What is Hogmanay? How New Year’s Eve is celebrated in Scotland

Torchlight processions took place in Edinburgh in previous years (Andrew Milligan/PA Archive)
Torchlight processions took place in Edinburgh in previous years (Andrew Milligan/PA Archive)

It is coming to that time of year again – Christmas and new year.

It seems to be a constant refrain, with many asking “where has the time gone” in regards to this year – and, they’re right! The time really has flown.

New Year’s Eve is a big celebration across the globe, with millions of people taking part, and it is a particularly huge deal in Scotland, where it is called Hogmanay.

Festivities take place all over Scotland during Hogmanay, and they last for three days, beginning at the end of December, and ending on 2 January.

Scottish people have two days of holiday, following the celebrations, unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, which just has New Year’s Day.

But, why is it called Hogmanay and how do Scottish people celebrate?

Here is what you need to know.

What is Hogmanay?

Hogmanay is the Scottish name for the last day of the year and associated celebrations. It is not known where the word comes from; however, it’s believed to be derived from the French word “hoginane”, which means “gala day”.

It is thought to have first been used widely following Mary, Queen of Scots’ return to Scotland from France in 1561.

Speaking to the BBC, Dr Donna Heddle, an expert from the University of the Highlands and Islands, explained: “The name could also come from the Anglo-Saxon ‘haleg monath’ meaning ‘holy month’. Some say it could come from the Scandinavian ‘hoggo-nott’ meaning ‘yule’.”

But Dr Heddle said: “The most likely source seems to be French. In Normandy, presents given at Hogmanay were ‘hoguignetes’.”

When is Hogmanay?

Hogmanay is what the Scots call New Year’s Eve – 31 December – the big night that marks the arrival of the new year.

What is first footing?

First footing is a tradition that is part of Hogmanay celebrations in Scotland and, although it doesn’t occur as often, it refers to when you visit friends or family immediately after midnight in order to become the first person to visit them, and to go into their house in the new year.

Your first foot – the first person to visit you in the new year – should be a tall, dark-haired man. The tradition goes back to Viking invasions because Vikings had fair hair, so the arrival of a blond man suggested danger.

It also has roots in pagan traditions, including marking the arrival of the dark half of the year and interacting with the mysterious realm of darkness and spirits, as well as appeasing them with food and hospitality.

A dark rye bread called Black Bun is traditionally handed out to ensure those in the house you’re visiting don’t go hungry in the forthcoming year.

First footers also traditionally bring a lump of coal in order to ensure the house is warm in the coming months.

It is also traditional for people to clean their houses and remove any old ash from the fire, symbolising cleaning out the old year to welcome the new.

Where did Hogmanay come from?

Hogamanay celebrations originated in pagan times, when people marked the harvest and end of the year with a festival called Samhain. This then became a midwinter yule festival, which continued when Catholicism became the main religion.

The period then became known as “daft days” with people eating and drinking liberally, and enjoying parties and bonfires.

However, in 1560, during the Reformation, debates began over how the feast should be celebrated and in 1640 an Act of Parliament officially banned the Christmas break, meaning celebrating was pushed to the new year.

How is Hogmanay celebrated?

There are many different ways to celebrate Hogmanay, from massive public events to small intimate gatherings. In whichever way you decide to enjoy the occasion, you’ll find it to be a moment of fun, reflection and tradition.

Read on for some of the most popular things to do in Scotland over the new year celebrations.

1. Join the new year parade in Edinburgh

Edinburgh hosts one of the biggest new year festivals in the world and, with events lasting for up to three days, there’s plenty of fun to be had in the city, with 100,000 people regularly visiting.

Festivities start on December 30 with a torchlight procession from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Park and end on December 31 with a Party at the Bells in Princes Street Gardens.

There is also live music from the biggest names in Scottish music, DJ sets, and a vibrant, welcoming atmosphere.

2. Take a dip in the Loony Dook

On January 1, join a collective dip in the Loony Dook in the waters of the North Sea. Originally this took place in the waters of South Queensferry, beneath the Forth Railway Bridge, these days you can join the fun at Portobello Beach and North Berwick too.

3. Experience a Scottish Fire Festival

Fire Festivals are a cornerstone of festivities, for example, visit Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire or head to Comrie in Perthshire, where villagers light “flambeaux”, or burning sticks, at the stroke of midnight.

Alternatively, in Burghead in Moray, witness the Burning of the Clavie, a wooden barrel filled with staves. Or head to the Scottish Borders for the Biggar Bonfire.

4. Attend a Hogmanay Ceilidh

In Scotland, a “ceilidh” is a traditional event, with live folk music and dancing in couples and groups. There’s sometimes storytelling, and plenty of food and drink.

These dances are riotous, energetic and plenty of fun.

5. Reflect on the past year

A nice way to celebrate is to reflect on the past year by joining hands with loved ones and singing Auld Lang Syne, a song penned by Robert Burns.

Then, after midnight, visit friends to drink whisky and eat black buns, a type of fruit cake wrapped in pastry.