Happy Hogmanay! What’s Hogmanay?

It will soon be time to say Happy New Year to all our readers, or as they may say in Scotland – Happy Hogmanay! So Hogmanay is just a Scottish word for New Year’s Eve? Far from it! Hogmanay is an entire festival in its own right – and as with many of Scotland’s cultural events it comes with its own array of unique traditions which the Scottish people take very seriously…! Here we thought we’d answer a few questions about this particular Scottish festival…

Fireworks over Edinburgh Castle at Hogmanay.
Fireworks over Edinburgh Castle at Hogmanay.

So there is a big party, right? The evening of Hogmanay is of course celebrated in the way Scots know best – with lots of music, spectacle, dancing and perhaps a nip of whisky. Edinburgh is a focal point for celebration with an organised ticketed street-party taking place in recent years, however previously an unofficial gathering would take place on the Royal Mile around the old Tron Church – with the clock of ancient tower decidedly unreliable chaos would ensue around midnight with various groups celebrating at different times and on different count-downs!

Is Hogmanay just celebrated in Edinburgh? No, celebrations take-place up and down the country and are not immune to local and regional twists. In Stonehaven near Aberdeen, giant balls of mesh filled with flammable material attached to chains are lit upon the tolling of the midnight bells and swung around the heads of the marchers who parade up and down the High Street. Think that’s strange? On the Isle of Orkney it is said there used to be a tradition where the man-folk took turns to don the remains of a burnt out cow’s head – why, no one is quite sure… The Highland city of Inverness and historic Stirling both opted for more traditional festivities and hosted magnificent music concerts this year.

Dancing to Auld Lang Syne on Hogmanay.
Dancing to Auld Lang Syne on Hogmanay.

Is there one thing which is done across Scotland? Wherever the celebrations take place, you can guarantee to hear the familiar tune of Auld Lang Syne! This traditional Scots poem, penned by famed Scottish poet Robert Burns, will be boomed out of every pub and inn throughout Scotland as people link arms to dance and sing-along. And of course this is a tradition not only also adopted in England and Wales but exported across the world! But as the Scots will tell you, it’s only done properly in Scotland.

And after midnight and the singing ends, the festival is over? Not a chance! First-footing is an old custom which remains observed today whereby people go to visit friends and neighbours after midnight. You should of course come bearing gifts and if your first visitor (or first-footer) is a tall, dark man with lump of coal then that is particularly lucky (obviously!).

Dooking in Edinburgh at Hogmanay
Dooking in Edinburgh at Hogmanay

But you can rest on New Year’s Day, right? Erm, not exactly. Unless you consider going for a swim in the sea relaxing – bearing in mind this is January and you’re in Scotland! Recent years have seen a resurrection of this old tradition known as “Dooking” whereby people gather to go for a nice dip in Scotland’s icy coastal waters on New Year’s Day. The aptly named “Looney Dook” in South Queensferry in Edinburgh is now a recognised part of the city’s Hogmanay celebrations and many swear it is the ultimate antidote for the excesses of the previous night – we’ll take their word for it!

New year’s Day is of course a public holiday across the UK, however, uniquely in Scotland, January 2nd is also a public holiday which means most people enjoy an extra day off work. Some people in England and Wales are jealous of this whilst others simply believe, after all that ritual, they deserve it!

Burns Night – A Scottish Festival

The Scottish know how to have a good party – in Scotland both January 1st and 2nd are public holidays (so as to offer good recovery time from Hogmanay) and the national day, St Andrews Day, is patriotically celebrated.  There is little excuse needed then for a further festival which takes place across Scotland on January 25th each year to celebrate possibly the nation’s greatest poet – Robert “Rabbie” Burns – and few festivals could carry with them such intrinsically Scottish tradition!

Scottish Poet Robert Burns
Scottish Poet Robert Burns

Taking place on or around January 25th, each year, the Birthday of Robert Burns, “Burns Night” is celebrated widely throughout Scotland as a tribute to the life and works of this great Scottish poet.  Robert Burns, who was born in the 1700s and loved in the Scottish Borders region south of Glasgow, was, and still is, revered as a master of the Scots Language as well as writing in English and a Scots dialect of English; his poetry and folk songs are widely known across Scotland and indeed the world and include the famous “Auld Lang Syne” which is traditionally sung at Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) each year and of course, his “Address to a Haggis” a fantastic work dedicated to Scotland’s national dish.

Piping of the Haggis
Piping of the Haggis

The Burns Night celebration usually takes place as a traditional Burns Supper which can be a formal meeting and meal of a society, club or social group or simply a family gathering. Nowadays this gathering can take many forms however typically the evening starts with contributions from the attendees which could be story-telling, recitals of verse or performances of songs, original or old but most definitely including some of Burns’ work.  Then to the important business of food and drink – the main dish is of course Haggis (minced offal and oats cooked with onion and seasoning and served in a sheep’s stomach lining) usually served with neeps and tatties (Parsnips and Potatoes).  Traditionally the meal is served only after a recital of the famous “Address to a Haggis” often accompanied by the sound of the bagpipes in the background.  The dish is of course washed down with some quality single malt scotch whisky!  In more formal quarters the evening is then rounded off with “a toast to the lassies” whereby a male speaker shares his views and words of wisdom on the subject of women followed by what’s now often referred to as the “toast to the laddies” in which a female responds with her insights and anecdotes regarding  the male species!  And all followed with general socialising, drinking and banter that the Scots are so good at.

If you find yourself in Scotland in January, don’t miss out on a chance to experience a Burns Supper and even if you’re not here for Burns Night itself you can still enjoy a traditional Scottish evening in Edinburgh including the piping of the Haggis.

Scottish Festivals is one of “Top Five Reasons to Visit Scotland
For the full poem “Address to a Haggis” click here and to hear some stunning recitals click here.

Stonehenge – New Look for an Ancient Site

Stonehenge is one of the most iconic and instantly recognizable sites in England; and with around a million visitors each year, it is also one of Britain‘s most popular tourist attractions.  Which is why, last week, English Heritage finally opened the long-awaited state-of-the-art visitor centre which aims to offer a guest experience fitting of such a magnificent slice of British pre-history.

Stonehenge
Stonehenge

For those who have visited Stonehenge, few can disagree that it is a truly enchanting site; huge monoliths standing eerily on the Salisbury Plain and shrouded in mystery.  Pre-dating the Egyptian Pyramids, why did an ancient people go to the effort of creating this ring of stones; a pre-historic calendar mapping the seasons? An ancient burial place? Or a site of worship to a pagan god?  There are theories but still no one really knows!  And more to the point how on earth did they do it?  The stones are estimated to be around 50 tonnes each and are believed to have come from the Preselli Hills of South West Wales, some 250 miles away!

New Stonehenge Visitor Centre
New Stonehenge Visitor Centre

So there is no denying the appeal of Stonehenge, however many of those who have already visited, also agree that the overall visitor experience has not, in the past, done it justice.  In 1989 a government committee called the visitor facilities a “national disgrace” – a tiny gift shop and snack bar, underground toilets which flooded and a narrow tunnel to reach the stones themselves.  And then whilst you were trying to immerse yourself in the enigma of the stones, your audio guide was competing with the traffic noise from the A334 route which ran to within less than a 100 yards away.  But fortunately, this is all now set to change so that guests can enjoy modern comforts on their exploration of this ancient site.

Stonehenge's New Exhibition
Stonehenge’s New Exhibition

The A334 was finally closed in June offering a more peaceful visitor experience and the new facilities of the long-awaited visitor centre, which opened last week, are a world apart from those previously offered.  Modern but elegant, the grey low-standing building blends in to the moorland landscape perfectly and, located 1.5miles from the main site, it is unimposing and does detract from the atmospheric surroundings of the stones themselves.  Within, guests can enjoy an enhanced gift-shop and cafe but also a stunning range of exhibitions; from a 360-degree projection which catapults you back through the millennia of the site’s history, to an array of genuine ancient and priceless artefacts dating back to the peoples who constructed it.  A highlight is the 5,500 year old skeleton, and subsequent facial reconstruction, of a man excavated from a nearby barrow burial mound – was this Stonehenge’s first ever visitor?  And all this before you even make your way via the shuttle transfer or a stroll through nearby woodland to reach the majesty of the Stonehenge itself.

The new centre means an increase in admission and that pre-booking a slot for your visit is essential but we think it’ll be worth it for the enhanced experience – it may have been several thousand years in the making but, it seems, visitors to Stonehenge are finally getting the treatment they deserve!

Remember, remember the fifth of November…

No, it’s not my Birthday –  this is actually the line of a rhyme that all children in Britain know well.  But why should we remember November 5th? I hear you ask.  Well, it’s actually a very important date that could have changed British history and the cityscape of London as we know it today…

Palace of Westminster - Parliament
Palace of Westminster – Houses of Parliament

Renowned in Britain, “Guy Fawkes night” or, as it’s sometimes known, “bonfire night” falls on November fifth each year – it was on this cold and misty November day back in 1605 that Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators attempted to blow up British parliament by planting kegs of gunpowder in the cellars of Westminster Palace. It was a plot to “destabilise” the protestant government of King James by the English Roman Catholics following his savage verbal attack on them previous year.

Fortunately, the plot was foiled; Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding the hoard of explosives which, had they been successfully detonated, could have destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster which was later extended to include Big Ben itself.  Following the failed plot, bonfires were lit across London on the 5th November to celebrate the fact that the King was safe and an effigy of Guy Fawkes was usually thrown on top for good measure.

Bonfire night in England
Bonfire night in England

This slightly grisly tradition endures today; in early November you will often see children asking for a “penny for the Guy” as they assemble their own effigies of old clothes stuffed with newspaper or straw to be thrown on to the local bonfire.   Fortunately however, in recent decades the celebration has become more of a social event with families coming together to attend the huge bonfires of their local community and to enjoy the spectacular organized fireworks displays which accompany  them.

Tradition is something the British do well and to this day when the Queen enters Parliament on her once yearly “State Opening of Parliament” her Guards will search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster just in case there’s a keg of gunpowder down there.  So if you’re here in England in late Autumn, remember the fifth of November and pop down to a bonfire near you!

A History of Wales, in an Afternoon!

From ancient castles to stunning scenery, there is so much to see in Wales that you could easily spend a week or two touring here; however if you have a limited time-frame and want to see England and Scotland too, many people spare just a couple of nights to get their taste of Welsh culture, and head for Cardiff, the Welsh capital city.  If this is the case for you then make sure you visit St Fagans National History Museum.

Cardiff Castle, Cardiff, Wale
Cardiff Castle, Cardiff, Wale

I had been to St Fagans several years ago, but only recently re-visited when some family friends were in the area.  Upon arrival, I was instantly reminded that it is a museum with a difference – there’s no peering at fossils through glass here!  In fact it is Wales‘ leading open-air, living museum located in over 100 acres of its own beautiful parkland and gardens in the grounds of St Fagans Castle, a 16th century manor house, on the outskirts of Cardiff and a stone’s throw from Cardiff Castle itself.

St Fagans Castle, St Fagans Museum
St Fagans Castle, St Fagans Museum

St Fagans aim is to provide visitors with a history of Wales throughout the ages from the earliest Celtic settlements through medieval history to our more recent industrial heritage.  And it does this not through stuffy exhibitions but by allowing you to actually walk through some forty real historic buildings, each of which was originally constructed in a different era of Welsh history and in a different corner of the country but painstakingly moved and re-erected brick by brick in the grounds of St Fagans.  The fact you can enter these buildings, restored to how they would have originally appeared with superb attention to detail, allows you to literally step back in time and immerse yourself in what life was like for the people of Wales.

Ironworkers Houses, St Fagans
Ironworkers Houses, St Fagans

Some of the highlights include traditional farm buildings (complete with their own animals!), functioning watermills, peasant cottages, a chapel, a school and various Victorian period shops including an operational bakery which still offers local Welsh treats prepared using traditional methods.  My favourite attraction however was the row of terraced workman’s cottages, typical of those you’ll find in communities throughout the valleys of South East Wales to this day.  At St Fagans however each of these six tiny identical houses has been laid-out and furnished to a different generation since the beginning of the industrial revolution.  As you wander into each cottage, into their little gardens and vegetable patches and along the changing cobbled path you can literally walk through the ages from the early 1800’s right through to present day and get a glimpse of Welsh life from previous generations and see how it has changed in such a short time.

So if you find yourself on a time budget in Wales next Summer, head to St Fagans National History Museum in Cardiff where you can experience centuries in half a day!