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The Customs And Traditions Of Hogmanay, The Scottish New Year

Picture of Tori Chalmers
Updated: 9 February 2017
Inundated with tartan, embellished with fireworks and complimented with an abundance of whisky, Hogmanay is the Scottish equivalent of New Year’s Eve. Not just any old shindig, it’s one of the most legendary changing of year celebrations in the world. Like most Scottish holidays, Hogmanay goes hand in hand with countless customs and important imprinted traditions that vary depending on location.

First-footing is perhaps the most widely practiced social ritual and deeply embedded tradition of Hogmanay. The moment the clock strikes midnight, lads and lassies across Scotland start bee lining for the homes of loved ones, friends and families, bearing gifts and endless banter. The purpose is to provide good vibes for times ahead and to be the first across the threshold, as the first-footer sets the precedent for the brand new year. Traditionally, the story goes that a tall handsome dapper man is the most desirable visitor.

The gifts, each with their own specific meaning, are a token of good luck and vary from whisky, a black bun (fruit cake), shortbread, and nowadays, anything left over in the pantry! Coal for warmth and salt for health were the traditional gifts of choice, just as communities in Dundee once brought a decorated herring. As victorious as it feels being the official first-footer, many now carry out this tradition well into January.

When the clock chimes 12am and the magical midnight moment arrives, the iconic sound of Auld Lang Syne can be heard resonating across Scotland. A tradition appropriated by numerous countries, this song by Scottish Bard Robert Burns is sung in a circle big or small. During the last verse, before feverishly running in and out of the circle, folk link arms and belt it out like never before.

Amidst the endless consumption of whisky, steak pie and shortbread, people in Scotland like to get their ducks in a row before the New Year. Cleaning the house from top to toe has long been a ritual, with emphasis traditionally being placed on sweeping out the fireplace to rid unwanted burdens. Clearing any debts before midnight is also advisable.

The Highland custom of ‘saining’ or blessing the house and livestock goes far back in time and is practiced by a select few today. This entails drinking and spreading magic water (water from a dead and living ford or river that’s consistently crossed by both the dead and alive) across all contents of the household. Next, the extensive burning of juniper branches, so much so that it permeates the whole abode until sneezing is inevitable. This is followed by fresh New Year air being wafted throughout the house before indulging in a hearty breakfast.

Fire also plays a significant role in Hogmanay customs, thought to derive from Pagan influences. The annual Torchlight Procession in Edinburgh pays homage to this, with thousands of souls marching the city, creating a river of fire with blazing torches. In Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, locals construct vast fireballs of up to two feet, so that when midnight appears, they can swing them around their heads in a procession on the High Street. Any remaining fireballs are set off into the harbour.

It’s safe to say that Hogmanay wouldn’t be the same without the accompanying traditions. Although some have fizzled out and others remain, there’s no denying the legacy of such rituals and their profound impact on other societies.