Hoots Mon! The customs and traditions celebrated by Scots on Hogmanay and New Year

Christmas presents have been opened, turkey and all the trimmings have been consumed and the festivities are nearly over for another year.

In some parts of Scotland people take part in Loony Dooks to bring in the New Year. Pic Neil Hanna
In some parts of Scotland people take part in Loony Dooks to bring in the New Year. Pic Neil Hanna

This can only mean one thing north of the border – it’s party time!

Hogmanay is Scotland’s traditional New Year celebration and the annual event usually features street parties, festivals, torchlight processions, concerts and fireworks.

But what does the term Hogmanay actually mean? Where does it come from and what are the main customs and traditions that are celebrated on December 31?

Scots traditionally sing Auld Lang's Syne after the bells at New Year. Pic: Albert Jordan

New Year’s Eve is toasted across the world but such is the importance of this event in Scotland’s heritage that we even have our own name for it.

There are many theories about where the word ‘Hogmanay’ comes from. One suggestion is the Scandinavian feast preceding Yule, which was “Hoggo-nott”, while Flemish words (many of which have come into Scots) “hoog min dag” means “great love day”.

Hogmanay can also be linked back to the Anglo-Saxon, Haleg monath, Holy Month, or the Gaelic, oge maidne, new morning.

Some say the word could come from the French term “Homme est né” or “Man is born”. But it also has an early mention in a phrase from the Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence in 1693.

Torchlight processions are traditionally carried out on Hogmanay. Photographer-Ian Georgeson

The church recorded that a practice in Normandy was being repeated in Scotland, noting: “It is ordinary among some Plebians in the South of Scotland, to go about from door to door upon New Year’s Eve, crying Hagmane.”

It is understood that many of the traditional Hogmanay celebrations were originally brought to Scotland by the Vikings who invaded in the early eighth and ninth centuries. They paid great attention to the passing of the shortest day or Winter Solstice.

However, it may surprise many people to learn that Christmas was not always celebrated as a festival north of the border.

In fact, it was banned in Scotland for around 400 years from the end of the 17th century!

The reason for this goes back to the years of the Protestant Reformation when the Kirk portrayed Christmas as a Popish or Catholic feast which should not be recognised.

Until the 1950s, many Scots worked over Christmas, favouring the New Year as a holiday and the preferred time to gather with friends and family to exchange presents.

There are a number of ancient traditions associated with Hogmanay – many carried out before the bells.

One of them is cleaning the house. This is traditionally done on December 31 and used to include taking out ashes from the fire – in the days, of course, when coal fires were more common.

Many believed a clean house was necessary to welcome in the new year for fear of 12 months bad luck.

Cleaning the house also extended to clearing any outstanding debts.

The main Hogmanay customs begin at midnight. As soon as the clock strikes 12, bells are rung to mark the start of the New Year.

Immediately after midnight it is traditional for everyone to gather in a circle, cross over their arms and hold hands with people on either side and together sing Robert Burns’ ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

Another popular tradition which has carried on through the passage of years is first footing.

The first person to enter a house after midnight on New Year’s Eve is believed to affect the household’s fortunes in the year to come.

Ideally, a dark-haired man who carries a symbolic gift, usually a piece of coal, whisky or food such as a black bun or shortbread, is welcome.

This will bring good luck for the next year as the gift symbolises prosperity and means the household will be safe and warm and have enough food for the year.

If the first visitor has fair hair and is female it is considered to bring bad luck.

With the arrival of first footers the party can truly begin – whether that’s in the house or out in the street!

Through researching how people used to celebrate I came across an ancient rural custom, which I hadn’t heard of, involving people dressing up in the hides of cattle and running around a village being hit by sticks!

Bizarrely, the festivities would also include rolling blazing tar barrels down the hill and tossing torches.

The Saining of the House is another old rural tradition that involved blessing the house and livestock with holy water from a local stream.

After the blessing, the woman of the house was supposed to go from room to room with a smouldering juniper branch, filling 
the house with purifying smoke.

Once everyone in the household was coughing from the smoke, the windows would be thrown open and drams or two of whisky would be passed around.

Finishing off the traditional Scottish customs is the Scots taking January 2 as a holiday.

It was, of course, to allow everyone time to recover from the celebrations!

No red herrings: a taster of unique rituals to welcome in the new year

Edinburgh is renowned for its New Year’s Eve celebrations but there are various areas which have their own unique Hogmanay and New Year rituals.

In Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, there is a tradition of fireball swinging believed to be linked to the Winter Solstice. The fireballs signify the power of the sun, purifying the world by consuming evil spirits. It involves local people making up ‘balls’ of chicken wire filled with old newspaper, sticks or rags, each attached to wire, or non-flammable rope. As the Old Town House bell signals the new year, the balls are set alight and people walk up the High Street, swinging the burning balls around their heads.

In Dundee there is a unique tradition of dressing herrings, considered a good luck charm for Hogmanay. Stalls at the Overgate Market sell prepared herrings for people to buy as a ‘first foot’ gift. A pair of herrings used to be kept in the house, at the front door, until they were replaced the following year. The fish would wear elaborate outfits made of paper or fabric.

In Fife, local men in Falkland march in torchlight procession to the top of the Lomond Hills as midnight approaches.

And in Kirkcaldy, Kinghorn Anstruther and South Queensferry brave people join the Loony Dook on January 1, taking a dip in freezing water in costumes – all for good causes!