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The Old New Year

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A cold start to 2021 here in Tarbert.

At midnight on December the 31st it was a relief to raise a glass and say “Bliadhna Mhath Ùr!” as we celebrated the end of a tumultuous 2020.

Like most of the world, we have high hopes for better things to come in this new year, but between the steep rise in COVID cases and troubles at the Capitol, things haven’t exactly got off to a great start!

Luckily, we islanders have a second chance at new beginnings with the imminent arrival of 'Oidhche Challain', or the Old New Year, on the 12th of January.

Winter days from our whisky warehouse at Ardhasaig.

Taking its timings from the old Julian calendar, the pre-Christian origins of this ancient celebration have long been lost but it's thought that our Viking cousins in Scandinavia may have had a hand in the traditions.

Once upon a time boys and young men from every village would gather in the early evening darkness, their faces hidden by masks, while the leader wrapped himself in a sheepskin with horns.

With a great cheer, the gang would set out to visit every house, armed with an empty sack and a rhyme (or duan) on their tongues to be recited in our native Gaelic at every door.

Cold waves on the west coast of Harris.

Each boy had to recite his own rhyme. No rhyme, no admission…

”Tha mise nochd a' tighinn gur n-ionnsaigh, a dh'ùrachadh dhuibh na Callaig”

In some traditions, one boy would carry a caisein-uchd, the breast-strip of a sheep dipped in wax and tallow, which was freshly lit at each household's fire.

Sunsets over East Loch Tarbert.

The "sheep-candle" was then passed around to be circled three times around every head. If the flame died at a particular point (or was blown out by a trickster), it was a sign of bad luck for the person below!

The gang would parade three times sunwise around the peat fire in the middle of the floor, thumping the leader dressed in the skin with sticks, and making a fearful noise.

"Thàinig sinn a-nochd dhan duthaich san àm ùrachachdh na Calainn
Cha lig sinn a leas a bhith ga innse bha i ann bho linn ar sheanair
Leis an tairt a tha san duthaich cha bhith dùil againn ri drama
Ach beagan do thoradh an t-samhraidh ma tha e ann, cuir a mach e."

Warm homes in Harris villages.

The poetry would then be rewarded by gifts of food, like freshly baked bannocks, bread, sugar, fruit, and, of course, sweets. Sometimes folk would even offer meat or fish for the inevitable feast later that night.

It would then be time to leave for the next house, with a blessing on the home left as a parting wish…

"Beannaich an taigh ’s na tha ann
Eadar choin ’s cheit ’s chlann
Pailteas bi ’s pailteas aodaich
‘S slàinte dhaoine gun robh ann"

Frosted dawns to start the day.

The tradition has long since died out here in the Outer Hebrides, although nearby Berneray may say different, and we tend to see in the bells on Hogmanay with a dram in hand just like the rest of Scotland.

But, if you’re feeling like you need a fresh start already, light a candle in your window on Monday night and begin 2021 all over again like the generations of Hearaich once did in times gone by.

Wishing you and yours all the very best for the coming year!

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