New Year, New Traditions

Angus Peter Campbell has a nice piece in The Herald today about the Christmas and New Year traditions he grew up with in the Western Isles. He makes Uist in the 60s sound practically prelapsarian:

“In my childhood it was a religious and not a shopping festival. Midnight mass was the highlight, when we celebrated the birth of Jesus rather than the arrival of Santa Claus. I don’t think he’d been imported into Uist at that time. Travelling by MacBrayne’s was perhaps a journey too far. I have no recollection of the red-cloaked figure anyway, though we did receive presents, thanks to my mother’s aunt who lived in Alberta and sent wondrous parcels across the ocean. I once received a pair of roller-skates, while my brother got a Rupert Annual.”

Presumably capitalism hadn’t crossed the Minch yet. My cynicism aside, let’s be honest: Campbell is one of the few internationally good writers we have in Gàidhlig. His book An oidhche mus do sheol sinn (The night before we sailed) is one of my favourite novels. It’s a complex muligenerational story about a Uist family navigating their way through the 20th century. As Seamus Heaney said of hearing Sorley MacLean’s poetry for the first time, reading Campbell’s novel when I was fifteen hit me with “the force of revelation.” Here was the Great Hebridean Novel, here was our (hi)story as world literature. Yet running throughout is the theme of things being better back in the day, of Eden giving way to English. An ingenious example – the vocabulary grows simpler and thinner over the course of the novel, echoing the corresponding decline in the richness of Gàidhlig usage in that time.

But I’m not sure that’s a message I want to start the New Year with. Specifically, in his Herald article Campbell describes in detail his experiences of Gàidhlig New Year traditions, but I’m disappointed he hasn’t used his national platform to mention how these traditions have continued and evolved into the present day:

“The real business happened at Hogmanay – Oidhche Chullaig (the night of the Candle or the Pelting), when the youngsters from every village would gather, each with an empty sack, and then walk from house to house to welcome in the New Year. We had a Duan Callaig (Hogmanay Ballad) which we collectively chanted at every door. I can still remember it:

Tha mise nochd a’ tighinn dh’ur n-ionnsaigh
A dh’ùrachadh dhuibh na Callaig,
Cha ruig mi leas a bhith ‘ga innse,
Bha i ann ri linn mo sheanar …

(I am coming tonight to you
To renew for you Hogmanay;
I have no need to tell you of it,
It existed in the time of my grandfather …)

And then came the dangerous bit with the tallow candle, carried by one of the lads. This was a stick on which was tied a strip of skin from the breast of a sheep killed at Christmas with rags dipped in tallow and set alight. And in the darkness we’d chant:

Mo chaisean Callaig na mo phòcaid,
‘S math an ceò thig as an fhear ud:
Thèid e deiseal air na pàisdean,
Gu h-àraid air bean an taighe …

(My Hogmanay skin-strip in my pocket
And good is the smoke that comes from it:
It will go sun-wise round the children
And especially round the housewife …)

The chant would finish with the demand: Fosgail an doras is lig a staigh mi (Open the door and let me in),when we’d be given entry into the house and gifts for our sacks. But not before the tallow-candle was handed to every member of the household, who would turn it sunwise above their heads three times. I saw some old people refuse to take it, for if the candle went out as it was passing over a person’s head it was a sure sign of death. Better not take that risk.”

Mileannial I might be, but I was doing something very similar ten years ago. We called it going out on Cullaig which you did on Oidhche Chalainn, New Year’s Eve. Like Campbell, me, my brothers and our friends (the gillean Cullaig) would on New Year’s Eve go from house to house on the island with a candle. Also called the caisean, ours was a candle wrapped in oilskin, tied with string – a caisean for an era where most people had stopped crofting. We would knock on the door of each house and, as Campbell did, recite the duan – the New Year’s poem – outside the door. But usually people invited us in and we said the duan  in the living room or kitchen (and got video’d now and again). The lines are burnt into my synapses:

Thàinig sinn a-nochd don dùthaich,
A dh’ùrachadh dhuibh na Calainn,
Cha leig sinn leas a bhith ‘ga innse,
Bha e ann ri linn ar seanar …

(We came tonight to the country,
To renew for you Hogmanay;
We have no need to tell you of it,
It existed in the time of our grandfather …)

It’s literally the same poem. And goes on for many verses more. All of which I can remember, including a near identical verse to the other stanza Campbell quotes. (In fact, the duan is about the only Gàidhlig poem I know off by heart,  so once when  I was asked at short notice to recite a Gàidhlig poem at a Bangladeshi event to commemorate International Mother Language Day  – and the Bengali Language Movement – I boshed out the duan  …and didn’t tell the assembled multinational, multilingual audience it was the wrong time of year for it.)

But back to New Year on the island. Just as Campbell recollects, the ‘man of the house’ would take the caisean, light it in the fire ideally, but usually with a lighter we provided. Then they’d do the the sign of the cross and move the caisean sunwise round their head three times, then do the sign of the cross again. Then the next person would do the same ritual, and the next, and the next, until everyone in the house had their turn. If the candle went out you were dead by the next New Year, which resulted in predictable black humour from all the old bodachs and cailleachs.

Once everyone had their go, we got to what at the time I considered the most important bit. We opened our pillow-cases into which were poured crisps, chocolate, biscuits and a satsuma for the sake of appearances. Sometimes people also gave you some money. This generosity still amazes me. But what I most appreciate thinking back about this whole tradition was that it meant you ended having a proper chat and catch up with everyone on the island. You didn’t just renew the year, you renewed ties, connections, friendships.

So yes, at least on my island, people still keep up this New Year’s Eve tradition. Okay, it has lost some of the ‘colour’ it had in Campbell’s day, but it has evolved in other ways (though, conspicuously it’s still a boys-only zone). Cultural change keeps a culture alive. You can google Oidhche Chalainn and you’ll get pages and pages of folkloric crap about traditions that existed once upon a time in the 18th century, but what I want to emphasize is that a form of this tradition is alive and kicking  – I mean, it’s not a tradition, it’s just what you do on New Year. Going out for Cullaig keeps a community together, keeps generations talking to each other, tells us that in 2016 we should look forward and not behind.

For me personally, this is the first New Year I’ve spent not on the island. I mean, that’s why I’m musing over the meaning of new year while waiting for my headache to fade in the first place. I’m at my flat in London, with two Croatian friends from Bosnia-Herzegovina staying with me. We ended up bringing in the new year at Google HQ in Covent Garden (don’t ask). Like that feeling you get when you see the Eiffel Tower for the first time, it was funny to have a great view from a swank building in central London of the Thames fireworks round the London Eye – “you know, the ones off of the telly,” was all I could think.

Ultimately, what I’m getting at is that tradition needn’t be something we imagine as the past. To return to Campbell’s reminiscing, it was funny to find out last night from my Croatian friend’s cousin that in Bosnian villages people also do something a lot like our gillean cullaig and first footing. But, they do it on Christmas Day instead. So this chap from Mostar keeps that going, and also works at Google – as I say, tradition isn’t something we imagine as the past, but something that exists in the present. And there are plenty of parallels between Uist and Croatian village culture – it’s the holy watered hand of Catholicism, I guess. For example, as a New Year gift, my friends gave me these sock-slipper things called šlape, knitted by Granny, just like my own Granaidh used to make us these sock-slipper things called mogain. Grannies, Catholicism and Google – the three things that don’t change wherever you go in the world. Trite but true.

Whether you are Croatian or an Uibhisteach, tradition can remain, be renewed, remade. Rather beautifully, Campbell writes:

The page in front of us – the new year ahead – is not blank at all. It is already half-filled with the past , like a country which we’ve never visited but will not astonish us when we get there because we’ve previously seen it on television. That’s a pity, because the future should be a surprise

The past too is no surprise: it’s already back to the future with the Bay City Rollers headlining BBC Scotland’s Hogmanay celebrations. Central media has replaced village skin-strips as the signifier of life and death.

May the tallow candle, or the remote control, burn brightly as you turn it sunwise three times. Bliadhn’ Ùr Mhath. Happy New Year.

But who under the age of thirty actually watches television? The future will keep on being surprising. Traditions will keep on changing. Little boys on my island will keep on going out at Cullaig and posting photos of their haul of sweets and crisps to instagram.

Happy New Year. Bliadhn’ Ur Mhath. Sretna Nova Godina.


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