We’ll take a cup of kind­ness, yet

In Scot­land, the big­gest night of the year is yet to come. Ja­son Good­win on sur­viv­ing Hog­manay

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Il­lus­tra­tion by Mungo Mc­cosh

ILearned the ele­men­tary rules of sur­viv­ing Hog­manay in a cas­tle perched high on a bluff over­look­ing the gelid waters of the north Sea. It was new Year’s Day.

Hog­manay, as ev­ery­one knows, is a new Year’s revel, en­cap­su­lated in a word that fuses el­e­ments of cot­tage and war-cry, of home­li­ness and wild­ness, with no ori­gin or mean­ing that any­one can rea­son­ably de­fine. Per­haps it’s old Gaelic or old French or norse. no­body, sig­nif­i­cantly, can re­mem­ber.

ev­ery­thing started smoothly. We were whisked off the night train by our kindly hosts through a won­der­land of frosted hedgerows, to be fed with ham and choco­late and en­ter­tained with views of the rolling sea. The place was a hub­bub of ac­tiv­ity, pre­par­ing for the great Hog­manay dance that would stamp out the old year and trip in the new: there were tele­phone calls and peo­ple shoot­ing off on bi­cy­cles and in Land rovers as the roast­ing pit, which was to put the hog into Hog­manay, had its an­nual scrub.

The cas­tle had cer­tainly been cleaned from top to bot­tom and made pretty with boughs of green­ery, al­though whether that was be­cause of the party in prospect or be­cause the house­hold cleaved to the old Hog­manay rite of red­ding the House, I can’t say. Tra­di­tion­ally, a house would be swept and aired be­fore new Year, with par­tic­u­lar care given to sweep­ing out the ashes of the fire.

The ashes can be read, like runes or tealeaves, to pre­dict what the year will bring. This is called spodomancy, but we had no spodomancers to hand. nor did we par­tic­i­pate in the rit­ual cleans­ing of house and farm known as ‘sain­ing’, a spir­i­tual af­fair, sprin­kling the rooms with river wa­ter and burn­ing ju­niper un­til ev­ery­one coughs.

In­stead, our fire was lit in the quiet li­brary, with a de­canter on a side ta­ble and al­ways that view of the dark­en­ing waves, as we guests from the south put in a few mo­ments shuf­fling our feet on the axmin­ster, hop­ing to re­call the Bachian ge­om­e­try of Strip the Wil­low.

Out­side, in the court­yard, bon­fire prepa­ra­tions were un­der way. Fire looms large in

You’ll be pro­pelled at the head of a gre­gar­i­ous body to first foot the next peo­ple up the glen and on to the next

Hog­manay cel­e­bra­tions and the fire fes­ti­vals that take place across Scot­land at New Year doubt­less have roots in a pa­gan, Vik­ing past. Hog­manay does take to it­self many of the more fiery and fes­tive el­e­ments of Christmas, which the Pres­by­te­ri­ans re­fused to cel­e­brate be­cause it wasn’t in the Bi­ble— Christmas Day only be­came a na­tional hol­i­day in Scot­land in 1958.

At Stone­haven, young bloods swirl bas­kets of fire around their heads as they march to the sea. In Edinburgh, where the cel­e­bra­tions kick off with a torch­lit pro­ces­sion through the town, they end with the burn­ing of a wicker fig­ure on Carl­ton Hill. Up Helly Aa has noth­ing to do with it (that is the torch­lit pro­ces­sion on the Shet­land Is­lands, in late Jan­uary, which ends with the burn­ing of a Vik­ing long­ship. It’s very 19th cen­tury).

There’s noth­ing very pu­ri­tan­i­cal about first foot­ing, how­ever, espe­cially when good luck is en­sured by the ar­rival af­ter mid­night of a tall, dark, hand­some stranger. The first foot can bring a num­ber of mag­i­cal fairy gifts, in­clud­ing black bun, fruit­cake baked in a pas­try wrap­per, which Robert Louis Steven­son de­scribed as ‘a black sub­stance in­im­i­cal to life’.

First foot­ing is, I think, at the very heart of Hog­manay, weav­ing a web of sol­i­dar­ity and neigh­bourli­ness. Some say the gifts should be coal, bread, sil­ver and green­ery, for warmth, good cheer, pros­per­ity and long life. In re­turn, the first foot gets a wee dram or two and may be sent from the house with a pan of ashes, swept from the fire­place dur­ing the Red­ding, to rep­re­sent the de­par­ture of the old year.

In all the talk of tall, dark, hand­some strangers, the key word is stranger: you may be small, even ugly, but if you’re a guest, and a man, it may fall to you to bring in the black sub­stance in­im­i­cal to life.

As a one-off, this is jolly. You steal from the house be­fore mid­night, car­ry­ing your

trap­pings, stamp about in the cold look­ing for holly as ev­ery­one in­side cheers and sings, and then re­turn, to knock with ap­pro­pri­ate pomp on the front door and be wel­comed in with thumps, kisses and a stiff drink.

At this point, in re­moter set­tle­ments, you may find your­self be­ing re­cy­cled. Ev­ery­one loves a stranger at Hog­manay. You’ll be pro­pelled at the head of a gre­gar­i­ous body to first foot the next peo­ple up the glen and on to the next, to wake even­tu­ally with a pound­ing head and frozen limbs, ly­ing un­der cush­ions on the sofa in a strange house. Women may first foot these days, but red­heads? Never.

Mug up on your dance steps and do at least learn one verse of Auld Lang Syne, a fea­ture of New Year cel­e­bra­tions the world over, al­though it was set to die a nat­u­ral death un­til Robert Burns re­vived it. The na­tional bard called it ‘an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in man­u­script un­til I took it down from an old man’.

At the cas­tle, the pipers skirled, the reel­ers whirled, young and old trod the mea­sure. It was a won­der­ful, mag­i­cal night. Out­side, sparks flew and the hog rolled on his spit. Then came a morn­ing, and drowsy rev­ellers rose like the sheeted dead, clutch­ing their heads and croak­ing for wa­ter. And there was none, as the pumps had failed in the night.

We drank what was left in the ice buck­ets and a few bold souls slaked their thirst with am­ber liq­uid be­fore our host led us on a sev­en­mile tramp along the beach to town. There was a ceilidh in the hall and hot tea, truly wet, and buns. We were so much re­vived that, as I re­call, we car­ried off a prize for danc­ing. The rudi­men­tary les­son? Stick to your drink and keep a jug of wa­ter by the bed.

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