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Scottish Hogmanay Customs and Traditions at New Year

Customs and traditions of New Year and Hogmanay in Scotland such as first footing, the bells, black bun and the origins of hogmanay

Scottish hogmanay new year traditions customs cartoons

Hogmanay in Scotland is a great festive time, steeped in many customs and traditions. Below are some of these and the reasoning behind them:

New Years Eve Customs

During the day of Hogmanay the household would be busy cleaning so that the New Year could be welcomed into a tidy and neat house. It is considered ill luck to welcome in the New Year in a dirty uncleaned house. Fireplaces would be swept out and polished and some people would read the ashes of the very last fire of the year, to see what the New Year would hold. The act of cleaning the entire house was called the redding, ie getting ready for the New Year.

Pieces from a Rowan tree would be placed above a door to bring luck. In the house would be placed a piece of mistletoe, not for kissing under like at Christmas, but to prevent illness to the householders. Pieces of holly would be placed to keep out mischievous fairies and pieces of hazel and yew which were thought to have magical powers and would protect the house and the people who lived in it. Juniper would be burnt throughout the house, then all the doors of the home would be opened to bring in fresh air. The house was then considered ready to bring in the New Year.

Debts would be paid by New Year's Eve because it was considered bad luck to see in a new year with a debt.

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Any visitors who arrive before the chimes of midnight on New Year's Eve would have to be violently shooed away to prevent bad luck. At midnight the man of the house would open the back door to let the old year out and then open the front door of the house to let in the new year. The household would also make as much noise as possible to scare off evil spirits. In harbours throughout Aberdeenshire, at Aberdeen Harbour and throughout the North East Sea fishermen and sailors will sound their horns and these sounds carry for miles.

New Year Bells

The first stroke of the chimes at New Year is known as The Bells. People would sing Auld Lang Syne together whilst linking arms. Read the words of Auld Lang Syne.

After the bells have rung people would go visiting friends and family, or first footing as it is known in Scotland. This would involve carrying a bottle of spirit such as whisky to offer people a new year dram. In olden days when people could only afford one bottle of spirit’s a year this bottle would take pride of place on the mantelpiece or by the fireplace and only opened at the stroke of midnight.

Hogmanay Toasts

As people wish each other a Happy New Year there are some hogmanay toasts that can be said. A traditional Scottish New Year toast is:

Lang may yer lum reek!

Which means long may your chimney smoke and originated when people had coal fires and if the chimney was smoking it meant that you could afford coal and keep warm.

Another New Year toast said by Scottish people is:

A guid New Year to ane an' a' and mony may ye see"

Which translates to English from Scots as A good New Year to one and all, and many may you see.

New Year Resolutions

new year resolutions

Resolutions are made at New Year, the most popular being to stop smoking or to loose weight. Scots may seem a sentimental race who hark back to the past, but we are also a race who look forward to the future and so Scotland invented making a New Year resolution. I can’t find much historical evidence for New Year resolutions but it seems to have originated in Victorian times.

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First Footing

The first foot of the New Year (the first person to step into the house and sometimes called the first fit) should traditionally be a tall black haired man. This stems back to the 4th - 12th century when unwelcome visitors to this shore were Vikings who were short and fair-haired. It is considered luckier to have the opposite type of person to visit. He or she should be honest, healthy, good tempered and liked by all. They must not be carrying a sharp object like a knife. It is not unusual for a household to choose a first footer and make arrangements prior to Hogmanay.

Unlucky First Footers

Women and red haired people are considered unlucky first footers, as is a person who first foots empty handed with no gift. Such a person will bring bad luck to the household for the rest of the year. Scottish hospitality means that the unlucky first footer cannot be turned away and must come in for some refreshment. Some households overcome this bad luck by asking the person to throw salt on an open fire if they have one or placing a piece of burning straw up the chimney. Roman Catholics will cross themselves if an unlucky first footer arrives at their house. Others make a cross from Rowan twigs and place this at their front door. If an unlucky first footer arrives they touch this twig cross three times saying the name of their God each time before the first footer speaks. This might sound daft in modern times but Scots have always been superstitious and do not want to suffer 12 months bad luck until the next first footer arrives.

Other unlucky first footers include Doctors, a Minister, thieves, a grave digger, someone born with a handicap, a flat footed person and someone whose eyebrows meet in the middle. This may seem politically incorrect but these hark back to the days before PC and are written here for historic interest.

Going Out First Footing

Those going out first footing should carry a bottle to offer a drink, a lump of coal to signify that the house will keep warm, bring comfort and be safe for the year, black bun, or more modernly shortbread, to signify that the household won't go hungry for the year and a silver coin to bring prosperity to the household for the new year.

Friends, family, neighbours and even strangers are welcomed in with a handshake and the words "A Happy New Year" or " A guid year tae ye" (A good year to you) and then offered a dram and a bite to eat. The New Year is toasted with many a glass of whisky.

In some Scottish communities the Hogmanay tradition of taking a turn still exists at parties. A turn can be reciting a poem, singing a song, telling a joke or story telling.

Hogmanay Customs

Creaming of the Well

Households who still have wells should perform the creaming of the well tradition - the first water to be drawn from the well in the New Year. A woman who wishes to wed a particular man would try to get him to drink from this water by the end of the day to guarantee marriage. In olden days when there was a community well the villagers would rush to be the first to cream the well because it would foretell good fortune for the year.

Meeting at Hogmanay

In industrial days when people would live in a community that worked together and would work all winter without a break, except for New Year Eve and Day the communities would meet at a central point to see the New Year in. The central place was commonly by the Mercat Cross, the Town Clock or Village Church. In Aberdeen people would meet by the Town House which now explains why Aberdeen hosts the annual Hogmanay concert at the Castlegate.

Hogmanay Guising

Much like Hallowe'en children would have gone out guising around the neighbourhood knocking on doors an oatcake, a piece of black bun, shortbread sweets or money. A popular Scottish Hogmanay guising song was:

Rise up, guid wife, an' shake your feathers,
Dinna think that we are beggars:
We are bairns come out to play,
Get up and gie's our Hogmanay!

Modern Hogmanay Customs

Modern traditions include watching comedy specials. During the 1970's and 1980's it was Scotch and Wry and these days it is new episodes of Only An Excuse? and repeats of Chewin' The Fat or Still Game. The BBC also broadcast a Hogmanay Live Show with special guests and live link ups to Scottish hogmanay events.

There is always a street party at Princess Street in Edinburgh and tickets are much sought after. This Hogmanay event is filmed on Scottish Television on Channel 3 for the Hogmanay Live Show. It is broadcast live throughout Scotland and other parts of the world. The Edinburgh event has live music, dancing, famous presenters and interviews and a countdown to the bells with a toast of whisky to the New Year.

Hogmanay Food

Shortbread biscuits, whisky and black bun is traditionally eaten and drunk during Hogmanay. Black bun is a rich fruit cake wrapped in a pastry. Steak pie and potatoes are traditionally eaten for New Year's lunch to help sober up Scottish men and women worldwide! For those who can face a hearty lunch or dinner then Scotch broth soup is a common starter on New Year’s Day and clootie dumpling makes a tasty pudding. Some Scots like to eat traditional Scottish food like haggis, neeps and tatties or older recipes like clapshot or rumbledethumps. There are recipes for these and older traditional Scottish recipes at

In Scotland New Year Day is a family occasion with families travelling to a get together. The next few days sees the tradition of first footing continuing when people visit friends and family with shortcake or a gift and a drink. It is common for employees to be give extra holidays on the 2nd and 3rd of the month.

Het Pint

In olden days villagers would carry a drink called Het Pint which was a boiling mixture of ale mulled with nutmeg and whisky. It was served from a copper kettle and this steaming liquid would be offered to anyone the first footer met. Modern first footer carry a bottle of spirits such as whisky. A traditional Het Pint recipe can be found in the book The Scots Kitchen by F. Marian McNeill. Ingredients include ale, sugar, eggs, whisky and nutmeg.

Origins of Hogmanay

The tradition of Hogmanay is thought to have its origins in France and comes from the French word Aguillaneuf and the words L'an neuf which translates to New Year. The French would give each other presents on the last day of the year. It was common for the poor to take to the streets to receive gifts to the shout of "Au gui l'an neuf". In Normandy this phrase was known as hoguinelo and the gifts called hoguignetes. There has always been a strong connection between Scotland and France which dates back to the Auld Alliance between the two countries when they shared a common Queen who was Mary, Queen of Scots. She lived in France for a short time during her childhood and was the Queen of France for a brief period. When she returned to Scotland she introduced many customs to the country and French words to the Scots language.

Other sources have traced the word back to 1696 when the Scottish National Dictionary described women singing a hog ma nae song. The English Dialect Dictionary of 1696 gave a reference to ordinary people going door to door on New Year's Eve crying out Hagmana. This was thought to be from the corrupted Greek word Hagia-mana which translates to Holy Month.

There is a small reference in the 1680 Oxford English Dictionary to a listing for Hogmynae-night in the list of festivals.

People from the Hebridean Isles trace back the word Hogmanay to their Scandinavian ancestors who had a feast of the Yule where animals would be slaughtered for the Yule feast. The night before was called Hoggo-nott which over the centuries became Hogenat and then Hogg-night. Hagg means to kill or cut.

New Year Fire Ceremonies

Scottish people have long associated the New Year with fire and a time of new opportunities and cleansing of the old life. The fires are said to ward of the evil spirits. Here in Aberdeenshire we still perform the fireball ceremony at Stonehaven and the Burning of the Clavie at Burghead in Elgin. There are more details of each ceremony with photos in the links below. At the village Comrie in Perthshire there is a ceremony called the Flambeaux where torches made from small trees which have been dipped in paraffin are lit on hogmanay and carried through the village. There are carnival type floats and a procession. The event ends at the village square and the lit Flambeauxs are thrown onto a bonfire.

In the fishing village of Footdee at Aberdeen there was a New Year tradition of burning old boats and wood on a bonfire on the old Hogmanay date of the 11th January. The villagers would cry Burn The Boat as the fire was lit and the dying embers would be taken round the houses. This helped ward off evil such as witches that would contrive to wreck boats at the Donmouth (cited in the book Footdee: And Her Shipyards (Villages of Aberdeen)). The Fittie villagers also performed the creaming of the well which is described further above this aboutaberdeen Hogmanay customs page.

Read more about the Burning of the Clavie.

Up Helly-aa

In Lerwick, the Shetland Islands there is the festival of Up Helly-aa where the villagers make a full scale Viking galley boat with detail such as oars and shields. The boat is built over the preceding months. At the festival, which takes place at night, the boat is pulled down to the beach by villagers who are dressed as Viking Warriors. The other villagers carry lit fire torches and when the Viking long boat reaches the beach the villagers give three cheers to the builders. Following the cheering a bugle sounds and the boat is torched alight. The Up Helly-aa is held on the last Tuesday of January. Many Shetlanders who no longer live on the Isle return home each year for this festival.

Read about the Hogmanay Stonehaven Fireball Ceremony.

Read about the Burning of the Clavie.

Other Names For New Years Eve

Cake Day

As well as being called Hogmanay in Scotland, New Year Eve used to be known as Cake Day. This was because people would go out guising from door to door to get a piece of cake from their neighbours. It is still called Cake Day by some Scottish people and those from the North of England.

Singing E'en

Singing E'en, or Singing Evening used to be celebrated in the East of Scotland in places like Angus and Fife. It got its name because people would go out singing Yule Carols on New Year's Eve which was then called Old Year's Night.

Other Spellings of Hogmanay

The origins of the word Hogmanay still remain unknown however it is known that the word used to be spelt hag-me-nay in the Galloway area and huggeranohni in the Shetland Islands. These variations of the Hogmanay word is probably because the language was handed down from generation to generation orally rather than in writing.

New Year Walks

A custom in the Buchan area of Rathen is to have village walks lead by musicians on Christmas Day, New Year Day and on the 2 January each year. Read more about these at the Temperance Walk at Inverallochy, and Cairnbulg St Combs page.

More Scottish customs and traditions.

Aberdeenshire Hogmanay

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