Hogmanay - a Scottish celebration

Hogmanay, the night of the 31st December, is still a very important part of the festive calendar for many Scots. Not so long ago, it even eclipsed Christmas in many parts of Scotland. It had its own rituals and celebratory Hogmanay food. To some extent, these traditions survive even today. 

And these days, Hogmanay has become more public - with towns and cities organising festivities for all.

These days, party food is party food, except... Traditionally, the deep winter festivals of Scotland have always been linked to celebratory or rich fare. Hogmanay is especially associated with a rich fruit cake in a pastry case, called ‘black bun’; home-baked cakes and shortbread are usually well to the fore.  Associated especially with the town of St Andrews in the olden days, Hogmanay was known as ‘Cake Day’ – local shops would bake cakes and give them to the local children. 

To make Het Pint

Ale, sugar, eggs, whisky, nutmeg.
Grate nutmeg into 4 pints (1136ml) of ale/beer.
Bring to almost boiling.
Add sugar to taste to a little extra cold ale, then three well beaten eggs.
Then pour this gradually into the hot ale, making sure the eggs don't curdle.
(And good luck with that one.)
Finally, add a half-pint (284ml) of whisky, re-heating but not boiling.
Pour between two vessels until the mixture becomes smooth and bright.

In olden times, foods traditionally eaten at Hogmanay would have included cheese with oat-farles (a kind of oatcake), and as well as shortbread, currant loaf and black bun, there would also be a special kind of New Year gingerbread, known as Ankerstock. This term was usually associated with Edinburgh and meant a rye loaf with spice and currants, perhaps made even more spicy and fruity at Hogmanay. 

The theme here that emerges is richness - at least for the poor Scot of the old days - and the use of ingredients like currants and sugar that would be rationed for the rest of the year. In Edinburgh and Glasgow, a drink called 'Het Pint' would also be made as part of the celebration. The recipe is in a box on this page.

Celebrations in recent years have become more public and organised. In my youth, in my home town, local shop-keepers "celebrated" by having to board up the shop windows in the town square, where crowds gathered with nothing better to do than fall over or fall into said windows. Oh, yes, we knew how to enjoy ourselves in olden days.

Today many Scottish towns and cities organise a New Year programme of events both on the night and in the run-up. Edinburgh is at the forefront and claims its event is the largest Hogmanay party in the world.

Meanwhile, first-footing still goes on. Private parties thrive, with friends and neighbours gathering for an evening of miscellaneous over-indulgence.

In olden times - and referred to by my own grandparents - the local children would go round the neighbours ‘asking for their Hogmanay’. I can remember my grandmother reciting the rhyme they used:

‘Rise up auld wife, and shak yer feathers: / But dinna think that we are beggars: / We’re just wee bairnies out to play / Rise up and gie us our Hogmanay.’ 

(Shak – shake; dinna – don’t; bairnies -little children; gie – give.)

A Herring as a Hogmanay Gift

One other practice, which I never personally encountered, involved fish, notably herring – a symbol of prosperity on the east side of Scotland. This custom seemed to have survived longest in Dundee. A herring was decorated and tied with ribbons, then tied round the door handle of a visited house if the occupants were themselves out first-footing. (A decorated herring appears in one illustration in the well-known Dundee-based cartoon strip ‘The Broons’ during their first-footing – should any aficionados wish to consult The Broons annuals of the 1950s! You see the difficulty I have in writing this website for both home-grown Scots and also folk from further afield who know next to nothing about the nation?)

It seems plausible that this is another example of a deep-winter festival echoing very early pagan traditions that celebrated the passing of the shortest day. Some say the ancient Druids initiated a festival of Yuletide, covering what became the last night of the Auld (old) Year and on into the first week of January.

To this day, in Scotland (and beyond), the ending of the Old Year is marked by ceremonies that have evolved through the generations. Fire, naturally, in cold dark Scotland, is an important element. Traditionally, the hearth was made to burn brightly as the New Year arrived at midnight – to ensure warmth and prosperity in the household for the coming 12 months. In some places, the main house door was opened to let the Old Year out and to welcome the New Year in (though, given the weather at this time of the year, I can’t imagine this was a prolonged ritual!)

Likewise, in the days of steam trains, whistles were sounded from the engine-sheds; in coastal towns, sirens would sound from the docks. (Actually, I heard this at Leith, Edinburgh’s port – just a year or so back, so it still happens!) Today, expensive fireworks often light up the sky. These days, even small places such as Killin, Perthshire organise some public event that sees in the New Year.

Hogmanay in Killin

Hogmanay in Killin

Fireworks over Edinburgh Castle

Fireworks over Edinburgh Castle

Another important part of the ritual is the custom, still thriving, of ‘first-footing’. The preferred ‘first-foot’ – first over the household threshold in the New Year – should be a handsome male stranger bearing gifts. The gifts should be themed as either food or in some way linked to the hearth. (Personally, I’d be happy to accept some firewood, preferably kiln-dried, if you’re thinking of dropping in on us. I also like shortbread.) Two minor considerations should also apply: the handsome male stranger should be dark and he certainly should not be a red-head. (I don’t know why the Scots made it difficult for themselves with this stipulation.)

(Pictured here) Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens in the winter – transformed for the festive season - Edinburgh's Christmas  reaches its peak at the end of the Auld Year.

Edinburgh during the festive season up to and after Hogmanay

Edinburgh during the festive season up to and after Hogmanay

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Stonehaven, on the coast south of Aberdeen, swings fireballs in a street parade – and attracts crowds to the spectacle. Comrie in Perthshire has a torchlight procession. Up on the Moray Firth they do things differently at Burghead, by holding their own fire ceremony on the 11th January. (This was the date of the start of the New Year in the old Julian calendar.) The Burning of the Clavie (possible Gaaelic ‘cliabh’ – basket or creel) involves a flaming procession and the ceremonial burning of a half-barrel on the Doorie Hill, an ancient altar site in the town. A piece of the charcoal from the ceremony is much sought after as good-luck token.

We were given a piece of the Clavie one year and kept it afterwards in the car. My daughter wrote off the vehicle some months afterwards. Still, none of us were hurt, so I’m in two minds about the token’s efficacy.

Up Helly Aa

Perhaps one of the most famous Scottish winter fire festivals is Up Helly Aa which takes place in Lerwick, Shetland, on the last Tuesday in January every year. It is not such an ancient festival - with the current event dating from the 1880s. There is lots more to read about it on the official Up Helly Aa website.

There was a very old historical reason for this emphasis on Hogmanay. After the Reformation, the straight-laced Presbyterians in Scotland were keen on stamping out any echo of the Catholic holy days – of which the principal one was the Feast of the Nativity – Christmas, obviously.

(As an aside, this aversion to celebration and decoration echoed right down to my own childhood, when Sundays were for Sunday school, best behaviour and best clothes. And also it explains the number of austere and unadorned Scottish kirks that are still found today, though the significance of the kirk in Scottish society is greatly diminished. Whatever your religious standpoint, the fact of the matter is that Scotland is now a secular society and many former Christian places of worship are now private homes, pubs, night-clubs, even bed & breakfasts and indoor climbing centres!. That’s just how it is.)

Anyway, back to Hogmanay – that was always special. And there were no overtly religious overtones.

Even I am just old enough to remember when it all but eclipsed Christmas, certainly in some communities in Scotland - and definitely in the east coast fishing town that was my birthplace. As a small boy, I can, for example, recall my father coming home from work on Christmas Day - I think the works closed early. That was all. But he certainly didn't go to work on New Year's Day, that is, the day after Hogmanay. That was the real time of celebration.

As youngsters back then, I don’t think we were very popular with Santa Claus either, because he had to work a special shift for us on the last night of the Old Year. We hung up our stockings, – actually, pillow-cases, to be honest – on that night. Only later did we fall into line and play our part in the ‘Festival of Buying Completely Pointless Stuff’ aka today’s Christmas.

There are various explanations for the word. Some say it comes from a north French dialect word ‘hoginane’, meaning ‘a gift at the New Year’. Another French dialect explanation is via ‘au gui menez’ – meaning ‘to the mistletoe go’, formerly a mummers’ call. (A mummer is a traditional masked play-actor or guiser.) It could also be from ‘au geux menez’; meaning ‘bring to the beggars’, as this ties in with the idea of gift-giving at this time of year. Personally, I don’t find any of these explanations convincing!

In conclusion, Scotland’s Hogmanay is alive and well. What has changed, thanks to the global village and the festival of buying-stuff that is 21st-century Christmas, is that Scotland these days celebrates Christmas with just as much gusto as anyone else. The difficulty for the Scots is pacing themselves to survive the over-indulgence that goes with both! Oh well, roll on Burns Night on the 25th January……..

Thanks for reading all the way. You’ll find some more useful information here on Scottish food for Hogmanay and other celebratory occasions...