Robert Burns, author of Auld Lang Syne
(From Robert Chambers, A Book of Days, 1869)
NEW YEAR’S EVE, OR HOGMANAY
As a general statement, it may be asserted that neither the last evening of the old year nor the first day of the new one is much, observed in England as an occasion of festivity. In some parts of the country, indeed, and more especially in the northern counties, various social merry-makings take place; but for the most part, the great annual holiday-time is already past. Christmas Eve, Christmas-day, and St. Stephen’s or Boxing Day have absorbed almost entirely the tendencies and opportunities of the community at large in the direction of joviality and relaxation. Business and the ordinary routine of daily life have again been resumed; or, to apply to English habits the words of an old Scottish rhyme still current, but evidently belonging to the old times, anterior to the Reformation, when Christmas was the great popular festival:
Yule’s come and Yule ‘s gane,
And we hae feasted weel;
Sae Jock maun to his flail again,
And Jenny to her wheel.’
Whilst thus the inhabitants of South Britain are settling down again quietly to work after the festivities of the Christmas season, their fellow-subjects in the northern division of the island are only commencing their annual saturnalia, which, till recently, bore, in the license and boisterous merriment which used to prevail, a most unmistakable resemblance to its ancient pagan namesake. The epithet of the Daft [mad] Days, applied to the season of the New Year in Scotland, indicates very expressively the uproarious joviality which characterized the period in question. This exuberance of joyousness—which, it must be admitted, sometimes led to great excesses—has now much declined, but New-year’s Eve and New-year’s Day constitute still the great national holiday in Scotland. Under the 1st of January, we have already detailed the various revelries by which the New Year used to be ushered in, in Scotland. It now becomes our province to notice those ceremonies and customs which are appropriate to the last day of the year, or, as it is styled in Scotland, Hogmanay.
This last term has puzzled antiquaries even more than the word Yule, already adverted to; and what is of still greater consequence, has never yet received a perfectly satisfactory explanation. Some suppose it to be derived from two Greek words, Î¬Î¹Î±Î¼Î·Î½Î· (the holy moon or month), and in reference to this theory it may be observed, that, in the north of England, the term used is Hagmenu, which does not seem, however, to be confined to the 31st of December, but denotes generally the period immediately preceding the New Year. Another hypothesis combines the word with another sung along with it in chorus, and asserts ‘Hogmanay, trollolay!’ to be a corruption of ‘Homma est nÃ©â€”Trois Bois lÃ¡” (‘A Man is born—Three Kings are there’), an allusion to the birth of our Saviour, and the visit to Bethlehem of the Wise Men, who were known in medieval times as the ‘Three Kings.’
But two additional conjectures seem much more plausible, and the reader may select for himself what he considers the most probable. One of these is, that the term under notice is derived from Hoggu-nott, Hogenat, or Hogg-night, the ancient Scandinavian name for the night preceding the feast of Yule, and so called in reference to the animals slaughtered on the occasion for sacrificial and festal purpose word hogg signifying to kill. The other derivation of Hogmanay is from ‘Au gui menez’ (‘To the mistletoe go’), or ”Au gui Ä¾an neuf’ ‘ (‘To the mistletoe this New Year ‘), an allusion to the ancient Druidical ceremony of gathering that plant. In the patois of Touraine, in France, the word used is Aguilanneu; in Lower Normandy, and in Guernsey, poor persons and children used to solicit a contribution under the title of Hoguinanno or 0guinano; whilst in Spain the term, Aguinaldo, is employed to denote the presents made at the season of Christmas.
In country places in Scotland, and also in the more retired and primitive towns, it is still customary on the morning of the last day of the year, or Hogmanay, for the children of the poorer class of people to get themselves swaddled in a great sheet, doubled up in front, so as to form a vast pocket, and then to go along the streets in little bands, calling at the doors of the wealthier classes for an expected dole of oaten-bread. Each child gets one quadrant section of oat-cake (some-times, in the case of particular favourites, improved by an addition of cheese), and this is called their hogmanay. In expectation of the large demands thus made upon them, the housewives busy themselves for several days beforehand in preparing a suitable quantity of cakes. The children on coming to the door cry, ‘Hogmanay!’ which is in itself a sufficient announcement of their demands; but there are other exclamations which either are or might be used for the same purpose. One of these is:
Give us of your white bread, and none of your gray.’
And another favourite rhyme is:
Get up, goodwife, and shake your feathers,
And dinna think that we are beggars;
For we are bairns come out to play,
Get up and gie’s our hogmanay!’
The following is of a moralising character, though a good deal of a truism:
Get up, goodwife, and binna sweir,
And deal your bread to them that ‘s here;
For the time will come when ye’ll be dead,
And then ye’ll neither need ale nor bread.’
The most favourite of all, however, is more to the point than any of the foregoing :
My feet’s cauld, my shoon’s thin;
Gie’s my cakes, and let me rin!’
It is no unpleasing scene, during the forenoon, to see the children going laden home, each with his large apron bellying out before him, stuffed full of cakes, and perhaps scarcely able to waddle under the load. Such a mass of oaten alms is no inconsiderable addition to the comfort of the poor man’s household, and enables him to enjoy the New-year season as much as his richer neighbours.
In the primitive parish of Deerness, in Orkney, it was customary, in the beginning of the present century, for old and young of the common class of people to assemble in a great band upon the evening of the last day of the year, and commence a round of visits throughout the district. At every house they knocked at the door, and on being admitted, commenced singing, to a tune of its own, a song appropriate to the occasion. The following is what may be termed a restored version of this chant, the imagination having been called on to make up in several of the lines what was deficient in memory. The ‘Queen Mary’ alluded to is evidently the Virgin:
‘This night it is grid New’r E’en’s night,
We’re a’ here Queen Mary’s men;
And we ‘re come here to crave our right,
And that’s before our Lady.
The very first thing which we do crave,
We ‘re a’ here Queen Mary’s men;
A bonny white candle we must have,
And that’s before our Lady.
Goodwife, gae to your butter-ark,
And weigh us here ten mark.
Ten mark, ten pund,
Look that ye grip weel to the grund.
Goodwife, gae to your geelin vat,
And fetch us here a skeet o’ that.
Gang to your awmrie, gin ye please,
And bring frae there a yow-milk cheese.
And syne bring here a sharping-stane,
We’ll sharp our whittles ilka ane.
Ye’ll cut the cheese, and eke the round,
But aye take care ye cutna your thoom.
Gae fill the three-pint cog o’ ale,
The maut maun be aboon the meal.
We houp your ale is stark and stout,
For men to drink the auld year out.
Ye ken the weather’s snow and sleet,
Stir up the fire to warm our feet.
Our shoon’s made o’ mare’s skin,
Come open the door, and let’s in.’
The inner-door being opened, a tremendous rush was made ben the house. The inmates furnished a long table with all sorts of homely fare, and a hearty feast took place, followed by copious libations of ale, charged with all sorts of good-wishes. The party would then proceed to the next house, where a similar scene would be enacted. How they contrived to take so many suppers in one evening, heaven knows ! No slight could be more keenly felt by a Deerness farmer than to have his house passed over unvisited by the New-year singers.
The doings of the guisers or guizards (that is, masquers or mummers) form a conspicuous feature in the New-year proceedings throughout Scotland. The favourite night for this exhibition is Hogmanay, though the evenings of Christmas, New-year’s Day, and Handsel Monday, enjoy like-wise a privilege in this respect. Such of the boys as can lay any claim to the possession of a voice have, for weeks before, been poring over the collection of ‘excellent new songs,’ which lies like a bunch of rags in the window-sill; and being now able to screech up ‘Barbara Allan,’ or the ‘Wee cot-house and the wee kail-yardie,’ they determine upon enacting the part of guisers. For this purpose they don old shirts belonging to their fathers, and mount mitre-shaped casques of brown paper, possibly borrowed from the Abbot of Unreason; attached to this is a sheet of the same paper, which, falling down in front, covers and conceals the whole face, except where holes are made to let through the point of the nose, and afford sight to the eyes and breath to the mouth. Each vocal guiser is, like a knight of old, attended by a sort of humble squire, who assumes the habiliments of a girl, ‘with an old-woman’s cap and a broomstick, and is styled ‘Bessie: Bessie is equal in no respect, except that she shares fairly in the proceeds of the enterprise. She goes before her principal, opens all the doors at which he pleases to exert his singing powers; and busies herself, during the time of the song, in sweeping the floor with her broomstick, or in playing any other antics that she thinks may amuse the indwellers. The common reward of this entertainment is a halfpenny, but many churlish persons fall upon the unfortunate guisers, and beat them out of the house. Let such persons, however, keep a good watch upon their cabbage-gardens next Halloween!
The more important doings of the guisers are of a theatrical character. There is one rude and grotesque drama which they are accustomed to perform on each of the four above-mentioned nights; and which, in various fragments or versions, exists in every part of Lowland Scotland. The performers, who are never less than three, but sometimes as many as six, having dressed themselves, proceed in a band from house to house, generally contenting themselves with the kitchen for an arena; whither, in mansions presided over by the spirit of good-humour, the whole family will resort to witness the spectacle. Sir Walter Scott, who delighted to keep up old customs, and could condescend to simple things without losing genuine dignity, invariably had a set of guisers to perform this play before his family both at Ashestiel and Abbotsford. The drama in question bears a close resemblance, with sundry modifications, to that performed by the mummers in various parts of England, and of which we have already given a specimen.
Such are the leading features of the Hogmanay festivities in Scotland. A similar custom to that above detailed of children going about from house to house, singing the Hagmena chorus, and obtaining a dole of bread or cakes, prevails in Yorkshire and the north of England; but, as we have already mentioned, the last day of the year is not in the latter country, for the most part, invested with much peculiar distinction. One or two closing ceremonies, common to both countries—the requiem, as they may be termed, of the dying year—will be more appropriately noticed in the concluding article of this work.
BURNING OF THE CLAVIE
A singular custom, almost unparalleled in any other part of Scotland, takes place on New-year’s Eve (old style) at the village of Burghead, on the southern shore of the Moray Firth, about nine miles from the town of Elgin. It has been observed there from time immemorial, and both its origin, and that of the peculiar appellation by which it is distinguished, form still matter of conjecture and dispute for antiquaries. The following extract from the Banffshire Journal presents a very interesting and comprehensive view of all that can be stated regarding this remarkable ceremonial:
‘Any Hogmanay afternoon, a small group of sea-men and coopers, dressed in blue overfrocks, and followed by numbers of noisy youngsters, may be seen rapidly wending their way to the south-western extremity of the village, where it is customary to build the Clavie. One of the men bears on his shoulders a stout Archangel tar-barrel, kindly presented for the occasion by one of the merchants, who has very considerately left a quantity of the resinous fluid in the bottom. Another carries a common herring-cask, while the remainder are laden with other raw materials, and the tools necessary for the construction of the Clavie. Arrived at the spot, three cheers being given for the success of the undertaking, operations are commenced forthwith. In the first place, the tar-barrel is sawn into two unequal parts; the smaller forms the groundwork of the Clavie, the other is broken up for fuel.
A common fir prop, some four feet in length, called the “spoke,” being then procured, a hole is bored through the tub-like machine, that, as we have already said, is to form the basis of the unique structure, and a long nail, made for the purpose, and furnished gratuitously by the village black-smith, unites the two. Curiously enough, no hammer is allowed to drive this nail, which is “sent home” by a smooth stone. The herring-cask is next demolished, and the staves are soon under-going a diminution at both extremities, in order to fit them for their proper position. They are nailed, at intervals of about two inches all round, to the lower edge of the Clavie-barrel, while the other ends are firmly fastened to the spoke, an aperture being left sufficiently large to admit the head of a man. Amid tremendous cheering, the finished Clavie is now set up against the wall, which is mounted by two stout young men, who proceed to the business of filling and lighting.
A few pieces of the split-up tar-barrel are placed in a pyramidal form in the inside of the Clavie, enclosing a small space for the reception of a burning peat, when everything is ready. The tar, which had been previously removed to another vessel, is now poured over the wood; and the same inflammable substance is freely used, while the barrel is being closely packed with timber and other combustible materials, that rise twelve or thirteen inches above the rim.
‘By this time the shades of evening have begun to descend, and soon the subdued murmur of the crowd breaks forth into one loud, prolonged cheer, as the youth who was despatched for the fiery peat (for custom says no sulphurous lucifer, no patent congreve dare approach ‘within the sacred precincts of the Clavie) arrives with his glowing charge. The master-builder relieving him of his precious trust, places it within the opening already noticed, where, revived by a hot blast from his powerful lungs, it ignites the surrounding wood and tar, which quickly bursts into a flame. During the short time the fire is allowed to gather strength, cheers are given in rapid succession for “The Queen,” “The Laird,” “The Provost,” “The Town,” “The Harbour,” and “The Railway,” and then Clavie-bearer number one, popping his head between the staves, is away with his flaming burden. Formerly, the Clavie was carried in triumph round every vessel in the harbour, and a handful of grain thrown into each, in order to insure success for the coming year; but as this part of the ceremony came to be tedious, it was dropped, and the procession confined to the boundaries of the town.
As fast as his heavy load will permit him, the bearer hurries along the well-known route, followed by the shouting Burgheadians, the boiling tar meanwhile trickling down in dark sluggish streams all over his back. Nor is the danger of scalding the only one he who essays to carry the Clavie has to confront, since the least stumble is sufficient to destroy his equilibrium. Indeed, this untoward event, at one time looked on as a dire calamity, foretelling disaster to the place, and certain death to the bearer in the course of next year, not unfrequently occurs. Having reached the junction of two streets, the carrier of the Clavie is relieved; and while the change is being effected, firebrands plucked from the barrel are thrown among the crowd, who eagerly scramble for the tarry treasure, the possession of which was of old deemed a sure safeguard against all unlucky contingencies.
Again the multitude bound along; again they halt for a moment as another individual takes his place as bearer—a post for the honour of which there is sometimes no little striving. The circuit of the town being at length completed, the Clavie is borne along the principal street to a small hill near the northern extremity of the promontory called the “Doorie,” on the summit of which a freestone pillar, very much resembling an ancient altar, has been built for its reception, the spoke fitting into a socket in the centre. Being now firmly seated on its throne, fresh fuel is heaped on the Clavie, while, to make the fire burn the brighter, a barrel with the ends knocked out is placed on the top. Cheer after cheer rises from the crowd below, as the efforts made to increase the blaze are crowned with success.
‘Though formerly allowed to remain on the Doorie the whole night, the Clavie is now removed when it has burned about half an hour. Then comes the most exciting scene of all. The barrel is lifted from the socket, and thrown down on the western slope of the hill, which appears to be all in one mass of flame—a state of matters that does not, however, prevent a rush to the spot in search of embers. Two stout men, instantly seizing the fallen Clavie, attempt to demolish it by dashing it to the ground: which is no sooner accomplished than a final charge is made among the blazing fragments, that are snatched up in total, in spite of all the powers of combustion, in an incredibly short space of time. Up to the present moment, the origin of this peculiar custom is involved in the deepest obscurity. Some would have us to believe that we owe its introduction to the Romans; and that the name Clavie is derived from the Latin word clavus, a nail—witches being frequently put to death in a barrel stuck full of iron spikes; or from clavis, a key—the rite being instituted when Agricola discovered that Ptoroton, i.e., Burghead, afforded the grand military key to the north of Scotland.
As well might these wild speculators have remarked that Doorie, which may be spelled Durie, sprang from durus, cruel, on account of the bloody ceremony celebrated on its summit. Another opinion has been boldly advanced by one party, to the effect that the Clavie is Scandinavian in origin, being introduced by the Norwegian Vikings, during the short time they held the promontory in the beginning of the eleventh century, though the theorist advances nothing to prove his assumption, save a quotation from Scott’s Marmion; while, to crown all, we have to listen to a story that bears on its face its own condemnation, invented to confirm the belief that a certain witch, yclept, a Kitty Clavers,” bequeathed her name to the singular rite.
Unfortunately, all external evidence being lost, we are compelled to rely entirely on the internal, which we have little hesitation, however, in saying points in an unmistakable manner down through the long vistas of our national history to where the mists of obscurity hang around the Druid worship of our forefathers. It is well known that the elements of fire were often present in Druidical orgies and customs (as witness their cran-tara); while it is universally admitted that the bonfires of May-day and Mid-summer eve, still kept up in different parts of the country, are vestiges of these rites. And why should not the Clavie be so too, seeing that it bears throughout the stamp of a like parentage? The carrying home of the embers, as a protection from the ills of life, as well as other parts of the ceremony, finds a counterpart in the customs of the Druids; and though the time of observance be somewhat different, yet may not the same causes (now unknown ones) that have so greatly modified the Clavie have likewise operated in altering the date, which, after all, occurs at the most solemn part of the Druidical year?’