Yule/Hogmanay – Part One

Torches at a Hogmanay parade, Edinburgh by Suzanne Hamilton

Torches at a Hogmanay parade, Edinburgh by Suzanne Hamilton

While the New Year in Ireland never seems to have been a huge focus in the festival calendar,1 the enthusiasm for this time of year in Scotland is undeniable. Although it has never been considered to be a Quarter Day, like Bealltainn, Lùnastal, Samhainn, and Là Fhèill Brìghde, Hogmanay – as the New Year is known in Scotland – is pretty much treated as such in terms of the many traditions associated with it.2 Hogmanay doesn’t just ring in the New Year (as it has since the year 1600, that is), it heralds a time of saining, divination, feasting and drinking, guising and games.

Because of the somewhat complicated history of Christmas in Scotland – with the Kirk’s banning of any celebration of it in the sixteenth century – the customs that can be found at this time of year are often to be found at both Yule and Hogmanay or New Year’s Day, since many of the Yule traditions were simply transferred from one to the other to avoid punishment. The links between the two festivals can be seen in some of the names for the days, with Christmas Day being known as An Nollaig Mhor – the Big Christmas – and New Year’s Day being known as An Nollaig Bheag – the Little Christmas.3 Bearing this in mind, we will be looking at both in the following article (which has had to be split into two parts):

New Year’s Day
The Processions and Bonfires
The New Year In Ireland


The Christmas period is generally referred to as Nollaig in Gaelic parts of Scotland, but in the areas where Norse influence have been particularly strong, ‘Yule’ is a fairly interchangeable term.

Historically, and for the most, the emphasis of many of the customs at this time of year came to be on Hogmanay, thanks in large part to the efforts of the post-Reformation Church in Scotland to suppress and then abolish the celebration of Christmas. No longer was it to be an excuse for drunkenness and festive over-indulgence, but a serious, austere, pious and puritan observance without the Popery of the past.4 In some areas of Scotland where Norse influence was strongest, however, the Yule festivities remained unabashed, but by and large the attempts to ban Christmas simply meant that the focus changed to the New Year instead, and there was little the Church could do to discourage it.5 The Church got what they wanted, sort of, and the people got their festivities…

Not everyone was so keen to simply give up their Yuletide traditions and shift them to a different date. As a result of the ban, Christmas celebrations were kept surreptitiously, since any overt evidence of indulging in the festivities were a punishable offence. Instead of being a social, community celebration, Christmas came to be a family occasion, kept quietly in the home. Those who were found to be ignoring the ban on celebrating Christmas were arrested and punished, and even the buying of Yule bread from the baker was an offence. In 1583, McNeill records, bakers were required to hand over the names of anyone who had asked them to bake the Yule bread for them so that the authorities might deal with the offenders.6 In 1650, “the Kirk Session arraigned…several persons charged with playing jollie at the goose on Yule day, and whom they ordained to “to wait on the two next Sabbaths in the Old Colledge Kirk to be examyned and to sit altogether upon ane forme before the publict congregation, and to be rebooked there for their fault.”7

Eventually, however, it became apparent that the secular side of Christmas celebrations could not be proscribed against and the Church conceded defeat.8 While Hogmanay remained as the main focus for celebrations of the season, Yule survived – albeit more quietly.

In the lead up to the Yule period (Christmas), families would be preparing as much as they possibly could, since it was traditional for no unnecessary work to be done during the Yule period. Walls were freshly whitewashed in the house, byre and stables, and everywhere was cleaned and tidied and the larder well-stocked for the festivities ahead.9 Any items in the house that had been borrowed were returned to the rightful owners, to show good will.10

Houses were decorated with greenery – inland, evergreens were the greenery of choice, but on the coast seaweed might be used instead. Branches of rowan were hung above the lintels of house and byre for protection against the Good Folk, who were said to be active at this time of year, ready to cause trouble for anyone who failed to take the proper precautions.11

Special cheese – the Yule kebbuck (often flavoured with caraway) – was prepared in advance of the occasion, along with plenty of ale. Sour scones, cakes, bannocks and pannich perm were also prepared,12 but most important was the special Yule bread – often an oat bannock instead of the everyday barley bannock that formed a staple of the diet – was baked, one cake for each member of the family. Usually these were made as normal, formed into a round and then quartered into farls for toasting on the girdle by the fire. In Shetland, however, the Yule-brünies were shaped into a round with a hole pressed into the centre, and notches pressed in around the edges (“to represent the sun,”13 McNeill comments).

Regardless of their form, these cakes echo the ones baked for the merry-meht at the birth of a child – here, of course, intended to honour Mary’s delivery of Jesus,14 and as an integral part of the celebrations, Christmas Eve was often known as Oidhche nam Bonnagan, or Bannock Night (the Night of Cakes).15 Instead of being eaten straight away, however, the Yule bread (or cakes) were given to each member of the family for safekeeping until breakfast on Christmas Day, when it was eaten with some of the Yule kebbuck. Should the cake break during that time, however, bad luck or disaster was seen to be the fate of the unlucky owner in the year to come. For those who managed to keep the Yule bread whole, a small piece might be kept for luck.16

In Shetland, Yule was a series of celebrations, rather than just one. Tul-ya’s E’en marked the night that the trows were given permission to leave their underground homes and come up onto the land, and was followed by Helya’s night when the children of the house were sained. Seven days after Tul-ya’s E’en marked the beginning of the Yules, there was Yule-day itself, and in the week between the two there was much to be done:

“At day-set on Tul-ya’s e’en two straws were plucked from the stored provender and laid, in the form of a cross, at the steggie leading to the yard where the stacks of hay and corn &c, were kept. A hair from the tail of each cow, or “beast o’ burden,” was plaited together and fastened over the byre door, and a “lowing taand” was carried through the barn and other out-houses.

Helya’s night followed Tul-ya’s e’en. On Helya’s night milk brose was partaken of, and children were committed to the care of “Midder Mary.”

A Shetlander told me she remembered when she was a little girl seeing this ceremony performed by her old grandmother. ‘Minnie raise up frae the fire and gaed to the cradle where our infant was sleeping. She spread her hands ower the cradle-head and said, loud out –

Mary midder had de haund.
Ower aboot for sleepin’-baund,
Had da lass and had da wife,
Had da bairn a’ its life.
Mary midder had de haund
Round da infant’s o’ oor laund.

Then Minnie came to the bed and said same ower us, and a’ the time she was doing sae, auld da’ was standing raking the peats back and fore upon the hearthstane, and saying words; but we never got to ken what it was he said.’”17

On the eve before Yule-day, bread was baked ready for the following day, Yule cakes, or bannocks (oatcakes), were made for each child of the house – small ones for the younger children and larger ones for the older children, correspondingly – and everybody got out a clean set of clothes, or (even better) a new garment entirely. These were put on and slept in, and before bed it was made sure that the house was cleaned and tidy, and any dirty water was thrown away, since no work was supposed to be done on Yule-day and nothing should leave the house.

A light was left burning all night and an iron blade was left on the kitchen table, to make sure that no trows would be tempted to come in and cause trouble. Before dawn, the husband of the house would get up and light a candle, which he then stuck into the eye socket of a cow’s skull. This he took to the byre, where the livestock were given some food – an extra treat than they were used to, for the occasion – and by the light of the candle in the skull, the animals would eat. With that done, the head of the house would return and wake everyone up, greeting them with, “Yule gude and yule gere, Follow de trew da year.”

For months beforehand, candle-stumps were saved by the children of the house so that the breakfast on Yule morning would be well lit. Since all the work had been done the day before, it was time for games and friendly competition by way of a game of football with all the men of the village, or else there would be races, curling, shinty matches or hammer throwing along with plenty of pranking and mischief.18 The evening was filled with food, drink, and dancing, and even the poorest households would try to save enough for a good piece of meat for the occasion, which would have been cooked the day before.19

In Lerwick, Black records the practice of guising on Christmas Eve, with young people going from house to house, dressed in costumes and begging for donations for their evening of celebrations. These groups had various names attached to them – gaisearan (guisers), gillean nollaig (Christmas lads), or nuallairean (rejoicers).20 A popular donation was an oat farl and some of the Yule kebbuck.21 In soliciting the donations, carols would be sung and blessings were given: Hutton gives an example from the Hebrides, where the youngest child of the house was put on a white lambskin, which was then carried three times around the fire (presumably deiseal, but Hutton does not specify). The baby “was held to represent the Christ Child or Lamb of God.”22

The costumes would take the form of all sorts of disguises – soldiers, sailors, bishops with mitre and surplice, or Highlanders, for example, and granted the guisers some anonymity for their mischief. Sometimes the costumes were gaudy and over the top, or else they were suits of straw, with false beards and faces blackened by charcoal or whitened by flour.23 By 1am the youths would bring out barrels filled with tar and wood chips, which would be lit and dragged through the streets to a great commotion, filling the streets with black smoke as horns were sounded.24

One of the most well-known customs associated with Yule is the burning of the Yule log on Christmas Eve. In parts of Scotland where wood was readily available, each household would go about finding the largest log of wood they could find – a tree stump, perhaps, or part of a felled tree.25 It was a matter of pride for the household to have the largest log in the community, so there was great competition with neighbours in order to have the best and biggest log to burn, which would therefore (in theory) burn the longest. The log would be given great care and attention to make sure it didn’t go out, because otherwise the house would have a hard time getting kindling from any neighbours since it was traditional to never give anything out of the house on festival days – to do so meant the person taking the kindling could take away the household’s luck with it.26

Yule log, by Midge Frazel

Yule log, by Midge Frazel

The log was sometimes called the “Calluch Nollic,” the Christmas Old Wife, and Grant Stewart writes that once the log was brought home, it was dumped on a bed of burning peats “with as little ceremony and feeling as an old broom.”27 Ceremony or not, the log was intended to ensure warmth and a little light throughout the night and day, during the darkest part of the year, and in the Outer Hebrides in particular, the custom of lighting up all of the windows on Christmas Eve survived long into the 20th century, giving the name Oidhche Choinnle (Candle Night).28

On Christmas morning in the Lowlands, a breakfast of Yule brose was had – a sort of runny porridge made with oatmeal, salt, and a rich butter stock instead of the usual water that was used for everyday brose.29 Sowans were the preferred dish in the Highlands, however, prepared before sunrise, and as with the brose, they were prepared in a slightly different way than usual – “boiled into the consistency of molasses” – and as dawn broke, everyone else in the house was woken in turn so they could have their share, served with bread.30 Signs would be looked for at the door, to see what the weather foretold – “A warm Yule meant a cold Pash; and a light Yule, a heavy sheaf.”31 Likewise, a mild Yule day signalled “a fat Kirkyard”, or much death to come for the rest of the winter, whereas snow or wind signified a favourable winter.32


As I’ve dealt with elsewhere, the issue of the New Year is a complicated one, in many respects, but regardless of when it used to be, the fact remains that from 1600 onwards the New Year in Scotland was fixed at January 1st and so that is where we shall be looking now.

The name “Hogmanay” is the Scots term for New Year’s Eve, which remains in common usage to the present. The word comes from the northern French word hoguinane, which can be traced back to the Old French word aguillaneuf, referring to a New Year’s gift:

“The earliest Scottish reference is in the Kirk session records of Elgin for 1603, when a man was accused of ‘singing and hagmonayis’ at New Year; probably the practice became widespread in Scotland c.1560, when French influence was substantial at all levels of society in Lowland Scotland and large numbers of French troops were garrisoned here.”33

This is likely to refer to the practice of soliciting donations of food, drink, or money in return for providing a song – much like the guising at Christmas or Samhainn – and as we will see, elaborate ceremony was often involved in the procuring of such gifts. Over time the practice of gift-giving came to be somewhat divorced from Hogmanay, with the rise in popularity of gift-giving at Christmas from the 1840s onwards, as the festival began to take on more emphasis as a season of giving and charity, focused on the family.34 Small gifts were also given on Handsel Monday, January 5th, which marked the the first Monday of the New Year, when “the Auld Year’s banes were buried,” and was mainly a day of celebration for labourers and domestic servants.35

As with the customs associated with Yule, the day of Hogmanay saw the usual tidying, cleaning and sprucing up of the house, byre and stables. Debts were settled, borrowed items were returned, bedclothes were changed for fresh linens, any clothes or socks were mended that needed mending, and the clocks were wound to make sure they wouldn’t stop. Everything was dusted that needed dusted, or polished if it needed polished. And since nothing should leave the house on New Year’s Day, in case the luck should go with it, any dirty water or ashes were thrown out in advance of the morning.36 The old year was seen out, and the new year welcomed in, with a tidy and ordered household, and really these similarities with the Yule traditions can be seen as evidence of drifting from Yule to Hogmanay as one celebration was suppressed and the other grew in popularity.37

In preparation for the day (and the prior evening), as much work was done as possible in advance. Much of this involved baking the festive fare – gingerbread, treacle bannocks (native to Galloway, in the south-west of Scotland),38 shortbread, oatcakes, black bun or currant loaf, cheese, and the traditional Hogmanay bannock (shifted from Yule tradition), which was made from freshly ground oatmeal and made slightly thicker than normal.39 Drinks were prepared in abundance, too – not just the usual whisky and beer, but also drinking-sowans (particularly in Aberdeen) – a runny sowans that was perfect for drinking, sweetened with honey or treacle and some whisky for an added kick – or else there was the traditional Het Pint, which had much wider currency. This drink consisted of a mild ale, spiced up with nutmeg and whisky, freshly made before the bells rang.40

On the eve, great care was taken to make sure the fire was burning strong, in order to make sure the hearth didn’t go out. If it did, bad luck was foretold for the household, and the chances of getting a kindling from a neighbour was highly unlikely – as with the Quarter Days, nobody gave anything away out of the house, to make sure their luck wasn’t taken with it. As an extra precaution, as many candles as possible were lit as well, giving the name Oidhche Choinnle – the Evening of Candles (although Black notes that this was, strictly speaking, the name for Candlemas Eve, and suggests that the name was applied to Hogmanay by Protestants who didn’t observe Candlemas).41

As the fire was tended, a charm or prayer was said to keep malign influences away from the house, since the transition from one year to another was one of those liminal times when supernatural forces were afoot and might want to cause trouble. Only close and trusted friends would be allowed near the fire, in case they might try to sabotage it.42 In addition to its protective qualities, “the brighter the fire, the better the luck of year.”43

As the year drew to a close, and midnight approached, some ceremony was involved with letting the old year out and the new year in. On Islay, a turf of peat along with some bread and drink was prepared beforehand, and the man of the house would go out at the turn of the hour and bring them in, to symbolically bring them in with the new year and ensure a wealth of all three for the future.44

Heather Dewar, from Islay, describes a family tradition:

“…I remember when we lived away, as soon as it was one minute before midnight my father opened the back door to let the old year out and then he would open the front door and we swept the old year out the back door.”45

In effect the old year was swept away, getting rid of any negative influences and leaving a clean slate for the new year.

In Harris, the old year was literally buried, and Black records Mrs Peggy Morrison asking her father how it was done:

“She used to ask him ‘Ciamar a dhei’adh ac’ air bliadhna thiodhlagadh?’ ‘How did they bury the year?’

‘Oh,’ he would say, ‘they would take a cheese (mulchag chàis), a bottle of whisky (botal uisge-bheatha) and a barley bannock (bonnach eòrna), and go off with that and bury it in a hill above the village. And apparently they wept and wailed (tha e collach gu robh iad a’ caoineadh ‘s a’ tuiream) for the old year that had gone…I don’t know but that some people might go out after the bottle of whisky, but probably not (is iongantach gun deiàdh), because they believed so strongly in it (bha iad a’ creisinn cho mor ann), that it just needed to be buried exactly as a human corpse was buried (mar gum biodhte tiodhlagadh dìreach corp duine) and left there.”46

There is a sense in the description that as much as the year was being buried, symbolically (accompanied with the traditional keening), the items being used are as much an offering, a propitiation, to the local spirits or old deity of the hill that belonged to the village, as much as they are supposed to represent the old year.

McNeill describes how the family would wait around the fire for the bells to strike twelve, upon which the head of the house would go to the front door and open it, waiting until the bells had died down and the new year had officially begun. Upon the bells’ silence, he would say:

“Welcome in New Year!
When ye come, bring good cheer!”47

With the welcome made, he would return to the fire where his family would be waiting, if they hadn’t all run to the windows as the bells began, to make a racket by shouting, beating trays, honking horns, and anything else to hand in order to chase away the negative influences of the old year. In some parts, guns were fired as well.48 Those who happened to be afoot in the streets might join in, with the same effect for the community as a whole. In the house, Auld Lang Syne might be sung, a toast or two to the New Year given – perhaps with a traditional glass or quaich of Het Pint passed around for everyone to take a sip49 – and small gifts, the ‘hogmanays’, exchanged.50

While the men were busy seeing out the old year, the girls would run to the local well for the chance of getting the first skim of it – the flower (as it was called in the south), or cream (as it was called in the north), of the well. Whoever got the first pail was said to stand a good chance of finding a good man to marry,51 but presumably the idea is the same as the skimming of the well at Bealltainn – to get the first, and most potent, toradh of the well to ensure luck and prosperity in the coming year.52 In some parts, it wasn’t the unmarried girls who competed for the first skim, but the wives, who would then wash the dairy utensils in it, with any leftovers being given to the cows to ensure a good supply of milk in the year to come.53

During the course of the evening, children would be out playing and getting up to mischief, while young men would be out guising. While the principle was the same as at Yule or Samhainn, more ceremony seems to have been involved on Hogmanay, and the men – the gillean callaig54 would gather with all the necessary items before the procession began.

One of the men would dress themselves in the hide of the mart cow (the winter cow – killed at Martinmas on November 11, shortly after Samhainn), replete with horns, hooves and tail, and off they would go to each house in the neighbourhood as everyone tried to beat the hide and cause a ruckus.55 At each house that was visited, the guisers would go round deiseal three times, hammering the walls and calling to the occupants to come out. A song would be sung as the door was answered, beseeching to be let in. Black records one such rhyme as:

A Challain a’ bhuilg bhuidhe bhoicinn,
Buail an craiceann (air an tobhta)
Cailleach sa chill,
Cailleach sa chùil,
Cailleach eile ‘m cùil an teine,
Bior ‘na dà shùil,
Bior ‘na goile
A ‘Challainn seo:
Leig a-staigh mi.

The Callain of the yellow bag of hide,
Strike the skin (upon the wall) –
An old wife in the graveyard,
An old wife in the corner,
Another old wife beside the fire,
A painted stick in her two eyes,
A pointed stick in her stomach,
This Callainn:
Let me in, open this.56

The reference to the Cailleach – notable at Yule as well – is significant, and Black interprets it to represent hunger. Referring to the practice of naming the last sheaf of the harvest in autumn as ‘the Cailleach’, and which was commonly seen to bring bad luck to the recipient, Black comments that the rhyme helps to explain what happened to the last sheaf when there was no one else to pass it on to – it went by the fire. In some instances, there are suggestions that it went in the fire at this time.57 The rhyme therefore, in a round about way, seems to warn the occupants that the sceptre of hunger and adversity hangs over the household if they refuse to offer the party hospitality.

Each guiser was then expected to come up with a rhyme in order to be let in, upon which refreshments were offered, such as whisky, cheese, bread, and meat. No drink was taken before the guisers had given the head of the house the caisean uchd – a shinty stick with the breast-stripe of a sheep wrapped around the end of it – to be singed in the fire three times before performing a right-hand turn three times around the family, with the caisean uchd put under each family member’s nose.58 This, McNeill tells us, “was a talisman for fertility and protection from disease and misfortune in the coming year. Should the tuft go out in anyone’s hand, it was a bad omen for the person concerned.”59

Grant describes a similar rite, although in South Uist she describes the ceremony with the sheepskin smouldering as it is taken three times round the outside of the house; should it stop smouldering, an ill omen was foretold for the family inside. Upon being received by the family, with the blessings made, gifts of butter, cheese, bannocks and potatoes were given to the group before leaving, and on their departure, a blessing would be given to the household (if their welcome had been a good one), and the leader of the group would go round the hearth (which was usually situated in the middle of the room), or else a chair, while the rest of the party would beat the skin as the blessing was given60 – very reminiscent of the banging and clattering made by the family themselves as the bells rang. McNeill gives an example of one such blessing:

“Great good luck to the house,
Good luck to the family,
Good luck to every rafter of it,
And to every worthy 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.

Good luck to the gudewife,
Good luck to the children,
Good luck to every friend,
Great good luck and health to all.”61

And also describes what would happen if the group thought that their welcome had been lacking:

“…they filed round the fire widdershins and tramped out noisily, shaking the dust of the house off their feet. At one time it was customary to build a small cairn at the door of an inhospitable house. This was called the carna mollachd, the cairn of the curse. When it was completed the lads intoned a curse in a voice loud enough to penetrate to the inmates:

“The malison of God and of Hogmanay be on you,
And the scath of the plaintive buzzard,
Of the hen harrier, of the raven, of the eagle,
And the scath of the sneaking fox.

The scath of the dog and the cat be on you,
Of the boar, and the badger, and the ‘brugha,’
Of the hipped boar and of the wild wolk,
And the scath of the foul foumart.”62

Napier gives a slightly different method of guising – whereby it was a group of children who would go about, begging for gifts with the rhyme:

“Rise up, gudewife, and shake your feathers,
Dinna think that we are beggers,
We’re girls and boys come out to-day,
For to get our Hogmanay,
Hogmanay, trol-lol-lay.

Give us your white bread, and not of your grey,
Or else we’ll knock at your door a’ day.”63

This seems to reflect the fact that such traditions, as they began to fall out of favour, were handed down and maintained in some form or other by the children.64

Hutton notes that the bull-rite was first recorded by Dr Johnson, on Coll, in the 1770s, and were to be found in the Outer Hebrides (excluding Skye and Jura) up until the nineteenth century, as well as Lewis and parts of Argyll.65

The use of a bull-hide is reminiscent of other rites to be found in Scotland that appear to have pre-Christian origins, most notably the divinatory rite of the taghairm, in which (according to one description of the rite) a person would be wrapped in a cow-hide and left in a remote spot overnight, during which time the answer to a particular question was sought (and if the rite was successful, the answer was found as well).66 The rite of the taghairm itself appears to be related to the practice of the Irish tarb-feis – the bull-feast – which can be found in the tale The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, whereby the new king was looked for:

“Then the king, even Eterscele, died. A bull-feast is gathered by the men of Erin, in order to determine their future king; that is, a bull used to be killed by them and thereof one man would eat his fill and drink its broth, and a spell of truth was chanted over him in his bed. Whosoever he would see in his sleep would be king, and the sleeper would perish if he uttered a falsehood.”67

In its use by the gillean callaig, the hide preserved from the winter cow, may be an echo of the sceptre of hunger or plenty, since cattle were long regarded as an indication of wealth, being such an integral part of the economy – in essence, the parading of the skin “sought to bring the whole community into touch with the fertilising spirit.”68 The use of sheepskin in some parts perhaps reflects their local economic importance where cattle-grazing was less profitable.

As Hutton notes, the ‘fumigation’ element of the rite – the singing of the caisean uchd, or the hide itself – is a common element in saining rites,69 a version of which we’ll see in the section on New Year’s Day.

Mummer’s plays were also a part of the guiser’s repertoire, with The Goloshan being performed by many a mummer at Hogmanay. They were particularly appreciated by the Scottish nobility, “who delighted in ‘ancientry’,”70 says Sir Walter Scott, and he himself took part in them in his boyhood.

The play varied in detail from place to place, but overall there were key characters – the hero, the champion, and the doctor being the main ones – and plot elements that held it together: There was the hero, Goloshan, who was inevitably killed in combat with the champion – popularly called the King of Macedon in Falkirk, or the Black Night in Peebles, the Knight in Galloway, or William Wallace (in a version by Andrew Cheviot). Goloshan (also known as Galatian or Galgacus) is then revived by the doctor, after some negotiating, who is invariably known as Dr Beelzebub or Dr Brown.

Other characters might also have been involved – often these were saints or apostles, kings or historical characters. In this sense, the play is of a type that echoes the themes of death and resurrection, or nature itself through the passing of the seasons from life and plenty to death and cold, to life again.71 The play was narrated by the Talker (or Talking Man), and accompanied by songs and at least one good musician, usually a fiddler. At the finish, a collection of money was made for the performers’ troubles.72

As the revellers made their way about the streets, hip flasks would have been passed around freely, and sometimes kettles of Het Pint were taken as well, to be passed around to other revellers. Just as those who stayed home would end up welcoming in the new year, so did the revellers, with well-wishes, song and a drink passed around after the bells had finished, and before they went on to the serious business of first-footing.73 Along the way, men would take the opportunity to greet any young women, who might be accompanying other first-footing parties, with a kiss – the special occasion allowing for a slight relaxation in considerations of proper behaviour for the sake of spreading good will.74

First-footing is where people set out to visit close friends, neighbours, or family to wish them well for the new year, and it is still a popular custom in Scotland today (though less so in the urban centres, where there tends to be less sense of community to hold such customs together). These days first-footing for most people is simply a way of passing on well-wishes to those nearest and dearest. In times passed however, and it has to be said that the beliefs haven’t entirely died out in this day and age, there were very specific customs associated with it, because it encapsulated so much of the uncertainty that people felt about the coming year – would it be good, bad, or downright disastrous?

The kind of person to arrive at the house first after the bells had rung in the new year – someone who was not a member of the household, that is – was significant. Generally speaking, a man turning up on your doorstep was considered to be lucky, whereas a woman was not so much; a dark-haired man was usually considered to be luckier than a light-haired man, and depending on the place, red hair on either man or woman was considered to be a particularly lucky or unlucky omen.

Of equal consideration was the disposition of the person – “a hearty, ranting, merry fellow”, kind-hearted, generous, successful, was most desirable, more so if he had dark hair and an attractive, fair-haired lady with him, and all the better if they were considered to be upstanding Church-going members of the community. Anyone who was considered to be bad-tempered, dour, lame, sickly, flat-footed, stingy, immoral, mentally-impaired, or who had eyebrows that met at the middle of the brow, was considered to be unlucky. And certainly anyone who was considered to be afflicted with the Evil Eye would be a particularly unwelcome sign.75

Finally, there was the consideration of a gift. An empty-handed first-footer was a particularly bad omen, and it could even considered to be an overt indication of ill-intent towards the household. Generally speaking, a bottle of whisky and a bannock was considered to be a good offering, or else exotic fruit like an orange, along with a lump of coal, a peat or log, to signify plenty of food, drink and warmth for the year to come. The peat – or whatever it might be – was then put on the fire by the first-footer before any greetings were made. In rural parts of Aberdeen, pails of sowans were carried along as well so the sowans could be splashed on the doors of each house they wished well.76

Because families would naturally want to make sure that they received the luckiest sort of first-footer they could, arrangements were often made with friends or neighbours in advance to determine who would be visiting who. Should the worst have come to the worst, though, with an unexpected and undesirable first-footer turning up at the door in spite of it all, there were measures that could be taken to mitigate some of the bad luck that had been bestowed – or foretold – on the household: Salt could be thrown on the fire before the visitor came in, the sign of the cross made, the first word had before the visitor could speak, and a pre-emptive charm of rowan and red thread put above the door, just in case. After the unlucky visitor had left, a red ember could be put into water to remove any lingering influence.77

Assuming all went well, however, and the first-footer was well-received, he would enter the house and give an appropriate greeting and blessing, such as: “A gude New Year to ane an’ a’, an’ mony may ye see!”78 Campbell gives Gaelic versions, given on New Year morning, that bear a clear resemblance:

“The salutations of the season were duly given by the household to one another, and to every person they met:

Bliadhna mhath Ùr dhuit, ‘A good New Year to you.’
Mar sin duit fhéin, is mòran diubh. ‘The same to you, and many of them.’”79

First a drink of whatever has been brought by the first-footer is poured for the head of the house, and then the head of the house does likewise for the first-footer, with whatever drink the house has to offer – whisky was always popular, but a hot toddy, punch, drinking sowans, Het Pint, Athole Brose (a warm mixture of whisky, honey and oatmeal, sometimes with cream as well). Then food is shared – specially made, extra-thick oatmeal bannocks, shortbread, Scotch bun, ginger cake or pound cake and whatever other seasonal fare was on offer – and on to more drinking, singing, music, dancing and storytelling if the first-footers are to stay.80

Finally, before going to bed, the head of the house would place a silver penny on the main doorstep. Prosperity was foretold if the coin was still there in the morning, but the opposite was foretold if the coin happened to be missing.81

New Year’s Day

New Year’s Day was treated as a Quarter Day, even though it wasn’t one, officially, and so inevitably one of the major focuses was on saining – the warding of house, byre, stable, livestock and people. On Hogmanay, Grant Stewart tells us:

“As soon as night sets in, it is the signal for the suspension of common employments; and the Highlander’s attention is directed to more agreeable and important callings. Associating themselves into bands, the men, with tethers and axes, shape their course towards the juniper bushes, which are as much in request this night as kail is on Hallowe’en. Returning home with Herculean loads, the juniper is arranged around the fire to dry till the morning. Some careful person is also dispatched to the dead and living ford, who draws a pitcher of water, observing all the time the most profound silence. Great care must be taken that the vessel containing the water does not touch the ground, otherwise it would lose all its virtues.”82

This special water – the Usque-Cashrichd, as Grant Stewart has it (an Anglicised rendering of the Gaelic term) – which comes from the dead and living ford is technically water that has been collected from a stream or river over which funeral processions pass. It was believed to have particularly potent protective qualities, and so made an ideal ingredient in saining rites.83

On the morning of New Year’s Day, as McNeill records, everyone would take a drink from the pail of water, with the leftovers being used to sprinkle about the place. Then all the nooks and crannies in the house were filled and the juniper was burned so that everyone present would get a good lungful of the fumes that would have been let off in copious amounts. The same would be done in the byre, and then everywhere was given a good airing.84

Pennant records a similar practice in Dingwall, in the north-east of Scotland, with the juniper being burnt in the byre and urine sprinkled about the livestock.85 Campbell records the burning of juniper in the byre as well, but with the use of wine – sprinkled about the threshold and walls, as well as livestock – instead of urine. Black argues that this is a typographical error and was indeed meant to read urine.86 In addition to this, the animals were marked with tar, and rowan, holly, or hazel was brought in to decorate the house – again, all with clearly with protective purposes in mind. Some of the rowan, or near the coast, seaweed (specifically, fucus nodosus), was placed above the door for luck.87

In the North-East on the New Year’s morning, it was common for farmers to have a competition to see who could be the first to bring a load of sea-ware from the shore. Whoever won hung a little of the seaweed at each door and then threw the rest into each field to ensure prosperity in the coming year.88

Along the same lines, Newton notes that:

“On New Year’s morning, the head of a household brought a twig from a local fruit-bearing tree into the home, accompanying it with the saying ‘Fàs is gnàths is toradh (Growth, custom, and fertility).’ ”89

Traditions to ensure prosperity were also found at breakfast. In the morning, everyone would take a dram of whisky, and spoonful of half-cooked sowans – generally considered to be “the poorest food imaginable.”90 The intent, in essence, was to ward off hunger and poverty by taking a fair share of the staple dish during famine times before it became a necessity, although Campbell notes that this custom was limited mainly to the central Highlands and Lorn, and not known in the Western Islands at all.91

One anecdote of such a custom also seems to turn the taking of the sowans into a divinatory rite:

“The New Year was taken in by the young folk trying for their fortune in ‘sooans’. Bless me bairns, don’t you know what ‘sooans’ is! No; then the thin sooans was made for drinking like good thick gruel; the thick was like porridge, but that we never took on a Christmas or New Year morning. About four o’ clock I came down to the kitchen, and there found my mother superintending the boiling of the ‘sooans’ and the place filled with the servants, girls, and men, and some of our neighbours…

…the ‘sooans’ were ready and we were all unceremoniously turned out of doors. In our absence the bowls were filled. In two of these a ring was placed, signifying, of course, speedy marriage; a shilling put into two others represented the old bachelor or old maid; and a half-crown into another represented riches. Called in, we had each to choose a dish, beginning with the youngest.”92

Walter Gregor records something similar – the “Yeel sones”, but here slightly different charms were used: The ring for marriage, a button to signify a single life, or a sixpence to signify widowhood.93

The mention of there being no porridge for breakfast on New Year’s Day does not seem to be limited to ‘Knockfin’s’ childhood, as Grant also mentions that no porridge was made on this day. Instead, after feeding the cattle a luxurious feast of oats, instead of the usual straw (and the other livestock were given something a little special, too), a feast of bacon and eggs, with soda scones, oatcakes and butter, “and fragrant China tea” was served.94

This was presumably the sort of festive fare to be found in households that were better off than most, but everyone would try to make an effort to start the day with “a more sumptuous breakfast than ordinary,” to start the day – and the year – as they meant to go on.95

The feasting would continue for the rest of the day, with family gatherings and a mountain of food on offer – goose, steak pie, plum pudding, currant dumpling and sweets of all kinds – to everyone who came.96 In an effort to procure the rare bit of meat, that poorer folk would be unaccustomed to as far as their everyday diet was concerned, it wasn’t unheard of, in Orkney, for groups of men to gather at the houses of those who were considered to be rich, early in the morning before the household would be up. The men would wake the family by singing a rousing New Year’s song and would then be offered the hospitality of some bread and ale before being sent off with a gift of a smoked goose or a piece of beef.97

With no work to be done (and no wonder!) – except for anything that was absolutely necessary – plenty of time was left for amusements and merry-making. Shinty was the traditional game of choice for the men,98 and for the most part competition was keen but friendly. For those who preferred to stay at home, time was spent around the fire with riddles, games and storytelling, with dancing in the evening.99


1 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p259.
2 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p580.
3 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p88.
4 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p59.
5 Napier, Folk Lore, or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p103. McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p61.
6 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p59.
7 MacLagan, County Folk-Lore Vol VII, 1914, p141.
8 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p60.
9 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p61.
10 Napier, Folk Lore, or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p105.
11 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p62.
12 Grant Stewart, The Popular Superstitions of the Highlanders of Scotland, 1823, p241.
13 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p63.
14 Ibid. See also Birth and Baptism.
15 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p64-65.
16 Napier, Folk Lore, or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p105; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p63.
17 Black, County Folk-Lore Vol III, 1903, p196-197.
18 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p66-7.
19 Black, County Folk-Lore Vol III, 1903, p198-199.
20 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, p61.
21 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p63.
22 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, p61.
23 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p87; p94; Black, County Folk-Lore Vol III, 1903, p203-204; Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, p61.
24 Black, County Folk-Lore Vol III, 1903, p203-204.
25 Rogers, Social Life in Scotland, Vol III, 1884, Chapter 19.
26 Napier, Folk Lore, or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p105.
27 Grant Stewart, The Popular Superstitions of the Highlanders of Scotland, 1823, p237; see also p236-p239.
28 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p73.
29 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p64.
30 Grant Stewart, The Popular Superstitions of the Highlanders of Scotland, 1823, p241-242.
31 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p65.
32 Rogers, Social Life in Scotland, Vol III, 1884, Chapter 19.
33 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p575.
34 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, p116.
35 A similar practice of leaving some traditions associated with a Quarter Day until the first Monday of the new quarter – see Bealltainn, for example. McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p122.
36 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p102; p116.
37 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p99.
38 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p104.
39 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p103.
40 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p101.
41 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p580.
42 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p535.
43 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p104.
44 Interview with Iain MacPherson, Seanchas Ìle, 2007, p69-71.
45 Interview with Heather Dewar, Seanchas Ìle, 2007, p71.
46 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p576.
47 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p104.
48 Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p361.
49 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p101.
50 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p104.
51 Thiselton-Dyer, British Popular Customs Present and Past, 1911, p183.
52 Simpkins et al, County Folklore Volume VII: Fife with some notes on Clackmannan and Kinross-shire, 1914, p16.
53 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p114.
54 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p89.
55 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p89.
56 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p530.
57 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p576.
58 Sometimes deer or goat might be used instead – a breast-stripe or tail. Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p530-531.
59 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p91.
60 Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p360-361.
61 Highland Superstitions connected with the druids, fairies, witchcraft, second sight, Hallowe’en, sacred wells and lochs, with several curious instances of Highland customs and beliefs, 1901, p43; McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p92.
62 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p92.
63 Napier, Folk Lore, or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p103. Compare with examples given by McNeill in The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p 95-96.
64 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p94.
65 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, p44-45.
66 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p170.
67 Stokes, The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel.
68 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p81-82.
69 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p81-82.
70 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, p45.
71 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, p45.
72 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume III, 1961, p83.
73 McNeill, The Scots Cellar, 1992, p52.
74 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p100.
75 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p104-105.
76 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p101; p105; Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p536.
77 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p105.
78 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p106.
79 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p536.
80 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p107; Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p361; Grant, Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll, 1925, 77.
81 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p115.
82 Grant Stewart, The Popular Superstitions and Festive Amusements of the Highlanders of Scotland, 1823, p250.
83 Grant Stewart, The Popular Superstitions and Festive Amusements of the Highlanders of Scotland, 1823, p250-251.
84 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p113-114.
85 Pennant, A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, p205.
86 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p537; p582.
87 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p113; p116.
88 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p114.
89 Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, 2000, p180.
90 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p536; McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p109.
91 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p536.
92 ‘Knockfin’, “New Year in the Old Style in the Highlands,” The Celtic Monthly Vol I, 1875, p107.
93 Gregor, The Folk-Lore of North-East Scotland, 1881, p157-158.
94 Grant, Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll, 1925, p77.
95 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p536.
96 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol III, 1961, p109.
97 Black, County Folk-Lore Vol III, 1903, p195.
98 Ibid; Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p536.
99 Grant, Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll, 1925, p77.