If Sassenachs have a jaundiced view of hogmanay, Scots have only themselves to blame. The television festivities which, south of the border, we share with them, are an embarrassment. Would it not be better if we took the lump of coal traditionally borne to houses on New Year's Eve and hurled it into the television screen? And thus put an end to the McMania and MacBabble generated in Scottish studios.
Catherine Brown, author of A Year in a Scots Kitchen (Neil Wilson Pub- lishing pounds 14.99), agrees. But she is pleased to note that traditional values are returning. "The failure of the box to replace live experience appears to have saved the old festival from extinction," she says with pride. "In Edinburgh last year, 300,000 people street-partied. It was reputedly the largest communal New Year gathering in Europe."
In Scotland New Year has been a much more important festival than Christmas this century. In fact, she says, Christmas wasn't a holiday before the Second World War. "Most Scots worked on Christmas Day. Shops stayed open. Life went on as normal." In those days there weren't a lot of holidays going. "A miserly two days were given at hogmanay."
To get a sense of the real northerly traditions you really have to go back to the Middle Ages, she says, when Christians took over 25 December. The Catholic Church endorsed two weeks of holidaying, culminating on 6 January in the feast of Epiphany, a great court festival. They were known as the Daft Days. Along came the Reformation and, in the 1640s, the puritanical Church Assembly abolished the holiday completely. Attention shifted to New Year.
The origins of the word hogmanay are much debated. It is thought to be based on a beggars' street cry. "Hae ye go' (any) money?" Only joking, but the truth is little different. Hogmanay was born of that endur-ing Franco-Scottish link, the auld alliance, says Catherine Brown.
The Scottish National Dictionary suggests that hogmanay derives from a 16th century French street cry aguillanneuf (which transmuted mysteriously in to such words as hoguemennay), used by beggars soliciting alms at New Year. Evidently Scottish beggars and children thought it worth a try, and on New Year's Day they started banging on doors asking for money. Nice try, have an oatcake.
In the 19th century, according to Chambers Popular Rhymes, it was customary "in retired and primitive towns for the children of the poor class people, swaddled in a great sheet, doubled up in front to form a vast pocket, to go about in small bands calling at the doors of the wealthier classes for an expected dole of oaten bread. The children, coming to the door, cry `Hogmanay' and recite this rhyme: `Get up, goodwife, and shake your feathers, And dinna think that we are beggars; For we are bairns come out to play, Get up and gie's our hogmanay!'"
And so from this custom grew the tradition of visiting friends on hogmanay which is still honoured in much of Scotland. In the country a group will celebrate the "bells" at midnight and then take off to visit the houses of friends, a bottle of whisky under their arm and, sometimes a piece of coal to put on the fire.
Food and drink are central to the observance, but it will be unpretentious warming stuff. A full sideboard of treats (in the country you may walk a good distance from one home to another in the cold) may include cuts of cold meat (probably roast mutton), a tureen of Scotch broth, oatcakes, pancakes, soda-scones, cheese, perhaps a trifle (see Aunt Aileen's recipe, left). And a filling clootie dumpling or black bun.
There are two versions of this spicy, dark plum pudding. The clootie is wrapped in a cloth and boiled. Black bun is wrapped in pastry and baked. The great Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson declared the contents to be "a black substance inimical to life".
No hogmanay would be complete without gifts of shortbread. This great Scottish confection is admired (and exported) the world over. Its national status has been defended by the Scottish Association of Master Bakers who persuaded the government not to tax it as a biscuit. In a claim (that truly takes the biscuit) they argued successfully that shortbread is not a biscuit but a "speciality item of flour confectionary".
Well, it does have a unique history, its original form being a bread dough to which melted butter was added, rather like the English lardy cake. Early forms were enriched with preserved lemon and orange peel, nuts and caraway seeds.
Some see the inevitable French hand in its transformation into an unyeasted, er, biscuit. Meg Dods, the Scottish food historian, wrote in 1846 that petticoat tails, a popular form of shortbread, was a Scoticism for petites gatelles. She surely she meant petites galettes, little biscuits.
However this doesn't take anything from the Scottish people's ability to make shortbread better than anyone else in the world. Having visited the famous Aberlour shortbread company of Walkers some years ago I put this down to their reluctance to compromise on the quality of their ingredients, especially large quantities of best fresh butter.
Shortbread will be cheaper and, certainly, more satisfying to make at home. Here Catherine Brown shares with us her recipes for achieving shortbreads of three different textures; granular, crunchy and smooth. And for good measure less known, traditional recipes; Pitchaithly ban-nock, Yetholm bannock, and a marmalade-filled shortbread. The recipes are taken from her book A Year in a Scots Kitchen.
The texture of the shortbread is a matter of taste, adjusted by varying the coarseness of the flour, using ground rice for grittiness, and cornflour and icing sugar for a more melting texture.
For a `gritty' granulated texture:
125g/5oz plain flour
25g/1oz rice flour
2oz/50g castor sugar
For a fine but crunchy texture:
100g/4oz plain flour
25g/1oz rice flour
25g/1oz castor sugar
25g/1oz icing sugar
For a smooth `melting' texture:
100g/4oz plain flour
50g/2oz icing sugar
Put the butter on to a work surface and knead in the sugar, then the flour until it becomes a reasonably firm ball of dough. (To make in a food processor pulse butter and sugar till creamy, add flour and pulse until smooth. Remove and knead, adding more flour if needed.)
Either press dough into a greased 270 by 175mm (1014 by 7in) Swiss-roll tin and prick with a fork, or use a special shortbread mould, or roll into a cylinder shape and coat in granulated sugar. Chill and slice into thin round biscuit shapes. Bake slowly at 170C/325F/Gas 3 until an even golden brown.
Add one tablespoon flaked almonds, caraway seeds and crystalised orange to the shortbread recipe. Roll out to a round shape about 2cm (34in) thick. Prick the top with a fork or skewer. Sprinkle with a further tablespoon of flaked almonds and press in lightly. Pince the edge with finger and thumb to decorate and bake for one to one and a half hours till a pale golden brown throughout.
Add two tablespoons of finely chopped stem ginger to shortbread recipe and decorate on top with thin slices of stem ginger. Bake as for Pitcaithly bannock.
SHORTBREAD WITH MARMALADE
Roll the prepared shortbread mixture into golf ball shapes. Make a deep impression in the middle of each and fill with half a teaspoon of marmalade. Close up, reshape and put on a baking tin. Press down slightly and bake for 30 minutes. Dust with icing sugar and serve warm.
A rich seasonal cream spiced with rum to serve with shortbread.
4 egg yolks
175g/6oz castor sugar
125ml/4fl oz rum
500ml/16fl oz whipping cream
Beat the egg and sugar till thick, add the rum. Beat the cream till stiff and add to the mixture.
AUNT AILEEN'S TRIFLE
250g/8oz sponge cake
375g/12oz strawberry jam
4-5 tablespoons medium sherry
500ml/16fl oz milk
6 large eggs
1 tablespoon castor sugar
600ml/1 pint whipping cream
Cut up sponges into one inch cubes and put in the base of a glass dish. Melt the jam till it is just warm and runny. Pour over the sponges. Add sherry. Leave for a few hours to soak up.
To make the custard heat the milk in a pan. Break the eggs into a bowl, add the sugar and beat up. When the milk is hot pour over the eggs and return to the pan. Cook over a low heat, stirring till it thickens, coating the back of a wooden spoon. Leave to cool a little before pouring over the sponge. When the custard is set, beat the cream and pour over. Serve chilled.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies