Old Scot’s Hogmanay 11 January
Today the 12th of January is New Year’s Day for those still celebrating festivals according to the old Gregorian calendar, so Happy New Year.
In keeping with pre-Christian practices, determined by lunar cycles, celebrations for a new year began with the rising of the moon on the previous evening; hence Hogmanay the evening before New Year’s Day.
New Year was traditionally welcomed in with fire, revered over millennia for its mystical powers to drive out evil and bring good fortune for the forthcoming year. In Scotland this led to the custom of offering a piece of coal when first-footing friends and family (smouldering peat or timber would have been the origins of that).
Hogmanays would once have seen bonfires light up skies all around Scotland – as communities came together in the hope their fire ritual might drive out evil at times when life was precarious with famines and epidemics a continuing threat.
One or two fire festivals remain across Scotland such as Stonehaven’s fireball procession which takes place on 31 December. The end of December became New Year’s Eve once the Julian calendar replaced the Gregorian calendar, officially in 1752 although in Scotland January 1st had been adopted as New Year as early as 1600 for some practices, presumably because of pressures from the Reformation. However it is clear that the Reformation failed to eliminate the popularity of many cultural rituals for in 1704 a law had to be passed outlawing fire festivals for being superstitious and idolatrous.
The burning of the Clavie at Burghead in Moray was revived and celebrates the old Scots New Year in dramatic fashion.
The Clavie consists of a split barrel (herring replaced by whisky possibly) nailed together by a large nail (clavum), habitually rescued from the ashes for use the next Hogmanay. (The term Clavie might derive, if not from the Latin clavum, from the Gaelic for fire-basket, cliabh.) The barrel which is secured to a pole is packed with wood and tar and set alight before being carried through the streets of Burghead by the Clavie King and his Crew who distribute smouldering pieces of the fire to householders for burning in their own grates to fend off evil spirits.
The procession makes its way up Doories Hill to the spot Celtic Druids held their fire ceremonies and the fiery barrel is placed in a fire-holder to burn down with more flaming barrels adding to the spectacle.
The Monday following old New Year’s Day used to be known as Handsel or Hansel day when small gifts were given. Older folk in Aberdeen still hansel a new purse with a coin, to ensure no bad fortune befalls the recipient.
Very many thanks to Richard Pelling for allowing me to use his very atmospheric photographs of last night’s Clavie burning.