Monday, 31 December 2012

Hogmanay - First Footing and all that!

Yes, Hogmanay has come upon us again. 
Hogmanay New Year’s Eve - is a time of year that I used to love and dread in equal measures as a child. As a much older adult it's still a day I specially mark on the calendar – though the early traditions I was party to have not all continued.

What did I dread about Hogmanay as a child?

I always thought my household was fairly typical in Glasgow, our Hogmanay ‘cairry-ons' also happening elsewhere to some extent – though I could be very wrong.  In my house, Hogmanay was time to be sure that all preparations were ready for the commencement of the New Year.

That meant a complete clean of the house from end to end.
Floors and carpets were cleaned, furniture polished, surfaces and the inevitable ornaments seriously dusted. In general the windows would have been washed sometime after Christmas Day, along with curtains and nets. In those days my mother had a good washing machine for laundry, but not a dryer, and living in weather-challenged Scotland meant some finagling to get items dried. Everything...and I mean virtually everything was ironed in my house. (My mother ironed SOCKS AND UNDERWEAR!)  So, you're perhaps getting the drift. The laundry basket was emptied on Hogmanay; all personal clothes were washed save the ones we wore till approximately 11.30 p.m. when we changed into clean clothes for 'The Bells' at midnight.

During the frenetic cleaning of the house I had my chores. One of my jobs as a 7-10 year old was to clean the 'brasses'. That might sound a cop-out of a job, but since I was a puny child I had to take a stool out to properly reach the brass nameplate on our outside door. The 'Brasso' was applied and allowed to dry, just a tiny bit, not too much, or it was harder to polish. The brass doorknob got the same treatment and had to gleam. We whitened the doorstep with a chalky substance and that was one of my jobs, as well. After the 'whitening' dried up a cloth was draped over the doorstep since my dad was out at work on Hogmanay, it not being a holiday. His tackety boots were never clean and the cloth was a reminder for him to be careful when he entered the house.

At that time I lived in one of the peripheral brand-new housing estates in Glasgow, in a ground floor flat of a tenement building. There were eight flats (apartments) accessed from one communal entrance way. Outside steps took you into the close - a corridor - which led to the access staircase for the upper flats. The corridor of the close was also a ‘through way’ - a few steps leading out to the back court.

The back court was the communal 'garden' area for about eight such ‘closes’ and was a sizeable chunk of land. A regular job for the ground floor flats was to sweep and mop down the close/corridor, but on Hogmanay it had to be left till quite late since so many feet tramped in and out all day. Snow outside on Hogmanay made that job a nightmare.

Since we were the first tenants of the brand new buildings, the back court at that time (1959-1965 or so) had a central allotments area where people grew vegetables and flowers. These allotments were really meant for the tenants of the upper flats but not all of those people wanted the extra work of tending a small plot. My dad was happy to take on an extra back area since he was keen to garden, even though we were also responsible for the garden area in front of our flat. The back court allotments were surrounded by a paved area which held the poles for rope-drying laundry outside, and children used the tarred surface for playing games. On Hogmanay, there was a lot of praying going on that washing hanging out would at the very least get wind dried a little bit!

Hogmanay wasn’t a time of year, in Scotland, when many vegetables were ready for picking but I remember a very keen neighbour had Brussels Sprouts growing even in the depths of winter. Some potatoes, turnips and other root vegetables that my dad had grown were wrapped and stored in our cellar, a small storage area which was also accessed from the close. The cellar was a very busy cupboard since it also held our coal bunker which probably held around 5 cwts of coal – the 5 bags delivered every week. I sometimes filled the coal bucket and rolled up the newspaper spills for setting the fire, although I wasn’t allowed to light the fire at that age. We had coal fires in the living room and both bedrooms – at that time central heating completely unknown to us.

I don't remember all the jobs I was given on Hogmanay but I do know I never had time to sit back and get on with reading all the books and Annuals I'd been given for Christmas. And no reading time was a serious hardship for me!

My mother was the best baker in our tenement building so she also had to fit in a LOT of baking on Hogmanay since many mouths would be looking for something nice when they came to 'First Foot' after ‘The Bells’. She’d customarily make what would now be termed ‘tray bakes’. Her largest rectangular baking tins would magically fill up with delightfully-light short-crust apple pie, fruit pie (currants and sultanas used for that), and Scottish shortbread. If time permitted, she’d also make little ‘fancies’ – individual small sponges that would be decorated with marzipan and fondant icings, or jam dipped and rolled in desiccated coconut. Her cake repertoire was quite extensive, but for Hogmanay her shortbread and fruit pies were a must.

So, in the midst of all the cleaning, the baking would be going on. I’d also help where I could with measuring etc. You can, perhaps, imagine that cleaning of the kitchen was the very last place to be tackled. That was true, but ongoing cleaning had to go on all day to ensure all was ready. And YES, before ‘The Bells’ my mother would have washed out her dish drying cloths, and all the last minute cloths used for cleaning surfaces.

Tired? Absolutely. But the day was not nearly done!

By 11.50 p.m. everyone would be bathed and into clean clothes and my dad would have set out a small silver salver on the dining table. On it would be four glasses; two with a ‘tot’ of whiskey for him and my mother, and two would be filled with homemade blackcurrant, or ginger, wine for me and my sister. Drinking of alcohol never went on during the evening before 'The Bells' - that was considered very bad luck on my house! That 'waiting time' was common to most of our neighbours, especially since there were no pubs where we lived, the nearest being about five miles away. Money being tight, a small amount of whiskey, or sherry, for carousing had to go a long way.

Mum’s baking would be beautifully set out on the table as well. The TV would be doing the countdown to New Year, and if we had all worked really hard we’d have been watching the ‘Hogmanay’ programme from 11.30pm. In those days Andy Stewart and The White Heather Club would be doing their party thing of Scottish songs and dances!

Dong…dong….dong… x 12

The sounds of Big Ben ringing in midnight would chime and the New Year officially declared. My dad would hand us our glass and we’d first of all chink our glasses for ‘Happy New Year’. We’d take a sip, and then we’d all chink again and wish my mother ‘Happy Birthday’ since January 1st was her birthday. Then we’d share hugs and kisses. Mum’s birthday gift would be handed to her, which she’d enthuse over for only a few moments, since she never considered her birthday as important as the New Year festivities.  First Footing took priority!

A few moments later I’d have scoffed my drink, eaten a piece of shortbread, and then I’d be ushered to the outside door by my dad. MY BIG JOB was only starting.

Dad would open the door; lift up the piece of coal that was waiting there and carefully put it into my hand. He’d then put something edible in my other hand and would send me on my way.

Where would I go?

Only across the corridor to the opposite ground floor flat.  I’d chap on the door excitement spilling free; champing at the bit till the man of the house opened the door and invited me in with a huge hug and a smacking kiss on the cheek. I’d give him my gifts which were always enthusiastically received, he'd give me a sixpence in turn, and then I’d be led through to his family. At their dining table I’d be given another wee drink of ginger wine and a bite to eat. After a formal toast to the New Year the man of the house was free to step out and move on to another house - usually to my house first, thus freeing both him and my Dad to move on after that. With eight flats in our 'close' I always moved on to ‘First Foot’ two or three more houses before returning to my own house; though I was never in any other house for more than five or ten minutes. I’d be back to my house still on an excited ‘high’, by then full of cake and fizzy drinks. But what did I take to the other houses? Whichever neighbour I was visiting would make sure I had another lump of coal to take on with me to the next neighour, and some thing edible.

Was it all over?

No. The New Year party tended to be held in my house, people gradually drifting in from not only our own ‘close’ but from neighbouring ones. The party was always what I’d term a ‘fluid’ affair. People came in- some stayed for a while eating, drinking and ‘party’ dancing to the records on our ‘Dansette’ record player for another hour or so, and then left. Others stayed longer, especially those who enjoyed the concert/sing-song that was a traditional element in our house. My father was a very fine tenor, my mother a strong contralto who both sang together remarkably well – even comically well – since my dad was prone to starting a song and then would forget the next words. My mother had the mind of an elephant – she never forgot a word and would prompt him. The choruses were a communal joining in and of course, other neighbours would sing their own songs. I was in the school choir and was also expected to do a ‘party piece’.  A song called ‘The Isle of Mull’ was one I particularly liked singing, but whatever, it was aways a Scottish song. The sing along often lasted a couple of hours though I would be off to bed as soon as my bit was done.

(If interested thsi is what my song sounded like: )

Did the noise keep me awake? Not likely!

Apart from my mother’s baking it would be a neighbourhood catering event. Other families brought ready prepared sandwiches and sausage rolls, bites and nibbles. And it was also usual for each family to take their own ‘Ne’erday’ drinks to share with the host at each house that was ‘First footed’. It truly was a sharing time for all and I’m so very, very glad that that experience happened to me.

I’m sad to know that wasn’t what happened in all ‘closes’ in Glasgow – it truly did depend on whether the neighbouring families all got on well. Hogmanay, and the New Year parties went on like that in my parents’ house for another couple of decades.

Why was a young child like me dispatched to the houses to First Foot

Black hair was said to be lucky. I was the darkest haired in my family so I had the honour. (My sister probably wouldn't have wanted the job anyway). The coal was for warmth for the coming year for the family, the food a gift to ensure bellies were never empty. My sixpence was given for wealth and the whisky for general good cheer for the coming year!

I hope you've enjoyed reading about my Hogmanay memories.

Happy Hogmanay!


  1. Before we moved away, we held a progressive dinner on New Year's Eve with our neighbors, so no one had to drive anywhere and run afoul of the 'amateur drunks' that were out that night. The husband of one of the couples was a recent transplant from Scotland so we called the last-of-the-evening event "Bells" (now I know why) and we threw the darkest haired male neighbor out into the cold 5 minutes before midnight so he would be the "First Footer" for the home where we held Bells. His reward was always a generous dram of Islay single malt. In our new home, we don't have a lot of neighbors yet, but I'm working on continuing the tradition here!

    1. Hi Willa! Your events sound great fun! I can only speak for what happened in my little environment and If any of my post mad sense to you, then I'm delighted!


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