Sandy Neil looks at how Scots ... and Scott ... saw in the New Year through the ages

Sandy Neil. Hogmany.
Sandy Neil. Hogmany.

New Year’s Eve is celebrated from New York’s Time Square to Sydney Harbour Bridge, but in all the world it’s the Scots who are famed for their hoolie, and their own word for it: Hogmanay.

The origin of the name Hogmanay is a mystery. In Shetland, New Year is called ‘Yules’ from the Viking word, and today Scandinavians still celebrate ‘Hoggo-nott’, while the Flemish ‘hoog min dag’ means “great love day”.

Hogmanay may also trace back to the Anglo-Saxon ‘Haleg Monath’, Holy Month, or the Gaelic, ‘oge maidne’: ‘new morning’.

But it’s believed Hogmanay derives from the Old French aguillanneuf, ‘to the New Year’, which becomes hoguinané in the Norman dialect.

So why is Scotland famous for Hogmanay, and why is it bigger than Christmas?

After the Protestant Reformation, the Kirk portrayed Christmas as a Popish or Catholic feast, and virtually banned it in Scotland for 400 years from the 17th century to the 1950s, writing typically in 1693: “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.”

Most Scots worked over Christmas, and took their winter solstice holiday at New Year when family and friends gathered to party and exchange presents.

While some New Year customs died out, like Cake Day when children were given an oatmeal bannock, first-footing survives as popular as ever.

“The first foot,” explains F. Marian McNeill in The Scots Cellar, “means the first person, other than a member of the household, who crosses the threshold at midnight. His appearance is held to indicate the character of the luck that will attend the household throughout the coming year, and it is a matter of concern that he (or she) should be sonsie and well-favoured.”

To ensure good luck for the house, the first foot should be male, dark (believed to be a throwback to the Viking days when blond strangers arriving on your doorstep meant trouble) and bearing symbolic gifts such as a coin for wealth, black bun (or red herrings in the East Neuk of Fife) for food, coal for warmth, and whisky for good cheer.

“The first-footers all carry handsel,” McNeill continues, “which may be anything from an orange to a bottle of whisky.” The first-foot immediately greets the household: ‘A gude New Year to ane and a’, and mony may ye see!’ or simply, ‘A Happy New Year!’

Pouring out a glass from the bottle he carries, he proffers it to the head of the house, who must drink it to the dregs, for luck. The host then pours out a glass of his own whisky for each of his visitors.”

Sometimes toddy, punch or hot-pint (‘het pint’ in Scots) toast the New Year instead of whisky, but in the Highlands the favourite for first-footers was Atholl Brose. Atholl Brose emerges from the Highland mists in the year 1475, when the Earl of Atholl captured the Lord of the Isles and Earl of Ross, Iain Macdonald, by filling the well at which he was wont to drink with honey, whisky and meal.

Sir Walter Scott mentions Atholl Brose in The Heart of Midlothian, and Robert Louis Stevenson describes in Kidnapped how David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart are regaled with it at Balquhidder, made of “old whisky, strained honey, and sweet cream slowly beaten together in the right order and proportion”.

Plain brose is simply boiling water or milk poured over oatmeal – a kind of porridge soup – and from the 16th to 18th century it was the pep of choice for Highland shepherds on the hill. Ground oats were put into a small leather bag called a hoggin, and carried on the shepherd’s back, to be topped up with water from the nearest brook. By the time the sheep were reached, the movement and warmth of his body fermented the brose into a thickish porridge.

“Ordinary brose is normally made by pouring boiling liquid over oatmeal,” writes McNeill, “but Atholl Brose is unique in that the liquid requires no heating, for whisky, as every wise man’s son doth know, engenders its own heat … a golden rule in making Atholl Brose, laid down by a young gentleman of Edinburgh, is ‘Keep tasting and proceed empirically!”

The whole of the ancient ceremonial of Hogmanay, also called the Daft Days in Scotland, obtained respect at Abbotsford, as recorded by J. G. Lockhart in Life of Scott: “He [Scott] said it was uncanny and would certainly have felt it very uncomfortable, not to welcome the New Year in the midst of his family, and a few old friends, with the minimum libation of a het pint.”

The het pint of ale, sugar, eggs, whisky and nutmeg is traditionally served on New Year’s morning.

Scott’s novel St Ronan’s Wells inspired the Cook and Housewife’s Manual (1829), the fictional annals of the Cleikum Club, written by Mistress Margaret Dods. She wrote of a ‘receipt’ included in this month’s recipes: “This beverage, carried about in a bright copper kettle, is the celebrated new year’s morning Het Pint of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

“In Edinburgh, in her high and palmy state, her days of ‘spice and wine,’ while she yet had a Court and a Parliament, while France sent her wines, and Spain, Italy and Turkey fruits and spices, a far more refined composition than the above was made by substituting light wine for ale, and brandy for whisky.”

McNeill expands this idea in The Scots Cellar: “In Edinburgh and elsewhere until well into the 19th century, the great Hogmanay beverage was Het Pint, a sort of wassail bowl which was carried through the streets in scoured copper kettles (commonly known as toddy-kettles) an hour or more before ‘the chappin’ o the twal’. The carrier of the kettle always had a cup-bearer in attendance, and a noggin of the steaming beverage was pressed on all and sundry. The invariable toast was, ‘a gude New Year to ane an’ a’!’”

The first Monday of the New Year was called Handsel Day, when gifts (‘handsel’) bringing good luck were handed out, such as a festive Hogmanay cake called black bun, hailed by Robert Louis Stevenson as “a black substance inimical to life,” and defined by Sir John Sinclair in Observations on the Scottish Dialect (1782) as: “An old word for plumcake or twelfthcake”.

“Black bun is the old Scottish Twelfth Cake,” confirms McNeill in The Scots Kitchen, “which was transferred to Hogmanay after the banning of Christmas and its subsidiary festival, Uphalieday, or Twelfth Night, by the Reformers.”

Like a Christmas pudding, black bun is best made weeks beforehand to mature.

As Burns penned an ode to a haggis and Auld Lang Syne, so Augustus Bejant also wrote an ‘Invocation to Black Bun’, which I’ll leave you with to recite as you bake the recipe.

Thou tuck-shop king! Joy of our gourmand youth!

What Days thou marks’t and what blood-curdling nights

Nights full of shapeless things, hideous, uncouth;

Imp follows ghoul, ghoul follows jinn, pell-mell;

Fierce raisin-devils and gay currant sprites

Hold lightsome leap-frog in a pastry-hell.

Have a very happy New Year.