Hogmanay: A Scottish Celebration
New Year's Eve may be a big deal in cities all around the world, as people mark the turning of the old year into the new one, but in Scotland the celebration has a character and flavour all of its own. Hogmanay, as the celebration is called, is the Scottish name for the last day of the year, and features all manner of festivities to commemorate the passing of another calendar year.
The origins of the celebration, and indeed the word 'hogmanay' itself, are unclear - it may have links to Gaelic, pagan and even Norse traditions, and over time the celebration has emerged as a truly unique period of festivities and celebration.
Here in Edinburgh, the Hogmanay celebration is especially important, and every year thousands of people descend on the city between Christmas and January to take part in a variety of events and activities. In recent years a torchlight procession, with members of the public carrying flaming torches through the Old Town, and traditional ceilidhs have become especially popular.
But the highlight of the celebrations is still the annual street party, where around 150,000 people gather on Princes Street to watch a spectacular firework display from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle at midnight. Live music is presented in the city's public gardens, with big-name performers helping to draw the crowds.
Historically, the Old Town of Edinburgh was the focus of the Hogmanay celebrations. Crowds would gather at the Tron Kirk, on the Royal Mile, where the ringing of the bells at midnight helped to welcome in the new year.
Before we had fireworks, ceremonial cannonballs would be fired from the castle, and on Hogmanay 1571 two cannonballs fell short and landed in Fishmarket Close, just off the High Street. The cannonballs hit the stacks of unsold fish left at the sides of the lane, and the fish were thrown up into the air. For the first week of January 1572, people travelled from all over the city to collect fish from the roofs of the buildings in the area!
Another traditional feature is 'first footing', where the first visitor to a household in the new year brings with them tokens of wealth, health and luck to bring good fortune to the house. The person who has the honour of first footing the household gets a dram of whisky, and in exchange deposits small gifts of coal, salt, bread, and other valued commodities.
For many years 'wassailing' was a popular way of marking the new year - households would prepare a large bowl of punch with mixed alcohols, spices and herbs, and usually (being the middle of winter) warmed to make it more enticing to drink, and this would be shared with family and friends who came bearing good wishes and songs. At the striking of midnight the punch was fully consumed and finished, toasting the old year in a final farewell - it's as good an excuse as any to finish up the leftover spirits from the past year!
And as well as wishing people a happy Hogmanay, the traditional new year blessing in Scotland is: 'Lang may yer lum reek!' It may sound faintly insulting, but translates as 'long may your chimney smoke' - may you be fortunate enough to always have a fire in your grate.
At public celebrations and ceilidhs it's not uncommon for guests to join in a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne - 'for times gone by' - as the new year begins:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
For 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.
The tune to which it is sung is a traditional one, but the words (or at least the original version, from which a few alternatives are derived) are those of Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet.
And for many people that will be the abiding memory of Hogmanay in Edinburgh - linking arms with strangers, dancing faster and faster as the pipes skirl and the whisky is poured...
Whatever your new year celebrations, may the new year be healthy, happy and peaceful for all!
Explore the city with me anytime throughout the year with my private Edinburgh walking tours!
Take a stroll through the Canongate Kirkyard, on the Royal Mile, and you'll find any number of literary associations with those buried there.
Robert Fergusson, the young poet who inspired Robert Burns, is memorialised not just with a statue at the entrance to the churchyard, but has his grave here too. Agnes Maclehose, who gave her pseudonym to the nearby Clarinda's Tearoom, was also associated with Burns - she was his muse, for whom he wrote Ae Fond Kiss, and other poems. Figures associated with the writer Walter Scott are buried here, as well - but their stories are all for another day.
At this time of year, the story that seems most appropriate is also one of the least expected ones, and the one I most enjoy telling!
In 1822, when George IV visited Edinburgh as part of his grand tour of Scotland (under the organisational care of Walter Scott, no less) he attended a large party at the Assembly Rooms, on George Street in the New Town. Here he danced and ate until he was satiated, with food produced by a local caterer and grain merchant, Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie.
Scroggie was a cousin of Adam Smith (who also happens to be buried at Canongate Kirk) and had been born in the county of Fife, north of Edinburgh across the Firth of Forth. During his time in Edinburgh he lived above the Beehive Inn in the Grassmarket - the inn itself is still there - and established himself as an importer of food and wine from Europe. Because of this access to fine foods he became widely recognised as a jovial figure who could always be counted on to provide the necessary ingredients for a grand night out.
When Scroggie died, in 1836, he was buried with a rather grand tomb in the Canongate Kirkyard, which described him - not inaccurately - as a 'meal man' - one who worked with corn and grain and other 'meal' products.
Barely five years later, the writer Charles Dickens was visiting Edinburgh and took a short walk through the graveyard at the Canongate Kirk (as, indeed, visitors still do!). There, perhaps in the evening gloom, he misread the grave stone of Ebenezer Scroggie, and thought it described the person buried under it as a 'mean man'...
Curious as to what life such a mean man might have lived in order to get such a grand grave, Dickens borrowed the man's name and made him Ebenezer Scrooge, in his Christmas story A Christmas Carol.
As well as gifting the world the phrase 'Bah humbug!' for those disinclined to festivities, and, of course, the synonymous figure of Scrooge himself, Dickens also almost overnight made the name Ebenezer unfashionable - what had once been a reatively popular Scottish children's name became less common. No more would mothers stand at their open doors calling down the treet, 'Ebenezer, come awa' hame, yer tea's ready!'
Perhaps most intriguingly, it may have been Dickens who helped to cement one othe most enduring stereotypes of Scottish character and identity - the trait of financial frugality! To those original readers of the book, Scrooge would have been self-evidently a tight-fisted Scotsman, working over Christmas Day - as most Scots did, even up until the 1950s; while the English were celebrating Christmas Day and Boxing Day, our midwinter holiday was Hogmanay, to celebrate the new year.
Unfortunately the grave of Scroggie/Scrooge was one of the casualties of efforts to clean up and improve the city's graveyards, so although you can no longer visit the grave of Scrooge himself, it's no less satisfying to know that he's buried here!
Explore Edinburgh's many other historical and literary associations with my private walking tours of the city.
It was the cry which symbolised changing times, as Scottish culture and identity began to grow and take its place alongside that of England in the recently united United Kingdom.
On 14 December 1756, audiences witnessed the first performance of a play which established Scotland's character and language as a thing of value and importance - Douglas was a verse tragedy which had been rejected by English theatre companies in London before receiving its staging at Edinburgh's first public theatre.
Edinburgh's original Playhouse was located just off the Royal Mile in the Canongate, on the lane which today is marked as Old Playhouse Close. It was here that a capacity crowd had gathered for what turned out to be a landmark production from Rev. John Home, a church minister-turned-playwright who had been inspired by the traditional romantic ballad Child Maurice, about a doomed relationship between a mother and the child she gave up for dead many years previously.
It had taken Home five years to finish the play, and upon its completion he took it to London hoping to interest audiences in England with this tale of Scots passion and tragedy. The play was turned down by a number of theatrical producers, and it was only upon showing the text to friends in Edinburgh did Home receive any degree of support for the work.
At this time, theatres were considered to be dubious dens of licentiousness and disrepute, and so it was more than a little controversial that Edinburgh's theatre should be staging a play written by a man of the church!
Home received much criticism for his association with the play, especially after it was later presented successfully in Covent Garden in London, a year after its Edinburgh premiere. Fearing that the work had made his position as a parish minister untenable, Home resigned his post at his church in East Lothian. In 1786, pressure from the Church of Scotland led to the Edinburgh playhouse being closed altogether.
Home would later enjoy a revival in his status, as private tutor to the Prince of Wales (later King George IV), and did write a number of theatrical pieces which never enjoyed the success of Douglas itself.
Critical acclaim for Douglas helped to make it something of a canonical text in both Scotland and England, and it continued to feature as a set text on the English Literature syllabus in Scotland until the Second World War. The philosopher David Hume, a close friend of John Home's, considered Douglas to be on a par with some of the works of Shakespeare, and in Edinburgh others also considered the play to exceed that of the writings of the Bard of Avon, when the infamous cry went up from the audience - "Whaur's yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?!"
In the interests of balance, Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first English dictionary and occasional (reluctant) visitor to Scotland described Home's work as having "not ten good lines in the whole play".
But such was the overall success of this stirring and inspirational production that Home hoped to establish a national theatre for Scotland to champion its plays, writers, themes and characters in a climate which still considered Scottish culture of inherently lesser value and interest than the English tradition.
Home remained in Edinburgh until his death in 1808. He is buried in the graveyard at the South Leith Parish Church, and is commemorated with a bust among his cultural and historical compatriots on the Scott Monument on Princes Street.
Explore Edinburgh's cultural history in more detail with my private walking tours of the city!
One of the most popular figureheads of Scottish history is Mary, Queen of Scots, born in Linlithgow Palace, outside Edinburgh, on 8 December, 1542.
But as an historical figure there are still mysteries around some aspects of her life and reign, and some historians hotly debate the details of some of the events from her life. Was she an innocent victim, a doomed romantic, a scheming villain, or some combination of all of these? We may never know for sure!
Even the date of her birth is contested by some, who suggested (even during her own lifetime) that her birth took place a day earlier than is generally thought. December 8 is the Catholic Feast of the Immaculate Conception, an important celebration of the birth of the Virgin Mary, and so to be born on this significant date was considered a good omen for a Catholic child.
Perhaps she was born on the less lucky date of December 7, as the struggles and dramas of Mary's life began within a week of her birth - on 14 December, just six days old, she became Queen of Scotland, following the death of her father, James V of Scotland. He had died, aged 30, from illness brought on partly by the defeat of his army in battle, and partly (it is said) from hearing this his wife had given birth to a daughter instead of a much-longed for son. Mary's coronation at Stirling Castle aged just 9 months was only one of many dramatic events during her relatively short life.
During her 44 years, it is thought Mary may only have spent around 3 years as an adult actually in the country that gave her the name she is generally known by - Queen of Scots. (She spent 19 years in prison in England, so Mary, Queen of English Prisons may be a more accurate title...!) Between the ages of 5 and 18 she lived in France, and at age 16 was married to the French Dauphin, becoming Queen Consort of France in the process. When young Francis died just a year later, Mary entered a state of mourning, wearing the all-white robes which would later see her dubbed 'the White Queen'.
During her time in Scotland she travelled extensively, and has known associations with many castles, palaces and towns across the country. As well as marrying her second two husbands at Holyrood, it was within the walls of Edinburgh Castle that Mary gave birth to her son, later crowned James VI of Scotland, who became the first king to rule both Scotland and England jointly (as James I of England) after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603.
Just outside Edinburgh's city centre, near the area known as 'Little France' where Mary's French court and staff were quartered, is Craigmillar Castle, where Mary sought refuge and safety just prior to the birth of her son.
Much of the uncertainty about Mary's true character is likely to derive from the lack of historical records relating to significant events from her reign. What was the exact nature of her relationship with David Rizzio, her Italian secretary murdered at Holyrood in 1566, for example? What role did Mary play in the plot which led to the death of her second husband? Was her third marriage to Bothwell fully consensual? How complicit was she in the conspiracy against Elizabeth I, used as grounds for eventual execution? And what of the rumours that she suffered a stillbirth at Edinburgh Castle, leading to the substitution of another baby to rule Britain in its place...?
If you're visiting Edinburgh, walk in the footsteps of Mary in her former bedchamber at the Palace of Holyroodhouse (where Rizzio met his violent death), or step into the small antechamber at Edinburgh Castle where she gave birth to James in 1566. You will also find a cast of her decorative Westminster Abbey tomb in the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street.
You may also spot the small building popularly known as Queen Mary's Bathhouse, reputed to be where she took her annual bath (whether she needed it or not...). However, one certainty amongst all the mysteries of Mary is that this building never served as a bathhouse - Mary may still have frequented it, however, as some historians consider that this structure was once a sports pavilion adjacent to a tennis court at the palace. As a keen tennis player, it's possible Mary may have served some aces here during her short and turbulent reign.
Explore more of Edinburgh's royal history on my private walking tours!
Enjoy the blog but can't take a tour? Buy me a coffee!
Search the blog archive...