Monday, 28 December 2015

Uncovering Scottish New Year Traditions

"The First Foot"
- A Scottish Custom on New Year's Eve
[from "The Illustrated London News"
published 30th Dec 1882]

There are a number of traditions associated with the celebration of the New Year in Scotland, commonly known as Hogmanay. A recent lecture by Dr Alison Clarke relating how the early Scottish born residents of Otago in New Zealand celebrated the New Year led me to search out any early references to New Year in my own extended family papers. Surprisingly what I found dates as far back as the later Georgian era.

Our story begins in 1898 when a distant relative in Scotland, Margaret Adam Cochrane of Kinross, wrote to her sister Jean Strachan in Nelson New Zealand. In part of her letter Margaret relates the custom of "first footing" in the village of Roslin in Midlothian Scotland, literally meaning "the first through the door in the New Year". But what makes this letter so fascinating is that Margaret is reminiscing about the celebration of New Year in her younger days - and even earlier - so we can safely date her reminiscences to at least the 1820's though to the 1840's. Here is the relevant excerpt from her letter :

An old 18th century era thatched cottage
on the road leading down to Roslin Castle
being still occupied till around 1900  

Have you ever told the children of the old custom on New Years Day when Auntie Cochrane went round so many folks with her copper kettle of hot pint and her apron with shortbread and bun and oranges for the children. I remember her coming to our house in Father’s time, but not with the kettle, there is very little first footing now. 

Margaret Cochrane née Hall, a sister 
of "Auntie Cochrane". I wonder if there
was a family resemblance? Both sisters
married Cochrane brothers, c.1858

The "Auntie Cochrane" Margaret refers to is Mrs Janet Cochrane née Hall being born in 1778 and married sometime prior to 1797. Janet died at Roslin in 1847 aged 68 years so this gives us an accurate guide as to when her Aunt carried on this New Year "custom". Margaret, who related the above memory, had herself been born and raised in Roslin and died at Kinross in October 1899 aged 69 years just a year after writing to her sister in Nelson.

So let us look more closely at what "Auntie Cochrane" took with her to present to her friends at Hogmanay.

A Victorian era Copper Kettle
[From my own collection]

Hot Pint Recipe :

"Hot pint" in Scotland is traditionally drunk during "first footing", being made from boiling beer to which has been added nutmeg, eggs, sugar and whisky. It is normally carried in a copper kettle as Margaret describes. Here is the traditional recipe :

Ingredients :

4 pints mild ale/beer
nutmeg to taste
3 eggs
sugar to taste
½ pint whisky

Method :

Grind nutmeg into ale and bring to the point of boiling. Mix in the sugar (already dissolved in some cold ale) and eggs, taking care that they do not curdle. Pour in the whisky and bring the mixture nearly to boil. Then pour it briskly from one pot to another until the liquid becomes smooth and bright.

Scottish Shortbread :

Traditional Scottish Shortbread

Shortbread has remained a traditional Scottish favourite and is said to date back to the time of Mary, Queen of Scots. Shortbread recipes abound so I have not copied any here as they are so easy to find and in a myriad of delicious combinations.

Scottish Black Bun :

The "Bun" reference refers to Scottish "Black Bun", a rich dark fruit cake baked in a pastry case. Quoted here is the recipe used by my elderly Scottish born Great Aunt, Marion Watson (1898 - 1978). I assume it was her own Mother's recipe but the use of proprietary baking powder is probably a later adjustment. You can easily halve the ingredients as this is a large full sized bun. "Black Bun" has a pleasant and quite distinctive taste unlike a normal dark fruit cake so is well worth a try so you may wish to save this recipe to serve next Hogmanay.

Traditional Scottish Black Bun

I have made this bun myself a couple of times. The main thing to watch out for is burning of the top of the pastry case so I place a piece of brown paper over it which helps. Do not place aluminium foil over the top as this could cause uneven baking. Ensure the centre of the bun is cooked by using a metal skewer which should come out clean. Do not overcook as it will dry out, especially if you have halved the size of the bun. Lastly, it should be made some time ahead to mature, at least a month. My Great Aunt once hesitatingly offered me bun which she admitted was over a year old and believe me, it had suffered no detriment as to taste so it keeps very well in an airtight container although the pastry shell may not be as fresh. It would also go very well with a wee dram of whisky or (my favourite) Drambuie!

Marion Watson's Scottish Black Bun Recipe :

Paste :

1 lb ordinary flour
½ lb butter [salted is fine]
1 teaspoon Baking powder

Mixture :

1 lb currants
1 lb raisins
1 lb sultanas
¼ lb peel
2 oz blanched almonds
¼ lb butter [my Great Aunt used salted but whatever your preference]
6 oz sugar
3 eggs beaten
¾ lb flour
Small dessertspoon ground ginger
½ tablespoon cinnamon
1 dessertspoon allspice
½ teaspoon black pepper
Small teaspoon baking soda
Small teaspoon Cream of Tartar

Method :

Mix all in large basin, moisten with milk.

Mix paste to a firm consistency with cold water. Roll into thin sheet, grease baking tin and line with paste, saving a piece for the top.

Put in mixture, flatten on top, cover with lid of pastry, prick with fork and brush with beaten egg. Bake 3 hours in moderate pre-heated oven (180 degrees celsius). Allow to cool before removing from tin.

New Year Oranges :

Oranges from Spain

The oranges handed out by "Auntie Cochrane" to children in Roslin would appear to have just been a very generous gesture on her behalf as I can find no reference to this being a traditional Scottish tradition. Oranges are known to have been available in Scotland since at least the 18th century, most likely being imported from Portugal and Spain or other Mediterranean countries. I would imagine that oranges would then have been considered somewhat of a luxury item though hence the special New Years gifting.

Conclusion :

There would be no doubt that "Auntie Cochrane" appearing on your doorstep "first footing" at New Year would have been very much welcomed by those of all ages. She does appear to have been a kindly and generous soul. One also has to bear in mind that cooking and baking facilities would have been rather primitive. "Auntie Cochrane" would have heated the hot pint over an open coal fire and must have had a small coal fired side oven for baking as can be seen today in Robert Burns' Cottage at Alloway. A "Dutch oven" cooking directly over a fire would really only have been suitable for baking dough based items.

It is perhaps sad that some old "traditions" had, as Margaret Cochrane laments in 1898, apparently already fallen by the wayside. 

The 1887 statue to Robert Burns in my
hometown of Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand.
He has his back to the Anglican Cathedral,
this was probably no accident!

Although not mentioned in Margaret's letter, let me finish with the words of the well known song by Robert Burns which has traditionally been sung at New Year. Both Margaret and Jean would have been well acquainted with this song. "Auld Lang Syne" was first published in 1788 and set to the tune of a traditional Scottish folk melody which had been known since prior to 1711.

"Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

Chorus :

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne."

Sources :

- Strachan family papers courtesy of the late Helen Whelan of Stoke, Nelson.
- Personal family papers
- General Internet resources

1 comment:

  1. Happy 2016!

    I suppose the key issue in celebrating family holidays 15,000 ks away from home is that.... nothing is the same. The weather is utterly different, the food is strange, the alcohol will be unexpected and the loved family members are not there. So the more traditions the family can unearth and enjoy in their new home land, the better!

    I am managing the History Carnival for January 2016 and need nominations, for your own blog post or someone else’s, by 31/1/2016. The theme I have chosen for this month is History of the Visual, Performing, Musical and Literary Arts. But I want to reiterate that nominations for any good history posts will be welcomed.

    Examine previous History Carnivals at

    The January 2016 nomination form is at


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...