Putting Your Foot First For The New Year

Today, at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, most revellers sing the song Auld Lang Syne and join hands. “Auld lang syne” is Lowland Scots for “old long since/”long, long ago”. The lyrics are a poem written by Robert Burns in 1788; in 1799, it was put to music and has been used ever since to bid farewell to the old year and herald in the new.

Many early Scottish settlers of the Peterborough area would have celebrated an even older New Year’s tradition than the Burns song: “Hogmanay”, or Scottish New Year’s Eve. The word is Lowland Scots, but its origin is uncertain – possibly derived from Norman French, Manx, Norse, Anglo-Saxon, or even Ancient Greek. The elements of this holiday are a mixture of cultures: Norse winter solstice celebrations, the Celts’ Samhain, and the Vikings’ Yule. Hogmanay today is recognized as Scottish, but also has been celebrated throughout northern England.

In the days leading up to the new year, it was important that Scottish homes be thoroughly cleaned, and all debts paid. On 31 December, hearth fires were extinguished (the only time during the year) and all the ashes were removed; a fresh fire was laid and lit to begin the next year.

An important Hogmanay component is “first-footing”, which involves an appropriately “lucky” first visitor to a home: traditionally this was a tall, dark-haired man. The first-footer brought gifts of food (often a Clootie Dumpling), whisky, or fuel (small log, peat, or coal); the home’s hosts greeted him with a “wee dram” and a toast. This ceremony ensured good fortune in that household for the coming year. First-footing can have its hazards, however: in 1850, William Hutchison, son of Peterborough’s Dr John and Martha Hutchison, died when he fell over the pier while first-footing in Kirkcaldy, Scotland.

Despite such a tragedy, Hogmanay generally is seen as a happy time, and a chance to join friends and family in greeting a new year – even if some heads will suffer the next day. So … wishing everyone (Scottish or not) “Hogmanay”, and all the best for 2023.

By: Don Willcock, The Peterborough Museum & Archives,

300 Hunter St E, Peterborough 705-743-5180


Photo Credit – Hutchison House Museum