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Hogmanay Time!

It seems that New Year’s Eve is bound to the tradition of watching a ball drop in New York’s Times Square. Boring! Perhaps we should consider returning to the holiday’s roots… in Scotland. After all, it used to be much more important than Christmas in the Highlands; they even gave us Auld Lang Syne. hogmanay.jpg

One especially enticing tradition seems to have fallen out of fashion in the past century or two: Calluinn: “The Night of Blows or Pelting.” The superstitious tradition was meant to ward off evil in the new year—and what better way to chase off evil than with a violent ritual involving men dressed as cows and lots of whiskey? Scottish FAQ has an excerpt from The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands (1976) by Ann Ross that sums it up well:

The boys who took part in these rites were known as gillean Callaig, 'Hogmanay Lads,' and the ceremony was performed at night. One of the boys was covered with the hide of a bull to which the horns and hooves were still attached. When they came to a house in some areas they climbed to the flat edge of the thatched roof and ran round it in a sunwise direction, the boy, or man, wearing the hide would shake the horns and hooves, and the others would strike at he bull-man with sticks. He was meant to be a frightening figure, and apparently the noise of the ritual beating and shaking of the hide was terrific. After this part of the ceremony was performed, the boys came down from the roof and recited their blatantly pagan chants; afterwards they were given hospitality of the house.
Keep reading for the song they sang, and what happened once they were invited into the house.
The rhyme when the hide was in the process of being struck was as follows:

Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack,
Strike of the hide,
Strike of the hide,
Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack,
Beat the skin,
Beat the skin,
Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack,
Down with it, Up with it;
Strike the hide.
Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack,
Down with it, Up with it;
Strike the hide.
Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack.

The ritual rhyme was of course, chanted in Gaelic. Its very monotony imparted a certain eerie relentlessness to the ceremony. When it was finished, another carol or chant would be sung at the door of the house; this would praise—in advance—the generosity of the occupiers and would request entry and reward.

On entering each house each member of the party was offered refreshments of the traditional kind—oatmeal, bread and cheese, and meat, followed by a dram of whisky. The man of the house was then given the caisean-uchd, which [John Gregorson] Campbell described as the breast-skin of a sheep which was wrapped round the point of a shinty stick; this was, as in other instances, singed in the fire, and carried three times sunwise round the family, grasped in the right hand, and held to the nose of each person. This was the focal point of the ritual. Campbell also records that as many people who wished to do so could carry a caisean, and that it could be made of goat or deer skin as well as from the breast-skin of a sheep. The houses were decorated with holly on order to keep out the fairies always a troublesome race; it was believed that if a boy were whipped with the branch of this plant it was an assurance that he would live for as many years as the drops of blood drawn by the sharp holly—a painful way of ensuring longevity!

Check out Carmina Gadelica (1900) (p.148-159) on Google Books for some lesser known New Year songs and blessings like “Hogmany of the Sack”

Photo from Edinburgh's Hogmanay website

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 28, 2006 10:30 AM.

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