December 28, 2002 - Scottish New Year Traditions

A News Years Brownie?Where does the word Hogmanay come from?

Hogmanay is the Scottish New Year, celebrated on 31st December every year. Never being slow to spot a good excuse for a party, the night involves a celebratory drink or two, fireworks and the kissing of complete strangers – not necessarily in that order.

Where did the word Hogmanay come from?

Nobody knows for sure. Various suggestions have been made over the years and they all sound pretty good from where we are sitting:

from the Gaelic oge maidne ("new morning")

-A Flemish combo of hoog ("high" or "great"), min ("love" or "affection") and dag ("day")

-Anglo-Saxon Haleg Monath ("Holy Month")

-Norman French word hoguinané("gift at New Year")

What is First Footing?

According to tradition the only way to ensure a prosperous New Year is to ensure that a "tall, dark stranger" appears at your door with a lump of coal for the fire, (or a cake or coin) as the bells ring at midnight.

After the Vikings visitations of yester-year it is probably not surprising that blond-haired visitors are greeted with a little less enthusiasm, unless of course they are bearing gifts!

The Celebratory Drink

Hogmanay has not always been an occasion for drinking from the tin and hoping that no one has mistakenly dropped a cigarette butt into it. Last century, walking the streets of Stirling, you would more than likely be accosted by numerous strangers carrying copper kettles full of a concoction called Het Pint

A surviving recipe of the spicy brew suggests simmering cardamoms, cloves, nutmeg, mace, ginger, cinnamon and coriander. The resulting paste is then added to port or sherry (lots of it) with sugar (again, lots of it). This lot is then put on to boil and mixed together with separated egg whites and yokes. Finally, before pouring the lot into the aforementioned kettles, chuck in some roasted apples.

If you're after something a little out of the ordinary, but cannot find a suitable old woman to spend days creating a het pint in her witch's cauldron out in the creepy woods, you might try rustling up an Atholl Brose.

The basic Brose involves soaking fine oatmeal in water, pressing out the liquid, to which is then added whisky and honey. However, variations allow for whisking egg whites and folding in cream, to make a much sweeter drink.

Whisky is the main event for the drinker's palette, and throughout the Hogmanay period we guarantee that the word, if not the drink itself, will never be far from your tongue. It is, therefore, important that you choose your uisge beatha carefully.

Rather than picking up a blended whisky, treat yourself to one of the hundreds of single malts distilled in Scotland. Here are a few pointers to help you on your way. In general, Speyside malts are a lot gentler than the Western Isles malts of Islay and Jura et al. Speyside whiskies are informed by particularly soft waters gathering flavours from surrounding honey heathers and grasses, while their island counterparts are permeated with assertive notes of peat, iodine, sea weed and salt.

For a good seasonal snifter from Speyside, try the big sherry hit of the Macallan, or the Glenfarclas - or even the deeply loved but little known gem, Longmorn. If you prefer the near medicinal hit of the incomparable Western Isles labels, there are few better things in this life than to sit in a festively plump armchair, listening to the bubbling conversation of friends while watching a peat fire dance through a generous glass of Lagavulin. You may also want to dip into Bowmore (The Darkest comes from superb sherry casks and contains all the fruitiness of a fine Christmas pudding)

For sheer festive spice the Highland Park is hard to beat. It's arrives hot in the tummy and fills the mouth and nose with suggestions of ginger, honey, cinnamon and nuts. Only thing that's missing is a sleigh bell or two! But then, there's the Glenfiddich, which, if you look hard enough, has hints of chocolate and raisins.

If you are a fan of whisky, you will, in time, find your own favourite. The tastings are as complex as your own personality, so when you find your favourite, it is like coming across an old, well loved friend - though Bunnahabhain (pronounced Boo-na-havven) is, admittedly, a strange name for a friend!

Rituals, omens and the pursuit of good luck

There is nothing the Scots love more than to fill every waking moment with superstitions, rituals and ominous declarations of imminent misfortune - along with lyrical projections of how to avoid such misfortune.

Hogmanay is, as you might expect, a particularly ripe source of such activity, and much of it is pretty gruesome, so be warned.

It is quite well known that a fire must be swept out before the dawning of the New Year. But did you know that the ashes were often examined to reveal the fortunes of the year ahead? The shape of a footprint pointing to the door signaled death, while a print facing into the hearth suggested a new addition to the family.

If the fire burns brightly on New Year morning, wealth was sure to follow. If a coal was seen to roll out of the grate someone would be leaving home in the coming year.

Good luck was guaranteed to he who drew the first water of the New Year. Accordingly there were great competitions in the villages to see who would ‘cream the well’. Conversely, the worst luck would befall the family that allowed a dead body to lie in the house into the New Year. Dried pungent juniper was burned - to ‘cleanse’ the house.

A First Footer?New Year Resolutions

Hogmanay is a time both for reflection of the year past and wonder for the one that lies ahead. At this poignant juncture it is natural that every Scot, and by extension, every visitor, should reflect upon personal behaviour and practice. It is just as natural to find yourself not quite coming up to scratch in your estimation.

Therefore, it has come to pass that resolutions are researched and prepared for the dawning of the New Year. During the run up to the main event Scotland creaks and groans with the labours of people mining their souls for dirt, sin and vice - clearing the way for a mass National purging of all that is foul, unhealthy and unwise in our lives.

An otherwise banal conversation in the street shall suddenly become charged with portentous energy as someone asks, 'Made any resolutions?' To reply, 'No' would indicate that you are rather smug and self satisfied, while to nod in the affirmative opens the door to, 'What are they then?'

This can lead to trouble if you have resolved to change things beyond the prosaic familiars of giving up smoking, losing weight, visiting mum more often and decorating the hall.

You could very easily alter the perceptions of you held by friends and colleagues, often for the worse. So here is the bottom line on the subject of resolutions.

Keep them to yourself! This way, when you fail at the first hurdle - which, let's face it, will be around about 2pm on January 1st - no one but you shall know you have failed.

Don't ask anyone what their resolutions are, no matter how well you think you know them. Even when the conversation at the party is as dry as dust, do not be tempted to make that loaded enquiry.

Finally, remember that even when you fail to keep your resolution, you at least made an effort.


It is entirely likely that at some point over the Hogmanay celebrations you will be invited up by a complete stranger for a birl. Do not be alarmed; you are merely being invited to dance.

Lack of experience is no excuse for not joining in. Partaking in a jig, reel or Strathspey not only helps the whisky get into the bloodstream quicker but is also the greatest way of getting to meet everyone else in the room.

A Caller will usually be present to call the dances and talk the uninitiated through step by step. You will find that there are enough folk on the floor who know what they are doing and will be, frankly, zealous in their desire to help you.

To help you put your best foot forward and be a step ahead of the game, here is a little background info and a few helpful pointers.


Scottish country dancing emerged as a prominent social activity in the 18th century. This was due in part to the publishing, in Perth, of John Bowie’s collection of country dances. Also, the fiddle – introduced to Scotland during the Restoration (1660) was quickly gaining popularity, largely through the playing of Niel Gow.

At dances, the fiddle would either be played alone, or with a cello to strengthen the bass line. Larger dances would perhaps add piano to the arrangement, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that the ubiquitous accordion arrived.

Dance Etiquette

Couples should wait until a dance is called before joining into sets. Don’t be tempted to huddle together with trusted friends. Firstly, it undermines the fact that the dance is your introduction to strangers. Secondly, because of the nature of a set dance you’re going to split up during the dance anyway.

At more formal events it is considered polite to clear the floor at the end of the dance.

When joining a line dance do so at the end of the line. No barging into the middle just because you fancy someone opposite. Join in on the end and you’ll get to meet them soon enough.

If you are new to all this, you will find that your mouth starts counting the steps despite having been sent no such instruction by the brain to do so. Be aware of this and take corrective measures to prevent this phenomenon occurring. Not to do so will result in you acquiring that singularly Scottish moniker: Erse!

To many, the spirit of the dance is more important than the technique and never is the spirit of the dance more clearly evoked than in the whoops and calls arising from the floor during a tornado paced reel. Feel free to ‘gie it laldy’ and let fly with a few wee cries of your own.

Gay Gordons

One of the best dances to start you off is the Gay Gordons. There are only a few steps to remember, and you stay with the partner you start with – so there’s none of that floating around the floor with your arms open, desperately clawing at potential partners.

Here is what you do. Stand alongside your partner, boy on the left, girl on the right. Boy holds girls right hand in his right hand at shoulder height. Boy holds girls left hand in his left hand at waist height. Walk forward for a count of four (don’t move those lips!) turn and walk backwards for four, swapping the position of the hands. Then its forward, then turn, then backwards again, which brings you back to where you started. Next, boy lifts right arm (still holding girl’s hand) and walks forward while girl twirls. Pretty, eh? Then the last bit, boy faces girl and adopts classic ballroom hold, spin around polka style for a count of four. Then you’re back at the start. Nothing to it, no excuses, get out there!

Auld Lang Syne

The most popular song in the world at New Year and the one whose actually rather splendid lyrics are routinely ignored. This is Robert Burns, for heaven's sake; he deserves better than being mangled.

(the midi tune playing on this page is the original version of Auld Lang Syne)

Here are the real words.

For Auld Lang SyneShould auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp
And surely I'll be mine,
And we'll tak a cup o kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

We twa hae run about the braes
And pou'd the gowans fine,
But we've wander'd monie a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl'd in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin auld lang syne.

And there's a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie's a hand o thine,
And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne

auld = old
for auld lang syne = for old time's sake
pint-stowp =
twa = two
pou'd the gowans = picked flowers ( a gowan is like a large daisy)
wander'd monie a weary fit =
dine = dinner time
fiere = friend
guid-willie waught = cup of good cheer