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Hogmanay – Scotland’s Lost Tradition by Gordon Dallas

Scotland's Hogmanay Traditions including First Footing.

Posted on 23 Dec 2020 by Glengoyne Distillery

We call it Hogmanay, you may call it New Year's Eve but if you are Scottish, or have Scottish parents or grandparents, I wonder if you remember the traditions they ritually obeyed every year?


Hogmanay was a big deal, much more so than Christmas. My 92-year-old neighbour Les, who died a few years ago recalls going to the cinema on Christmas Day. It was almost like any other day in the 1950s. It was made a public holiday in 1958 and Boxing Day only followed suit in 1974. This meant that celebrating the New Year was "THE" event of the season.



My Gran always stayed with us over New Year, not Christmas. Come about 8 o'clock on the night of Hogmanay she and my mother would turn off the television and then embark on what I can only describe as a surgical deep clean of the house which would make any Operating Theatre proud. My Gran, who previously had been complaining about being old and stiff, was suddenly filled with an energy which saw her spine straighten and shoulders widen as she transformed into a lean, mean cleaning machine.  


First up was to open all the windows to "let the old year out", and there I am, having just put the TV back on when the temperature plummeted to that of the outside. Then, my mother gets the hoover out, and Gran has got the duster in hand, cleaning the house from top to bottom. Even the coal fire, which we only put on over the festive season had its ashes taken away. It had only been on for a few hours, but there could be NO ash at the bottom of the fire come "the Bells". The result was a house clean for the New Year, but importantly it was clean for the many visitors that would 'first foot' us over the 4, 5 or 6 hours! And on the stroke of midnight, the windows were opened again to, "let the New Year in'!"


First Footing – Visiting after the Bells.

This is the part of Hogmanay that for the many who remember this tradition miss the most. Going door to door was an integral part of the celebration as you brought the New Year into your neighbours' homes. It was an honour to be the first to put your foot into the home of another and become their First Foot.  


Looking back, First Footing after the Bells for me feels like I'm reflecting on a golden age of Scotland. Maybe I am doing a disservice to today's Scotland which has some wonderful new traditions, and First Footing still goes on but not like it did 'back in the day'! Back then, you simply did not go visiting without a gift and a bottle, preferably whisky. The streets were busy, house lights were all still on at 2a.m., 3a.m. and beyond. A lump of coal or shortbread were staples of what you took to "First Foot."  


One of my other neighbours recalls growing up in the Isle of Mull in the 1950s and coal was too expensive to take round instead, she cut peat for the family to bring into their neighbours' homes. Once inside the party could start. Usually, the relatively staid individuals would be the star performers with once yearly public renditions of Scottish classics on the fiddle, accordion, guitar, or mouth organ. Poems would be recited, and much merriment would be had until the 'wee small hours'.  


I recall meeting strangers on the street and exchanging drinks before heading to the next house. Homes open, parties and laughter everywhere and strangers on the streets swapping stories and drinks, it was a wonderful time.


Food and Drink

This was another fiercely observed part of the Hogmanay celebrations. The homes I visited the 1980s or indeed memories of my own home at Hogmanay, there is always, and I mean ALWAYS soup. To be more precise Scotch Broth which a spoon could stand up in without falling over. The best kind had loads of meat in it. I can still smell my own mother's soup as it warmed up the kitchen and filled the house with that brothy smell of meat and lentils. You could hardly finish a small bowl at the Bells but by 5a.m. after first footing duties were over your head was in the pot devouring the last scraps with a fistful of bread. 


Another ritual was Black Bun and/or Clootie Dumpling. These were dark fruit cakes that were cut up and ready for First Footers or wrapped into a napkin and taken as gifts. They were the perfect accompaniment to soaking alcohol and especially whisky. Sherried whiskies worked the best with Black Bun, and again all my memories of Hogmanay have Clootie Dumpling or Black Bun in them.  


Hogmanay is still very significant to Scots all over the world; however, the world changes. I turned my back on these traditions and started to go to organised parties in nightclubs, going door to door became just going to one house and then mostly it stopped. 


This would be the end of the story in other societies, a sad ending for traditions but not in Scotland. We took this energy and love of Hogmanay and moved it to the streets of the big cities. Now we welcome First Footers from all over the world who join us on the streets of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness, Perth, Dumfries and anywhere there is a desire to welcome in the New Year with friends and strangers.  


We now clean our towns as we did our houses, get the soup on, and open our hearts as we did our doors, and we sing For Auld Lang Syne together and raise a dram to friendship. Auld Acquaintances and traditions will never be forgotten!  


Glengoyne wishes you and your family health and happiness for the New Year.