By the time you live to be 20, you have it figured out that not every Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year can be the best ever. Some years, the holidays just don’t deliver on all the hype and hope. If you’re lucky, there are many that do. And then, there are those times in your life that make the rest of it worth the trouble. For me, that was the end of 1984 and beginning of 1985. I spent New Year’s up in Scotland with a few pals who grew up there, and I was treated to a true Scottish Hogmanay, something most Americans have never heard mentioned.
For about 400 years, the Church of Scotland (the Kirk, from which America’s Presbyterians are descended) made sure that the good Protestants of the Kingdom stayed far away from the Popish holiday called Christmas.
An Act in 1640 by the Scottish Parliament read (translated from the Scots in which it was written) in part, “The kirk within this kingdom is now purged of all superstitious observation of days … therefore the said estates have discharged and simply discharge the foresaid Yule vacation and all observation thereof in time coming, and rescind and annul all acts, statutes and warrants and ordinances whatsoever granted at any time heretofore for keeping of the said Yule vacation, with all custom of observation thereof, and find and declare the same to be extinct, void and of no force nor effect in time coming.” In other words, no Christmas for ye. New Year’s became an acceptable alternative because it was associated with a change of the calendar and not the Popish frippery of Christmas.
Since September 1981, I had been living in London attending graduate school, and I had made quite a few friends from all over the world in the two years I had lived there, including a few Scots who had left for jobs in London among the sassenachs. Gordon and Iain hadn’t known each other when they came down from the Western Isles (those islands between Scotland and Ireland), but they had been flatmates for a year, living in north London. We spent more than a few nights in the pub, and we all liked the London music scene (post-punk, new romantic, goth).
Anyway around November, the question of what everyone was doing for the Christmas break came up. Iain was off to Morocco hoping for some sunshine. When Gordon found out I didn’t really have any plans, I found myself invited up to Scotland for a few days. “Come for Hogmanay. We’ll show ye a guid auld time,” Gordon promised.
So that’s how I found myself on a train out of London a few days after Christmas, headed for Glasgow, to be followed by a bus to Port Askaig and then a ferry to the Isle of Islay. Islay happens to be where my great grandfather was born in 1889 and lived before he emigrated to Canada in 1912. Then, in what I figure was a bout of insanity, he continued on to North Dakota.
My train, bus and ferry trip took about 12 hours,but it felt longer. Train travel in Europe back in the 1980s was not a luxury operation. When I finally staggered off the boat, Gordon and his father, Mike, were waiting for me.
They tossed my bag in the car, and we stopped at the pub on the way back to the house. Islay distills some of the best Scotch ever, and Mike made me try three different ones before we could leave. After British Rail sandwiches and Cokes all day, I required very little persuading. To this day, I recommend Lagavulin and Laphroaig to anyone interested in serious whisky (not whiskey).
When we got to the house, it seems Gordon had been crying poor for very little reason all term. Mike’s stone house was huge even by American standards, and it sat looking out over the sea. While it looked quaint and historic, inside it had central heating (my place in London at the time lacked that) and six bedrooms. Mine was at the top of the house with a great view of the ocean, if the weather permitted.
Gordon’s mum, Diane, had pulled out all the stops. “We don’t have visitors all the way from America every day, now,” she explained. I don’t remember half the stuff on the table, but it was close to 11 at night, and we were eating a massive meal. I almost fell asleep in my pudding (not the phony mousse that Jell-O offers, but a steamed suet thingy with raisins and currants smothered in cream). Gordon’s sister Fiona, who was 17 at the time, asked a billion questions about America, and it seemed like she knew more about the place than I did.
In the morning, we slouched around the house not doing much of anything until after lunch, when Mike put Gordon and me in the car to get measured for our kilts. New Year’s Eve we were going to a ceilidh (KAY-lee for those of you who don’t read Gallic, and who does?), a rather formal Scottish party consisting of poetry, dancing and more whisky. Gordon complained that his old one was just fine, and Mike tersely explained that it was Diane’s idea and that Gordon had no say in the matter. “It’s really about what I want, Gordon, and I want your mother happy.”
I wound up renting a kilt with the Ferguson tartan on it, as that was my great grandfather’s surname. Gordon got one with one of the MacDonalds’ patterns as Mike was a MacDonald. We would be able to pick them up in the morning. Then, it was off to pick up Jack at the ferry terminal, and eat again and drink more.
Then came New Year’s Eve. That far north (London is farther north than Quebec City; Islay is even closer to the pole) that time of year, it gets dark around midafternoon. And at that point, the partying started. Fiona insisted on teaching me some of the traditional dance steps so I wouldn’t make an ass of myself when that started; I think she came close to succeeding. It was a great deal like the square dancing I hated in Mr. Duggan’s gym class back in third grade. My attitude toward girls had changed over the years, so Fiona wasn’t anywhere near as icky as Cynthia Shultz had been.
Just as midnight struck, Mike, Gordon and I headed down the road to a neighbor’s house. We were going “first footing” while Jack, Fiona and Diane stayed home to welcome their first footers. The custom is that the first person to enter a house after midnight brings good fortune. Custom also has the first footer bring gifts of salt, bread, coal and whisky. We reached the neighbor’s about two minutes after midnight. The front door was open, and Mike told me to take the bag of gifts and knock on the door jam — “and step in right foot first.”
What I hadn’t expected was to be met by Dr. Patel and his wife, who were from farther away than I was. They’d been in Islay about 10 years, and they had adopted the customs of Hogmanay. In exchange for the bag of goodies, we got a shot of Talisker and a couple of vegetable samosas in return — not exactly the custom, but quite good.
After a brief visit, it was off to the ceilidh. Around 100 people in formal highland dress were gathered in a church building with a band thumping away, and tables all around the dance floor covered in food (no samosas, though). The dance went on until sunrise — which I reckoned came at about 9 in the morning.
I spent the next day recuperating from the hangover; you can’t pace yourself on Hogmanay, try as you might. Then, it was onto the ferry and back home. It was the one and only time I have ever arrived in London and felt a bit sad about it. “A guid auld time?” Oh, aye.