Scottish Customs - Favourites Growing Up

Every country has their traditions and Scotland is no exception.

As a child growing up in Scotland I had my favourite Scottish customs, first among them were Halloween, Guy Fawkes' Night ("Bonfire Night"), Christmas Eve and probably least known, but extremely popular, The Slide. At the time I had very little idea of the origin of these traditions, but I looked forward to them nevertheless with the greatest possible anticipation..

A Halloween Sky

Halloween and Guising

In October, one of my all-time favourites was Halloween. On 31st October, otherwise known as All Hallow's Eve, when the spirits of the Dead were supposed to roam abroad, my sister and I were also roaming abroad in the freezing Scottish darkness, in our home-made Halloween costumes. In Scotland, we call this "guising" but in some places it is called "trick or treating".

My Vision of my Halloween Costume

We would go around the neighbourhood, knocking on doors looking for "sweets", apples, money..anything that the neighbors were willing to give us, in exchange for a visit from my sister the ghost, (a sheet with two holes cut in it for eyes), and me as the children's nursery rhyme character "Wee Willie Winkie". In reality I wore my pyjamas..and a hat with a bobble on it. Well at least that's what the illustration looked like to me in my Nursery Rhyme Book.. I remember thinking how ingenious of me it was to match my fabulous costume with the words in the book, "Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town, upstairs and downstairs in his nightgown..".

Strange but true,. and although I had pyjamas, not a nightgown I thought I was a most convincing Wee Willie Winkie. Believe me, winter nights in Scotland are very cold, and winter begins long before Halloween in Dundee!

As the weather was usually freezing, I also wore a thick woollen sweater under the pyjamas plus gloves and a scarf, so I was probably better off than my sister who simply froze in place as a Ghost under her sheet. She scared me all right...and not just because she was a ghost for the night!

My sister looked at lot like this

Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night

In the days before and after Halloween people would make the effigy of Guy Fawkes, (a jacket and trousers stuffed with straw and sometimes a pumpkin head). Even worse, and far more terrifying as far as I was head at all.

Then they would either wheel him around the neighborhood in a pram or pushchair looking for pennies shouting "A Penny for the Guy", or alternatively they would just leave him outside a shop somewhere with a sign and a bowl saying "Penny for the Guy". We were told the money they collected was to buy fireworks with, but more likely it was spent at the "Sweet Shop" outside which the "Guy" was parked!

Guy Fawkes effigy

Guy Fawkes, by the way, was a Catholic zealot who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the 1600's. He got the gunpowder all right, but got the date wrong for the opening of Parliament, (moved forward from February to November) so the Houses of Parliament were spared..

Guy Fawkes however, was not and he was executed in January of 1606. He is burned in effigy just days after Halloween on 5th November every year(the actual day of the opening of Parliament) which causes children in Scotland to constantly recite the ditty "Remember Remember the 5th of November). Not hard to bring to mind...

"Bonfire Night"

In November, in my child's mind, Guy Fawkes' Night - otherwise known as "Bonfire Night" was the best night of all, better still than Halloween (the next celebration was always better than the last!). On November 5th, usually it was my father's task to take me to the bonfire, out into the dark, and better yet, long past my bedtime. To a location on a high hill in the neighborhood, we trudged out in the cold, (probably why my mother preferred to stay home by the fire!)although as far as I can remember at that time in November, the snow had not arrived.

This was a location my sister and I had been watching for weeks as wood was collecting into a gigantic sky-high pile, higher and higher, until the great day. Then finally, late at night on November 5th, it was lit. The effigy of Guy Fawkes was on the top, and I remember feeling thrilled, yet also slightly appalled as the the flames licked higher and higher and eventually reached the "Guy", slowly consuming him. As I was an an avid collector of dolls and cuddly toys, anything vaguely human being burned at the top of a bonfire was slightly shocking, but I soon got over that when the fireworks display started.

The Best Firework - the Catherine Wheel

The Catherine Wheel was my absolute favourite firework, and I obediently stood well back from the swirling colourful wheel as it spun faster and faster on its wooden stake, spitting out fire and colours into the night. Then there were rockets and "bangers" all manner of other fantastic sights and sounds, until I eventually got to hold my own sparkler - carefully of course, holding it at arms length as the sparks landed harmlessly on my outstretched hand.

Depiction of a Scottish Winter

The Approach to Christmas!

Once this great and wonderful night was over, then we began, naturally, counting the days until Christmas. My mother, the best cook in the world, would already have begun making the Christmas cakes, plum puddings and various other wondrous treats, with pots of candied fruit, flour, currants, raisins, orange peel and baking tins spread all over the kitchen counter and around the warm oven. The best part of all that was helping to decorate the Christmas Cake. With infinite care I was allowed to place, in the centre of the cake, a tiny snowman with a black hat, coal eyes, and a pipe. I especially recall the robin that sat beside him in the snow icing which my mother realistically fluffed up to mimic the snowdrifts outside. The pile of mince pies and the excitement of it all continued to build, along with the snow, right up until the most magical night of all, and that was Christmas Eve.

Decorating the Christmas Tree

Candles flickering in the firelight, and frost on the windows, snow in the garden,(we could still see the snowman standing out in the garden..yes I felt sorry for him and wanted to bring him in) the Christmas tree in the front was all pure ecstasy. Of course there had been much of a tradition as Christmas itself. Who was going to decorate which part of the tree? My older sister and I each had our own Christmas ornaments to place, on carefully chosen branches. My job was the "frosting" - little strips of silver foil..hundreds of little pieces which I meticulously placed on every branch at just the proper height and angle.

My sister, who was older than I, always got the privilege of hanging on the tree the more valuable ornaments, shiny and colourful castles, cottages, Santa Clauses and snowmen, which had been in my family for years. Much to my chagrin, seniority played an important part in the family, but I must admit, she was also a lot less clumsy than I. I cannot tell you how many times I tripped while transporting the box of Christmas decorations, fell on the ice outside, or accidentally let go of the cup of tea in my hand. In hindsight..who could blame them for letting my sister take charge of the valuables!

However we could never completely agree on what should go where, so sadly the Spirit of Christmas was probably often driven from the front room by loud "discussions" which often escalated into serious altercations, broken up by my Mother, who left the kitchen just in time to prevent serious injuries.

Christmas morning came in a glare of light from the snowy whiteness outside and naturally, this was the best day of the year- any year.. Presents, breakfast, church, followed by an enormous lunch, Christmas crackers, games, toys,(always a new "teddy" for me..I had dozens in all shapes and sizes) and then Christmas supper..months of Mother's cooking and preparation consumed in just one day,.then followed exhausted blissful sleep. The best day of the year! What a pity it came only once every twelve months...

New Year or Hogmanay

New Year, or Hogmanay was not celebrated much in my household when I was young. At least if it was, I was asleep and unaware. Little did I know what was going on in the outside "grown-up" world in the city, but I was not to discover that until much later. In the meantime I knew only about "first-footing" at New Year..but otherwise the post-Christmas week was always a quiet time at home, occupied happily with our Christmas loot. School did not start until after Hogmanay.

The BBC,(British Broadcasting Corporation)was our only source of television entertainment but closed down early, after playing the national anthem of course, and my bed-time was long before that. First-footing is a mysterious New year tradition which refers to the first person to cross your threshold, or put the "first foot" over the threshold, in the New Year. According to this age-old tradition, this person should not be a woman, or blond-haired, and should come bearing a lump of coal(always available from the coal scuttle!) a measure of whisky, and a slice of bread or meat. This symbolises good fortune and prosperity for the upcoming year. In reality, almost no-one sticks to that. At New Year anyone and everyone is is the "measure of whisky"...

Hogmanay is a whole other thing however and warrants many words solely devoted to its joys and pleasures. I cannot adequately describe an entire fortnight (two weeks) of movable parties, drinking and socialising, night and day celebrations and high jinks in mere paragraphs, so those delights are for later.

January was often bitterly cold accompanied by many different kinds of precipitation..including sleet, wet snow, freezing rain, and even ordinary fluffy snow, often followed by frozen ruts in the road and long dark nights.

Building "Slides" in the Snow

For children on holiday from school however, this was paradise. Besides building snowmen, another favourite occupation for Scottish children was "the slide". Now to most adults, the "slides" we made were appalling hazards which more than likely caused more hospital visits than car accidents. To us, they were the best thing ever us and for us alone. The adults simply survived these hazards the best they could.

First we carved out long paths of ice under the snow, some of which were begun by people simply walking through the snow on their way somewhere. We would run towards this path and simply slide as far as possible, no skies or skates required..

One child after another would follow "down the slide", until we had a virtual ice road. The boys were very good at this and we were all fiercely competitive. Not only were the competitions for making the slides, (whose slide was the longest and the most dangerous, e.g. is it on a hill?) but who could travel upright along these the furthest after taking a furious run at them. We did this in the roads in the parks and on the school playgrounds. We simply couldn't wait for "playtime" for the chance to get out there and practice our dangerous art-form, which we did until the terrified teachers came out to stop us.

The Coal Fire

At home we had a coal fire, and that was the best place in the house, right next to it, preferably armed with a toasting fork with bread impaled on it. Toast made this way always tasted better for some mysterious reason, even if you accidentally burned it. It was dark when we went to school,(on foot in the snow!) and dark when we came home, with what seemed like permanently wet and cold hands and feet, but that cold and that darkness was often joyous.

There was always the fire supplied by the man we called, surprisingly enough, the "Coalman", who used to come around every few weeks and fill our "coal bin" outside, which kept the fire going pretty much winter long. And winter was long...

Easter and Springtime

But nothing lasts forever, even the Scottish winter, and there was always something to look forward to. The next wonderful tradition was Easter. Now that always involved Easter Services, Palm Sunday, palm fronds, and dressing up for church. Then there were the long awaited Easter eggs, the chocolate variety, thick delicious shells of chocolate. If we were lucky we also had some chocolate bunnies, and easter chicks....fluffy little yellow chick toys. For the chicks you could make nests, but some were edible. I did both.

First flowers in Spring - Snowdrops

Rolling the Eggs

We also always boiled and painted real chicken eggs, then we "rolled" them. This was always great excuse for a picnic if the weather was fine, and as I recall, it almost always was. I was told, when I was old enough to care, that the rolling of the egg symbolises the rolling away of the stone from Jesus' tomb at Easter

Hand painted eggs

My family drove to some gently rolling hill, and there are lots of hills in Scotland, so the trick is to find one with a gentle slope. Not always easy. Finally released from the confines of the car, we ran to the top of the hill and rolled our painted eggs as far down the hill as they would go, after which we eagerly consumed them. Part of the joy of this exercise was being out in the long -awaited sunshine. Spring is a long time coming in Scotland. When it comes however it is welcome and beautiful, and always accompanied by snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils and rhododendrons. We had all those in our garden.

Crocuses in the snow

Spring in Scotland is spectacular and joyful, all the more so because of the seemingly endless dark winter nights. Then begins the beginning of the endless summer nights, when it hardly ever seems to get dark, the contrasts of Scotland, being part of its inspirational character...

In certain places in Spring the snow is melting..but on some mountains in Scotland, the snow never melts.....

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