Updated: Dec 16, 2021
‘Take your partners for an Orcadian Strip the Willow!’
It’s 11.50pm on New Year’s Eve as the ceilidh band caller announces the final dance of the year. My cousin Helen grabs my arm and whisks me off to the dancefloor. The accordion player strikes up the tune and the hall is suddenly filled with kilts swishing, couples spinning and folk cheering. I work my way down the line of dancers spinning each in turn as the band plays a set of jigs: Atholl Highlanders, Caliope House and Jig of Slurs. Always remembering the golden rule - right hand to your partner, left hand down the line.
It’s 11.59 now. Folk begin to gather, making sure their glasses are filled and their loved ones are close by. The bells begin to countdown to midnight. ‘THREE, TWO, ONE!’ The clock strikes twelve. ‘Bliadhna Mhath Ùr – Happy New Year!’ are the cries as the first drams of the new year are drunk and friends, family and strangers are hugged. New customs and old traditions intertwine at the ceilidh and there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be on Hogmanay.
There’s no doubt our local produce in the Hebrides suits a winter palate. On a stormy day outside, sitting down to a menu of Leek & Potato Soup, Braised Venison Stew and a thick slice of Clootie Dumpling for dessert would warm my heart (and belly!). If there is one thing I’m asking Santa to get me for Christmas this year, it’s a cast iron casserole dish. Slow cooking a shoulder of locally sourced venison with root vegetables, redcurrant jelly and red wine for a few hours means when the family arrive – all I need to do is prepare the mashed potatoes and set the table. Lots of flavour and no fuss – perfect!
While the rest of Scotland celebrated Hogmanay on December 31st, The Hebrides, even as late as the 1800s, followed the Julien calendar celebrating New Year’s Eve or, in Gaelic, Oidhche Challainn on January 12th. Traditionally the day began with the house being cleaned from top to toe, bedclothes were changed and clothes were mended. Debts were settled, borrowed items were returned. And since nothing should leave the house on New Year’s Day, in case luck should go with it, ashes from the fire were thrown out the night before. The old year was seen out, and the new year welcomed in, with a tidy and ordered household.
That evening, the boys of the village Gillean Challainn would gather in the early evening darkness, with their faces hidden by masks. The oldest boy Ceannard na Calluinn would be wrapped in a sheepskin, often with the horns still on.
Each home in the village would be visited. As they arrived they would go clockwise around the house three times, striking the walls to ward off evil spirits. As they returned to the front door, they would request entry by reciting a duan – a Gaelic rhyme, which began: “Tha mise nochd a' tighinn gur n-ionnsaigh, a dh'ùrachadh dhuibh na Callaig,” translated as “Tonight I come visiting you, to renew for you the year”. One of the boys would carry a caisein-uchd, the breast-strip of a sheep dipped in wax. As they entered, it was lit by the household's fire. This candle would be passed around each family member and would be circled three times around their head. If the flame died, it foretold death or misfortune to the person below.
The duan would then be rewarded by gifts of freshly baked bannocks, bread, sugar, sweets and, if they were lucky, a few pennies. Many local shops in the villages would stay open late to give the boys a chance to spend their rewards. It would then be time to leave for the next house, with a blessing on the home left as a parting wish.
"Beannaich an taigh ’s na tha ann
Eadar choin ’s cheit ’s chlann
Pailteas bi ’s pailteas aodaich
‘S slàinte dhaoine gun robh ann"
As the Hogmanay ceilidh comes to an end, another tradition comes to the fore. After midnight, we visit neighbours, family and friends to celebrate the coming of the New Year and ‘First Foot’ them. If a tall, dark-haired man bearing whisky, coal and Black Bun as gifts arrives at your doorstep after the bells, it is a sign of good luck for the year ahead. Black Bun was introduced when Mary, Queen of Scots returned from France and traditionally was eaten on Twelfth Night, the 5th of January. The story goes that a dark-haired man brings luck, as in the days of the Vikings, a burly blonde-haired man knocking on your door at midnight might have meant you wouldn’t be so fortunate…. Bliadhna Mhath Ùr!