New Year’s celebrations are recognised worldwide as a unique way of ringing at the start of a New Year. Sydney for example, which is usually the first region to welcome the arrival of midnight, marks the occasion with a magical firework display from the city’s famous Harbour Bridge, while New York’s ‘Ball Drop’ ceremony brings everyone together in the metropolis’s Times Square; a tradition that dates all the way back from 1907!
However, even these celebrations, as glitzy and glamorous as they are, aren’t nearly as founded or as ancient as Scotland’s renowned Hogmanay.
Now for anyone that’s a fan of fireworks and champagne, the ancient art of celebrating Hogmanay might come as a bit of a shock; mainly because these celebrations are unlike anything seen anywhere else in the world.
What’s more, as expected from Scotland, Hogmanay traditions vary wildly from region to region which means that there’s something new to discover with each new turn.
We’ve discussed all the wild and wonderful ways the Scots like to celebrate Christmas, and although this is an important occasion on the Scottish calendar, what follows is even more remarkable.
So as we welcome in 2023, we’d love to introduce you to the extraordinary and often otherworldly customs, practices and traditions that make Hogmanay the only way to welcome the New Year in true Scottish style!
As we mentioned, Hogmanay is anything but a blanket approach, and each region of Scotland has done well to carve out its own special and unique way of doing Hogmanay. But before we get into the nitty gritty of local traditions, let's first introduce some of the more common customs:
Three-day fun - Unlike the rest of the world, whose traditions don’t usually surpass the night of the New Year, it’s extremely common for Scottish Hogmanay to be celebrated for three full days of fun. Festivities typically begin on the 31st of December and run right through to the 2nd of January, which unlike the rest of the UK, is marked with what’s known as a Scottish Bank Holiday.
Lots of liquor - This might be unsurprising news to anyone who’s ever spent any time in Scotland, but Hogmanay isn’t Hogmanay without plenty of booze. The poison of choice? Although the Scots love a good glass of champagne, nothing could quite replace their unshakable love of whisky. So if you do find yourself in the midst of Hogmanay, expect many, many bottles of this golden spirit to be floating about.
A time for togetherness - The Scottish national identity is already synonymous with warm welcomes and greeting new faces like old friends. But when Hogmanay comes around, this identity is more united than ever, and no one is ever left out. It’s extremely common in this sense for Scots to either host or attend large and lively parties where pretty much anyone is invited; so long as they share in Scotland’s merry spirit. There’s laughter, conversation and certainly no shortage of dancing!
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s look at what sets Hogmanay far apart from any other New Year celebrations:
Fireballs Ceremony - Sure, fireworks are impressive, but what about a flaming ball of chicken wire being swung mere centimetres above the head? Sounds dangerous ok, but it’s the hallmark of Hogmanay celebrations in the small market town of Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire. When the bells of the Old Town House begin to ring in the New Year at midnight, an army of daredevils, or ‘swingers’, set alight homemade balls of fire. These balls, which can measure up to two feet in diameter, are typically made of flammables like newspaper, rags and sticks wrapped together in chicken wire attached to a nonflammable rope/chain. Once ablaze, the swingers begin a long march from the town’s Mercat Cross to the Cannon and back again, all the while swinging the flaming balls of fire in every direction above their heads. When the precession ends, the balls are extinguished by being thrown into the local harbour. This event is a really big deal and never struggles to attract crowds as deep as 10,000 people or more.
The Burning of the Clavie - Keeping along this theme of fire, over in Burghead in Moray, they celebrate the New Year with a similar sort of ceremony called ‘The Burning of the Clavie’. Essentially, this Hogmanay tradition sees a flaming barrel of staves (which are themselves parts of old barrels) paraded around the town with a large crowd in tow. When the barrel reaches its end destination of the town’s ancient fort of Doorie Hill, the barrel is wedged in place where even more fuel is poured on it to really get the fire going. This ranging fire causes the clavie to almost explode down the hill, where the remaining embers are collected by the crowd. Possession of these embers is believed to bring good luck to the holder. What’s unusual about the Burning of the Clavie however is that it actually takes place on the 11th of January, which is due to the addition of 11 days imposed by the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in the 1750s. What’s even more unusual about this Hogmanay tradition is that it’s unique to Burghead and no one is quite sure when, or why, it started!
The Saining - Around the world, the beginning of the New Year marks a time of rebirth and rejuvenation, and this is recognised in parts of the Highlands with the highly unusual practice of ‘saining’; which is an old Scottish Gaelic word for protecting/blessing. To perform this ritual, ‘magic water’ is taken from a shallow river crossing called a ford. This water is symbolic because it’s believed that both the living and the dead have passed over it. This water is taken into houses, where it is drunk by all the inhabitants, before being sprinkled around the house itself. The house is then sealed up, with all the windows and doors being firmly shut. After this, branches of juniper are set alight and carried about within the sealed confined of the home, with the projected smoke inevitably causing everyone inside to begin choking, coughing and sneezing. When this reaction begins to happen, all doors and windows are to be flung open, ending the fumigation and flooding the surroundings with fresh, clean Scottish air. The women of the house will then serve a recovery glass of whisky before the entire family sits down to a New Year’s breakfast. This practice has lasted for many, many centuries, and is believed to wash, or rather smoke away, any bad feelings or thoughts. Slightly dangerous yes, but it’s an authentic Hogmanay experience that remembers both the past and present while preparing all involved for a bright and clean New Year.
Auld Lang Syne - Although we’ve mentioned many customs that are specific to certain Scottish regions, this one isn’t just celebrated by all of Scotland, but appears to have been adopted by the whole world too. Auld Lang Syne is a poem by the famed Scottish writer Robert Burns, and it's customary to be sung when the clock strikes midnight. Although Burns did write it into a poem, the words’ origins are far more ancient, believed to be derived from earlier, perhaps medieval texts. The song is usually performed at the stroke of midnight, with everyone standing in a circle with their arms all crossed over one another. When the song ends, it’s customary for participants to rush into the centre of the circle as a group, in an almost type of New Year’s hug. Although the tune will no doubt be instantly recognisable, if you need a quick reminder of the words before the New Year comes around, you can find the traditional Scottish version here.
New Year, New Destinations
We realise that some, if not most, of what we’ve introduced here must seem absolutely bizarre, but these ancient and trusted customs really do need to be seen and experienced to be believed. And now here in the post-pandemic world of open travel corridors, Scotland and all of its magic is waiting for hungry travellers with arms open wide.
But it would be nothing but tragic to view this magic through the lens of mainstream tourism, as there’s an old Scottish saying that says ‘old dead fish go with the flow’. Don’t be a dead fish tourist. Instead, allow Trip Organiser Scotland to carve out a route that’s as unique and inquisitive as you are. Let travel be a firm feature of your exciting plans in the New Year, and let no one but Trip Organiser Scotland be your mainstay.
Discover the real Scotland through our renowned industry-leading bespoke tour services here.
But until we meet, we wish all of you a very happy Hogmanay!
As ever, Beryl & Sean!