Home / The Holidays in Scotland: Concerts and Festivals Threaten to Overwhelm Hogmanay Traditions

The Holidays in Scotland: Concerts and Festivals Threaten to Overwhelm Hogmanay Traditions

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Each year around £40 million will be spent for the New Year’s celebration of Hogmanay by visitors to Scotland, with sold-out concerts, prepaid tickets, and displays. This is a far cry from the tradition of Hogmanay, so is it all turning from an historical and traditional Scottish event into a money-making scheme?


Hogmanay is the Scottish word for the last day of the year. It begins at midnight, making it synonymous with the celebration of the New Year.

The roots of Hogmanay date back to the winter solstice celebration among the Norse, along with customs from the Gaelic New Year celebration of the Samhain.
Some historians believe we inherited the word from the Vikings and the Scandinavian word ‘hoggo-nott’, which meant ‘Yule’.

Presbyterian churches disapproved of Hogmanay. (“It is ordinary among some Prebians in the South of Scotland to go about from door to door upon New Years eve, crying Hagmane.” – Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence, 1693.) But Hogmanay became important and popular with the Scots because Christmas itself was banned and not celebrated in Scotland for over 400 years, from the end of the 17th century up to the 1950s. Protestants portrayed Christmas as too popish and Catholic, so many Scots worked over Christmas, and it was the New Year when they were finally able to gather with family and exchange gifts, a celebration which came to be known as Hogmanay.


Many people in Scotland still carry out the more popular Hogmanay traditions, but other traditions have died out or are only practiced in small areas.

The most popular tradition is the ‘first footing’, which starts immediately after midnight. The first person to cross the threshold of a friend or neighbor brings gifts, which used to be salt, coal, shortbread, or whiskey. It is said to bring luck to the household for the rest of the year and is traditionally done by a dark, handsome man.

There is an old highland custom of ‘saining’ (protecting, blessing) the household and livestock. On New Years morning the ‘saining’ is performed with copious clouds of smoke from burning juniper branches, and drinking then sprinkling the ‘magic water’ from a dead and living ford around the house. (‘Magic water’ was from a river ford believed to be crossed by both the living and the dead.) Once the house is fumigated, inhabitants are allowed to open windows to let fresh air and the new year in. The woman of the house administers a ‘restorative’ from a whiskey bottle and the household then have new year breakfast.

The most famous custom of Hogmanay is the poem and song ‘Auld Lang Syne’, a traditional poem interpreted by Robert Burns and later set to music. The proper practice is to actually link arms at the beginning of the final verse, and not the whole way through.

There is still a popular superstition steeped around Hogmanay, being that before ‘the bells’ of midnight, the house must be cleaned and debts cleared.

Still very popular are the fire ceremonies of Stonehaven. Giant fireballs weighing up to 20 pounds are lit and swung on five-foot poles by up to 60 men, who then carry them around the streets. It is a pre-Christian custom linked to the winter solstice, with fireballs signifying the sun and its power to purify the world by consuming evil spirits.

I don’t believe that all Scottish people are suddenly going to stop celebrating Hogmanay and keeping the traditions; however, with more and more visitors to Scotland for each New Year, I think there is a danger of overpopulating Hogmanay with too many concerts and festivals that have nothing to do with the tradition.

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About melody80

  • An interesting, informative piece, Melody, which does a good job of explaining why Hogmanay is a far bigger deal than Christmas in Scotland.

    My father was from the north-east of England (which practically is Scotland anyway) and celebrated a version of first-footing. He didn’t carry a lump of coal or anything, but he would make a point of going out for a walk at ten minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve and returning ten minutes after midnight – thereby being the first person over the threshold and ensuring good luck for the household in the coming year. (It helped that he actually was tall, dark and – though I say so myself – handsome!)

    When I became a homeowner in my own right, I carried on the tradition myself for a few years, until my (then) wife told me to knock it off because she was tired of seeing in the New Year on her own!

  • The operating word is “then”, Dread. I had a “then” who used my special first-footing money for something; special in that I stored it [a collection of change for the occasion] in a hinged, blue felt covered cuff-link box in the top drawer of my dresser that only saw light on Hogmanay. I put the box, a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine outside of wherever I lived so that I could leave empty handed and return as the first across the threshold of more than abode.

    So, thanks too, Melody.

  • STM

    My father’s family is from the English side of the Borders and Northumbria, and my grandparents also celebrated some hogmanay traditions … I presume until they got too old to bother.

    Intersting how people from that region of the north-east of England and the Borders – Viking country – relate to the lowland Scots, who are, I’m told, genetically and culturally near identical. And vice-versa. Years of belting the living daylights out of each other will probably do that to you.

    My grandparents – English, remember – used to have The Sunday Post, a Scottish newspaper, sent to Australia every week, mainly because they liked reading “Oor Wullie” and “The Broons”. Old habits die hard I think.

    One Hogmanay tradition that isn’t in danger of dying out, ever, according to one of my uncles: getting abolutely blind drunk to welcome in the New Year 🙂

    And a bloody good thing too, so long as everyone behaves.

  • STM

    They also used a lot of words more generally associated with the Scots: wee (as in small), bonnie (pretty, beautiful) and bairn (small child), lass (girl), beck (stream), etc, etc.

    In fact, much to my embarrassment, my grandad used to call me “the bairn” right up until I was a teenager.

    My grandma thought I was a “bonnie lad”.

    She might have been the only one 🙂

  • melody80

    My mother used to make me do the ‘first footing’ every year and I will always remember the year I had to carry sausage rolls into the house and fell over the dustbins and cut my lip open and came in through the front door bleeding and all she could worry about was if I had bled on the rolls ha ha. The tradition I hate having to do the most is going to be the cleaning of the house before the bells.