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Sketch Book of the North

Conspicuous among the folk-customs which, north of the Tweed, have survived from the remotest antiquity remains that of welcoming with wassail and good wishes the birth of the new year. To all appearance a pagan custom, dating from the pre-Christian past, it probably owes its permanence to instincts acquired amid the superstitions of the Dark Ages. Of late years, it is true, under the influence of Southern fashion, the festival of Christmas has seemed to be superseding that of New Year’s Eve. But, as with many other picturesque and interesting customs of Scotland, the older observance remains yet deeply rooted in the heart of the people, and, having already survived so many changes of habit and creed, may be expected to outlive even this latest inroad.

There is much to be said, too, for the keeping of Hogmanay. Christmas, indeed, is the commemoration of a great religious event, and even in the North it appears interesting and appropriate enough as a Church festival; while to those with whom its observance has been a national and family custom it contains, of course, an ample significance. But, to people who have inherited the instinct with their blood the end of the year remains a more fitting time for recalling the deeds and the days that are past; and the keeping of Hogmanay awakens, north of the Border, a subtle train of early feelings and associations—the pensive charm and sweetness of "auld lang syne." Scarcely. a dwelling is there, cottage or hall, in the breadth of all broad Scotland, which has not, time out of mind, on this night of the year witnessed some observance of the ancient and pleasant festival. Alike under gilded ceilings and roofs of thatch there is to be heard then the toasting of old memories and the pledging of health and fortune to the house and its occupants throughout the dawning year. About every village cross, too, as the last moments of the year approach, the young men of the neighbourhood have ever been wont to gather to greet the incoming day with shouts of rejoicing and with the curious traditional custom of "first-footing." Even in the cities, where contact with the world tends greatly to obliterate such folk-customs, it is curious to see the ancient festival year after year assert itself, its observance the better assured, probably, because it brings back to those who attend it the scenes and memories of earlier, and, perhaps, happier days.

Ever with the same details the time-honoured proceeding may be witnessed on the night of any 31st day of December at the cross of the ancient city of St. Mungo.

Some time before midnight the roar of the day’s traffic has died out of the streets. The great warehouses are closed, and their windows gaze, like sightless eyes, into the deserted thoroughfares. To one imbued with the spirit of the hour, it is as if the city herself were thinking of the past; and the sudden sweep of wind that comes and dies away seems a sigh of regret for her departed glories. Many memories cluster about this ancient heart of Glasgow; and at such an hour and upon such a night it would seem little more than natural if the historic figures of the past should move again abroad. Strangely enough, too, the creatures of imagination present a no less tangible presence to the mind’s eye than the real persons of bygone days. Behind the tall, limping figure of Sir Walter Scott, a curious visitor here, the equally immortal Baillie picks his steps; and as the bold Rob Roy strides past into the shadow there is heard the tramp of Cromwell’s bodyguard and the clatter of the Regent Moray’s cavalry. For it was out by the Gallowgate here and across the river by the Briggate that the troops of the Protestant lords marched in 1568 to the battle of Langside; and at the head of Saltmarket the Protector Cromwell quartered himself in 1650, issued his orders, and held levees. In the Gallowgate yet, though sore transformed from its ancient glory, stands that once-famous inn, the Saracen’s Head, at which the learned Dr. Johnson put up while passing through Glasgow on his Hebridean tour. Close by the Cross, where the street lamps shine on the shuttered windows of a great east-end warehouse, stood the town house of the earls of Lennox; and past it, up the gentle hill, and still wearing something of its old-world look, bends the High-street with its memories. Out of sight up there the façade of the venerable College, alma mater of Campbell the poet, Smollett the novelist, Archbishop Tait, and a host of great divines, was wont for over four hundred years to frown upon the pavement.. The Vandal, however, has at last prevailed against it. A few paces further and the gigantic form of Sir William Wallace still seems to slaughter his enemies at the Bell o’ the Brae. And beyond all, on the slope of the hollow where the classic Molindinar once flowed, surrounded in the darkness by its city of the dead, stands the grey cathedral of St. Kentigern. The spot itself, however, has indeed changed with time, and but few links are left it to recall bygone days. The loud tramp of Dundee’s dragoons long since died away in Rottenrow. No longer do the rustling gowns of bishop and dean sweep through the cathedral choir. Even the house from which the ill-fated Lord Darnley, sick to death, was carried to the lonely Kirk o’ Fields three hundred years ago, has disappeared. Cavalier and Covenanter and Virginia merchant have given place to the petty trader and the artizan. The house at the foot of Glassford-street where Prince Charlie put up in the ‘45 has been pulled down; and of the walls which witnessed the rejoicing bonfires of the Whig burgesses after the news of Culloden few are left but those of the dim cathedral. Even the Saltmarket at hand has been so altered of late years that if worthy Bailie Nicol Jarvie were to step out again on the causeway he would find no trace at all of the narrow, ill-paved, unlighted lane of his day, with its high, rickety houses, and creaking shop-signs. Rather must the city pride herself now upon her glories of the present. Far off, upon the great Clyde artery at Govan, where the nets of the salmon-fishers once hung in the sun to dry, the noise of a myriad hammers has just ceased for the holiday, and the iron skeletons of a hundred ships stand silent in the darkness, spectres not of the past but of the future.

Overhead, between the high house-roofs, the heaven is very dark, and above the lanterns of the clock the Tron steeple is hidden from sight; but one side of the neighbouring tower—that of the ancient Tolbooth in High-street—reflects the red glare, from a mile away, of the iron furnaces at Hutchesontown—those undying vestal fires of the nineteenth century—and the golden vane upon the spire shines, strangely lit, alone in the dark heaven. Significant indications, these, of the strong modern life that throbs in the veins of the ancient city.

But the great gilt hand of the clock overhead is approaching midnight, and along the streets, from the four points of the compass, comes the sound of innumerable hastening feet. It is the crowd gathering to observe this immemorial ceremony of "bringing in the year."

Few of the revellers, probably, reflect upon the antiquity of the custom they are observing; if they did, it might, perhaps, lend the proceeding a deeper interest in their eyes. To survive so many vicissitudes of history, the rite must once have possessed a solemn religious meaning. On the bank of the river below, the rough Norse rover has shouted "Waes hael" to Thor; on the crest of the hill above, the Roman warrior has poured libations to Jove. Bishops of a feudal church within the storied cathedral walls have said the mass of Christ; and the spires of many a Presbyterian kirk now rise round the ancient cross. But through all changes, through the ebb and flow of Faith and Fear, has come down the relic of an older worship, and in the mistletoe and the New-Year mysteries the Druid lives among us still. These people are gathering now, as for ages their race has gathered, to bid farewell to the old year and welcome to the new, and to pour their mystic sacrifice to Time, not, indeed, as of old, upon the unconscious earth nor within the stone circle of a rude astronomy, but at least under the open sky and with something of the ancient wish-rites of the runes.

Hundreds in number they come, and over all the open space—at corners where in the daytime knots of loafers are for ever to be seen, as well as on the Trongate pavement where, all day long, recruiting sergeants splendid in red and gold pace magnificently to and fro—in little groups they wait the stroke of twelve. Each man has brought with him a bottle and in each man’s pocket there is hidden a glass, one that has seen service and lost its stem being the popular variety.

Quickly enough the final seconds of the year run out. The hand of the great clock reaches and touches the hour. At last it strikes, a single bell—one, two, three—a bold sound in the silence; and immediately it is answered by a bewildering clangour from all the city belfries. Before the last stroke has died away a wild cheer bursts from the throat of the waiting crowd below. There is great commotion among the little groups; and, as cheer after cheer rings up into the sky, from the belfry overhead the city chimes ring out upon the night their welcome to the New Year.

Meanwhile everyone is drinking the health of everyone else, Celt and Saxon, countryman and citizen; and as no one can pass an acquaintance without hospitality offered and taken, and as, moreover, the dew of Ben Nevis is somewhat potent, the shaking of hands and wishing of good luck soon become fairly exuberant. Presently, however, everyone sets off to first-foot his friends.

The origin of this ceremony it is difficult to suggest, unless it be to represent some priestly visitation, a sacrament assuring to the people throughout the coming year the blessings of food and drink. A door -to-door proceeding, at any rate, it is—accompanied by much eating of cake and drinking of whisky, and it will last well into the morning hours. Lucky, for this performance, are accounted those dark of skin. If the first-footer be fair the tradition runs that it bodes ill-fortune for the year to the house whose threshold he or she has crossed; and often enough a door is shut in the face of such a friend simply because of his complexion. Moreover, the visitor must not come empty-handed; and so the bottle and broken wineglass which each carries serve as a double introduction.

And now all who sat up till the city bells struck twelve, as well in the crowded tenements here as in the far-off suburbs of the rich, have wished each other a good New Year, and are retiring to rest. Among them, doubtless, there are many thoughts of sadness. Many a widow was a wife last year; many a ruined home was prosperous; many a soiled heart still was pure. But the old year, with its sorrow, has passed away in the night, and with the New Year’s dawn a glimmer of hope comes in at the darkest casement.

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