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Celebrate A New Year The Scottish Way With Hogmanay

When it comes to New Year’s Eve celebrations, you may already know all about the more famous traditions such as the midnight ball-drop in Times Square in NYC – but what about lesser known traditions, like those that happen in Scotland to herald the coming of the new year?

by Caitlin Hotchkiss Posted on 01 January 2014

When it comes to New Year’s Eve celebrations, you may already know all about the more famous traditions such as the midnight ball-drop in Times Square in NYC – but what about lesser known traditions, like those that happen in Scotland to herald the coming of the new year? You may not have heard of Hogmanay, but it has the distinction of being one of the world’s biggest New Year’s Eve parties – and it’s much different than your average soiree.

Hogmanay begins on December 31st, naturally, and can last as long as January 2nd (a bank holiday in Scotland). Its origins are likely Norse or Gaelic, and generally translate into a whole lot of partying. For starters, there is the tradition of first-footing – essentially, whomever is the first person to enter a friend’s household after midnight of the New Year is responsible for presenting the host with a symbolic gift (shortbread and whisky are popular choices). The first-foot sets the luck for the household for the rest of the year, and strangely enough, a tall dark male is the preferred choice to cross the threshold bearing gifts.

Another weird and completely awesome Hogmanay tradition is the creation and swinging of fireballs. Yes, fireballs. In Stonehaven up in Aberdeenshire, citizens craft balls out of chicken wire, stuff them with old newspapers and rags, and – you guessed it – light them on fire. These homemade great balls o’ fire are then swung around as their carriers march towards the harbour, where they are tossed in and extinguished. To mark the last fireball, fireworks are set off over the harbour. This whole bit of revelry is even streamed over the Internet – check it out at the aptly named Stonehaven Fireballs Association.

If it’s an even more local tradition you’re looking for, then saining fits the bill. This old custom of the Highlands involves the drinking and sprinkling of ‘magic water’ from a ‘dead and living ford’ (that is, a river that’s crossed by the living and the dead) on the household. After this ritual is complete, the house is sealed and filled with smoke from juniper branches set on fire. Once the house – and the people inside – is thoroughly fumigated with juniper smoke, the doors and windows are opened to let in the new year’s fresh air. Of course, a “restorative” of whisky is likely is needed after all this smoke and coughing.

So, there’s a bit of Hogmanay you probably didn’t know about – but there’s a Hogmanay tradition you’re likely very familiar with: the singing of “Auld Lang Syne.” That old chestnut of a song is adapted from a poem by Robbie Burns, Scotland’s favourite son and historical hero. Another common New Year’s Day tradition in Edinburgh is a polar plunge – also known as the “Loony Dook” – which happens all over the world on January 1st. If you happen to take our trip to Scotland during Hogmanay, you’ll be able to don a silly costume and brave the freezing waters along with many other brave souls. And really, what better way to ring in the New Year? (Especially if you can warm up with whisky afterward.)

Getting There

G Adventures runs a number of departures in Scotland encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.