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Traditional Scottish Festivals

A Calendar of some Traditional Scottish Festivals


1 January
New Year’s Day, or Ne’erday Long-celebrated and increasingly popular festival. It traditionally involved first footing: visiting neighbours, family and friends — preferably as soon as possible after the ‘bells’ at midnight.
Orkney Ba’ Games Old-style, uninhibited football games held in Kirkwall, Orkney, between the Uppies and the Doonies, depending what part of the town someone comes from.

First Monday in January
Handsel Monday Traditionally when handsel (usually a gift of money) was given to servants by employers.

5/6 January
Auld Yule & Uphalieday Traditional celebrations of Twelfth Night and the Epiphany.
Celebrations varied around the country, from burning evergreen leaves to eating special celebration cakes.

11 January
Burning of the Clavie One of the traditional Celtic winter fire festivals and a throw­back to ancient Pictish celebrations; at Burghead in Moray.

Last Tuesday in January
Up-helly-Aa Another traditional fire-festival, this time of Norse origin, celebrating Shetland’s Nordic heritage. Lerwick hosts masquerades, guising and a full-dress
torchlit procession, culminating in the burning of a Viking galley.

25 January
Burns Night Celebration of the birth of the national bard Robert Burns. Burns Suppers usually feature haggis with whisky, and recitations of his poetry.


2 February
Candlemas Day Like the Romans, the Celts regarded February as the start of spring. Candlemas Day was originally a Roman festival, then the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, celebrated with pageants and religious plays.
Now it is one of the legal ‘Quarter Days’, when rents and other duties must be paid. Schoolchildren also traditionally gave their teachers gifts on this day.

14 February
St Valentine’s Day Celebrated in Scotland as all over Europe. Traditionally, young unmarried people drew names written on pieces of paper to see who their sweetheart would be for the coming year.


1 March
Whuppity Scoorie A traditional springtime festival said to chase away evil spirits, it mainly involved running fights between the young men of Lanark and David Dale’s
New Lanark village.

Tuesday before Ash Wednesday
Eastern’s E’en Scots Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, when all the meat, butter and fat in the house were used up before the fasting of Lent.


1 April
Hunt the Gowk Traditional April Fool’s practical jokes and pranks were played, usually involving sending someone on a false, or fool’s errand. A gowk was a cuckoo, a bird associated with foolery.

2 April
Tailie Day or Preen-tail Day The practical jokes continued as paper tails were attached to unsuspecting victims.

Easter An ancient pagan festival of the spring equinox was superceded by the Christian celebration. The recognisable Easter customs — painted egg-rolling, making hot-cross buns — were also celebrated in Scotland; they have now been joined by the more recent arrivals of chocolate eggs and the Easter Bunny.


1 May
Beltane Another ancient pagan fire festival, this time celebrating May Day and the approach of summer. Bonfires were lit on hilltops all across Scotland.

15 May
Whitsunday This was the second of the Scottish ‘Quarter Days’, or Term Days. It always falls on the same day, unlike Whit Sunday (also known as Pentecost), which falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter.

25 May
Flitting Day Most Scots rented their houses by annual lease, and this was the day the leases expired.


Riding the Marches The traditional Borders riding festivals, dating from the time when the border needed policing to prevent encroachment. The festivals start in June and carry on during the summer. Most Borders towns have their own
Highland Games. These also traditionally begin in June, with many towns having their events throughout the summer. Scottish Highland Games normally include piping, traditional dancing, tossing the caber and throwing the hammer or some other weight.

Mid June
Guid Nychburris Celebrating the town of Dumfries and intended to encourage neighbourliness among its inhabitants. The week-long festival features the crowning of the Queen of the South.

17 June
Lanimer Day Traditional festival held in Lanark sees houses bedecked in greenery, and a fair in the town centre.


Last two weeks
Glasgow Fair Most Scots towns have a summer fortnight traditionally regarded as a local holiday period, but Glasgow’s is the oldest — dating from the 12th century —and still the most popular.


1 August
Lammas Third of the ‘Quarter Days’. It marked the start of autumn and the harvest season, and festivals and fairs were held across the country. It was also known by the name ‘Loaf Mass’, recognising the baking of the first of the new grain into bread.

Early August
The Burryman Traditional and still observed ceremony in South Queensferry. The Burryman, a native of the town, is covered in burrs over his body and head, and is led through the town by attendants. The procession goes on for several hours. The ceremony apparently dates back to the 14th century.

Horse and Boys Ploughing Match At St Margaret’s Hope in South Ronaldsay, this very old pre-harvest ritual sees elaborately dressed local youngsters mimicking horses and ploughmen as they ‘plough’ furrows on the beach.

Mid August
Edinburgh International Festival & Fringe A more recent addition, the Edinburgh Festival is the high point of the Scots cultural year and an important event on the international arts calendar. It has been running for over 50 years. The theatre, music, dance, revues, talks and exhibitions of the Festival and Fringe have been supplemented by the Television, Book and Film Festivals in recent years.

15 August
Marymas Bannocks were baked and eaten in honour of the Virgin Mary.


First Saturday in September.
Braemar Gathering Reputedly dating back to the 11th century, it was Queen Victoria who ensured the success of the highland games at Braemar by her atten­dance at them in 1848. The Royal family has been a feature of them ever since.

29 September
Michaelmas As patron saint of the sea and sailors, the feast of St Michael was enthusiastically celebrated, particularly in the west of Scotland. Several harvest celebrations coincided with St Michael’s Day, often involving the baking of cakes made from newly harvested cereals.


18 October
St Luke’s Day or Sour Cakes Day A celebration linked to the Royal Burgh of Rutherglen, where cakes were baked and eaten with sour cream.

31 October
Hallowe’en The evening of All Hallows’ (or All Saints’) Day and the last day of the year in the old Celtic calendar. Hallowe’en was an early Christian festival grafted onto the Celtic festival of Samhain, which was both a feast of thanksgiving and of the dead. It is a night when ghosts, witches and all manner of evils are abroad and many of the Celtic rites associated with the day evolved into the trappings of Hallowe’en, particularly ‘guising’ where children dressed up and went round neigh­bouring houses with ‘tattie bogies’ or ‘neep lanterns’ (candles inside hollowed-out turnips with ferocious carved faces). The old traditions of Hallowe’en in Scotland have been swamped recently by the growth of the more sanitised and commer­cialised customs of the Americans’ ‘trick-or-treat’.


5 November
Guy Fawkes Night Commemorating the abortive Gunpowder Plot of Guido (Guy) Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605, the event is celebrated with fireworks and bonfires. In the days preceding it, the cry of ‘penny for the guy’ can often be heard (as children plead for money from passers-by in the street with an effigy of Fawkes). This is not a specifically Scottish festival although it is often over­looked that one of main reasons for Fawkes’ attempted regicide was to ‘blow the Scots back again into Scotland’, i.e. the removal of the recently crowned James VI and VI as joint ruler of both countries, along with his followers.

11 November
Martinmas The feast of St Martin, tutor to St Ninian, was the last Scottish Quarter Day of the year when rents and contracts fell due. With fodder becoming scarce by this time of the tear, cattle were often killed at this time and salted meats and pud­dings prepared for the coming winter months.

30 November
St Andrew’s Day The feast of Scotland’s patron saint used to be widely celebrated but the day is not a public holiday in Scotland; St Andrew’s Night is now celebrated more by expatriate Scots around the world than native Scots at home.


24 December
Sowans Nicht This Christmas Eve tradition in some parts of Scotland derived from the eating of ‘sowans’, a dish made from oat husks and fine meal steeped in water.

25 December
Christmas Day Traditionally celebrated in medieval Scotland. But this stopped in the 16th century — the kill-joy fundamentalists of post-Reformation Scotland frowned on celebrations, and Christ’s birth was no exception. Christmas was a working day in Scotland until the mid-2Oth century and has only recently re-emerged as a day of celebration, this time on the back of international business and commercial practices.

26 December
The Mason’s Walk Boxing Day is the feast of St John the Apostle and Evangelist and a source of Masonic celebration across Scotland. In Melrose, masons parade by torch­light around the market square before walking to the abbey to conduct a service.

31 December
Hogmanay Long treated as a more important festival in Scotland than Christmas, Hogmanay was seen as a time of preparation: houses were cleaned and business was concluded to let the new year start afresh. While in recent decades the growing com­mercialisation of Christmas has overshadowed Hogmanay, there has been a revival lately in its celebration with mass street parties, particularly in Edinburgh.

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