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Popular Superstitions of the Highlands
New Year's Eve


"A gude New-Year I wish thee, Maggy."
BURNS

THE Highlander’s native proneness to festive enjoyments, far from being cloyed by recent series of feasts and diversions, only receives from their speedy recurrence an additional excitement. Anxious by all means to secure this occasion its accustomed share of hilarity, fresh schemes of amusement are studied and promoted with unabated avidity. The peculiar character of the time pre-eminently entitles it to every demonstration of satisfaction which mankind can evince; and it must be no small stimulus to the Highlander’s laudable zeal, to see that in this he is imitated by beings whose abilities are far inferior to his own.`

We presume it is a circumstance that is very little known in other quarters of the kingdom, that, on this particular occasion, even the brute creation (if we may use the expression) have an instinctive knowledge of its auspices. In particular, that admirable object of Highland curiosity, the "Candlemas [The term candlemas is applied to the New-Year in the Highlands. The origin of the term arose from some old religious ceremonies performed on this occasion by candlelight.] Bull," manifests no small degree of respect for the occasion. This strange and curious animal, which has so long escaped the observation of all the Saxon naturalists and astronomers that ever lived, has been long since discovered by our Highland philosophers. We say astronomers! because, however strange it may appear, this bull forms an object of speculation connected with their department of science. It must not, however, be inferred from this circumstance, that it, is of that celestial species of bulls designated by astronomers to distinguish a particular division of the zodiac; neither is it of that terrestrial species known to naturalists and cattle-dealers.....it is of a species distinct from both. Partaking together of the aëriaI and terrestrial nature and qualities, both the earth and the air are equally its elements. This bull rnakes an annual excursion, in some latitude or other, about the twilight of this night, no doubt in honour of the occasion. He has, it is said, neither wings nor any other apparent buoyants; but he takes advantage of the course of the wind, on which he glides along in fellowship with the clouds, in a manner that would do credit to the best aeronaut of the day. The particular place of his ascension or descent, which varies with the direction of the wind, cannot be exactly ascertained. Nor can we favour the curious with a minute description of its bodily appearance, since we never had the good fortune to be present when it was seen. All our informants, however, agree in representing it as of a very large size, the colour of a dark cloud, and having all the limbs of a common bull.  [We are totally unable to account for the origin of this strange piece of superstition. It is unnecessary to remark, that the object of this delusion is nothing but a passing cloud, which the perverted imagination of the original Highlander shapes into the form of a bull. There is something very ominous as to the art or direction in which the bull rises or falls—we believe it to be prognostic of its being a good or bad year.]

As soon as night sets in, it is the signal for the suspension of common employments; and the Highlander’s attention is directed to more agreeable and important callings. Associating themselves into bands, the men, with tethers and axes, shape their course towards the juniper bushes, which are as much in request this night as kail is on Hallowe’en. Returning home with Herculean loads, the juniper is arranged around the the fire to dry till the morning. Some careful person is also dispatched to the dead and living ford, who draws a pitcher of water, observing all the time the most profound silence. Great care must be taken that the vessel containing the water does not touch the ground, otherwise it would lose, all its virtues. These and every other necessary peculiar to the occasion being provided, the inmates retire to rest for the night, full of the thoughts of the morrow.

The Highlander’s morning cheer this day is far less palatable than that with which he is served so comfortably on Christmas day. But if it be not so agreeable to his temporal inclinations, it is far more beneficial to his spiritual interests. The Lagan-le-vrich, though very good in itself as a substantial dish, will do no more than satisfy for a time the cravings of nature, But the treat of which he partakes this day extends its effects to the good of both soul and body. This treat, if we may so call it, is divided into two courses, which are productive of the following good effects.

The first course, consisting of the Usgue Cashrichd, or water from the dead and living ford, by its sacred virtues, preserves the Highlander, until the next anniversary, from all those direful calamities proceeding from the agency of all infernal spirits, witchcraft, evil eyes, and the like. And the second course, consisting of the fumes of juniper, not only removes whatever diseases may affect the human frame at the time, but it likewise fortifies the constitution against their future attacks. These courses of medicine are administered in the following manner:

Light and fire being kindled, and the necessary arrangements having been effected, the high priest of the ceremonies for the day, and his assistants, proceed with the hallowed water to the several beds in the house, and, by means of a large brush, sprinkles upon their occupants a profuse shower of the precious preservative, which, notwithstanding its salutary properties, they sometimes receive with jarring ingratitude.

The first course being thus served, the second is about to be administered - preliminary to which, it is necessary to stuff all the crevices and windows in the house, even to the key-hole. This done, piles of juniper are kindled into a conflagration in the different apartments in the house. Rising in fantastic curls, the fumes of the blazing juniper spread along the roof, and gradually condense themselves into an opaque cloud, filling the apartment with an odoriferous fumigation altogether overpowering. Penetrating into the inmost recesses of the patients’ system, (for patients they may well be called,) it brings on an incessant shower of hiccupping, sneezing, wheezing, and coughing, highly demonstrative of its expectorating qualities. But it not unfrequently happens, that young and thoughtless urchins, not relishing such physic, and unmindful of the import ant benefits they reap from it, diversify the scene by cries of suffocation and the like, which never fail to call forth from the more reflecting part of the family, if able to speak, a very severe reproof. Well knowing, however, that the more intense the "smuchdan," the more propitious are its effects, the high priest, with dripping eyes and distorted mouth, continues his operations, regardless of the feelings of’ his flock, until he considers the dose fully sufficient—upon which he opens the vent, and the other crevices, to admit the genial fluid, to recover the spirits of the exhausted patients. He then proceeds to gratify the horses, cattle, and other bestial stock in the town, with the same entertainment in their turn. [It is believed that this extraordinary entertainment is now administered in no part of the Highlands, except in Strathdown and its immediate neighbourhood. In that district, however, the inhabitants generally attend to it, merely, it is believed, from the influence of inveterate custom.]

Meanwhile, the gudewife gets up, venting the most latent embryo of disease in a copious expectoration; and clapping her hand upon the bottle dhu, she administers a renovating cordial to the sufferers around her. The painful ordeal is therefore soon forgotten, and nothing is heard but the salutations of the season. All the family now get up, to wash their besmeared faces, and prepare themselves for the festivities of the day, and for receiving the visits of their neighbours. These last soon arrive in bodies, venting upon the family broadsides of salutation peculiar to the day. [The literal expressions used in the salutation applicable to this day in the Gaelic language, the writer could never perfectly comprehend. The literal translation of the words are, (Mu nase choil orst,) "My Candlemas bond upon you." The real meaning of the words, however, is, "You owe me a New-Year’s gift;" and it is a point of great emulation who will salute the other first - the one who does so being considered entitled to a gift from the person so saluted..] Breakfast being served up, consisting of all the luxuries that can be procured, those of’ the neighbours not engaged are invited to partake of it; and the day is terminated with balls, drinking, card parties, and other sports too tedious to be mentioned.


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