Why we should hang on to Scottish traditions at New Year

LAST Hogmanay, driving through the centre of Edinburgh after the fireworks, I saw a young woman aged somewhere between 12 and 18, standing in the pool of light from a street lamp. Dressed in only a sparkly party dress with no coat, she was clearly dazed from drink or drugs and perhaps alone and shivering as a tide of strangers jostled past her in the shadows. She looked so vulnerable that I pulled over to see if she needed help. But by the time I had made my way through the crowd to where she had been, she had vanished.  The vulnerability of the drunk amid strangers at New Year is not all on the female side - the previous year an assertive woman in her 30s from a naval family arrived at my house having walked across town, saying she had seen a young chap in a kilt on North Bridge.

Due to conditions on that notorious windy thoroughfare, she had noticed he was also wearing underpants. ”So I debagged him,” she announced carelessly, and we were left with a mental picture of a gibbering young man, possibly foreign, clutching his plaid
about him as his boxers were consigned to the howling darkness above Waverley station. This year, in a log cabin in the west Highlands, we are anticipating a quieter time playing cards, drinking whisky and looking out at the frozen loch.

There is much talk in the media about the commercialisation of Christmas and how it has lost its meaning but less about the debasement of the Hogmanay tradition. This is not to
criticise the organised parties in Edinburgh and Glasgow – they are clearly popular with the young – but, historically, New Year was more than an excuse for extreme drunkenness, reckless drug-taking and the passive consumption of paid-for entertainment. It was Scotland’s main festival, more important than Christmas, and, like most festivals,
rooted in family and community.

Those whose teenage children are heading up town this year or to parties where there will be no adult supervision will no doubt feel anxious. New Year seems to have become in
the main a festival where young people drink themselves sick and old people sit at home alone watching television. Hospital staff dread it because of the number of drunk people they have to deal with. Half a century ago, my mother in Aberdeenshire hung her stocking out at New Year. In those days, newspapers published on Christmas Day but not on
January 1.

On Hogmanay, the house had to be cleaned from top to bottom, with everything left spotless. Then there was often either a large family meal at night ending at the bells, or a buffet was laid out.

Children were allowed to stay up and, at midnight, the windows were opened to let the old year out and the new one in. After the bells, it was open house and neighbours would visit each other, each taking a bottle of whisky around with them, offering nips but taking it on to the next house, as well as helping themselves to the traditional black bun.

These events could lead to impromptu ceilidhs of the traditional sort where stories were told and songs sung. The first was traditionally the day of the biggest party, where family and friends would gather in the afternoon. This was also the occasion on which both children and adults were expected to perform party pieces.

When I was a child, I was lucky enough to attend one of these, held by an elderly neighbour. The young people were expected to have put some genuine effort into learning a party piece – it could be anything from playing Jingle Bells on the recorder to reciting a poem, but it would be rude to do nothing.

Organised events like this are no longer so popular. People have hangovers on the first and have access to the finest musicians in the world on CD, so are perhaps as a result less inclined to listen to children massacring some of the traditional favourites on the fiddle.

Children, equally, can no longer be forced to do things they do not wish to do, particularly things which require a great deal of effort, preferring to spend their time mastering PlayStation games. The decline of this particular tradition of the party piece is also evident at Halloween, when children go about the doors barely able to stumble
through two lines of that tedious song which starts: ”Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat.” In our neighbourhood of Leith, if asked for another they sing the same song, ending with the words: ”If you havenae got a tenner, a fiver will do. If you havenae got a fiver, yer windae’s gaun through.”

In a global culture, perhaps it is inevitable that the unique and individual traditions of a small country are watered down. Hogmanay has been flattened by the enormous footprint
of Santa Claus. Christmas has become so huge that New Year has got to shrink as a consequence. Yet those of you who are laying out the black buns and inviting the neighbours round tonight should feel proud that you are doing your bit to keep the Scottish identity alive. Don’t forget to tak a richt guid willie-waught for Auld Lang Syne.

The Scottish Herald
December 31st 2003