We Scots have been celebrating Hogmanay every end of year for as long as there have been years to mark the end of; in the understanding that Christmas is for the wains and Hogmanay’s for the adults – meaning that we should stay sober for Christmas and get rat-faced at New’rdae. I’ve been thinking about the origin of these festivities given that I have recently discovered that what I was taught as a child – that Hogmanay comes from the Gàidhlig Monach Og (the ‘young monk’) – is wrong. Apparently this is at best a local folkish etymology from a people with a poor remembrance of their Gaelic roots, or just from my granny.

In all likelihood the Ho’din’ O’ Hogmanay predates the celebration of Christmas in Scotland. Believe it or not, Christmas is quite a new holiday in Scotland. It was only made a public holiday in 1958 and many places of work in the industrial south were still operational on the day well into the late 60s. Scotland, long under the sway of the reputedly cheerless Calvinists, looked askance at the merrymaking of our southern neighbours for far too long, and this may account for the tradition of staying off the booze – for the sake of the kids – on the day itself.


Having said all this, even the marking of Hogmanay does not seem to be a native celebration. If history teaches us Scots anything it is that we have to be persuaded to enjoy ourselves, but, I think that we have taken to it well. No one is entirely sure where the custom of having a remarkably good time on New Year’s Eve came from, but the linguistic cognates of our word Hogmanay, stretching all the way from Iceland to France, in Icelandic, Old Norse, Manx, Irish, and French make a good case for it having been either an idea of the Vikings or a celebration they adopted (possibly even from Scotland) and spread with their seafaring adventures.

To put the record straight for my dear departed granny, or whoever got it wrong in the first place, the Scots Gàidhlig relation is actually Thog mi an èigh (‘I raised the cry’), from an old song. This is so much less exciting than the idea of religious novices taking the night off to get fluttered, but it is also most likely not the origin of the term Hogmanay either. Modern scholars of these sorts of things – and yes there are Hogmanay scholars – tend to lend their support to the idea of warding off trolls in the dead of winter. Now isn’t this much more fun?! In an ancient Nordic sea shanty we find the Viking explorers calling out “Haugmenn á læ (‘Trolls get into the sea’).” So now that we have solved that little riddle – have a Guid Hogmanay!

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