Got the black bun unwrapped and ready on the sideboard? The lump of coal in one coat pocket, a half bottle in the other and a tall dark chap on your arm?

And, if you don’t, where on earth have you been for the past 500 or so years?

For modern Scots, the traditions of Hogmanay can seem like something straight from The Broons: packet of shortbread to soak up the booze, potted hough and oatcakes, gran’s stovies singeing away on the stove and chapping neighbour’s doors – those ones you haven’t spoken to since last Hogmanay – hugging them like they’re your BFF and enjoying a jovial singalong into the wee sma’ hours.

Despite our reputation for hard partying, the reality is that as Hogmanay drifts into New Year, most of us will toast the bells in front of the telly. Again.

Yet for centuries of Scots, closing the door on the auld year and ushering in the new were the ‘daft days’ - a chance to thumb a nose at the po-faced Kirk, eat other people’s food, sup their booze and, in the words of Peat and Diesel’s Boydie, ‘gie it laldy’.

For extra fun, depending on where you were in the country, you might indulge in some weird local customs, like battering someone dressed as a cow with a big stick, playing extremely violent ‘hockey’ with a cabbage, or trawling narrow streets swinging balls of flames while hoping the highly inflammable wooden houses don’t start the New Year as a pile of ashes.

While some traditions have disappeared in a drink-fuddled fog, others die hard. Across the nation, cleaning the house top to bottom remains a ritual for many; thankfully less common is the tradition in some areas to dowse the property’s occupants with water as you go or, worse, urine, to ward away bad luck.

Despite the passing of time and the loss of countless customs and traditions, Hogmanay remains embedded in Scottish minds as the big night of the year when we can really let our hair down, cry into our beer, hug a stranger and generally go barmy without fear of (too much) judgment.



The Herald: Crowds gather in Glasgow's George Square, Hogmanay 1939 Crowds gather in Glasgow's George Square, Hogmanay 1939 (Image: Newsquest)

And, of course, around the world, eyes turn to Scotland to see how we celebrate.

How and why Scotland gained its reputation as the home of Hogmanay, however, is as tricky to pin down as a puff of Brigadoon mist…

According to Strathpeffer-based storyteller and musician Bob Pegg, who unpicked the seasonal festivities for his book, The Little Book of Hogmanay, much of how the celebrations evolved and its wealth of odd customs, remains something of a mystery.

“It’s quite a complex story of influences and confluences,” he says.

“For a start, in Northern Europe, midwinter seems to have a particular importance for people going back to the times of the Callanish Stones and Stonehenge which, it’s suggested, were at least partly connected to the midwinter moonrise.

“But I suppose you then have to ask why would someone need to know where moonrise was in midwinter 5000 years ago?

“Then you have the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

“That was a period in the year when things were upended, normal social practices were put aside, and people were given licence to defy the authorities.”

Lasting from 17 to 23 December, Saturnalia was a wild period of gambling and festivities, when slaves had freedom from their masters and Roman society became party central.

It, with other ancient influences and customs - from Vikings’ celebration of the Winter Solstice to the Celtic pagan celebration of Samhain marking the end of the harvest season, laid the foundations for the midwinter celebration of Yule.

Stretching from before Christmas to the end of January, Bob says it was a sustained period of merriment, mischief, music, bonfires and quite a bit of cross-dressing.

Good as it sounds, not all were on board.

Unhappy with all this fun, with the Reformation in full swing and to reinforce their anti-Papish stance, the Kirk pulled the plug on any celebration of Christmas in 1560.

Now denied the opportunity to lark around during much of December, Scots turned their attentions to New Year.

“You have a clamp down on people having fun,” says Bob. “Because New Year is not a religious feast, you can’t get hammered for doing it.

“So, everything gets concentrated on New Year.

“All the stuff that happened over a protracted period of four or five weeks just before Christmas and to the end of January, gets concentrated around New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and the following Monday.”


The Herald: Crowds gather in Edinburgh to celebrate New Year, 1876Crowds gather in Edinburgh to celebrate New Year, 1876 (Image: Hulton Archive, Getty Images)

Still, the Kirk tried to impose its will: Kirk Session records from Elgin, showed on 30th December, 1598, one George Kay and his friend Archie Hay were summoned and accused of dancing and guising.

George, it stated, confessed to dressing up in his sister’s coat and joining others with blackened faces, playing ‘drums’ using animal bones and ringing bells.

“Drink had been taken as well,” Bob adds. “But it was probably just the sort of thing that young men do when they go to Ibiza on holiday.

“They were ordered to ‘make repentance’ at the kirk and stand before the congregation bare foot and with bare legs for punishment.”

The following year the Kirk Session at Chanonry recorded efforts to stop “footballing, snowballing, singing of carols and other profane songs, guising, piping, violining and dancing”, he adds.

Read more: Scotland really is the weirdest place at New Year..

But the Hogmanay cat was out of the bag.

By the time the ban on marking Christmas was withdrawn in the late 17th century – it would take until the 1950s to become a public holiday in Scotland – the nation had already embraced the New Year period.

And “the daft days” of high celebration, feasting, guising, dressing up and excess were set in stone for generations to come.

Where the word ‘Hogmanay’ originates, meanwhile, is another mystery which may be rooted in Scandinavia, France, even Yorkshire, and has been referred to as meaning anything from an oatcake to a song and a gift.


The Herald: Glasgow's new year arrived with a kiss for this couple in 2008 Glasgow's new year arrived with a kiss for this couple in 2008 (Image: Jamie Simpson)

It’s thought to come from the French word ‘hoginane’, linked to the medieval word ‘aguillaneuf’ – meaning ‘gift at New Year’.

While the first recorded instance of the word emerges in Yorkshire, in the household ledger from the estate of Sir Robert Waterton in 1443.

There, family documents describe payments for large and small “hogmanayse”, believed to be gifts of food and drink given to children over the New Year period.

It takes a further 150 years or so for it to appear in writing in Scotland, in the records of the Kirk Session in Elgin in 1604, which describe how William Pattoun had been charged for “singing and hagmonayis”.

By the end of the 17th century, it pops up in the Scottish Presbyterian Eloquence, which noted how it is “ordinary among some Plebians in the South of Scotland to go about from door to door upon New Year’s Eve, crying Hagmane”.

Customs and traditions varied from region to region. With Christmas a faded memory, focus was on throwing effort into ushering out the old year, and welcoming the new, usually with alcohol involved.

In Edinburgh, 17th century poet Robert Fergusson dubbed the period the “daft days”, writing of how “December’s dowie face, Glowrs owr the rigs wi sour grimace” is ushered away with celebration, whisky and drunkenness that could fall foul of the city’s guard:


“Let mirth abound, let social cheer
Invest the dawning of the year;
Let blithesome innocence appear
To crown our joy;
Nor envy wi sarcastic sneer
Our bliss destroy.

And thou, great god of Aqua Vitae!
Wha sways the empire of this city,
When fou we’re sometimes capernoity,
Be thou prepar’d
To hedge us frae that black banditti,
The City Guard.”

One favourite tipple was ‘het pint’ – a bowl of hot ale and eggs spiced with nutmeg and laced with whisky.

It was potent stuff, according to one newspaper report from 1874’s Edinburgh celebrations.

“A great many laughable scenes were exhibited," it notes. "One instance of a display of agility was most terrific: a foolish young man in the West Port, had the temerity to venture out on the [garret] roof and not only walked coolly along the ridge but actually performed a 'pas seul' on it with as little fear as a professional rope dancer."
In Gaelic areas, meanwhile, Hogmanay was a time of superstition and ritual. It became the Night of the Candle: with fears it was bad luck if the household fire went out, a flame had to be kept alive throughout the night.

While Night of Blows, referred to the custom which saw a man wearing a cow hide or sheepskin accompanied by a group called the Hogmanay Lads, and a piper.



The Herald: First footing on Hogmanay 1954First footing on Hogmanay 1954 (Image: Newsquest)

“They would gain entrance to the house, there might have been some rhymes or songs, and then the person in the animal skin would run round the central hearth three times while everyone in the house beat him with whatever they could get their hands on,” adds Bob.

A form of ‘first footing’, once the good-natured beating was done, the group would be offered refreshments and sent to the next household.

Less violent, in Shetland, ‘Skeklers’ dressed entirely in distinctive costumes made of straw would perform songs and dance in return for food and drink.

In south of Scotland communities, it was traditional to watch ‘Galoshins’, a play similar to the English Mummers’ in which good would overcome evil often in the form of a heroic ‘knight’ slaying an evil beast.

Hogmanay could also be a time for people living in dire conditions to approach the better off and receive gifts of food and drink without fear of judgment or refusal, Bob adds.

“You are looking at people without a lot of money, who are given licence once a year to ‘beg’.

“Some might perform the Galoshins play in return for food, drink and some money. Guisers would go around the houses, sing or perform a rhyme and be offered hospitality in return.”

Handsel Monday – the first Monday after New Year – became a time to exchange gifts and for workers to be treated by their masters to the day off, with cake, drink or a gift of money.

The Perthshire Advertiser on January 6, 1870, described it as the “holiday-in-chief” of the year marked with “much noise and boisterous mirths” in Auchterarder where pubs were packed with revellers “well fortified within”.

It took until 1958 for Christmas to become a bank holiday in Scotland, but Hogmanay was already sealed as the Scottish winter festival.

And across the country, new traditions had been forged: crowds in towns and cities gathered at town clocks and mercat crosses for ‘the bells’ and to party together.


The Herald: Crowds in George Square as the bells welcome 1989Crowds in George Square as the bells welcome 1989 (Image: Newsquest)

These days, much focus is on Edinburgh. But on Hogmanay 1938, all eyes were on George Square in Glasgow for the city’s first council- organised Hogmanay street party, and the largest celebration in Britain at the time.  

More than 50,000 revellers – some suggested twice that number – gathered on a cold, misty evening, singing loudly as the year drifted away.

The Glasgow Herald of January 2, 1939, reported how the celebration, previously focused around Glasgow Cross, created a “novel, carnival atmosphere”.

“The setting was gay and colourful, the trees throughout the square were festooned with multi-coloured lights, while fairy lights were eloped between the columns.

“Close to the Cenotaph, gas flares pierced the darkness.”

Searchlights from Maryhill Barracks and transport depots at Possilpark and Larkfield scanned the sky even though the mist

meant a midnight fly past had to be scrapped.

Nevertheless, the crowd sang, brass and pipe bands played, and a street vendor did a roaring trade in paper hats.

Lights dimmed and then beamed brightly again – a signal to the crowd to pay respects to the passing of the old year.

With the new one approaching – a dreadful one, as war engulfed Europe – the crowd fell silent to listen to gentle renditions of Lead, Kindly Light and Abide With Me.

Inside the City Chambers, having just wished the crowd happy new year, the Lord Provost of the time was greeted by a 14-year-old Jewish refugee who had arrived from Vienna.

Handing over a silver horseshoe for luck, he said: “I thank your city on behalf of the refugee children for its great kindness to us and I hope you will have peace and prosperity.”


The Herald: New traditions include the Loony Dook at South Queensferry New traditions include the Loony Dook at South Queensferry (Image: Gordon Terris)

If that’s a reminder that some things never change, another in the London Morning Herald on January 10, 1826, which highlighted how New Year often doesn’t arrive alone.

Sometimes it brings a mighty large hangover, too.

“On Saturday a mason and his wife who had been in Aberdeen holding their Hogmanay, on their way homeward found themselves rather deficient in point of steadiness (especially the wife),” it reported.

“The husband, finding their tardiness of procedure was attracting many onlookers, stooped down, and actually took up his better half on his back and a child, in his left arm, and set off amidst the acclamations of the bystanders”.

Well, we’ve all been there – haven’t we?