Hogmanay and First-Footers Mark Year’s End in Scotland

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A Scottish Hogmanay celebration. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Hogmanay, as the last day of the old year is known in Scotland, is celebrated with an enthusiasm unmatched south of the Border in England, where Christmas is the main event of the holiday season.

The midwinter rituals of the cold lands of the north, where the growing season is short and winter lasts about half the year, have to do with lighting fires to encourage the return of the sun so it can warm the earth and refill the cupboard. In Scotland, however, there was also a real need to defend the household against uninvited guests, particularly those wearing cow’s horns on their helmets, which explains the Scottish custom of First-Footing.

Fear of marauding Norsemen lies behind the gathering together of rowdy groups of merrymakers to knock on doors demanding reward in much the same way as trick-or-treaters at Halloween. Never mind that this now takes place in towns and cities rather than isolated rural households who needed safety in numbers at a time of year when families were at their most vulnerable.

Hogmanay a time to give token gifts as a gesture of friendship

As a token of friendship, First-Footers are expected to arrive at the door with a log of wood or a piece of coal in return for a slice of cake and a dram of whisky. Furthermore, because it’s advisable that the first person to step over the threshold be a dark-haired Celt rather than a blond-maned Viking, any First-Footer with appropriate coloring will find himself bundled out of the door and refused readmission till the year has turned, thereby guaranteeing the household good luck (and absence of Vikings) for the next twelvemonth.

The first Christmas of which I have any memory was spent with my Scottish grandmother. Though she had married and settled south of the Border, she kept Christmas as a strictly religious festival and reserved the fun and games for Hogmanay, when she wore a sash in her own soft green tartan over a long dress as blue as her eyes. And there was music and dancing and special things to eat and drink, most important of which was fruitcake and whisky toddy for the grownups and baked apples and hot lemon barley water for the children.  And instead of salt with the breakfast porridge — my grandmother didn’t permit sugar — there was treacle and cream.  And on the back of the stove was a simmering pot of cockaleekie, a thick leek-and-chicken soup made with an old boiling fowl culled from her flock of Rhode Island Reds.

A Scottish Hogmanay celebration. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

A Scottish Hogmanay celebration. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

But for us children, the fun really started at dusk, when we were allowed to go First-Footing with a lantern around the neighborhood, ringing on doorbells and bothering people we didn’t know for sweets and coins, though we usually had to explain ourselves, this being England. On our return home, the house had already filled up with ex-patriot Scots and there was pipe music on the gramophone, a wind-up affair, and lines of grownups dancing the Gay Gordons and Strip the Willow.

The next day, the first of the New Year, we — children and grandmother (no one ever made our grandfather do anything he didn’t want) — gathered up the debris and built a huge bonfire in the garden, warming our hands against the flames while our grandmother told us stories of Hogmanay when she was a girl and lived in a draughty castle in the Highlands at the time when Queen Victoria was on the throne. This wasn’t as romantic as it sounds, she said, because all the wood for cooking had to be fetched from the log pile in the yard and you had to have a bath in front of the kitchen fire and the bedclothes were always wringing wet. In those days, she added, First-Footers had to walk for miles to visit their neighbours, though some of them were very handsome and came because they were courting. We asked whether our grandfather was one of these handsome young visitors.

“Mind your own business,” said granny.

Athol Brose

Fortify your First-Footers against marauding longshipmen with this oatmeal caudle, as the preparation is known south of the Border.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

1 bottle Scotch whisky

12 ounces runny honey

12 ounces thick cream

1 heaped tablespoon fine oatmeal or porridge oats

2 cups water

Pinch of nutmeg (optional)

Directions

1. Mix the whisky with the honey and cream and whisk until smooth.

2. Stir the oats into the water in a pan, bring to a boil and simmer for a few minutes.

3. Whisk in the whisky mixture and serve hot. A scraping of nutmeg can be sprinkled on top, and you might care to add a little more cream.

Black Bun

Black Bun, fruitcake batter enclosed in a pastry cake, is traditional at Hogmanay on the East Coast and in the Lowlands, where coal-fired ovens came into general use in the 1900s.  On the West Coast, the Highlands and islands where my grandmother lived as a girl, cakes were mostly boiled and came in the form of a clootie dumpling. (Find a clootie dumpling recipe here.) The pastry covering serves much the same purpose as the huff-crust used to protect delicate meats from the heat of the fire when turning on the spit. Old habits die hard.

Serves at least a dozen

Ingredients

For the pastry:

8 ounces plain flour

½ teaspoon salt

4 ounces cold butter, diced

3 to 4 tablespoons iced water

For the batter:

8 ounces self-rising flour

Pinch of salt

12 ounces raisins

12 ounces sultanas

4 ounces prunes, stoned and chopped

4 ounces crystallized peel

4 ounces blanched almonds, roughly chopped

4 ounces soft brown sugar

1 egg, forked to blend

1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon

1 teaspoon powdered ginger

½ teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 small glass brandy or milk

To finish:

Beaten egg

Directions

1. Make the pastry by tossing the flour with the salt and rubbing in the butter with your fingertips.

2. Mix in enough water to make softish dough and work it lightly into a ball — don’t overwork. Cover in cling film and leave to rest in a cool place for half an hour or so.

3. Roll out two-thirds and use to line a cake tin 8 inches in diameter and roll out the other third to make a lid.

4. Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C/Gas 4).

5. Meanwhile, make the cake batter by picking over the fruit and nuts and tossing them in a little flour. (This helps prevent the solids sinking to the bottom of the cake.)

6. Beat the sugar and butter together until light and fluffy — the more you beat, the easier the adding of the eggs.

7. Beat in the egg, stirring in a spoonful of flour if it looks like curdling.

8. Sieve in the flour with the salt, add the powdered almonds and fold gently.

9. Fold in the fruit, nuts and spices and enough liquor or milk to make a softish dough.

10. Spoon the mixture into the pastry case, top with the lid and pinch the edges together with a wet finger to make a wavy edge.

11. Brush the top with a beaten egg and prick the surface with a fork in 2 or 3 places.

12. Bake for 2½ to 3 hours, until the top is well-browned and firm to the touch. If it looks as if it is browning too early, cover with grease-proof paper.

Top illustration: A Scottish Hogmanay celebration. Credit: Elisabeth Luard


Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.

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