torch-lit procession and traditional bonfire on December 31st.
In Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, men swing huge burning balls on chains around their heads on New Year’s Eve. In a rare flouting of health and safety, participants and onlookers are advised to wear old clothes ‘as the fireballs get lively’. The fireballs are finally thrown into the harbour.
In Shetland, Lerwick’s Up-Helly-Aa sees the burning of a Viking ship (reflecting Norse
burials). Last year Rae Simpson in the ‘guize’ of Sigurd ‘Snake-Eye’ Ragnarsson followed his father and grandfather as one-off master of ceremonies as 880 torch bearers paraded.
In Comrie, Perthshire, in the Flambeaux Festival, young birch trees are felled in October, wrapped in sacking and soaked in paraffin. The flaming part of the torch can be ten feet long. The parade goes through the town before the torches are thrown into the River Earn, taking evil spirits with them.
The church bells of midnight at New Year (and once, the ships’ horns in the Clyde dockyards) hark back to another way of driving out evil spirits – a cacophony of noise.
All of these events have the double role of celebrating and commemorating the sun and driving out the evil spirits of darkness. Good spirits – known in some versions as the Hog Man – take their place.
Even the traditional petticoat tail shortbread, and the griddle cooked Yule bannocks are said to reflect the shape of the sun.
The other strand of the festival is about rebirth and renewal.
The torches end up in the river or the harbour and the Viking boat sinks into the sea. Jimmy Reid the Glaswegian union leader recalled how he was made to take a bath at 11.30pm on New Year’s Eve. His mother would clean far into the evening so that the house should be equally spotless. Traditionally men would queue for hours to have a haircut and shave on New Year’s Eve.
As Charles Lamb said: “New Year’s Day is every man’s birthday…”
There are many other better-known Hogmanay traditions -like the first-footer with his coal, shortbread, whiskey and food to wish you all the good things in life. Apparently he should be male, tall and handsome – if not throw the cat out after him, and sprinkle salt on the fire.
Want to learn more?
The True Story of Hogmanay is a round-up of Hogmanay legends and traditions featuring the late Union leader Jimmy Reid (and his magnificent crooked moustache) with delightful traditional music from Scottish folk group the Whistlebinkies. See That’s Entertainment for a review of the DVD, on page 69.