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Essay's of Hugh Haliburton (James Logie Robertson)
Hogmanay


The customary observances at Hallowe'en, remarks Carlyle, passed and re-passed in rude awe and laughter from the times of the Druids without receiving poetical commemoration till the genius of Burns once and for all appropriated the interesting subject. A theme of equal interest and as ancient and mysterious an origin remains unutilised to this day in the usages and ceremonies proper to Hogmanay. This hoary institution, with which the nation has not yet quite broken, was celebrated, as every Scot even in this revolutionary nineteenth century knows, on the last day of the dying year. This used to be a day, more especially in rural Scotland, of extreme sociality among friends and "auld acquaintance," and of profuse, if somewhat rough and ready, hospitality even to the stranger poor. Every house of any pretension to prosperity and respectability made the chance-comer welcome to food and drink. The feeling of brotherhood seemed to be general. The rich and the well-to-do seemed on that day to make haste to entertain their less fortunate brothers of mankind—in many instances they would let them go only after loading them with gifts. The respectable poor, on the other hand, laid aside for the day their honest pride, that would not let them beg, and accepted that entertainment and those gifts in the spirit in which they were offered. The cause of this prevalent generosity of feeling, affecting all classes, has long been matter of discussion, in which, as was perhaps inevitable, the name of the institution figured prominently. They find, for example, in "Hogmanay" a corruption of the French words "Homme est né," and account for the public rejoicings by a reference to the nativity of Christ. It is supposed to be no bar to this interpretation of the institution and name of Hogmanay that the traditional anniversary of the birth of our Lord is the 25th and not the 31st of December. "Many superstitious ideas and rites pertaining to Yule," says old Dr Jamieson, "have been transferred to the last day of the year." While some are satisfied with the theory of a Christian origin for Hogmanay> others claim for both name and institution a much more ancient descent. They trace the word variously to a Celtic, a Scandinavian, a German, even a Greek root, and agree only in this, that the rejoicings associated with the name are of Pagan birth. There seems to be some reason for connecting Hogmanay with the gut or guy—to whatever speech the word originally belongs—the name of the mystic mistletoe. But the whole subject of derivation and original meaning is wrapt in obscurity. One is on firmer and safer ground in speaking of the manner in which Hogmanay was more recently celebrated.

It has been said that customs properly belonging to Yule, or Christmas, have been transferred to the last day of the year. But the very term of "Yule " itself was synonymous with Hogmanay in many, if not most, of the districts of central Scotland at the commencement of the century. Certain it is that it was no uncommon practice some sixty years ago to invite a person to his " Yule," as the entertainment was called, on the last day of December, in many parts of southern Perthshire. It would be interesting to know whether Yule was held in Ayrshire on the last night of the old year in the time of Burns. If it was, then Burns's only allusion to Hogmanay is under this name. It was on "blythe Yule nicht" that young Duncan Gray came (se. soberly) " to woo " Maggie, and it was then that the too social company at the house of his inamorata were undeniably drunk.  [It may have been on the same occasion, but of a much earlier year, that Robin's Jock came to woo "our Jenny," and it is interesting—if not satisfactory—to know that on that "feast even" also the company were "fou." See The wooing of Jock and Jenny preserved by Bannatyne, printed in Ramsay's Evergreen.] It was the general practice—where the custom was known—for the farmer to give his servants their "Yule" or "Hogmanay" on the closing night of the old year. This consisted at least of a dram of whisky, with "cheese and bread." The same entertainment was repeated on the first Monday morning of the new year. A very noticeable feature of Hogmanay used to be the numerous gangs of respectably-dressed grown-up people, who, from early morning till night, perambulated the countryside, "thigging." Churlish and parsimonious farmers, like Nabal of old, spoke of the practice as wholesale begging, and probably the bad name they sought to fasten on the practice had the effect of checking it a good while before the Legislature made begging a crime. It was mainly engaged in by the respectable poor, whose industry kept them beyond need of parish support. As they were resident in the district in which they practised thigging, they were, of course, well known, and a good reputation for respectability commonly stood them in good stead. They carried with them bags and napkins for the conveyance of the expected gifts. These consisted in all cases of articles of food. At one farmstead a single thigger might have the gift of a peck, or even two pecks, of oatmeal, or a cheese, or half a ham, or a string of hog's puddings. As a rule, he did not need to introduce himself; he would be welcomed with the words, "Ye'll be come for your Hogmanay, na?" By nightfall many thiggers who had been supplied at each place of call on some such scale as I have quoted would be laden like little u cuddies," and have some difficulty in conveying their provisions home. Liberality like this, freely offered as a rule and frankly accepted, kept the neighbourhood in good agreement for the rest of the year. The Yule or Hogmanay thiggers were grown up; the Hansel collectors, again, were chiefly young people, and the gifts, freely enough bestowed upon them, were on a much smaller scale—though, if numerous enough, the sum total was considerable.

Another prime feature of a Hogmanay celebration was "the guising." The "guisards" were maskers, who, disguising their features and figure, visited their friends and acquaintance by night, and made mirth by singing, dancing, and acting, and by defying their entertainers to find out who they were. The practice was in great favour with the youth of both sexes, who, under cover of darkness, and with the freedom of a perfect or even doubtful disguise, and stimulated besides by the hilarious spirit of the season, occasionally ran to licentious lengths in both speech and action. Because of the scandal which seemed inseparable from guising, the Church sternly opposed the practice. If the Scots borrowed the custom of guising at Yuletide, they were probably indebted to France for it In that country it was extremely popular, and was conducted with such irreverence that the Papal clergy were constrained—but to little purpose—to interfere, and the practice was at last prohibited by the civil law towards the end of the seventeenth century. Guising in Scotland was the most picturesque feature in the celebration of Hogmanay. The maskers, who might be of any age from fifteen to five-and-twenty, usually went in pairs, but gangs of five or six were by no means uncommon. They were, of course, variously disguised, nearly all fantastically, and very many grotesquely. Sometimes, but rarely, they were "got up" to represent brutes— the swine and ass being the favourites. The simplest and easiest disguises were "cooming" the face with a burnt cork, or anointing it with a. mixture of grease and soot, and turning the clothes of everyday wear inside out. But an old military uniform or the cast garments of old people of both sexes were to be seen on figures equally unaccustomed to the upright bearing of the soldier and the decrepitude of stooping age. Wherever they came they sang, and their preference was usually for "character " songs, though any piece that happened to be popular at the time was readily drawn into their service. All classes, "wauf" and well-to-do alike, were found among the guisards. Many went masking for the fun of it, and were content with the entertainment which was set before them in the kitchens or parlours where they were received. But those who were willing to accept gifts were supplied with them, and money was sometimes added to the ordinary gift of "singing" cakes and cheese. Part of the fun—no inconsiderable part—on the entertainers' side was to identify the guisards. Young people of very tender age were allowed by their parents to go a-guising, but never to houses more than a few yards from their own homes. A little bodies' lilt to intimate they would now be glad to have their "Hogmanay " was

"Around the midden a' whippit a geese (sic)—
A'll sing nae mair till a* get a bit 'piece!'"

Older guisards, who were still new to the 'teens, were more explicit:—

"Get up, gudewife! and dinna be sweir,
An' deal your gear as long's you're here;
The day will come when ye'll be dead,
And ye'll need neither meal nor bread."

But every district has its own repertoire of guisin'-e'en rhymes, which might be worth the collecting even yet. In towns the practice of guising is confined to young children, who make it the merest excuse for begging. They further seek to extend the practice beyond its proper bounds. In the country also the younger guisards in their impatience would anticipate the recognised date by a night or two. But the practice received no encouragement from sticklers for the regular game. The youngsters would be dismissed ere they had well shown their smutted faces or opened their mouths, with an "Awa'; this is no guisin'-e'en!"

One or two strange domestic customs connected with Hogmanay, and probably still practised, may be noticed. One deals with fire, the other with water. Great care was taken on the last night of the old year not to let the fire die out in the grate. It was "gathered," for the purpose of preserving it, by means of peat or coal. No harm was supposed to attach to letting the fire out per se; but there was the well-known difficulty of getting a light from a neighbour's fire next morning. It was not only certain to be grudged by the neighbour, but was likely to be refused The old "freit" or superstition on the subject declared that whoever gave fire from his house on New Year's Day would have his house burned over his head before the year was out.

The "water" custom of Hogmany night was to slip from the house when the clock pronounced the doom of the old year, and, pitcher in hand, make for the nearest well in time to secure, before any of your neighbours, what was variously called the "crap," the "floo'er," and the "ream" of the water for the New Year just begun. The custom was restricted to the women of the hamlet or homestead; in some localities only the young unmarried women. The ream of the well brought good fortune for the year. Some antiquaries connect this, and the "fire" superstition, with classical usages of ancient Italy. Be that as it may, the "water" custom was still active, in my own knowledge, in a Perthshire hamlet not many years ago. The winner of the "well ream" for the year was known as the wife "wha gaed to the water wi' a pitcher an' brocht hame the ream o't in her pooch!" A wreath of snow lay across the well-mouth, concealing the limit of safety, and like poor Leezie in "Halloween"—

"In the pool
Out owre the lugs she plumpit
Wi' a plunge that nicht!"


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