A Scottish New Year

Scottish New Year Greetings.
Scottish Hogmanay Greetings.

Happy and Healthy New Year for 2020

The Scots are famous for Hogmanay – a New Year’s Eve and Day celebration for visiting and  gift-giving and certainly the singing of Auld Lang Syne by the much beloved Robert Burns and a gift of the Scots to the world.

Sadly, we have no accounts on how Alexander and Jean Fleming or any of their children celebrated the season, but, given the love Roy Fleming and his aunt Jennie Fleming had for Robbie Burns, we may safely assume they sang all the verses.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne (1)

Several Flemings had musical interests and were blessed with considerable talent: James and his brother William sold organs in the late 1800s in Owen Sound, Isabella Finch’s son, William, worked as “music dealer” in Brandon Manitoba, and his two sons – William Everett and Robert Lincoln – were musicians, James’s daughter Minnie became a music teacher, Charles’ daughter Annie played the piano, James great-granddaughter Nancy (Hayes) Van de Vate composed opera and orchestral works. There were surely others.

At New Year’s the Fleming families may have gathered around an organ to sing the “Hogmanay Song” by Peter Livingstone (1823-1851) written to greet the new year in the same spirit as Burns’ song but without the drams of whiskey that the temperance- abiding Flemings would have abstained from.

A guid New Year to ane an a’
And mony may you see,
An during the years that come,
O happy you may be. (2)

The Christmas of decorated trees, gifts, and feasts was not observed by the Scots until relatively recently. At the time of John Knox and the Reformation (1560), the Scottish government abolished Christmas and had no quarrel with the Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell in 1643 when  all Christmas festivities and merrymaking were banned. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Christmas celebrations were resumed in England but not Scotland, where the Church of Scotland continued to regard everything related to Christmas as papist. Christmas celebrations were curtailed for another 400 years, and it wasn’t until 1958 that Christmas Day became a public holiday in Scotland. (4,5,6)

No matter – the Scots had Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) and New Year’s Day as their time for revelry and visiting. These festivities were centuries-old, some originating with the Norse.

Victuals were prepared long in advance. Dorothy Duncan, in Canadians at Table: Food, Fellowship, and Folklore: A Culinary History of Canada, identified several popular dishes seen on Canadian tables: Black Bun – a plum cake encased in pastry, shortbread baked in a large circle and cut into wedges, oat cakes, scotch eggs – “hard-boiled eggs, peeled and wrapped in sausage meat, then rolled in crumbs and deep-fried,” and haggis served with potatoes and turnip. (7)

The Scots visited friends and family during the eve and into the next day taking with them a small, symbolic present – salt for flavour, coal or peat for warmth, shortbread for food, and a dram or two for cheer – and were warmly welcomed with food and beverage. There could be singing and dancing as part of the Ceilidh (social gathering). It mattered who was the first person after midnight to set foot across the threshold: In the tradition of “first footing,”  a tall, dark-haired man would bring good luck and prosperity, a redheaded man or a woman would bring bad luck. (4,5,6)

Ken McGoogan, author of How the Scots Invented Canada, noted the elements of fire and superstition in the celebrations:

This Scottish celebration starts on New Year’s Eve and runs through the next day and sometimes longer. Scotland’s national poet, Robbie Burns, once revelled in Hogmanay festivities that spun out of control: the house caught fire and burned to the ground, costing him both his residence and his job. Possibly this resulted from “redding the house,” a Scottish-Viking tradition that means burning juniper branches in the house until it fills with smoke, then opening the windows to cast out evil spirits. (3)

Another superstition that McCoogan offers is that, “to rid the house of bad feeling among friends or relations, you can burn branches from a rowan tree.” The Flemings may have remembered that there were two rowan trees at their Kirrandrum home in Perthshire.


  1. Poets.org Auld Lang Syne by Robert Burns.
  2. A Little Book of Hogmanay by Bob Pegg (2013) Google Books
  3. “How the Scots Get Ready for the Holidays” in SavvyReader  via Archive.org (30 Nov 2010) by Ken McGoogan
  4. Scottish Christmas Traditions by Tracey Kelly (n.d.)
  5. Holidays: Hogmanay (Dec 31 – Jan 2) (n.d.) in A Song in Thy Praise: Windsor’s Scottish Heritage – Windsor Public Library.
  6. Hogmanay: A Scottish New Year Celebration by J. Winter (1 Jan 2015), in Upper Canada Scots
  7. Dorothy Duncan. Chapter 18, Canadians at Table: Food, Fellowship, and Folklore: A Culinary History of Canada. (Dundurn: September 2011) Google Books.