Scotland will stage its first same-sex weddings this year as Health Secretary Alex Neil announced gay couples can tie the knot in marriage ceremonies from December 31.

Mr Neill said the move was an "important signal that our nation is absolutely committed to the same rights for all our citizens".

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He added that Hogmanay would be "a proud and no doubt emotional day for many" and said: "I, for one, can't wait."

The announcement of the date for the first same-sex weddings in Scotland comes after Holyrood passed the Marriage and Civil Partnership Act earlier this year.

As well as allowing for same-sex couples to wed from December 31 onwards, those couples who are already in a civil partnership will be able to convert that to a marriage from December 16 onwards.

This can take place from an earlier date as a minimum notice period of 14 clear days is required for marriage ceremonies.

Couples who convert their civil partnership to a marriage in the first year of the legislation will not be charged to do so, the Scottish Government pledged.

Mr Neil said: "It is wonderful that same-sex couples can now begin to make plans to have their marriage just as any other couple can.

"This historic legislation had overwhelming support across the Scottish Parliament, demonstrating to the world how importantly Scotland views equality.

"That support means that, from 31 December, same-sex couples who want to show their love and commitment to each other could get married in front of family and friends at a ceremony they choose together."

The announcement was welcomed by equality campaigners, who have lobbied for same-sex couples to be allowed to get married.

Tom French, policy and public affairs coordinator for the Equality Network, said: "We are very pleased that after years of campaigning for equal marriage it is now just weeks away from becoming a reality.

"Today's milestone announcement means that same-sex couples across Scotland will be able to set a date and start planning their weddings. With the first ceremonies set to take place on Hogmanay, Scotland can be proud that we will bring in the new year as a fairer and more equal country."

He said December 31 2014 would be "a date that is remembered for many years to come, and a profoundly emotional day for those couples who celebrate their commitment to each other".

He also stressed the importance of the legislation for all Scottish lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people who "grew up in a country where being gay was still criminalised until 1981".

Mr French said: "Scotland is now a leader on LGBTI equality, with one of the most progressive equal marriage laws in the world. There is still more to do to ensure full equality in people's day-to-day lives, but this year we have taken a huge leap forward towards creating the fair and equal Scotland we all want to see."

Jerry Slater, 58, and his partner Larry Lamont, 81, from Kirkcudbright, are now looking forward to being able to tie the knot.

The couple said: "Having spent much of our lives with laws that discriminated against us, we are overjoyed that the date for the first same-sex marriages is now in sight.

"There were times in the past when Larry and I were made to feel like second-class citizens in our own country, and many years when we never thought it possible that one day we would be able to marry. It goes to show how much Scotland has changed for the better, and we are proud to say that after more than 20 years together we are very much looking forward to our wedding day."

Colin Macfarlane, director of the LGBT equality charity Stonewall Scotland, also welcomed the news and said: 'We're delighted that today's announcement will mean lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people will now be able to set a date and begin plans for their weddings.

"What better way to see in Hogmanay knowing that LGBT people in Scotland will be able, for the first time, to enjoy exactly the same rights as their straight friends and family. We are very grateful to the thousands of Stonewall supporters, many of them straight, who have played a big part in making equal marriage a reality."

Liberal Democrat MSP Jim Hume said: "Equal marriage was introduced in recognition of a very simple principle. It is wrong that people should be discriminated against simply because they love someone of the same sex. This is a welcome announcement that has not come before time.

"Hogmanay is a time to look back at the year gone by and look ahead to what the next 12 months will bring. This year, for the first time, same-sex couples can look forward to enjoying the same marriage rights that heterosexual Scots have always taken for granted. It is a big step forwards for equality."

A spokesman for Scotland For Marriage, the umbrella group which spearheaded opposition to the legislation said there was still a "substantial silent majority" of people who are opposed to same-sex marriage.

The spokesman said: "Of course, our Parliament has voted and we accept the outcome of the democratic process.

"However, there remains the fact that 80,000 people signed a petition against this legislation. There is a substantial silent majority in this country who take and hold different views from our MSPs.

"These people adopt a viewpoint very much opposed to that of the Holyrood metropolitan elite which took the decision to legislate. We hope the views of those opposed to this legislation will continue to be respected in the future."