Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve)

[Celebratory Days Contents]

A front page depiction of a Scottish tradition. This December 30, 1882, edition reads,
As you can see from the clock in the picture, however, it’s done after midnight into the early hours of New Year’s day, rather than on the eve of New Year.



   THE origin of the usages peculiar to Hogmanay, as the last day of the year is styled in Scotland, is to a considerable extent veiled in the mists of antiquity. Even regarding the derivation of the word itself, various explanations of a purely conjectural nature have been offered. It is improbable, as some contend, that it could have been derived by our remote ancestors from the Greek, a language they were unacquainted with at the time when the custom first began. Had this phrase been reduced from any term of Roman Liturgy, then something might have been allowed to its credibility; but no term is to be found in the rubrics of the Roman Church that has the most distant affinity with the word. With much critical acumen, those who seek the origin of the term in the French consider the two words to be a corruption of  

“L’homme est né 

Trois rois là,” 

alluding to the birth of our Lord, and the subsequent adoration paid to Him by the three wise men of the East. 

   No such song, however, was used by the French during the festival of Christmas, or at least is there any mention of it to be found in the works of such French historians and antiquaries as Megerai, Menage, or Pasquier. History rather points to the fact that all the northern tribes paid a sort of religious veneration to the night rather than the day, and this predilection for the former induced out ancestors, the Saxons, to begin all their computations of time from the night rather than the day;1 and the beginning of their year from winter rather than summer. In the same way our forefathers were wont to compute time when they said fortnight, se’nnight, or speaking of age, as Chaucer tells us in the tale of the “Wife of Bath,” “Of twenty winters old he seemed to be.” The Saxons probably acquired the custom of celebrating Hogmanay from the Scandinavian or Icelandic tribes, who held this festival and other religious rites in the month of December, under the name of Hogmonat and Blothmont, signifying in ancient Icelandic the month of immolation or sacrifice. Hogenat, Chambers tells us, was the ancient Scandinavian name for the night preceding the feast of Yule, and was so called in reference to the animals slaughtered on that occasion for sacrificial or festal purposes. When we remember that, devoted by immemorial usage to innocent festivity, it has ever been the custom among northern nations to see the old year out and the new year in with the highest demonstrations of merriment and conviviality, all this points in an unmistakeable manner, down through the long vistas of our national history, to where the mists of obscurity hang around the Druid worship of our forefathers. That so interesting an occasion should have been distinguished by some observance or ceremony is but natural, and we accordingly find various customs prevail – some sportive, others serious, with sometimes the mirthful and thoughtful intermingled. The simple ceremony in our own country of the unbarring of the entrance door, as the clock struck twelve, to let the old year out and the new year in, was one which used to be enacted with great formality. In the island of Guernsey we are told the children were wont to parade through the streets carrying the figure of a man emblematic of the dying year, and which, after a quaint ceremony, they buried on a lone part of the sea-shore. In the town of Philadelphia, in North America, one chronicler tells us the old year was “fired out” and the new “fired in” by a discharge of firearms of every imaginable description. In our own country, especially in the northern districts, faint traces of the old Druid custom were not so long ago to be found in some sequestered parts. In the far-off parish of Deerness, in Orkney, for example, the celebration of Hogmanay consisted of the old and young assembling in the village street and ushering in the new year by a series of visits throughout the district. They heralded their approach to each domicile by chanting a song or carol, in which the Queen May mentioned in it may be taken to have reference to the Virgin. At the conclusion of this chant the door was forthwith opened, when the assembled crowd rushed in pell-mell to the interior, where a sumptuous repast awaited them. The food-received capacity of these worthy Orcadians must have been of no mean order, when we learn that he was an angry Deerness man next day whose house had been omitted in the course of this parochial visitation! 

   In that quaint little fishing town of Burghead, in Morayshire, with its bending shore of raging storm and sunny calm, another singular custom, almost unparalleled in any part of Scotland, prevailed, and which was locally known as “Burning the clavie.” Space will not permit here to enter upon its details; suffice it to say that it consisted mainly of the burning of herring barrels with peats, and the carrying home with great éclat of the burning embers as a protection from the “ills of life.” This ceremony probably more than any other is largely Scandinavian in origin, and points to the rude times when the brave Norwegian Vikings held for a brief period possession of that outlandish promontory. The custom of the “wassail-bowl” or “first-footing,” if no longer observed in our midst in the same effusive and demonstrative manner that it was half a century ago, is still remembered in a quieter way in many parts of the country. On the approach of twelve o’clock a “hot pint” was prepared – that is, a kettle-full of warm spiced or sweetened ale, with a liberal infusion of spirits. When the clock had struck the final knell of the departing year, each member of the family drank of this potation, “A good health and a happy new year, and many of them,” to all the rest, with a general hand-shaking, and perhaps a dance round the table. The elders of the family would then most probably sally out with the hot kettle, bearing also a competent provision of buns and shortbread or bread and cheese, with the design of visiting their neighbours, and interchanging with them the same cordial greetings. If they met by the way another party similarly bent whom they knew, they would stop and exchange sips from their respective kettles. Reaching their friend’s house, they would enter with vociferous good wishes, and soon send the kettle a-circulating. If they were the first to enter the house since twelve o’clock, then they were deemed as the ”first foot,” and as such it was most important for the luck to the family in the coming year that they should make their entry with their hands full of cakes and cheese; of whom, on the other hand, civility demanded that each individual in the house should partake. To such an extent did this custom prevail in Edinburgh, that its principal streets were, even till the beginning of the century. more thronged between twelve and one in the morning than they usually were at mid-day. An unlucky circumstance which took place, however, in 1812, provided the means of nearly extinguishing the old-fashioned custom. A small party of reckless boys formed a design of turning the innocent festivities of “first-footing” to account for purposes of plunder. On that bright moonlight morning, the tuneful strains of “Auld Lang Syne” from the garrison band stationed on the Castle ramparts had scarce died away, and the peaceable townsfolk gone abroad on the principal streets of the romantic Old Town “first-footing,” when these youths sallied forth in small bands in search of plunder. By a previous agreement they kept on the outlook for those who chanced to wear white neckties, such being the best mark by which they could distinguish in the sombre shadows of the moonlit streets those likely to carry any property worthy of being taken. Needless to say, a great many were thus spoiled of their watches and other valuables. The least resistance was resented by the most brutal treatment. In the melée which ensued, two persons – a policeman, Dugald Campbell, and a clerk, James Campbell – received injuries from which they died. An affair so unusual, so uncharacteristic of the people among whom it happened, provided a widespread feeling of surprise and indignation. The Scots Magazine of January, 1812, gives the following graphic description of this Hogmanay riot:- “During almost the whole of the night after eleven o’clock a gang of ferocious banditti armed with bludgeons and other weapons, infested some of the leading streets of the metropolis, and knocked down and robbed and otherwise most wantonly abused almost every person who had the misfortune to fall in their way. After they had fairly succeeded in knocking down those of whom they were in pursuit, they proceeded to immediately rifle them of their money and watches; and the least symptom on their part of anxiety to save their property was a provocation to new outrages, which were persevered in until their lives were in danger. One person we have heard of who, after being knocked down, made several attempts to preserve his watch, when he was so abused and kicked on the head and in the breast and stomach that he was glad to escape with his life. We have heard of many other instances of outrage, but it is unnecessary to enter further into particulars here.” the deaths of the policeman “Royal Arch,” as he was familiarly called, and the young Leith clerk, three days after the riot, caused the magistrates to offer a reward of two hundred guineas for the discovery of the murderers. Upon the 22nd April following, amid a great array of civil and military power, three young men, named Hugh McIntosh, Neil Sutherland, and Hugh McDonald, who had been found guilty by the High Court of Justiciary of the murders, were executed upon a gibbet erected upon the scene of the tragedies in the High Street, exactly opposite the Old Stamp Office Close. The same journal informs us that upon the afternoon of the execution, with a view to preserve the majesty of the law and the peace of the city, 400 of the Perthshire Militia, 200 volunteers, a regiment of the Edinburgh Militia, and a troop of the 6thy Dragoon guards, lined the approaches from the Tolbooth to the scaffold when the prisoners were led forth, escorted by the magistrates and high constables. McIntosh and Sutherland (who were cousins) attired in blue jackets, pantaloons, and white vests, and McDonald in a blue jacket and white trousers, bareheaded, and wearing white gloves, concluded upon the scaffold the last act in this memorable Hogmanay tragedy. “Such a concourse of people,” says a newspaper of that date, “never before came together on the streets of Edinburgh, every place which could command a view of the procession or the place of execution, even the tops of the houses, and balconies of the Tron Kirk and St. Giles Cathedral, being filled with spectators.” From that time, then, and probably as a result of this sad affair, the old custom of going about, in large towns at anyrate, with the “hot pint” and ancient “wassail-bowl” fell off. But there existed in Scotland, and does so yet to some extent, a “first footing” independent of the “hot pint.” It is within recollection of many that it was the custom of some youthful member of a family to steal silently to the door in the hope of meeting there the maiden of his fancy, and obtaining the privilege of a kiss as his “first-foot.” It not unfrequently happened that great was the disappointment of the amorous Jock, and doubtless great the joking around the family ingle, if perchance by accident or plan some half-withered aunt or aged beldame came to receive his osculatory salutation instead of the blooming Jenny. Remote country districts even now evince a strong tendency towards the retention of those auld warl’ customs and observances, and although the “mummers” with whom Sir Walter Scott delighted to amuse his household on Hogmanay, when Abbotsford was in all its glory, are now but a memory of the past, we find the children of the industrial and agricultural classes, although unattired in fantastic garb as of old, still clinging to the custom taught them by their elders of traversing the village main streets or the country lanes, calling at the doors of the wealthier folks for their “Hogmanay,” which in most cases is in itself a sufficient announcement of their demands. Across the Border, too, a similar custom prevails among the young, which is known as far as Yorkshire and the surrounding Midlands as “Hagmena.” Indeed, it is seldom now that an English family fails to sit up on the last night of the year to listen to its dying requiem, when the ushering in of another of Father Time’s already numerous progeny affords them an opportunity to exchange mutual congratulations.

1  This is given as a quirk of the Celtic Druids, rather than the Saxons, in another article from Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, Sketches of Superstitions – The Druids

   “The moon and its quarterly periods, which have guided all rude nations in their division of time, seem so peculiarly to have formed the rule of the Druids, that they counted by nights, not by days. From some unknown cause, they reckoned their month from the sixth day of the moon, and not from the change.” 

– Scots Magazine, Wednesday 1st June, 1898, pp.25-30. 

At the Tron Church, on the last night of every year, there gathers a vast crowd, who watch with patience and good-humour the hands of the illuminated clock till they indicate one minute past twelve, and then the New Year is welcomed in with ringing cheers, joy, and hilarity. A general shaking of hands and congratulations ensue, and one and all wish each other “A happy New Year, and mony o’ them.” A busy hum pervades the older parts of the city; bands of music and bagpipes strike up in many a street and wynd; and, furnished with egg-flip, whiskey, &c., thousands hasten off in all directions to “first foot” friends and relations.

Hogmanay from Book of Days

St Sylvester, pope and confessor, 335. St Columba, virgin and martyr, 3d century. St Melania the Younger, 439.

Born. – Hermann Boerhaave, distinguished physician, 1668, Voorhout, near Leyden; Charles Edward Stuart, younger Pretender, 1721, Rome; Dr Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, phrenologist, 1776, Longwich, near Trêves.
Died. – Commodus, Roman emperor, murdered, 192 A.D.; Thomas Erastus, physician, and author of treatise on Excommunication, 1583, Basle; Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, physician and anatomist, 1679; Robert Boyle, natural philosopher, 1691, London; Jean-François Marmontel, tale-writer, 1799.


In some parts of the country, indeed, and more especially in the northern counties, various social merry-makings take place; but for the most part, the great annual holiday-time is already past. Christmas Eve, Christmas-day, and St Stephen’s or Boxing Day have absorbed almost entirely the tendencies and opportunities of the community at large in the direction of joviality and relaxation. Business and the ordinary routine of daily life have again been resumed; or, to apply to [British] habits the words of an old Scottish rhyme still current, but evidently belonging to the old times, anterior to the Reformation, when Christmas was the great popular festival:

‘Yule’s come and Yule’s gane,
And we hae feasted weel;
Sae Jock maun to his flail again,
And Jenny to her wheel.’

Whilst thus the inhabitants of South Britain are settling down again quietly to work after the festivities of the Christmas season, their fellow-subjects in the northern division of the island are only commencing their annual saturnalia, which, till recently, bore, in the license and boisterous merriment which used to prevail, a most unmistakable resemblance to its ancient pagan namesake. The epithet of the draft [mad] Days, applied to the season of the New Year in Scotland, indicates very expressively the uproarious joviality which characterised the period in question. This exuberance of joyousness – which, it must be admitted, sometimes led to great excesses – has now much declined, but New-year’s Eve and New-year’s Day constitute still the great national holiday in Scotland. Under the 1st of January, we have already detailed the various revelries by which the New Year used to be ushered in, in Scotland. It now becomes our province to notice those ceremonies and customs which are appropriate to the last day of the year, or, as it is styled in Scotland, Hogmanay.

The last term has puzzled antiquaries even more than the word Yule,1 already adverted to; and what is of still greater consequence, has never yet received a perfectly satisfactory explanation. Some suppose it to be derived from two Greek words, άγια μηνη (the holy moon or month). Another hypothesis combines the word with another sung along with it in chorus, and asserts ‘Hogmanay, trollolay!’ to be a corruption of ‘Homme est néTrois Rois lá’ (‘A Man is born – Three Kings are there’), an allusion to the birth of our Saviour, and the visit to Bethlehem of the Wise Men, who were known in medieval times as the ‘Three Kings.’ But two additional conjectures seem much more plausible, and the reader may select for himself what he considers the most probable. One of these is, that the term under notice is derived from Hoggunott, Hogenat, or Hoggnight, the ancient Scandinavian name for the night preceding the feast of Yule, and so called in reference to the animals slaughtered on the occasion for sacrificial and fesal purposes – the word hogg signifying to kill. The other derivation of Hogmanay is from ‘Au gui menez’‘ (‘To the mistletoe go’), or ‘Au gui l’an neuf‘ (‘To the mistletoe this New Year’), an allusion to the ancient Druidical ceremony of gathering that plant. In the patois of Touraine, in France, the word used is Aguilanneu; in Lower Normandy, and in Guernsey, poor persons and children used to solicit a contribution under the title of Hoguinanno or Oguinano; whilst in Spain the term, Aguinaldo, is employed to denote the presents made at the season of Christmas.

In country places in Scotland, and also in the more retired and primitive towns, it is still customary on the morning of the last day of the year, or Hogmanay, for the children of the poorer class of people to get themselves swaddled in a great sheet, doubled up in front, so as to form a vast pocket, and then to go along the streets in little bands, calling at the doors of the wealthier classes for an expected dole of oaten-bread. Each child gets one quadrant section of oat-cake (sometimes, in the case of particular favourites, improved by an addition of cheese), and this is called their hogmanay. In expectation of the large demands thus made upon them, the housewives busy themselves for several days beforehand in preparing a suitable quantity of cakes. The children on coming to the door cry, ‘Hogmanay!’ which is in itself a sufficient announcement of their demands; but there are other exclamations which either are or might be used for the same purpose. One of these is:

Give us of your white bread, and none of your gray.’

Another favourite rhyme is:

‘Get up, goodwife, and shake your feathers,
And dinna think that we are beggars;
For we are bairns come out to play
Get up and gie‘s our hogmanay!’

The following is of a moralising character, though a good deal of truism:

‘Get up, goodwife, and binna sweir,
And deal your bread to them that’s here;
For the time will come when ye’ll be dead,
And then ye’ll neither need ale nor bread.’

The most favourite of all, however, is more to the point than any of the foregoing:

‘My feet’s cauld, my shoon’s thin;
Gie’s my cakes, and let me rin!’

It is no unpleasing scene, during the forenoon, to see the children going laden home, each with his large apron bellying out before him, stuffed full of cakes, and perhaps scarcely able to waddle under the load. Such a mass of oaten alms is no inconsiderable addition to the comfort of the poor man’s household, and enables him to enjoy the New-year season as much as his richer neighbours.

In the primitive parish of Deerness, in Orkney, it was customary, in the beginning of the present century, for old and young of the common class of people to assemble in a great band upon the evening of the last day of the year, and commence a round of visits throughout the district. At every house they knocked at the door, and on being admitted, commenced singing, to a tune of its own, a song appropriate to the occasion. The following is what may be termed a restored version of this chant, the imagination having been called on to make up in several of the lines what was deficient in memory. The ‘Queen Mary’ alluded to is evidently the Virgin:

‘This night it is guid New’r E’en’s night,
We’re a’ here Queen Mary’s men;
And we’re come here to crave our right,
And that’s before our Lady.
The very first thing which we do crave,
We’re a’ here Queen Mary’s men;
A bonny white candle we must have,
And that’s before our Lady.
Goodwife, gae to your butter-ark,
And weigh us here ten mark.
Ten mark, ten pund,
Look that ye grip weel to the grund.2
Goodwife, ga to your geelin vat,
And fetch us here a skeel o’ that.
Gang to your awmrie, gin ye please,
And bring frae there a yow-milk cheese.
And syne bring here a sharping-stane,
We’ll sharp our whittles ilka ane.
Ye’ll cut the cheese, and eke the round,
But aye take care ye cutna your thoom.
Gae fill the three-pint cog o’ ale,
The maut maun be aboon the meal.
We houp your ale is stark and stout,
For men to drink the auld year out.
Ye ken the weather’s snaw and sleet,
Stir up the fire to warm our feet.
Our shoon’s made o’ mare’s skin,
Come open the door, and let’s in.’

The inner-door being opened, a tremendous rush was made ben the house. The inmates furnished a long table with all sorts of homely fare, and a hearty feast took place, followed by copious libations of ale, charged with all sorts of good-wishes. The party would then proceed to the next house, where a similar scene would be enacted. How they contrived to take so many suppers in one evening, heaven knows! No slight could be more keenly felt by a Deerness farmer than to have his house passed over unvisited by the New-year singers.

The doings of the guisers or guizards (that is, masquers or mummers) form a conspicuous feature in the New-year proceedings throughout Scotland. The favourite night for this exhibition is Hogmanay, though the evenings of Christmas, New-year’s Day, and Handsel Monday, enjoy likewise a privilege in this respect. Such of the boys as can lay any claim to the possession of a voice have, for weeks before, been poring over the collection of ‘excellent new songs,’ which lies like a bunch of rags in the window-sill; and being now able to screech up ‘Barbara Allan,’ or the ‘Wee cot-house and the wee kail-yardie,’ they determine upon enacting the part of guisers. For is purpose they don old shirts belonging to their fathers, and mount mitre-shaped casques of brown paper, possibly borrowed from the Abbot of Unreason; attached to this is a sheet of the same paper, which, falling down in front, covers and conceals the whole face, except where holes are made to let through the point of the nose, and afford sight to the eyes and breath to the mouth. each vocal guiser is, like a knight of old, attended by a sort of humble squire, who assumes the habiliments of a girl, with an old-woman’s cap and a broomstick, and is styled ‘Bessie.’ Bessie is equal in no respect, except that she shares fairly in the proceeds of the enterprise. She goes before her principal, opens all the doors at which he pleases to exert his singing powers; and busies herself, during the time of the song, in sweeping the floor with her broomstick, or in playing any other antics that she thinks may amuse the indwellers. The common reward of this entertainment is a halfpenny, but many churlish persons fall upon the unfortunate guisers, and beat them out of the house. Let such persons, however, keep a good watch upon their cabbage-gardens next Halloween!

The more important doings of the guisers are of a theatrical character. There is one rude and grotesque drama which they are accustomed to perform on each of the four above-mentioned nights; and which, in various fragments or versions, exists in every part of Lowland Scotland. The performers, who are never less than three, but sometimes as many as six, having dressed themselves, proceed in a band from house to house, generally contenting themselves with the kitchen for an arena; whither, in mansions presided over by the spirit of good-humour, the whole family will resort to witness the spectacle. Sir Walter Scott, who delighted to keep up the old customs, and could condescend to simple things without losing genuine dignity, invariably had a set of guisers to perform this play before his family both at Ashestiel and Abbotsford. the drama in question bears a close resemblance, with sundry modifications and of which we have already given a specimen.3


A singular custom, almost unparalleled in any other part of Scotland, takes place on New-year’s Eve (old style) at the village of Burghead, on the southern shore of the Moray Firth, about nine miles from the town of Elgin. It has been observed there from time immemorial, and both its origin, and that of the peculiar appellation by which it is distinguished, form still matter of conjecture and dispute for antiquaries. The following extract from the Banffshire Journal presents a very interesting and comprehensive view of all that can be stated regarding this remarkable ceremonial:

‘Any Hogmanay afternoon, a small group of seamen and coopers, dressed in blue overfrocks, and followed by numbers of noisy youngsters, may be seen rapidly wending their way to the south-western extremity of the village, where it is customary to build the Clavie. One of the men bears on his shoulders a stout Archangel tar-barrel, kindly presented for the occasion by one of the merchants, who has very considerately left a quantity of the resinous fluid in the bottom. Another carries a common herring-cask, while the remainder are laiden with other raw materials, and the tools necessary for the construction of the Clavie. Arrived at the spot, three cheers being given for the success of the undertaking, operations are commenced forthwith. In the first place, the tar-barrel is sawn into two unequal parts; the smaller forms the groundwork of the Clavie, the other is broken up for fuel. A common fir prop. some four feet in length, called the “spoke,” being then procured, a hole is bored through the tub-like machine, that, as we have already said, is to form the basis of the unique structure, and a long nail, made for the purpose, and furnished gratuitously by the village blacksmith, unites the two. Curiously enough, no hammer is allowed to drive this nail, which is “sent home” by a smooth stone. The herring-cask is next demolished, and the staves are soon undergoing a diminution at both extremities, in order to fit them for their proper position. They are nailed, at intervals of about two inches all round, to the lower edge of the Clavie-barrel, while the other ends are firmly fastened to the spoke, an aperture being left sufficiently large to admit the head of a man. Amid tremendous cheering, the finished Clavie is now set up against the wall, which is mounted by two stout young men, who proceed to the business of filling and lighting. A few pieces of the split-up tar-barrel are placed in a pyramidal form in the inside of the Clavie, enclosing a small space for the reception of a burning peat, when everything is ready. The tar, which had been previously removed to another vessel, is now poured over the wood; and the same inflammable substance is freely used, while the barrel is being closely packed with timber and other combustible materials, that rise twelve or thirteen inches above the rim.

‘By this time the shades of evening have begun to descend, and soon the subdued murmur of the crowd breaks forth into one loud, prolonged cheer, as the youth who was despatched for the fiery peat (for custom says no sulphurous lucifer, no patent congreve dare approach within the sacred precincts of the Clavie) arrives with his glowing charge. The master-builder relieving him of his precious trust, places it within the opening already noticed, where, revived by a hot blast from his powerful lungs, it ignites the surrounding wood and tar, which quickly bursts into a flame. During the short time the fire is allowed to gather strength, cheers are given in rapid succession for “The Queen,” “The Laird,” “The Provost,” “The Town,” “The Harbour,” and “The Railway,” and then Clavie-bearer number one, popping his head between the staves, is away with his flaming burden. Formerly, the Clavie was carried in triumph round every vessel in the harbour, and a handful of grain thrown into each, in order to insure success for the coming year; but as this part of the ceremony came to be tedious, it was dropped, and the procession confined to the boundaries of the town. As fast as his heavy load will permit him, the bearer hurries along the well-known route, followed by the shouting Burgheadians, the boiling tar meanwhile trickling down in dark sluggish streams all over his back. Nor is the danger of scalding the only one he who essays to carry the Clavie has to confront, since the least stumble is sufficient to destroy his equilibrium. Indeed, this untoward event, at one time looked on as a dire calamity, foretelling disaster to the place, and certain death to the bearer in the course of next year, not unfrequently occurs. Having reached the junction of two streets, the carrier of the Clavie is relieved; and while the change is being effected, firebrands plucked from the barrel are thrown among the crowd, who eagerly scramble for the tarry treasure, the possession of which was of old deemed a sure safeguard against all unlucky contingencies. Again the multitude bound along; again they halt for a moment as another individual takes his place as bearer – a post for the honour of which there us sometimes no little striving. The circuit of the town being at length completed, the Clavie is borne along the principal street to a small hill near the northern extremity of the promontory called the “Doorie,” on the summit of which a freestone pillar, very much resembling an ancient alter, has been built for its reception, the spoke fitting into a socket in the centre. Being now firmly seated on its throne, fresh fuel is heaped on the Clavie, while, to make the fire burn brighter, a barrel with the ends knocked out is placed on the top. Cheer after cheer rises from the crown below, as the efforts made to increase the blaze are crowned with success.

‘Though formerly allowed to remain on the Doorie the whole night, the Clavie is now removed when it has burned about half an hour. Then comes the most exciting scene of all. The barrel is lifted from the socket, and thrown down on the western slope of the hill, which appears to be all in one mass of flame – a state of matters that does not, however, prevent a rush to the spot in search of embers. Two stout men, instantly seizing the fallen Clavie, attempt to demolish it by dashing it to the ground: which is no sooner accomplished than a final charge is made among the blazing fragments, that are snatched up in total, in spite of all the powers of combustion, in an incredibly short space of time. Up to the present moment, the origin of this peculiar custom is involved in the deepest obscurity. Some would have us to believe that we owe its introduction to the Romans; and that the name Clavie is derived from the Latin word clavus, a nail – witches being frequently put to death in a barrel stuck full of iron spikes; or from clavis, a key – the rite being instituted when Agricola discovered that Ptoroton, i.e., Burghead, afforded the grand military key to the north of Scotland. As well might these wild speculators have remarked that Doorie, which may be spelled Durie, sprang from durus, cruel, on account of the bloody ceremony celebrated on its summit. Another opinion has been boldly advanced by one party, to the effect that the Clavie is Scandinavian in origin, being introduced by the Norwegian Vikings, during the short time they held the promontory in the beginning of the eleventh century, though the theorist advances nothing to prove his assumption, save a quotation from Scott’s Marmion; while, to crown all, we have to listen to a story that bears on its face its own condemnation, invented to confirm the belief that a certain witch, yclept, “Kitty Clavers,” bequeathed her name to the singular rite. Unfortunately, all external evidence being lost, we are compelled to rely entirely on the internal, which we have little hesitation, however, in saying points in an unmistakable manner down through the long vistas of our national history to where the mists of obscurity hang around the Druid worship of our forefathers. It is well known that the elements of fire were often present in Druidical orgies and customs (as witness their cran-tara); while it is universally admitted that the bonfires of May-day and Mid-summer eve, still kept up in different parts of the country, are vestiges of these rites. And why should not the Clavie be so too, seeing that it bears throughout the stamp of a like parentage? The carrying home of the embers, as a protection from the ills of life, as well as other parts of the ceremony, finds a counterpart in the customs of the Druids; and though the time of observance be somewhat different, yet may not the same causes (now unknown ones) that have so greatly modified the Clavie have likewise operated in altering the date, which, after all, occurs at the most solemn part of the Druidical year?’


The close of the year brings along with it a mingled feeling of gladness and melancholy – of gladness in the anticipation of brighter days to come with the advent of the New Year, and of melancholy in reflections on the fleeting nature of time, and the gradual approach to the inevitable goal in the race for life. That so interesting an occasion should be distinguished by some observance or ceremony appears but natural, and we accordingly find various customs prevail, some sportive, others serious, and others in which both the mirthful and pensive moods are intermingled.

One of the best known and most general of these customs is, that of sitting up till twelve o’clock on the night of the 31st December, and, then, when the eventful hour has struck, proceeding to the house-door, and unbarring it with great formality to ‘let out the Old, and let in the New Year.’ The evening in question is a favourite occasion for social gatherings in Scotland, the assembled friends this welcoming together the birth of another of Father Time’s ever-increasing, though short-lived progeny. In Philadelphia, in North America, we are informed that the Old Year is there ‘fired out,’ and the New Year ‘fired in,’ by a discharge of every description of firearm – musket, fowling-piece, and pistol. In the island of Guernsey, it used to be the practice of children to dress up a figure in the shape of a man, and after parading it through the parish, to bury it on the sea-shore, or in some retired spot. This ceremony was styled ‘enterrer le vieux bout de l’an.’

1 See p.745 of this volume.
2 In stooping into a deep ark, or chest, there is of course a danger of falling in, unless the feet be kept firm to the ground.
3 See p.740 of this volume.

Associated Words from Jamieson’s Scottish Dictionary.

GYSAR, GYSARD, s. 1. A harlequin; a term applied to those who disguise themselves about the time of New-Year, S. gysart. Maitl. P. 2. One whose looks are disfigured by age, or otherwise, S. Journal Lond.

HET PINT. The hot beverage which young people carry with them from house to house early in the morning of the new-year; used also on the night preceding a marriage, and at the time of child-bearing, S. Morison.

HET STOUP. Het Pint, S. J. Nicol.

LAYFITTIT, adj. Having the sole of the foot quite plain or flat, without any spring in it, and also much turned out, Fife, Loth. Scleetin-fitted, Caithn. This is viewed as corresponding with E. Splay-footed, as given by Baily, “One who treads his toes much outward.” The superstitious view it as an evil-omen, if the first fit, i.e. the first person who calls, or who is met in the beginning of the New Year, or when one sets out on a journey, or engages in any business, should happen to be lay-fittit

NEW-YEARSDAY. Among the superstitions connected with this day, the following keeps its place in Ayrs. “She was removed from mine to Abraham’s bosom on Christmas day, and buried on Hogmanae; for it was thought uncanny to have a dead corpse in the house on the New-year’s-day.” Annals Par.

PLOTTIE, s. A rich and pleasant hot drink. Boil some cinnamon, nutmeg grated, cloves and mace, in a quarter pint of water; add to this a full pint of port wine, with refined sugar to taste; bring the whole to the boiling point, and serve. Cook and Housewife’s Manual. [Similar to the Het Pint recipe?]

Auld Lang Syne, &c.


For auld lang syne, my dear,

For auld lang syne,

We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet

For auld lang syne!


SHOULD auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And 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.


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!


For auld lang syne, my dear,

For auld lang syne,

We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet

For auld lang syne!

Poetry of Robert Burns (1896), ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ Vol. 3, pp.147-149.
‘Scottish Students’ Song Book’ (1897), ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ pp.318-319.
‘Songs of Scotland Prior to Burns’ (1880), ‘Old Long Syne’ & ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ pp.274-280.

Notes on Auld Lang Syne.

No. 413 in Johnson (Vol. v. 1796): signed ‘Z.’ Included in Thomson (Vol. ii.), from a MS. in the Editor’s possession.

Sent to Mrs. Dunlop, 17th December 1788:- ‘Apropos, is not the Scotch phrase Auld Langsyne exceedingly expressive? There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul,’ etc. To Thomson he wrote:- ‘One song more and I have done – “Auld Lang Syne.” The air is but mediocre; but the following song – the old song of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript, until I took it down from an old man’s singing, is enough to recommend any air.’ Thomson in Scottish Airs expressed the opinion that Burns thus wrote ‘merely in a playful humour.’ It may also be that the story was a device to make sure that he (Thomson) would accept a piece which the writer was far too modest to describe as his own improvement on the earlier sets, the one published in Watson (1711), the other credited to Allan Ramsay. But, after all, it is by no means impossible that he really got the germ of his set as he says he did. The oldest, as given in Watson, is in two parts:-

‘Should old acquaintance be forgot
And never thought upon,
The Flames of Love extinguished
And freely past and gone?
Is thy kind Heart now grown so cold
In that Loving Breast of thine
That thou can’st never once reflect
On Old-long-syne?’ etc.

It is usually attributed to Francis Sempill; but the broadside from which Watson got it, and of which there is a copy (probably unique) in the Laing Collection at Dalmeny, is headed thus: ‘An Excellent and proper new ballad, entitled Old Long Syne. Newly corrected and amended, with a large and new edition of several excellent love lines.’ The title is important, as indicating the existence of an older set; and that Burns either knew the set, or had seen this said broadside, is clear, since, instead of the mere refrain of ‘old long-syne,’ as in Watson, it has this burden:-

‘On old long syne,
On old long syne, my jo,
On old long syne:
That thou canst never once reflect
On old long syne.’

The Ramsay derivative also takes the form of a love-song, in which a lady, by way of greeting her hero newly home from the wars, inquires:-

‘Should old acquaintance be forgot
Though they return with scars?’:-

and, concluding that they shouldn’t, goes on to cry:-

‘Welcome, my Varo, to my breast,
Thy arms about me twine;
And make me once again as blest
As I was lang syne.’

After divers reflections, which attest her acquaintance with poets and ‘politic authors,’ she concludes her incantation thus irresistibly:-

‘O’er moor and dale with your gay friend
You may pursue the chase,
And after a blythe bottle end
All cares in my embrace.
And in a vacant rainy day
You shall be wholly mine;
We’ll make the hours run smooth away
And laugh at lang syne.’

The hero, perceiving that her intentions are strictly honourable, assents; and the piece concludes with a wedding in the wigmaking poet’s best full-bottom style.

Two anti-Union ballads (1707), to the tune of Old Long Syne, are in the Roxburghe Collection. One is a parody of the earlier set:-

‘Shall Monarchy be quite forgot,
And of it no more heard?
Antiquity be razèd out
And slav’ry put in stead?
Is Scotsmen’s blood now grown so cold,
The valour of their mind,
That they can never once reflect
On old long sine?’

The other, O Caledon, O Caledon, which Mr. Ebsworth regards as unique, is in the Laing Collection as well. It was known to George Lockhart (1673-1731), and was published in The Lockhart Papers (1817). There is, besides. a Jacobite ballad on similar lines (and slightly Bacchanalian, like the Burns set), in The True Loyalist (1779):-

‘Should old gay mirth and cheerfulness
Be dashed for evermore?’ etc.

Scott Douglas mentions a parody by Burns:-

‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never thought upon?
Let’s hae a waught o’ Malaga
For auld lang syne.’

In the Thomson version – MS. at Brechin Castle – Stanza II. of our text, and Johnson’s, comes last.

‘Poetry of Robert Burns’ (1896), Vol. 3, pp.407-410.

6 thoughts on “Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve)

  1. re: “plottie”, see also the piece in the latest issue of iScot reviewing the history of port wine in Scotland!

      1. I was certain you would 🙂 Many happy returns, dat baw cannae drop too soon.

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