Feasts, trolls, Vikings and fire

19th December 1997 at 00:00
Where do all those odd customs that people celebrate at this time of year come from? Julie Morrice finds out and investigates some of the more curious ones

The origins of some of the traditions and where they still survive


The remoteness of Highland communities means that more traces remain there of early ritual practices. In Shetland in the 18th century "saining" would begin on "Tul-yas-e'en", seven nights before Yule day itself.

To protect their animals and harvest from the powers of darkness which were supposed to be abroad at this time of year, farmers would put a straw cross at the entrance to the cornyard, then make a plait including hair from all the beasts on the croft and hang it over the entrance to the byre. They would also carry a burning peat through all the farm buildings, a spiritual fumigation of the place. Elsewhere in the Highlands, juniper would be burned in front of the cattle on New Year's Day to protect them from harm.

The household was also protected. Holly would be hung all round the house, and particularly at the entrances to keep out the fairies. On Yule E'en in Shetland, the house would be cleaned and the locks polished. An iron blade would be left inside the main door to scare off the "trows" or trolls. On Yule morning all the members of the household would drink a dram of whisky, saying "Yule gude an' Yule gear, Follow da trow aa da year."

The Yule log, dating from the days of the Vikings, was, in the Highlands, the Yeel Carline, the Yule Old Wife, and was sometimes carved to represent an old woman. To protect the household against "scaith" or misfortune, it was brought into the house and lighted with a remnant of the previous year's log. A portion would then be burned each day of the 12 days of Yule.

Rituals involving the hides of cattle or sheep were widespread in the Highlands. On St Kilda, a group of youths would visit the crofts, one wearing a cowhide. He would run three times sunwise around the building while the others hammered at the hide. When they were let indoors, they spoke a blessing on the croft, then each would light a scrap of hide on the end of a stick and hold it smouldering to the nose of all the inhabitants to drive away misfortune.


Fire represents the sun and life, and has always been at the centre of winter rituals. Some of these have survived until today.

The most famous is Up Helly-Aa at Lerwick in Shetland, where the Yule festivities go on until late January. Up Helly-Aa is the climax of the month-long festival and harks back to the Viking tradition of placing the body of a dead chief in a longship and setting it on fire to send him on his final journey to Valhalla. Today, a replica of a longship is built and is taken through the streets of the town by burning torchlight, led by the ceremonial chief, Guiser Jarl. The torchbearers then set the ship alight by throwing their burning torches into it. A night of carnival begins and carries on till dawn.

In Comrie in Perthshire there is a Flambeaux Procession through the village on New Year's Eve to ward off evil spirits. Huge flaming torches made from small birch trees are lit on the stroke of midnight and carried through the streets, followed by crowds in fancy dress. The procession finishes at the town square where the torches are thrown into a huge bonfire.

Stonehaven has a spectacular Hogmanay Fireball Ceremony in which blazing fireballs are swung on a rope above the bearers' heads as they process down the High Street.

At Biggar in Lanarkshire, a huge bonfire has burnt in the High Street every Hogmanay since earliest times. According to Hugh Douglas in The Hogmanay Companion, "Even during the Second World War, when bonfires were banned, the tradition was kept 'alight' by a woman resident of the town who went out each Hogmanay and struck a match atthe spot where the fire was normally lit. "

Burghead on the Moray Firth still celebrates New Year's Eve by the pre-1752 calendar. In that year, 11 days were dropped from September in order to come into line with the Gregorian calendar. Many people continued to follow the old calendar and Hogmanay was celebrated on January 11.

In Burghead the Burning of the Clavie still takes place on that day. A barrel filled with tar is set alight and carried round the streets to burn out the old year. Then it is taken to a headland hill and more fuel is added to make a bonfire. Pieces of the burning barrel are grabbed from the flames to keep as good luck tokens.


Traditionally, a first foot should be male, dark, tall and carrying food, drink and fuel - or should it? In the Borders, the lucky first foot had blond hair; in Fife and Angus women were as welcome as men; in Banff a barefoot woman was luckiest of all, and in Thurso a child would bring the best fortune.


Christmas, Yule, Hogmanay - call it what you will, it has always been a time for feasting. Yule bread or bannock, which had to be baked between sunset on Yule E'en and sunrise on Yule Day, doubtless derives from pagan sources.

In Shetland, Yule-brunies are baked with a hole in the centre and pinched or notched edges to represent the sun's rays. One was baked for each member of the household and if someone's bannock broke in baking it meant bad luck.

In the north-east, "Aul' Eel E'en" or Old Yule Eve was known as Sowans Nicht. Sowans is a sort of gruel made with the fermented inner husks of oats, sweetened with honey or treacle and laced with whisky. Sometimes the sowans were poured into small wooden bowls, one for each person there, and a ring, a silver coin and a button were each dropped into one of the bowls. Whoever found the ring would be married; the coin signified wealth and the button bachelordom or spinsterhood. The Yule breakfast of sowans and crappit heids would be carried to most of the household to be eaten in their beds.

Meat would be eaten on Yule Day by people who would hardly taste it the rest of the year. The traditional Scottish dish was goose.

The boar's head of England was anathema to Scots, due to an ancient Celtic taboo on pork in any form. It was this taboo which led to turkey becoming the traditional Christmas dish. When James VI removed to the English court, he could not sit at table with a boar's head, and turkey, the "jewelled fowl of Mexico", which had recently appeared in the London markets, was substituted.

Christmas pies were also eaten: one of the most splendid was recorded in 1770, made by a Mrs Dorothy Paterson of Hawick for Sir Henry Gray, Bart. The pie contained two bushels of flour, 20lbs of butter, four geese, two turkeys, two rabbits, four wild ducks, two woodcocks, six snipes and four partridges, two neats' tongues, two curlews, seven blackbirds and six pigeons. "It was fitted with a case and four wheels to facilitate its use to every guest."

The ancestor of our Christmas plum pudding is a Celtic dish called plum patage or porridge, composed of cornmeal, meat and fruit. In Scotland the pudding is known as a Clootie Dumpling, from the cloth in which it is boiled.

Crappit Heids

4 haddocks, with heads and livers

1oz (30g) oatmeal

pepper and salt

1 tablespoon milk

Chop the fish livers and mix them with the oatmeal and seasoning, adding milk to make a softish stuffing. Fill the heads with this mixture and boil them gently in milk with the fish. To serve, remove the stuffing and flesh from the heads and put with the haddocks on a plate.

Clootie Dumpling

6oz (150g) butter or margarine

12oz (340g) flour

6oz (170g) sugar

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp ginger

12 lb (250g) sultanas

12 lb (250g) currants

1 tbsp treacle

1 tbsp golden syrup

2 beaten eggs

a little milk

Mix all dry ingredients in a bowl, and rub in the fat. Make a well in the middle and add the slightly warmed syrup and treacle and the beaten egg. Then add enough milk to make a stiff mixture.

Take a large clean cotton or linen cloth, dip it into boiling water, and sprinkle it thickly with flour. Put the dumpling mixture into the centre and draw up the edges and tie firmly with string, allowing room for the pudding to expand during cooking. Lower into a pan of boiling water and boil for 3 hours. Serve with custard.

Recipes taken from A Caledonian Feast by Annette Hope (Mainstream) GUISING

Guising was once common on Hogmanay. Children would go round asking for oatcakes and money, and in the north-east young men went round collecting for the poor. The guisers sang songs and recited rhymes:

Get up gudewife and shak' your feathers Dinna think that we are beggars We're only bairnies come to play Rise up and gie's oor Hogmanay.

Oor feet's cauld, our sheen's thin Gie's a piece an' lat's rin.

Music for the following song appears below: The aul' year's deen an' the new's begun, Besoothan, besoothan, An' noo the beggars they have come, An' awa' besoothan toon.

Rise up, gweedwife, an' binna sweer, Besoothan, besoothan, An' deal your charity to the peer, An' awa' besoothan toon.

In meal an' money gin ye be scant, Besoothan, besoothan, We'll kiss yer lasses or we want, An' awa besoothan toon.

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