Hogmanay holds a special place in Scottish hearts and minds. The very word can summon a tide of memories, some ringing with joy, others tinged with sadness.
It is a time to celebrate, yes, but also to recall those who were but no longer are. For all the industrial drinking and kisses stolen on the stroke of twelve, Hogmanay has its own reverence, something more intimate than religious piety — devotion to our past and the men and women who lived it with us.
Mum, who didn’t touch a drop all year round but took a sweet sherry to wet the new year’s head. Dad, who would saunter in from work, by way of a local hostelry or two, bringing with him friends old and new invited up for the party.
Mum would then fuss and fret till the first foot arrived, black affronted at the thought she might not have enough in, even though the pantry was brimming, as it was every year, with enough black bun and whisky to sustain the British Army.
There was the uncle who fancied himself a third Alexander Brother and, dram in hand, would croon ‘We’re No Awa Tae Bide Awa’ with all the gusto of a man who’d never been farther than Largs for a fish supper.
The old reels would boom across a smoke-fugged living room, depending on income and social status, either from the record player or a festive studio over Andy Stewart’s shoulder.
Hogmanay has evolved over the years. First-footers have become ‘revellers’ and the competing aromas of Condor and Kensitas have given way to the candy mists of phoney cigarettes. The White Heather Club went and the Reverend IM Jolly came until the sparkling Jackie Bird became the face of the nation’s festivities.
One thing has remained constant: our betters’ suspicion that we are all having rather too much fun.
As early as 1692, the Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence recorded the Kirk’s displeasure with this jollification:
‘It is ordinary among some plebeians in the South of Scotland to go about from door to door upon New Year’s Eve, crying Hagmane, a corrupted word from the Greek αγια μηνη, which signifies the holy month. John Dickson holding forth against this custom once in a sermon at Kelso, says, Sirs, do you know what Hagmane signifies? It is the Devil be in the house, that’s the meaning of its Hebrew original.’
Today, we have our cultural superiors seeking to crowbar in their ideological preferences in hopes of improving us all.
As the BBC reports of tonight’s Edinburgh Hogmanay programme: ‘To mark the year of Brexit, six Scottish writers were asked to each write a love letter to Europe with these then projected onto iconic buildings and landmarks around Edinburgh animated by a range of different composers and projection artists.’
The directors of the event added: ‘This year’s Edinburgh’s Hogmanay has a fantastic line-up of events for young and old under the banner We Love You, a celebration of Scotland’s long-standing cultural ties with Europe.’
Scotland’s luvvies have not taken Brexit well and it seems Hogmanay will be another opportunity to scold us in their direction. Politics is to be stuffed down our throats along with the shortbread.
This is the same cultural elite that remains lustily in favour of breaking up another union, insisting that Scotland would be better off creatively — and every other way — if it were independent.
Inconveniently for those who lament the suffocating pall of British colonialism, nothing ever became Scottish culture quite like its embrace by the Union. That partnership has furnished our creative industries with funds, talent, and opportunities but most of all it has given a tiny nation of five million a world stage on which to display its wares.
It is because Scotland is in the Union that it can be Scotland but also something bigger. Only in the miserly worldview of the nationalist is this a diminution. He longs for oppression because, without it, he is not special or virtuous or noble. If there is no national struggle, he is just another votive-clutcher in the Church of Give-My-Life-Meaning, alongside the Corbynistas, the alt-righters, and the rest.
Hogmanay gives the lie to these pity-seeking superstitions. It is a night on which Scotland keeps up time-honoured traditions and, what’s more, the rest of the country gets in on the action. Tonight thousands of merry-makers from across the UK will throng Edinburgh’s Princes Street, bitten by a chill air but warmed by cheap lager and the good chat of new friends.
Network TV crews will stagger among them, plucking out the soberest for live vox pops about the atmosphere, the music and what makes spending New Year’s Eve in Scotland so special. Bring in the bells with Sky News and you will appreciate how charmed our neighbours to the south are by our customs. There is no cultural imperialism here, only affection — and admiration of our equal tolerance for cold and carry outs.
Whatever comes in 2019, and some of what does is bound to be testing, Scotland will face it distinctively, as a country in its own right and as part of a family of nations. There will be decisions taken at the national level that we will not like and some of what we do at Holyrood will cause teeth to gnash in Downing Street. There will be short words here and rows there and our nationalist friends will interject that things would be so much simpler if we went off on our own.
But we will muddle on, getting our way where we can and making do and mending where we can’t. That’s the Scottish way and the British way. Our wee country has its problems and our big country certainly does but none of them — not a single one — would be remedied by making either of them weer still. Brexit may not work but Britain does and it will go on working as long as we desire the common bonds and shared fortunes it provides.
When you’re making your toasts tonight, raise a glass for our weathered but enduring Union. There’s gey few like it and it’s no deid yet.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.