Hogmanay, the traditional Scottish New Year’s Celebration

(republished from 2017)

Believed to originate from a Viking ritual, this New Year custom inspires hope for health, prosperity, and new beginnings. Even the Scots themselves cannot agree on the meaning of the word “Hogmanay,” but they know it provides an opportunity for serious merrymaking in the New Year. Along with family celebrations, street festivals, fire festivals, some rituals going back hundreds of years are practiced. Hogmanay is widely observed throughout Scotland.

Black Rock Cottage, Winter Glen Coe, Highlands, Scotland, photo by Graham Chalmers

Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had banned the observance of Christmas in 1647. Even after his downfall in 1660, the “stricter” Scottish Presbyterian Church discouraged Yuletide festivities “as having no basis in the Bible.” Incredibly, Christmas remained a normal working day in the country until 1958, but the products of Scotland’s famous distilleries were put to good use on the New Year, along with partying and sharing gifts. So the New Year’s Hogmanay celebrations all over Scotland have grown throughout the centuries. Traditions include:


Hogamanay juniper
Part of a juniper branch used to purify the house at Hogmanay

The ritual of thoroughly cleaning the house, particularly the fireplace, is essential. Scots often “read the ashes” as one might read tea leaves. Fire is an important element of Hogmanay. After the cleanup, someone goes from room to room “carrying a smoking juniper branch to discourage evil spirits and chase away disease.” Debts would also be cleared because Scots considered it unlucky to carry liabilities into the New Year.


Dundee Cake
Dundee cake is a rich Scottish fruitcake, topped with blanched almonds, served at Hogmanay.

At the stroke of midnight, the man of the house would open the back door to let out the old year, then open the front door to welcome in the next. At this time neighbors visit each other bearing traditional gifts of shortbread or other treats. The host offers callers a small whisky – “a wee dram.” On January 1, the first person to enter a home, the “first foot,” could bring good luck for the year to come. “Tall, dark handsome men” were preferred, while red-haired lasses were considered unlucky.


An old rural tradition involved “blessing the house and livestock with holy water from a local stream.” The lady of the household would carry a smoldering juniper branch throughout the home, “filling it with purifying smoke.” Mayhem might follow with the company coughing and choking. Windows would be hastily thrown open. Those present would be encouraged to enjoy a “reviving dram” or two as the whiskey was passed around freely.

Scotch whisky
The country prides itself on its Scottish whiskies and enjoy sharing “a wee dram” with family and friends during the holiday season.


Edinburgh is “party central” for the celebration of Hogmanay in Scotland. (image-designmynight.com)

Scottish people have long associated the New Year with fire “as a time of new opportunities and cleansing of old life.” Fire traditions vary from place to place. For example, a ceremony called “Flambeaux” is held in the village of Comrie in Perthshire. Revelers dip small trees in paraffin, light them, and carry them through the streets where they are then tossed on a huge bonfire. In another fishing town, old boats are burned and the dying embers brought home “to ward off evil such as witches that would contrive to wreck their small fleets.”


Auld Lang Syne
People throughout the world have “a wee bit” of Scottish blood as they sing Robert Burns’s (1759-1796) “Auld Lang Syne” to welcome in the New Year.

A rousing chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” is the iconic refrain at midnight on New Year’s Eve in Scotland as it is around the world. The poem, composed by the Scots’ beloved bard Robert Burn in 1788, is “set to the tune of a traditional folk song.” The title may be freely translated from dialect as “old long since” or “for old times sake.” The emotional appeal of the melody has made it popular at funerals, graduations, and farewell ceremonies through the centuries. Celebrating Robert Burns’s “life and work has become a national charismatic cult in Scotland since his untimely death at age 37 in 1796. Happy Hogmanay to all as you enjoy “a wee dram” when ushering in New Year’s 2019!

“Auld Lang Syne”

(As sung in Scotland)

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 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 pu’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary foot
Sin auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’d i’ the burn,
Frae mornin’ sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
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 willy waught,
For auld lang syne.

English version:

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

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
And surely I’ll buy mine!
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

We two have run about the slopes,
And picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
Since auld lang syne.

We two have paddled in the stream,
From morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
Since auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
For auld lang syne.

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