Every year as the long winter nights creep by, Scotland looks forward to the biggest party of the calendar when, we defy the darkness to see out the old year, and welcome in the new.
For centuries , the time of year around the shortest day has been a period of merrymaking for people in temperate climes around the world. In societies where the day-to-day lives of most people were dictated by the rhythm of the changing seasons, the passing of the longest night heralded the coming of new life to the world. For the ancient Romans, the winter solstice was marked by the festival of Saturnalia, from the 17th to the 23rd of December. Following Saturnalia, the Roman New Year began on the 1st of January, giving us our traditional date today which Scotland has used since 1600.
During the Middle Ages, the pre-existing pagan winter festivals were overshadowed by the feasts surrounding Christmas, and the New Year was moved to coincide with Christian holy days. Following the reformation in Scotland, however, celebration of Christmas was discouraged, and so the gift-giving and celebration that accompanied Christmas elsewhere took place at New Year, giving rise to the uniquely Scottish celebration of Hogmanay.
The origin of the word 'Hogmanay' itself is uncertain. It may have entered the Scots language from French, Gaelic, Flemish or Ancient English. Whatever its origin, Hogmanay was common practice by 1604, when it made its first appearance in written records, though many of the traditions observed predate its name.
The tradition of first footing requires that the first visitor of the New Year should be a tall, dark and handsome stranger, and come bearing a gift of coal, to bring good luck for the coming year.
The various local traditions found in Scotland centred around fires also hark back to the ancient past. In the pagan winter celebrations, fire symbolised the newly resurgent sun coming back to the land, and was believed to ward off evil spirits dwelling in the darkness. Fires still play a major part in Hogmanay celebrations, with torchlight processions, bonfires and fireworks popular throughout Scotland. In Stonehaven, in North East Scotland there is a long-standing tradition of making giant fireballs (weighing up to 10 kilos!) from rags doused in paraffin, swung on poles and paraded through the town's streets.
A more recent tradition, and one that has spread from Scotland to the whole of the English-speaking world, is the singing at the stroke of midnight of Robert Burns' poem Auld Lang Syne, set to a traditional Scottish folk melody. The Scottish national bard's nostalgic ode to times gone by rings in the New Year in all corners of the world, and though we may sometimes wince at the pronunciation, we can surely appreciate the sentiment.
In Edinburgh, a more recently conceived tradition has been marking New Year for the last 20 years. Brave residents around the city, and in coastal communities around Scotland head to the nearest body of water for a fresh start in fresh water on the morning of New Year’s Day.
Like any festive occasion, Hogmanay is a time to enjoy food and drink, and has its own gastronomic traditions. Fruitcake, shortbread and black bun are the customary dishes to offer guests, and to present to hosts when first footing. A flute of champagne lends a celebratory sparkle to any occasion, but the only drink with which to toast the bells at Hogmanay is of course Scotch whisky.
With such a lively and longstanding heritage, it is only to be expected that the Scottish Hogmanay traditions live on today, and continue to grow. Hogmanay in Scotland attracts visitors from all over the world every year.
In Edinburgh the party can begin as early as the 29th of December. Edinburgh's world-famous street party on New Years Eve sometimes sees crowds of over 80,000 people. In recent years the accompanying Concert In The Gardens has featured stellar line-ups such as Blondie, The Proclaimers and Calvin Harris.
Other events are held throughout Scotland, from the big parties in major towns and cities such as Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness and Perth, to local village ceilidhs, Stonehaven's unique fireball-swinging, and Shetland's Up Helly Aa, held in late January, featuring torchlight processions and ceremonial burning of a Viking galley. And if you don't feel like braving the elements, you can always be assured of a warm welcome from friends and neighbours just don't forget the coal!