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Issue 36 - End of year cheer

Scotland Magazine Issue 36
December 2007


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End of year cheer

Living in the Northern Hemisphere, we have all come to accept that the days and nights at either end of the year are long and cold and very dark. And that, of course, is why we Scots have earned ourselves such a reputation for self-reliance when it comes to entertaining ourselves.

Just think of the clichés: snow covered mountains, log fires, the ceilidhs, the accordion music, Scottish country dancing, the drams, and all of those quaint Hogmanay traditions – first footing, lumps of coal, pieces of silver, bannocks and tall dark strangers.

I was thinking about all of this as I contemplated the range of celebratory events scheduled to take place over December and January, and I have to confess that I am perhaps a trifle biased. Since I live in the heart of Scotland’s capital, I have a view of the floodlit Edinburgh Castle from my window. On the midnight hour of December 30th, I don’t even have to get out of my chair to join in the street party.

Last year, alas, the stormy weather put paid to a full sky of pyrotechnics, but it hardly mattered. My particular group of companions simply consoled themselves with a second after dinner bottle of Islay single malt and, as could have been predicted, did not depart until dawn. It was as all such occasions ought to be: a mix of old friends, lively conversation, ample sustenance, adequate libation and shared affection.

The week before that, on Christmas Eve, my immediate family had assembled, as has been our custom for years, at the High Kirk of St Giles in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile for the watchnight service.

All across Scotland, and all over the world, other families of every denomination were presumably doing much the same, but under those high vaulted ceilings with the robed statue of John Knox, Scotland’s great and controversial 16th century religious reformer, looking on, the passing of time seemed to me especially poignant.

This, after all, was his church, and his shadow still darkens the stage, although with decidedly less ascendancy than it once commanded. Additionally, St Giles has been the theatre for many of Scotland’s iconic moments. Here, in 1637, Jenny Geddes, a market woman, threw her stool at the Dean of Edinburgh when he attempted to introduce the Anglican prayer book. During the following centuries, parts of the building were used to house a police station, a fire station and a prison for ‘harlots and whores.’ Those walls have seen it all.

I particularly like the story that in 1707, on the day that the original Scottish Parliament merged with that of England, its bells rang out Why should I be so sad on my wedding day?Well, now the bride is back among her ane folk, and only the equally quirky pronouncements of the Very Reverend Gilleasbuig Macmillan, St Giles’ charismatic Minister of 35 years, serve to bring us down to earth with a sense of modern day reality.

Seated in close proximity to the bronze figure of Knox, whose austere countenance still depicts a formidable presence, I felt somewhat obliged to agree with the Minister that our common Yuletide experience had largely got out of control. At the same time, I found myself wondering what his formidable predecessor, John Knox, would make of all the commercial extravagance that it involves today.

Yet thankfully here in Scotland we do, in the majority, stick to our traditional Hogmanay ways. I am referring, of course, to the Druidinspired bonfire at Biggar, torchlight processions in Lanark, Perth, Comrie, Lossiemouth and Oban, fireball swinging in Stonehaven, and the lighting of a midnight beacon on the summit of Ben Nevis.

In Shetland, the islanders, perhaps sensibly, postpone their festivities until the end of January, then let rip with Up Helly Aa, an amazing spectacle held in the harbour at Lerwick where they burn a full size Viking longboat in a throw back to the Norse invasions more than 1000 years ago.

I personally will not be going to South Queensferry to take part in the annual Loony Dook in the Firth of Forth on New Year’s Day.

However, I note that last year more than 400 people, including the car-accessory millionaire Sir Tom Farmer, and Margaret Smith, Member of the Scottish Parliament for Edinburgh West, all plunged into the icy water and survived to tell the tale. Now that is more like it!

The Scottish credo has ever been that in order to be happy, you first have to suffer. Good on them. Even John Knox would approve of that.