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Scottish festive traditions involving food and drink

We take a look at some of the history surrounding some of Scotland's most popular - and obscure - festive traditions involving food and drink

Published: November 9, 2017

Scotland is a land of romance and history, with some customs and traditions stretching back thousands of years.

The Scots' love of traditions can only be rivalled by their love of food and drink and when the two meet, well you can see how some of them last for such a long time.

These customs really come to the fore as we approach autumn and winter beginning with Halloween. The Eve of all Hallows has been celebrated (or feared) in Scotland since the medieval times, with many of the traditions associated with it originating from around that time when the Gaelic festival of Samhain ushered in the start of the winter season and marked the end of the harvest months.

But it's in winter and the Christmas and new year period that these traditions are most prominent.


Scottish Christmas traditions are a little on the sparse side. The reasons for this are varied but they can mainly be pinned down to the Reformation, and the Kirk's disapproval of Christmas as a celebration because of its perceived association with the Roman Catholic Church, which they dismissed as a “Popeish festival”.

In 1640, an Act of the Parliament of Scotland made the celebration of “Yule vacations” illegal.

This led to Scots rarely celebrating Christmas and instead focusing their attentions onto the more accepted festivities surrounding Hogmanay.

The Celts knew Christmas as Nollaig Beag – Little Christmas,  and they burned the Cailleach – a log with the face of an old woman carved into it that was supposed to take away any lingering bad luck.

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After the Celtic celebrations and medieval feasts, something of a festive void took hold for around 400 years.

The Victorian era heralded a revival in festivities which has lasted until the present day.

One tradition that stood the test of time in Scotland was festive desserts, including Christmas puddings or clootie dumplings.
However, the most famous - and the most synonymous with Christmas - is the humble mince pie.

• READ MORE: A history of the Clootie Dumpling, including a recipe for making your own

The early mince pie was a far cry from the recognisable pastry offerings hitting supermarket shelves in early November these days.

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Although still containing fruits and spices, leftover meat was also baked in the pies.

Mince Pies. Picture: TSPL

Mince Pies. Picture: TSPL

It has been suggested that the reason mince pies are the size they are today was that it made them so much easier to hide from the prying eyes of the protestant church who would frown on such activities and punish any bakers found making them.

• READ MORE:  Carp, BBQ & KFC- festive dinner traditions from around the globe

Christmas Eve is still referred to in many parts of Scotland as "Sowans Nicht" which is thought to refer to "sowans" - a dish made from oat husks and fine meal steeped in water for several days until sour.

This dish was prepared and then shared on Christmas Eve.

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A far more popular holiday in Scotland - mainly due to the restrictions placed on Christmas celebrations - Hogmanay is widely celebrated across the country.

The reasons for the naming of new year's eve as Hogmanay are lost to the past with many disputed claims as to its origins. One of the more popular ones is that it derives from the Norse word 'Hagg', meaning to kill or cut and 'Hoggonott' which referred to the slaughtering of animals to be eaten at the Yule feast.

Traditions at this time of year maintain strong links with Viking and Gaelic celebrations of Yule time, or 'Daft Days' as they are known in Scotland.

One still-popular custom is first-footing, which traditionally saw the first visitor to set foot in the household bring a gift such as coal, shortbread, salt, black bun or whisky.

First Footing - A guest bearing gift arrives on New Year's Day. Picture: TSPL

First Footing - A guest bearing gift arrives on New Year's Day. Picture: TSPL

These days the gifts are more likely to be restricted to just whisky and shortbread.

Another traditional day for Scots is Handsel Monday, typically the first Monday of the New Year and a day in which handsels (supposedly derived from the Saxon word for 'gift in the hand') or small gifts - traditionally coins and items of food such as cakes or pastries - were given out. It soon became synonymous with Lairds, or Ladies, of a household giving them to their staff.

READ MORE: The History of the Black Bun (including recipe)

This tradition was eventually overtaken by the English custom of giving boxed gifts to your employees on 'Boxing Day' in Victorian times.

Burns Night

Scots have always found great reason to celebrate during long winters, including Burns Night in late January.

The anniversary of the birth of the poet Robert Burns, in 1759, this day is now celebrated worldwide by those of Scottish descent and involves a "Burns Supper" in which copious amounts of haggis, neeps and tatties are served, along with oatcakes and a dram or seven.

A Burns Supper. Picture: TSPL

A Burns Supper. Picture: TSPL

Burns Night celebrations can be small, informal occasions, or they can be large-scale formal dining experiences. Although the ceremonial part is taken very seriously - including the recital of the poem Address to a Haggis - the night is usually a light-hearted affair.


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