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8 Ways to Celebrate Scotland’s Hogmanay

Ring in the new year, Scottish style.
Hi, I'm Karen!

Karen is a Scottish freelance travel and culture writer based in the US. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, National Geographic, BBC, and Condé Nast Traveler.

New Year’s is a big deal in Scotland. Traditionally, it’s more important than Christmas, which wasn't even a public holiday until 1958. Scotland’s enthusiastic celebrations revolve around Hogmanay, the Scots word for the final day of the year, and continue through January 2, which is a public holiday. Beyond the gatherings, countdowns, and fireworks that are typical of New Year’s celebrations around the world, there are a number of specific customs associated with Hogmanay—both nationally and locally—and visitors to Scotland are welcome to join in. From first footing to flaming balls of fire, here are eight Hogmanay traditions to experience.

1. Go first footing

Redheaded person opens a door with a key.
Don't leave a redhead in charge of first footing, as it'll bring bad luck.Bildquelle: stockfour / Shutterstock

This is the perfect way to bring some good luck to the new year.

Scots make sure to get the new year off on the right foot by “first footing.” The designated ‘first-foot’ is the first person to enter a home at the turn of the year with the intention of bringing good fortune for the coming year. Traditionally, the first-footer arrives bearing a simple gift such as coal for warmth, bread for nourishment, a coin for prosperity, or a dram of whisky for good times. Bad luck, however, is believed to befall a household visited by a light- or red-haired first-footer (thanks to lingering memories of Viking invaders). The first-footer cannot be someone who was in the home when the clock struck midnight, hence the party tradition of having a guest leave just before the bells so they can cross the threshold at the very beginning of New Year’s Day.

2. Attend a fiery festival

A view of the Hogmanay Torchlight Procession in Edinburgh.
Fire signifies the power of the sun, purifying the world of evil spirits.Bildquelle: Ava Nineteen / Shutterstock

Get in the seasonal spirit at a fiery Scottish celebration.

From Up Helly Aa in January to the October festival of Samhuinn, Scots like to kick off a celebration by setting things on fire. A number of fire festivals take place throughout the country on Hogmanay. One of the most spectacular takes place in Stonehaven, where revelers march through the streets swinging 16-pound balls of fire on long metal poles. There’s also the Comrie Flambeaux where long birch poles are set on fire and paraded through the streets, and the Biggar Bonfire where the town’s oldest resident lights a bonfire in a pagan tradition that is said to ward off evil spirits. A staple of Edinburgh’s 4-day Hogmanay festival, the Torchlight Procession blazes through the streets every year on December 30.

3. Dance the year away at a ceilidh

People watch the fireworks in Edinburgh for Hogmanay
Hogmanay is essentially just one big New Year's Eve celebration.Bildquelle: Sean Foo Photography / Shutterstock

Scots love to ring in the new year with a big ol' bash.

A Scottish ceilidh, which simply means “gathering,” is not limited to Hogmanay but it’s as good a time as any for a party filled with traditional music, dancing, and storytelling. A Hogmanay ceilidh traditionally kicks off a few hours before midnight and keeps going into the wee hours. You’ll likely find a nearby ceilidh wherever you’re celebrating New Year’s, but the biggest are in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

4. Sing “Auld Lang Syne,” loudly

Friends celebrate New Year's Eve.
“Auld Lang Syne” is a poem written by Robert Burns set to the tune of an old folk song.Bildquelle: bbernard / Shutterstock

Nobody knows the words, and that's OK.

From Times Square to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, people all over the world welcome the new year by crossing arms and singing, or slurring, Auld Lang Syne at midnight. The tradition began in Scotland, with the song's lyrics written by the national bard, Robert Burns—few New Year’s revelers can get beyond the second verse, however.

Related: Scotland's Burns Night: What Is It and How to Celebrate

5. Make a fresh start by cleaning, or “redding,” the house

Person wearing headphones sits on the floor sorting washing
It's important to get the housework finished before the new year.Bildquelle: Trzykropy / Shutterstock

Is it boring? Yes. Is it a good idea? Also, yes.

Not the most fun Hogmanay activity, but the new year is supposed to mark a fresh start, so there’s no better time to do a bit of cleaning up. In Scotland, “redding the house,” means getting the home nice and tidy for the new year. It also traditionally included paying bills and clearing debts: always a great idea if you can do it.

The related practice of “saining” is a little trickier to accomplish. By saining, you bless your house and livestock by spreading water from a river that’s been crossed by both the living and the dead; then you walk through the house with burning juniper branches, and finally fling open the windows to let in fresh, new year air.

6. Eat traditional food

Plate with haggis, neeps, and tatties.
Haggis is a traditional Hogmanay dinner.Bildquelle: stockcreations / Shutterstock

There are lots of traditional favorites you can enjoy in Scotland for Hogmanay.

All that dancing and celebrating can be a hungry business. Fortunately, traditional Hogmanay food is hearty and filling. Typical dishes to serve on New Year’s Day include Scotch broth (a meat-based soup with root vegetables and barley), steak pie, and haggis, and, for dessert, trifle, cranachan (made with oatmeal, raspberries, and cream), and clootie dumpling (a steamed pudding).

7. Brave the Loony Dook

Participants of The Loony Dook tradition, dating back to 1986.
The Loony Dook is a relatively new tradition, dating back to 1986.Bildquelle: Ian Melvin / Shutterstock

A brisk start to the new year isn't such a bad idea.

Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations don’t end with the midnight bells. If you’re up for fun the day after—or have a hangover that needs to be shocked out of your system—you can join the revelers braving the freezing waters of the Firth of Forth at South Queensferry. The tradition, known as the Loony Dook, is a fairly new one, but every year it draws thousands of (often costumed) brave souls who are led through the streets by bagpipers and drummers before taking a bracing dip against the backdrop of the Forth Bridge.

8. Honor the “real” new year

A burning barrel surrounded by onlookers as part of Burning of the Clavie, Burghead, Moray.
The Burning of the Clavie taking place in Burghead, Moray.Bildquelle: JASPERIMAGE / Shutterstock

Some parts of Scotland celebrate the new year on a different day.

In the 1750s the Julian Calendar was replaced with the Gregorian Calendar, which moved the first day of the year back by 11 days. Some communities around Scotland, however, have stubbornly stuck to the old calendar. Residents of the Moray town of Burghead honor the “real” new year with, yes, a fire festival: the Burning of the Clavie, in which a burning barrel is paraded through the streets, is held annually on January 11. The remote Shetland island of Foula also sticks to the Julian calendar, but, for reasons lost to the mists of time, marks the holidays one day later—Christmas is celebrated on January 6 and New Year’s Day on January 13.

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