Hogmanay: How Hogmanay Got Hip


You don’t get any presents, the hangover is almost unbearable and there’s little chance of getting to sit on Santa’s knee. So why is Hogmanay Scotland’s favourite time of year? Anna Docherty finds out how the Scottish New Year celebrations became the world’s best party.

Shiny silver baubles, mince pies and novelty socks don’t quite cut it in the coolness stakes for most trendy young Scots. In fact, Christmas was once just another working day here. During long Scottish winters, it’s New Year that we turn to for our little morsel of scheduled festive fun. During Christmas, we line our stomachs with food, take plenty of rest, numb our brains with old movies and generally bide our time for the real party that is Hogmanay.

Step forward Pete Irvine, director of celebrations in Edinburgh, and the man planning to up the stakes once more this year in the capital city. After 15 years as the official Hogmanay party planner, he seems to have lost none of his enthusiasm. This year his vision is for ‘one big open air nightclub’. ‘For the first time during the street party there will be a soundtrack snaking the length of Princes Street and live DJs at either end’, he says. Like a child hurriedly trying to relay a magical dream, he is awash with adjectives, describing the events as ‘huge’, ‘big’ and ‘mega’ in a single breathless sentence. Then he drops a golden line, telling of his plans to ‘push the party’. You can almost see it emblazoned across the T-shirt of a glow-stick waving raver.

But perhaps he’s happened upon the key to why Hogmanay is so great. Partying is top of most Scottish people’s agenda that night and we seem to see it as our duty to share the celebrations with every last person who is on our turf. Irvine’s analogy of Hogmanay as ‘one party shared on a grand scale’ is pretty apt, as it is a time when everyone joins hands and locks lips in one big messy bout of merrymaking.

Out with the Old
Alan MacDonald, Professor of Scottish History at Dundee University, thinks that ‘Christmas seems to be stuck in the old traditions of older generations’. Year after year, very little changes, except maybe the variant of your turkey stuffing or whether you go for the Chilean or Shiraz. Some Hogmanay customs are still followed, particularly first footing, where Scots visit their neighbours just after the bells with symbolic gifts of coal, black bun and a silver coin (symbols of warmth, nourishment and prosperity). But nowadays black bun is more likely to be a box of fancy chocolates and the first person across the threshold is no longer required to be a tall, dark and handsome stranger - it is perfectly acceptable to be doorstepped by an ugly relative or friend!

In much the same way, old pagan rituals subtly change. So, customs like wrapping sticks in animal hide, setting them alight and then throwing them around, have been replaced with huge torchlight processions and rainbow coloured firework displays. The symbol of fire as a force for banishing evil remains, but the tradition has been jazzed up for a modern generation. ‘While Hogmanay is still geared around doing traditional things, in recent years it has been jazzed up by marketing men,’ says MacDonald. But at the end of the day, he feels it is the Scots that presented them with this ‘great opportunity’, in that ‘they continue to make a much bigger deal of New Year than most other countries’.

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