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Hogmanay: New Year's Eve Traditions in Scotland

We start off this article on a unique 'explore and discover' mission. Grab your hat and jacket and step carefully into our trusty Wee Walking Tours time machine, as we set the destination location to late 1500s Edinburgh.

Edinburgh in the late 1500s

As you step out of the time machine and look around, you notice that Edinburgh is a congested town. Off the High Street (which we now call the Royal Mile) are overcrowded closes and streets filled with people- often living in extremely poor conditions. The stench of the many animals in the town and various market goods permeates the air. It isn’t only the smells that locals must endure, but there is smoke and pollution from the tenement fires. This is where Edinburgh got its nickname ‘Auld Reekie’- from the smoke pollution.

Residents of the city have suffered much the past few decades from attacks by the English as well as civil war. The Scottish Reformation is in full swing and John Knox has been preaching vigorously against the Catholic Church. In fact, due in large part to Knox's targeted campaigns, Mary, Queen of Scots (a Catholic and archenemy of Knox) was forced off the Scottish throne. She was eventually imprisoned in England by her cousin, Elizabeth I, who also saw her as a threat.

To make matters worse, in his continued efforts to reform Scotland away from the Catholic Church, Knox and the Presbyterian Church ban Christmas. So, what do the Scots who still want to celebrate do? Well, they simply push their celebrations back a week to New Year's Eve. Thus, you have the shift of focus to the last day of the year- Hogmanay (pronounced Hog-muh-nay).

Therefore, out of necessity, Scots stop celebrating Christmas and embrace Hogmanay as one of the most important holidays of the year. With this shift comes traditions that have carried over the centuries. So, lets jump back into our time machine and return to the 21st century so we can further explore Hogmanay and its traditions.

Hogmanay Origins

Hogmanay is the Scots word for the last day of the year, but scholars are not sure of the exact origins of the word. However, many say that it most likely has its roots in the French language. After all, the word Hogmanay started to be widely used after the return of Mary, Queen of Scots from France (for more on this see our previous post on Mary here). There is further speculation that it is French as the word hoguinané relates to gifts being given for the New Year.

What is particularly fascinating about Hogmanay is that for many Scots, it is still a bigger celebration than Christmas (although I think that is starting to change). This probably doesn’t seem so surprising when I tell you that Christmas didn’t become a public holiday in Scotland until 1958 (of course it was celebrated before this but wasn’t an official holiday). Celebrating New Years Eve has become even more popular in modern times, especially in Edinburgh as hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to the city to celebrate and 'see in the bells' (a Scots expression related to staying up until midnight to ring in the New Year). The entire celebration goes on for three days with special events throughout. We'll explore more of this below.

The Importance of Fire & Light

As I discussed in last week’s article on Christmas at the Botanics, during winter, light in its various forms, has been an important part of Northern European cultures for centuries. In Scotland, these traditions have carried on through the years and are enshrined in Hogmanay celebrations across the country.

Traditions vary throughout Scotland, but fire is a common theme. For example, you can celebrate in Aberdeenshire in Stonehaven by watching locals swing giant balls of fire as they parade through the town. Or you can go to Comrie in Perthshire and watch the Comrie Flambeaux. At midnight, they light several torches that are up to almost 10 feet high, and parade around the village in fancy dress.

Here in Edinburgh, we throw an incredible kick-off to Hogmanay with the Torchlight Processional. I was fortunate to attend this year, and it was simply stunning. Walking down the Royal Mile surrounded by the beauty of the torches was a truly memorable experience; you really do get the sense that you are part of an important tradition. I highly recommend the Torchlight Processional to anyone coming to Edinburgh during Hogmanay.

I especially appreciate how this year’s event- and Hogmanay overall- celebrate how we welcome all to Scotland. A common theme and hashtag that is used on social media is, Scotland is Now. This is to highlight that we want visitors to come and see all that this magnificent country has to offer. Hogmanay is a wonderful way to experience that comradery and offers fun and welcoming events to guests from around the world.

Fireworks are another popular part of Hogmanay- especially in Edinburgh. The Torchlight Processional closed the evening with fireworks from Calton Hill. For New Year’s Eve, the fireworks are set off in front of and above Edinburgh Castle. Some of the best views of the fireworks can be found at the official Hogmanay street party on Princes Street. However, there are many locations throughout the city where you can see the New Year's Eve fireworks.

A Scottish Tradition Celebrated Worldwide

Robert Burns Statue at the Writer's Museum Edinburgh

As the clock strikes midnight this New Year’s Eve, you will most likely hear the familiar tune, Auld Lang Syne, play. The song has become a staple in many places around the world as revellers ring in the New Year. The words of the song are from a Scots language poem that legendary Scottish poet, Robert Burns, wrote. Burns stated that he took down some of the lyrics from an old song- the first verse and chorus are from poems that predate Burns. However, it is generally thought that the rest was composed by Burns. So, whenever you hear Auld Lang Syne play, just keep in mind that it’s a wee bit of Scotland coming your way.

Fancy a Dip?

For many, New Year’s Day is a time to relax and perhaps recover from the previous evening’s entertainment. However, in Scotland, the celebrations continue. In fact, Scotland takes Hogmanay so seriously that we celebrate on the 1st and 2nd January (both days are bank holidays). If you are looking to celebrate New Year’s Day in true Scottish fashion, then you should check out the popular Loony Dook event held annually at South Queensferry. Participants often wear fancy dress (or less), parade through the South Queensferry High Street, and then plunge into the cold waters of the River Forth. It is all fun for a good cause as those taking part are raising money for charities.

Well, that draws this article and year to a close. Wherever you are in the world to ‘see in the bells’, all of us here at Wee Walking Tours wish you a very Happy Hogmanay/New Year’s! Here’s to another great year of bringing you all the best that Edinburgh and Scotland have to offer!

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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