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New Year's Day In Scotland

Robert Louis Stevenson
By Robert Louis Stevenson.

New Year's Day, the great national festival, is a
time of family expansions and of deep carousal.
Sometimes, by a sore stoke of fate for this Calvinistic
people, the year's anniversary fails upon a Sunday, when
the public-houses are inexorably closed, when singing and even whistling is banished from our homes and highways, and the oldest toper feels called upon to go to church. Thus pulled about, as if between two loyalties, the Scotch have to decide many nice cases of conscience, and ride the marches narrowly between the weekly and the annual observance.

A party of convivial musicians, next door to a friend of mine, hung suspended in this manner on the brink of their diversions. From ten o'clock on Sunday night, my friend heard them tuning their instruments: and as the hour of liberty drew near, each must have had his music open, his bow in readiness across the fiddle, his foot already raised to mark the time, and his nerves braced for execution; for hardly had the twelfth stroke. sounded from the earliest steeple, before they had launced forth into a secular bravura.

Currant-loaf is now popular eating in all households. For weeks before the great morning, confectioners
display stacks of Scotch bun, a dense, black substance,
inimical to life, and full moons of shortbread adorned
with mottoes of peel or sugar-plum, in honour of the
season and the family affections. 'Frae Auld Reekie,' 'A
guid New Year to ye a',' 'For the Auld Folk at Hame,' are
among the most favoured of these devices. Can you not
see the carrier, after half-a-day's journey on pinching
hill-roads, draw up before a cottage in Teviotdale, or
perhaps in Manor Glen among the rowans, and the old
people receiving the parcel with moist eyes and a prayer
for Jock or Jean in the city? For at this season, on the
threshold of another year of calamity and stubborn
conflict, men feel a need to draw closer the links that
unite them; they reckon the number of their friends, like
allies before a war; and the prayers grow longer in the
morning as the absent are recommended by name into God's keeping.

On the day itself, the shops are all shut as on a
Sunday; only taverns, toyshops, and other holiday
magazines, keep open doors. Every one looks for his
handsel. The postman and the lamplighters have left, at
every house in their districts, a copy of vernacular
verses, asking and thanking in a breath; and it is
characteristic of Scotland that these verses may have
sometimes a touch of reality in detail or sentiment and a
measure of strength in the handling. All over the town,
you may see comforter'd schoolboys hasting to squander
their half-crowns. There are an infinity of visits to be
paid; all the world is in the street, except the daintier
classes; the sacramental greeting is heard upon all
sides; Auld Lang Syne is much in people's mouths; and
whisky and shortbread are staple articles of consumption.
From an early hour a stranger will be impressed by the
number of drunken men; and by afternoon drunkenness has spread to the women. With some classes of society, it is as much a matter of duty to drink hard on New-year's Day as to go to church on Sunday.

Some have been saving their wages for perhaps a month to do the season honour. Many carry a whisky-bottle in their pocket, which they will press with embarrassing effusion on a perfect stranger. It is inexpedient to risk one's body in a cab, or not, at least, until after a prolonged study of the driver. The streets, which are thronged from end to end, become a place for delicate pilotage. Singly or arm-in-arm, some speechless, others noisy and quarrelsome, the votaries of the New Year go meandering in and out and cannoning one against another; and now and again, one falls and lies as he has fallen. Before night, so many have gone to bed or the police office, that the streets seem almost clearer. And as First-footers are now not much seen except in country places, when once the New Year has been rung in and proclaimed at the Tron railings, the festivities begin to find their way indoors and something like quiet returns upon the town. But think, in these piled lands, of all the senseless snorers, all the broken heads and empty pockets!

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