The New Year celebrations in Scotland

When it comes to celebrating the end of the old year, and beginning of the new, Scotland punches well above its weight. Millions of people around the world sing a song called Auld Lang Syne at the stroke of midnight welcoming in the New Year.

It was written in the 18th century by the Scots bard Robert Burns who also gave us the romantic poems ‘My Love is like a Red Red Rose’ and ‘Ae Fond Kiss’. Tellingly, the Scots also have an extra Public Holiday on January 2 as well as January 1 to give them more time to enjoy the celebrations – and, no doubt, recover from them! Hogmanay is the name given by the Scots to New Year Eve and the origins of the word is lost in time but may have its roots in Gaelic, Norse (the language of the Vikings) or French.  Wherever it comes from, the tradition of ‘first footing’ is now long-established with the first person – ideally a dark-haired male rather than a blond one due to the association of fair-headed people with Vikings – crossing the threshold with a gift of shortbread, whisky or a rich spicy fruit cake called Black Bun to bring good luck to the owners of the house. If you want to make Black Bun yourself here is a recipe.  Otherwise you can buy one online.

In normal times Edinburgh stages what is believed to be the biggest street party in Europe on Hogmanay with more than 100,000 people enjoying music and dancing and later a fabulous fireworks display lighting up the city’s castle in spectacular style. With Covid19, this New Year’s Eve will be very different in Scotland’s Capital with all events going online. It will be free to watch on and features  ‘Dr Who’ actor David Tennant, Scotland’s Poet Laureate, Jackie Kay, Celtic fusion band, Niteworks.

Edinburgh is not the only place in Scotland where Hogmanay is celebrated in a colourful way. In the north eastern coastal town of Stonehaven the streets are lit up by fiercely burning fireballs swung by 40 men and women around their heads. The ceremony is said to go back at least 150 years and, according to the Stonehaven Guide website, the idea behind it is to burn off the bad spirits left from the old year so that the spirits of the New Year can come in clean and fresh. The origins are unclear but such ceremonies may have been more common in the past especially in fishing villages where superstition has traditionally played an important part in the culture. To find out more read here! Sadly the event has been cancelled this year due to Covid19.

Stonehaven fireballs. Image by Mr Purple, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

In the Scottish Borders the town of Biggar welcomes the New Year in with a huge bonfire in the main street. Elsewhere many towns and villages stage ceilidhs featuring traditional Scottish music and dancing on Hogmanay. One tradition no longer carried out is a series of ceremonies said to have taken place at the prehistoric sites of the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar on Orkney mainland. On the first day of the New Year pairs of lovers used to take enough food to last four or five days and go to the stones where they would pray to Norse Gods and pledge their love to each other. In many coastal towns New Year’s Day is marked with a dip in the sea known in South Queensferry as the Loony Dook. Loony is the Scots word for lunatic and dook means dip or bathe. At South Queensferry as many as 1000 people take part in the event which includes a fancy dress parade before taking the plunge. The tradition is said to have started in 1986 as a cure for hangovers and has grown hugely since.

Ring of Brodgar. Image by Alasdair Northrop

I live 30 miles up the coast at North Berwick and the New Year’s ‘dook’ has also become a major event here too, as we can see from the photo below, taken during one of these celebrations in the past years.

North Berwick dook.

Let’s hope that at the end of 2021 we will see Scotland return to its traditional Hogmanay gatherings. You can be sure if it does happen you will get a warm welcome even if the weather is likely to be a wee bit chilly!


Featured image: Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Torchlight Procession at Holyrood Park watch the fireworks display beyond an illuminated Palace of Holyrood House. Image by Alasdair Northrop


About the author:

Alasdair Northrop is a Scottish Blue Badge tourist guide and qualified in 2014. He does a variety of work ranging from driver guiding to walking tours and a wide range of interests. Before becoming a guide,  Alasdair was an award-winning journalist and edited Scotland’s national business magazine for 15 years. He recently wrote the history of the Scottish Tourist Guides Association which is available as an ebook on Amazon. You can find more about Alasdair on his Guild profile or on his website