A mid-winter festival is celebrated over much of the northern hemisphere. We need a lift and lots of light. New Year’s Eve is the most exciting party time in Scotland, but in days past Gaelic Scotland used to celebrate quite differently.
Oidhche Challainn is New Year’s Eve in Gaelic and Latha Challainn is New Year’s Day. Callainn is possibly the Scottish Gaelic for kalenda, the first day of the month in the Latin calendar used during the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages by the Church. For the Gaels of Scotland and Ireland, a day didn’t start at midnight but earlier at sunset. So the celebrations of a given festival began with the evening before. For example, Christmas Eve is the beginning of Christmas Day; that is, Christmas Day begins at sunset not midnight. New Year’s eve is the first part of New Year’s Day.
The Custom in Gaelic Scotland
In Gaelic Scotland houses were decorated with holly to keep the fairies away as it was one of the woods which repelled them. Young men (gillean Challainn) used to dress up in old clothes, stuffed with straw. While travelling through their village, the young men struck the walls of the houses they passed by to frighten off evil spirits. In a still earlier time a strong man wore a hardened bull hide sometimes with horns and hooves still attached on his head. He jumped and danced around while shaking the horns and hooves. His companions beat the hide with sticks. Hopefully the hide was well-padded. Later boys became the gillean Challainn and wore calfskins or sheepskins.
The gillean sang New Year’s songs (duain Challainn) while they circled round each house going deiseil (clockwise), the lucky way. They had to sang a duan (rhyme) to gain entrance, and, once inside, they circled the fire three times deiseil while singing a duan Challainn. They singed a caisean-uchd, a patch of skin from the breast of a sheep or deer and everyone had to smell it for luck.
A Song for New Year’s Eve- Duan Challainn
Callainn a bhuilg Callainn a bhuilg Buail am boicionn Buail am boicionn New Year's of the sack New Year's of the sack Strike the hide Strike the hide Callainn a bhuilg Callainn a bhuilg Sios e suas e Buail am boicionn New Year's of the sack New Year's of the sack Down with it, up with it Strike the sack Callainn a bhuilg Callainn a bhuilg! New Year's of the sack New Year's of the sack
The New Year’s Feast – A’ Chuirm
After the songs, the boys collected food such as cheese, butter, oatcakes, shortbread and bannagan (bannock). When they had enough, they went to one house where the girls were waiting and prepared a feast. Leftovers were taken to the sick and those in need. If the young men were badly treated or not given food, they walked around the house tuathal (counterclockwise), the unlucky way, and further damned the house by building a cairn of cursing.
Generosity especially among the gentry was expected and praised in the Highlands. The Gaelic poet Rob Donn MacKay (1714-1778), criticised the Rispond misers in a poem (Spìocairean Ruspainn). The misers were gentlemen who broke no rules but hoarded their gold. A week before their deaths, they are said to have turned away a poor man without offering food or hospitality of any kind. A huge no-no in the Highlands. The deaths of the two brothers and their elderly housekeeper in one week was thought to be divine punishment.
New Year’s Eve in Lowland Scotland
Hogmanay is the term used for New Year’s Eve in the Scottish Lowlands and the north of England. First on record in the 17th century, it may have developed from Norman French hoguinane, earlier Old French aguillanneuf, the last day of the year. It is also the name of a gift of oatcakes, a drink or a small sum of money given at that time. Auld Lang Syne is sung at the end of the gathering.
First Footing is also a custom originally observed throughout the British Isles, but survives in Scotland. The first person to enter the house after midnight on New Year’s Eve has to have certain personal characteristics in order to bring luck to the house for the coming year. In many places a dark-haired or dark-skinned man is deemed lucky. A red-haired man is unlucky and a blonde woman even worse! The first-footer commonly brought gifts such as breads and whisky but coal and something green was expected in other areas. The health of all individuals present is toasted separately. Don’t worry, no one has to drain the glass for each toast!
These customs, which varied from place to place, were brought to Scottish settlements in Canada and were observed well into the 20th century. Several of the Gaelic songs have survived.
Ronald Black, An Lasair: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Verse, 2001
Isabel F Grant, Highland Folkways, 1961, 1975
Anne Ross, The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands, 1976
Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford, 2000