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22 Dec 2020

Hogmanay in the Highlands

A view of Brodie Castle after heavy snowfall. The lawns and trees are blanketed with snow. The sky is a pale blue. The walls of the castle look even more orange in contrast.
Brodie Castle in the snow
The Brodie family lived at Brodie Castle from the mid-1500s until 2003 – find out more about the origins of our Hogmanay traditions and how this night would have been celebrated at Brodie Castle in the Scottish Highlands.

It’s thought the word Hogmanay might have come from ‘hoginane’, a French term meaning ‘gala day’, brought back by Mary, Queen of Scots when she returned from France. A competing theory suggests it’s from the Scandinavian word for yule, ‘hoggo-nott’. Whatever the origins of its name, the roots of our midwinter festivals can be traced right back to pagan times.

Christmas and New Year used to be celebrated as part of a longer yule period in Scotland. But Christmas feasting was strongly frowned upon after the Reformation, and the festivities became focused instead on Hogmanay.

A Christmas pudding, with a slice missing, is displayed on a white platter. It is garnished with red berries.

Historical records show the importance of Hogmanay in the Highlands of Scotland. In 1794, the minister for Kirkmichael in Banffshire noted how his parishioners believed the direction of the wind at New Year revealed what lay ahead. If it came from the south, there would be heat and fertility; from the west would bring milk and fish; the wind from the north meant cold and storm; and from the east signalled fruit on the trees.

Later, in 1881, Reverend Walter Gregor in his Notes on the Folklore of the North-East of Scotland recorded that New Year was celebrated very enthusiastically, with workers taking three days off. Scotland still enjoys two public holidays at New Year, compared to only one in the rest of the UK.

Some Hogmanay customs also continue to this day, such as the belief that a clean house is necessary to bring in the New Year. When open fires were common, the ashes were cleared and a new fire was laid. And then there’s ‘first footing’: the first person to enter a house after midnight is thought to bring good luck (so long as they bring gifts of coal, whisky and shortbread!).

In Burghead, 14 miles east from Brodie, local people continue to celebrate New Year with an ancient fire ceremony: the Burning of the Clavie. However, this takes place not on the eve of 1 January, but 11 days later, on the old New Year’s Eve of the Julian calendar. A burning barrel filled with staves is carried around the town and deposited on an ancient fort, from where locals collect the embers to keep for good luck during the following year.

However you choose to celebrate, we wish you all the best for 2021!

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