Nowhere else in Britain is the arrival of the New Year celebrated so wholeheartedly as in Scotland.
Throughout Scotland, the preparations for greeting the New Year start with a minor “spring-cleaning”. Brass and silver must be glittering and fresh linen must be put on the beds. No routine work may be left unfinished; stockings must be darned, tears mended, clocks, wound up, musical instruments tuned, and pictures hung straight. In addition, all outstanding bills are paid, overdue letters written and borrowed books returned. At least, that is the idea!
Most important of all, there must be plenty of good things to eat. Innumerable homes “reek of a celestial grocery’s” – plum puddings and currant buns, spices and cordials, apples and lemons, tangerines and toffee. In mansion and farmhouse, in suburban villa and city tenement, the table is spread with festive fare. Essential to Hogmanay are “cakes and kebbuck” (oatcakes and cheese), shortbread, and either black bun or currant loaf. These are flanked with bottles of wine and the “mountain dew” that is the poetic name for whisky.
In the cities and burghs, the New Year receives a communal welcome, the traditional gathering-place being the Mercat Cross, the hub and symbol of the old burgh life. In Edinburgh, however, the crowd has slid a few yards down the hill from the Mercat Cross to the Tron Kirk – being lured thither, no doubt, by the four-faced clock in the tower. As the night advances, Princess Street becomes as thronged as it normally is at noon, and there is growing excitement in the air. Towards midnight, all steps turn to the Tron Kirk, where a lively, swaying crowd awaits “the Chapplin o’ the Twal” (the striking of 12 o’clock). As the hands of the clock in the tower approach the hour, a hush falls on the waiting throng, the atmosphere grows tense, and then suddenly there comes a roar from thousands of throats.
The bells peal forth, the sirens scream – the New Year is born!
Many families prefer to bring in the New Year at home, with music or dancing, cards or talk. As the evening advances, the fire is piled high – for the brighter the fire, the better the luck. The members of the household seat themselves round the hearth, and when the hands of the clock approach the hour, the head of the house rises, goes to the front door, opens it wide, and holds it thus until the last stroke of midnight has died away. Then he shuts it quietly and returns to the family circle. He has let the Old Year out and the New Year in. Now greetings and small gifts are exchanged, glasses are filled – and already the First-Footers are at the door.
The First-Footer, on crossing the threshold, greets the family with “A gude New Year to ane and a’!” (This means “A good New Year to one and all!”) or simply “A Happy New Year!” and pours out a glass from the flask lie carries. This must be drunk to the dregs by the head of the house, who, in turn, pours out a glass for each of his visitors. The glass handed to the First-Footer himself must also be drunk to the dregs. A popular toast is “Your good health!”
The First-Footers must take something to eat as well as to drink, and after an exchange of greetings they go off again on their rounds.