Hogmanay - the Scottish New Year Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Hogmanay - the Scottish New Year

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A clock depicting the second between 2006 and 2007.
A guid New Year to ane an' a'!
'A good New Year to one and all.'
- traditional Scots toast at Hogmanay.

Hogmanay is the Scots1 word for the celebration to welcome the New Year. Traditionally it runs from noon on 31 December to noon on 1 January, but it is now generally taken to mean the whole new year festive period; the festivities often continue well into the new year and even into 2 January as well. It is a time of hope and looking forward to a better year.

History and Origins

The celebration of Hogmanay can be traced back to the pagan practices of sun and fire worship in mid-winter. The Roman festival of Saturnalia involved great festivities with lots of wine and food, as well as more lascivious goings-on. The Vikings celebrated Yule, beginning on the shortest day of the year with sacrifices to the Norse gods and continuing for a number of days. The customs of Hogmanay probably combine elements of both of these with elements of druidic winter solstice practices2.

Following the Scottish Reformation in the 1560s, celebrating Christmas was frowned upon by the rather dour version of Calvinism introduced by John Knox and his successors, who believed it was too superstitious and too Roman Catholic. This was taken so seriously, and preached so vociferously in parish churches, that the celebration of Christmas was effectively banned, except in its pure religious sense. However, while the reformers could ban Christmas, they were unable to do the same for New Year. The celebrations were forced to go underground during the Interregnum under Oliver Cromwell, who banned Christmas in 1651, but it re-emerged in the late 17th Century.

Right up until the 1950s, Hogmanay was the major festival of the winter season. Christmas Day was a normal working day in Scotland until the 1960s and even into the 1970s in some areas. Instead, people took holidays over the New Year period, 31 December to 2 January, with all the feasting and gift-giving which is now associated primarily with Christmas. By the 1980s/90s, Christmas had once again become a huge festival, due in large part to the waning influence of the church and the increasing effect of 'international' cultural traditions. However, despite Christmas Day and Boxing Day being made public holidays in the 1960s, as they had been for years in England, Hogmanay is still associated with as much celebration as Christmas in Scotland, if not more. Indeed, both 1 and 2 January are public holidays in Scotland whereas in England only 1 January is a holiday.


No-one is really sure where the word Hogmanay comes from. The Gaelic3 phrase for Hogmanay is Oidhche na Challuinne, meaning 'the night of the new year.' On Shetland, heavily influenced by the Vikings, New Year is called Yules. The word Hogmanay can be traced back to 1696 with reference to someone singing a 'hog ma nae song.' The Oxford English Dictionary dates Hogmynae-night as a festival as far back as 1680. Some possible origins are:

Oige maidne

This means 'new morning' in Old Gaelic. There is a Gaelic Hogmanay song starting with these words.


This Norman French word is derived from the Old French 'Anguillanneuf' meaning 'gift at new year'. There is some evidence for this as the origin of Hogmanay in the old Jersey custom of crying 'ma hodgîngnole' and the Guernsey custom of asking for a new year gift, an 'oguinane'. The Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, first recorded in the year 1295, led to a quite a bit of French influence on the language and customs in Scotland, so this is probably the front-runner in the 'origin of the word Hogmanay' stakes.

Hoog min dag

This means 'day of great love' in Flemish (Dutch). For centuries the Flemish and Scots were great trading partners, so it's quite possible that the Scots appropriated a phrase from Flemish.

Haleg monaþ

This Old English phrase means 'holy month', meaning the month around Christmas.

French Phrases

  • Au gui mener - 'lead to the mistletoe.'
  • Au gui l'an neuf - 'to the mistletoe the new year.'
  • Homme est né - '(the) man is born.'

Less Likely Origins

  • Aguinaldo - Spanish for 'Christmas gift'.
  • Αγια μηνη - Greek for 'holy month'.
  • Hug me now - in 1824, John MacTaggart proposed this as the origin of Hogmanay, suggesting that the word comes from a time when it was common to greet someone with a kiss.


There are many customs associated with Hogmanay throughout Scotland, some local, some national. There are ceilidhs4 and parties all round the country, from small family gatherings to the city-centre parties attended by tens of thousands of people. Many of the local customs involve the use of fire; it is said that this symbolises lighting the way into the coming year and carrying the light of knowledge into the future, but it is more likely to be a hold-over from pagan midwinter rites, when fire was very important.

Auld Lang Syne

Perhaps the most famous custom associated with New Year around the world is the singing of Auld Lang Syne. This traditional Scots song was made famous by Robert Burns; he didn't write the original, although it is thought that he wrote the 3rd and 4th verses. Normally, however, only the first and last (5th) verses, with the chorus, are sung.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne5.

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!

The English translation is something like this:

Should old friends be forgotten,
And never remembered?
Should old friends be forgotten,
And days gone by?6

For days gone by, my dear,
For days gone by,
We'll take a cup of kindness yet,
For days gone by.

And there's a hand, my trusty friend,
And give me a hand of yours,
And we'll take a very hearty drink,
For days gone by!

It's become traditional to join hands in a circle during the first verse, then to cross your hands in front of you and join hands again for the last verse; this brings everyone in the circle closer together, which just reinforces the sentiments of the song. Don't worry if you don't know all the words. Many people will sing something like, 'Should auld acquaintance be forgot, la lah la lah la lahh, …… la lah, for auld lang syne!' The important thing is showing willing and being with friends.

The Bells

This is the moment at which the clock strikes midnight. Now is when toasts are proposed: 'A Guid New Year to ane an' a'!' or just, 'Happy New Year!' This is also the time for lots of hugs and kisses and general merriment.


The most widespread national custom is that of first-footing7, which starts immediately after the bells. This involves being the first person to enter the house of a friend or neighbour8, thus becoming the first foot in the door. Hence, the person doing the first-footing is known as the first-foot.


The first-foot is expected to bring suitable gifts to ensure good luck throughout the year. These may include:

  • A lump of coal - for warmth.
  • Cake or biscuits - to ensure the household never goes hungry. The cake is often a very rich and moist fruit cake known as Black Bun.
  • Salt - to bring wealth.

When presenting the lump of coal, the first-foot should say, 'Lang may yer lum reek', a traditional Scots good luck blessing for the long dark nights, literally translated as 'Long may your chimney smoke.'

Nowadays, however, gifts usually consist of a bottle9 and a box of chocolates or other sweets.

The First-foot

It is important for the good luck of the household that the first-foot is a suitable person; the ideal first-foot is a tall, dark-haired stranger - this harks back to the days of the Vikings, when a blond-haired stranger arriving in the middle of the night wasn't usually good news. Of course, these days, it is more likely that the first-foot will be known to those being visited, but as long as he's tall10 and dark, that's okay. Some traditions say he should be handsome as well, but that's probably just a general wish on the part of the female members of the visited households. Come to that, there's no reason nowadays why a woman can't be the first-foot, although some traditionalists do insist that female first-foots are unlucky.

First-foots11 don't always stop at just visiting one house. Sometimes just one person will go on to another house; more often a group of friends will go round each other's houses. The first-foot may be the same person at each door or they may take turns; the only important thing is that there must be gifts for each house visited. The first-footing, which quickly becomes second, third, or more-footing, often continues well into the morning of 1st January, with participants joining in and dropping out throughout the night - and the next day.

Of course, you may think that the first-foot is getting a bit of a raw deal, giving gifts to each house he visits. Not so. In exchange for his bringing you luck, it is traditional to offer him food and drink. The drink will obviously be tailored to the person, but if you want to be really traditional, offer him a Het Pint (a combination of ale, nutmeg and whisky) or at least a dram of whisky, preferably a large one.

What if you don't get a first-foot?

You might live somewhere out-of-the-way, or your house might be missed out for some reason, or maybe you're away visiting family or friends. For whatever reason you haven't been first-footed, you don't want to miss out on the luck, so what do you do? Opinions vary on this, but it's quite common in rural areas to leave a lump of coal outside the door so that when you next go into the house you can first-foot yourself. You may not be tall or dark and you're certainly not a stranger but at least the house should be blessed with good luck.


This is the custom of giving the house a clear-out before the new year. In particular, it is important to make sure that all the fires in the house are cleared of their ashes, to allow for new fires to be laid and started; this probably has its origins in pagan midwinter fire festivals, although it might just be a practical matter of making sure you can have a fire burning which won't go out while you are out partying. In past centuries, it was traditional to burn juniper throughout the house while cleaning it, to ensure that any evil spirits which might have moved in during the year were also cleaned out.
Redding has largely fallen into abeyance, but most people still do at least some clearing out before Hogmanay, even if it's just tidying up after Christmas in preparation for a New Year shindig.

Fireball Swinging

This is a custom peculiar to the town of Stonehaven in Kincardineshire, North-east Scotland. It has been documented since 1908, though it is believed to be much, much older. It involves local people making up forty to sixty balls of tar, wire and some flammable material: paper, rags, twigs, pine cones, bits of coal, etc. Each ball is then given to a swinger who swings the flaming ball round and round his (or her) head and body by a 5-6ft (1.5 - 1.8m) wire rope or chain. Each ball is made as heavy as each swinger feels he/she can handle; they can be anywhere between 5lb and 15lb (2.2 - 6.6kg), and be up to 3ft (1m) in diameter. The swingers treat it as a show of strength, competing to see who can swing his ball for the longest time; hardened swingers can keep it up for half an hour. In the past, some balls are reported to have burned for up to 2 hours, but now last for only about 20 - 30 minutes.

The procession of swingers goes through the streets of Stonehaven via the High Street, the Mercat Cross and the Sheriff Court, accompanied by pipes and drums. It ends at the harbour where any balls still burning are thrown into the water. Large crowds come from miles around to watch the spectacle, which is extremely impressive, particularly on a very dark, moonless night.

Kirkwall Handba'

The Handba' game between the Uppies and the Doonies, in Kirkwall, Orkney, is a hotly-contested event on New Year's Day every year. Scrambling through the streets in the dead of winter trying to keep control of, or even find, the ball for your team, in a game whose rules are a bit lax, has to be one of the ultimate hangover cures. The game in its present form dates from around 1850, but there was a ba' game on the Ba' Lea long before that. Originally, the side you were on was decided by which side of town you were born on: up-gate12 or down-gate. Now, it is more down to family loyalties, with each team routinely consisting of over 100 players. The Ba' game begins at 1pm precisely when the leather ball is tossed into the crowd gathered at the Mercat Cross opposite the Cathedral. The objective is for the opposing scrums to move the ball either up the street or down the street; it can be a few hours before a victory is achieved. There is a boys' game at 10:30am and there is hope of resurrecting a women's game, which was played in 1945/46, just after the Second World War.

The Biggar Bonfire

The Hogmanay bonfire on the High Street in Biggar13, Lanarkshire, like many celebrations, supposedly dates back to mid-winter fire-worship in pagan times. The burning of the bonfire has been going on for hundreds of years, even continuing during World War II, although during the war it consisted only of a candle in a tin at the bonfire site, so as not to attract enemy bombers.
On several occasions over the years, there have been attempts to stop it. In the 1940s, a compromise was reached to have only a small fire; this was built as agreed, but shortly before it was lit, the locals brought round cartloads of coal and wood, piling them up into a huge fire, which was so big it burned for five days. In the early 1990s, a newcomer to the town complained to the authorities about the size of the fire. The local fire brigade, police and the organisers had a meeting, at which it was decided that the fire would go ahead as usual, but at 12:30am the fire brigade would hose it down to put it out. This was duly done; then, after the fire brigade left, the locals brought out thirty gallons (135 litres) of diesel and re-lit it.

The Loony Douk

One of the more eccentric customs, the loony douk is held in South Queensferry, outside Edinburgh, on 1 January every year. A few brave lunatics take a short douk (Scots for 'dip') in the freezing cold waters of the Firth of Forth, hence the name.

Burning of the Clavie

This ceremony takes place in Burghead, a small village in Morayshire, on 11 January, which was the original date of Hogmanay prior to the change of the calendar in 1660. The Clavie is a half-barrel filled with wood shavings and tar; it is nailed to a carrying post, set alight and carried round the streets by the elected Clavie King. He and his assistants take it in turn to carry the Clavie round the streets, occasionally stopping at a house where a smouldering faggot is presented in the doorway to bring good luck for the year ahead. The Clavie is then carried up to an old Roman fort on nearby Doorie Hill, where more fuel is added, resulting in a huge beacon, visible for miles around. Once the fire has died down enough to approach, those still around will collect flaming embers to kindle a New Year fire at home.

City Parties

Edinburgh is world-renowned for its Hogmanay celebrations. Glasgow and other cities also hold huge parties. All of them attract visitors from right round the world, keen to join in with the music, singing, dancing, fireworks and, most of all, the friendly atmosphere. Other cities round the country also hold festivities, albeit on a smaller scale.


The capital of Scotland, Edinburgh hosts one of the biggest Hogmanay/New Year parties in the world, despite having a population of only 450,000. For many years there were parties throughout the city, with the biggest being a gathering at the Tron Church on the High Street. However, the first big, officially organised, street party in Edinburgh was held in 1992 after Edinburgh had hosted the 'Summit in the City' - the European Heads of State conference. This Hogmanay festival was so successful that it gave birth to the annual huge party, now held primarily on and around Princes Street. The biggest party to date was in 1996/97, when around 300,000 people crammed into the city centre. In recent years the numbers have been cut, for safety reasons, by making the party a ticket-only event, but there are still well over 100,000 people on the streets of the city centre, plus more in Princes Street Gardens and on Edinburgh Castle esplanade, not counting all the residents of the area who watch and take part from their own homes. The total numbers taking part are still probably nearly 200,000.

The festivities have, in recent years, begun a few days before Hogmanay. There is now a torchlit procession on 29 December, involving a replica viking warship being dragged from the Old Town, down Princes Street, then up to Calton hill, where fireworks are set off to complement the ship being torched, in a copy of Shetland's end-of-January Up-Helly-Aa viking festival. On 30 December there is a warm-up party held in George Street, involving a huge ceilidh and pipe band parades.

The main event is the Street Party on Hogmanay itself, held on and around Princes Street. It gets going at around 10pm and runs through until the last revellers go home sometime on 1 January. Midnight is signalled by the firing of the famous One O'Clock Gun14 from the battlements of Edinburgh Castle. Then the fireworks display starts, lighting up the night sky for half an hour or so, while the city centre is alive with people hugging and kissing each other.

For those who want something a little calmer, there is a Candlelit Concert in St. Giles Cathedral in the evening, before the bells. On Ne'er Day, there are some more events, such as the One O'Clock run - a one mile (1.6km) starting on the castle esplanade.

Other Cities

The famous rivalry between Scotland's two major cities continues in their Hogmanay celebrations. Glasgow's George Square plays host to a concert and party on Hogmanay which attracts around 20 - 30,000 people. There are also a number of smaller concerts and club events round the city.

Aberdeen, Dundee and Inverness all hold street parties on Hogmanay, but perhaps the next biggest party after Edinburgh and Glasgow is in Stirling, where around 10,000 people can be expected around Stirling Castle.

1Scots is a language related to English, Norse and other Germanic languages.2Such as the fertility rite of kissing someone under the mistletoe.3Gaelic is the language indigenous to the Scottish Highlands and Islands, though it is spoken by fewer than 100,000 people now.4Scottish dances, pronounced kay-lee.5A common mistake is to sing 'for the sake of auld lang syne' instead.6Auld lang syne translates literally as 'old long ago' but it's usually translated 'days gone by' or something similar.7First-footing also takes place in some parts of northern England.8After being invited over the threshold, that is; breaking and entering doesn't count.9Usually containing whisky, but as long as it contains something to drink, that'll be fine - just an empty bottle wouldn't be appreciated.10If he's not, have a child answer the door - he'll seem tall then.11Not first-feet.12Gate meaning 'street', from Old Norse.13Famous for its town sign 'London is big, but this is Biggar'.14So called because it fires at 1pm every day.

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