New Year : Hogmanay in the Strath and the Comrie Flambeaux


Crossing Dalginross Bridge
Hogmanay -  Seekin' Their Cakes In Fife

Burning The Clavie At Burghead

Hogmanay ( New Years Eve ) is an old and much celebrated occasion  throughout Scotland . The word itself however  is something of a mystery . Amongst the theories regarding its origins is that it is from the word “ Hagmena “ – a corrupted Greek word  meaning “ holy month “ . Another “ learned “ school of thought  implies that the  word is  of French origin and  was  brought over with the Normans in 1066 !This latter line is  based on the  old Norman word “ Haguillennes “ . To add to the  general confusion a third source promotes the theory that the Hogmanay source lies in the  ancient Norse festivals that was celebrated at Yule time . The night  before it started  was called “ hoggin – nat “ or  “ hogenat “ which  meant the slaughter night when the cattle  were  killed to allow   the prepararation  of  food  on the great day . Confused ? – well join the club  !

There is  no doubt that the Scottish Hogmanay and Neerday ( New Years Day) have  changed radically over the last  few  decades . By tradition the “ first foot “ after mid night determined the  luck of the household  in the ensuing year . It was regarded as bad luck if the  first  person to cross the thresh hold after “ the bells “ was a woman or  a fair haired  person . To quote an old Scots rhyme :

If the first foot is a woman

And that woman

she be fair

In all the days that follow

You will have a care

Luckiest first foot was a tall dark haired man who would  enter the house without  speaking and poke the fire and add a lump of coal thus  bring  good  fortune  for the New  Year . The origins of the Dark haired first foot as opposed  to a fair one  is said to date  back to the period of the Norse attacks  on the coast of Scotland !

Despite the intrusion of TV and its pre packed entertainment – many customs pertaining to New Year celebrations can be found throughout Scotland  and indeed the North of England  . In the East Neuk of Fife many of the towns and villages  celebrated  the New Year in a particular fashion  up  until the  start of World War 2 . Mumming or Morality plays  were acted out by the  children who went from door to door “ to seek their cakes “ They either carried baskets or bags or else dressed up in sheets which were folded  at the front to form a sack .

“My feet’s cauld , my shoon’s thin

Gie’s  my cakes  and let me rin”

In Galloway in the  south west a tradition  prevailed that water drawn a mid night before New Year had luck bringing properties particularly in allowing a young lass to find a suitable beau ! In Fordyce in Elgin there was  great stone known as the “ mortar stone “ . It  would  be laid  at the door of local lass selected by the community  and kept there for  a full year during which time  she would in probability get  m arried  to her choice . Stonehaven  south of Aberdeen has an annual fire ball swinging procession akin to  our Comrie Flambeaux  . Biggar in South Lanarkshire has a New Year bonfire  around which the citizens dance and parade A similar custom exists 400 miles north in Wick in Caithness  whilst a Burghead  on the Moray coast holds  the burning of the Clavie . The Clavie  is  a a long handle  to which a wooden  half barrel is  attached and filled  with tar and tarred  wood , set alight and marched around the old town .

What then of our own Comrie Flambeaux ? Below  is a description of  what  happens in the  early 21st century taken from the “ web “

One of Scotland's traditional celebrations of New Year takes place in the village of Comrie, Perthshire where virtually the whole village, with numbers swelled by residents of the surrounding area, assemble in and around the Square in Comrie await the arrival of the New Year , celebrating with an old tradition - the Comrie Flambeaux. The origins of this "Pagan" festival are lost in time but the tradition of the Comrie Flambeaux is that a torch lit procession is led round the village by the Comrie Pipe Band to drive out the evil spirits and to cleanse the village for the year ahead.. The procession includes several floats , often with a humorous theme, which commemorate significant events of the old year.

The torches are 12 foot birch poles which have been soaked for weeks in the River Earn, then wrapped in hessian sacks which are then soaked in flammable liquid. Carrying these is a significant test of fitness for the bearers!

The Square in front of the Royal Hotel is set aside for Comrie Flambeaux dancing and this can be interesting, especially if there is snow and ice on the ground as in 2004!! Dancing styles vary from traditional country dancing to jiving and perhaps even to no style. The age range of the dancers is wide and the whole emphasis is on having fun. The Square and surrounding streets are full of people and it is strictly standing room only. Fans of the architect Charles Rene Macintosh may wish to admire the white harrald building on the left of the Square on the corner of Dunira Street which was designed by him and which shows some typical features of his style. He may not have been particularly happy to know that a bargain store now occupies a large part of this fine building.
The spectacle of this torch lit procession, the parade of floats, and the pipe band itself finding its way through the packed village streets is well worth watching as the villagers and visitors mill about in the streets , greeting old friends, exchanging drinks from the many bottles being carried and generally having a good time.
The following account of the Flambeaux was written in the 1930s :
In Comrie in Perthshire , the young men  and boys  of the town dress up in weird and wonderful  costumes , some with  horned head dresses , and parade  at mid night through the town carrying burning torches with which a street bonfire is finally lighted . Shopkeepers and house wives lay in  a good stock of cakes and fruit and , even if the original Hogmanay cake , a kind of sweet bread , is  not universally baked ready for the guisers, still there are  few houses which fail to respond  to the children’s demands.
Get up , good wife , and shake your feathers
Dinna think that we are beggars
For we are bairns  come out to play
Get  up and  gie’s  our Hogmanay
The Flambeaux alike Hogmanay itself has a degree  of uncertainty about its  origins .Peter McNaughton in his fascinating web page "Highland Strathearn – Papers in a Trunk "  posts  this interesting piece :

The origins of this mysterious celebration lie in the misty swirls of time. It is the cause of much speculation. As a mid-winter festival many have suggested that the Flambeaux celebrated customs from the time of the Druids. They suggest that the Druids held it to celebrate the changing of the seasons and to drive away evil spirits. To accomplish this rather Herculean task they bound and swathed the tops of birch poles in hessian or canvas, covered them in pitch, and then set them ablaze carrying them through the village preceded by a pipe band. This sounds rather fanciful. Others favour the notion that after the Vikings visited our community principally in search of plunder and sack it was instituted for celebratory purposes. Questions have been raised about this philosophy as well .However, the reality is that there was no mention of Comrie as a village prior to 1750 although it was known as a meeting place since around the twelfth century.There had been no mention in the records before 1750 of a fire festival called the Flambeaux in the village. It was during the period 1750 to 1820 that Comrie grew into a village.

Peter’s analysis  is  sound but  it is evident from the abundance of similar customs  throughout Scotland  that our Strathearn New Year Festival – the Comrie Flambeaux – has a truly ancient origin albeit that the locus  may well  have  been somewhat different prior  to 1750 !
A happy New Year to you all when the bells chime  and  the last flaming torch is cast into the Earn!!







  1. Really enjoyed reading this explanation of local celebrations!


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