It’s that special time of year again, and as we all prepare for a warm, Scottish Christmas, I thought we could share some of our favourite festive traditions that remind us of our heritage and Celtic ancestry during this beautiful season.
As we discussed in last year’s Christmas post, Scotland does not actually have a strong history of celebrating Christmas – due to the attitudes of the Church until the mid-1950’s, which kept it as a purely religious festival. However, in the decades since then, Christmas has become very popular here, and though Hogmany remains the biggest nationwide celebration of the winter, Christmas is observed by almost everyone in Scotland now. Gifts are exchanged, trees decorated, carols are sung, and Christmas lunch or dinner is enjoyed by all the family! In fact, Christmas celebrations in Scotland have taken many of their cues from nations such as the United States, who have a much longer history of celebrating it in a jubilant way. But there are ways to give your Christmas observations a Scottish twist. How? Read on…
Firstly of course, since Christmas is still very much recognised as a religious celebration in Scotland, is to attend Advent Sunday Services, if you are Christian. In the Church of Scotland, a special service is held on Christmas Eve, known as the Watchnight, and the congregation will gather to reflect on the coming of Christ, sing carols, and share fellowship with one another, celebrating with embraces and blessings at the stroke of midnight. Bagpipes may be played or church bells rung to signal the birth of Jesus and the arrival of Christmas. The services are noted for often providing each parishioner with a candle with which to light the way and guide the Holy Family. The same sentiment can be seen in the tradition of placing a lit candle in a window of your home on Christmas Eve; another commonly observed tradition in Scotland, though it is not related to the older pagan tradition of leaving a lit fire to stop imps from coming down the chimney. For people attending the Watchnight, it can be a sort of game to try and get home from church without letting your candle go out, so you are sharing the same flame as lit by your minister, and in small villages you will still often see people in cars stopping by the side of the road to help re-light peoples candles to keep the original flame burning through the night.
Candles, fires and other warm sources of light are very important when preparing your home for Christmas in Scotland, as they chase away the bleak and cold winter nights. However, there are other more definitively Scottish ways to decorate also, and yes of course, the most popular Scottish item of all is used in abundance – tartan! Real Christmas trees look gorgeous when decorated with twinkling lights, special baubles and festooned with bows of tartan ribbon or fabric. Other people may choose to bring a bough of Scots Pine into their home instead of having a full tree, and traditional decorations taken from the natural landscape are also popular, including carved wooden items, pine cones, leaves and berries, even staghorn decorations!
So what might you eat at a traditional Scottish Christmas meal? Nowadays of course, most people in Scotland will have a menu similar to anywhere else in the UK, or the USA and Canada as well actually! But a few things do differ on a Scottish table. Venison stew or steak pie are popular alternatives to turkey, as is salmon; a traditional Scotch broth or cock-a-leekie soup is very likely to be served, and you are more likely to see a clootie dumpling with silver coins cooked into it as lucky charms for diners to find, than the “English” equivalent of Christmas pudding. Selkirk bannock may also make an appearance. Bannocks are a type of round quick-bread, made without yeast, and the Selkirk variety is a particular kind which is very spongy and buttery and filled with fruit – almost like a cake. Bannocks have been eaten at pagan fire festivals in Scotland for thousands of years, and their round shape was originally due to some association with the sun; they remain a very popular treat, especially at Christmas!
Well, hopefully this brief article has given you all some food for thought – of course there will be as many Scottish Christmas traditions as there are Scottish families in the world, and we know that is a great number! As always, we would love to hear from you in the comments to share your special memories and traditions for this time of year. May I take this opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hogmany, and I look forward to blogging again in 2014, see you there!
The Scottish clan system is one of the most defining features of Scottish culture, from its origins shrouded in myth and legend – to the thriving communities spread worldwide today. Scottish clans historically were groups related by blood, or oaths of fealty to the clan chief, and most clan members shared a surname – either by birth or by choosing to adopt the surname of their chieftain. Some clans also had septs, families of other names who were linked to the dominant clan and who had sworn allegiance to the chief in return for protection.
Nowadays, the precise method of discovering which clan you are linked to can be difficult, should you not have a surname which matches one of the major clans – but clan chiefs can accept or reject any person from their clan regardless of surname or genealogy, based only on a person’s willingness to swear allegiance and membership to the clan in question. Membership in the leading Scottish clans of today can be a very rewarding experience for many people, especially amongst the vast Scottish diaspora living abroad – with nations such as Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand having strong links to Scotland and providing a link back to the “old country” for many who wish to acknowledge and respect their heritage in a positive and useful way, as many clans perform charitable work to maintain locations important to their clan history, and to educate the general public about Scottish history and their own clans stamp on it in particular. Today, we will discuss a few of the oldest Scottish clans, the myths and romance their legacy has been founded upon, and the ways in which their Scottish families continue to grow and develop in the 21st Century!
Clan Donald is one of the largest clans existing in Scotland today, with many branches such as MacDonald of Clanranald and MacDonald of Sleat, among others, who hived off from the main clan due to its large size even in ancient times. Clan Donald is very active, and almost always represented at Highland Games and other multi-clan gatherings – they have a charitable trust and a museum has been established in their name which aims to educate visitors about clan history, and promote the preservation of the ancient landscape of Scotland which so many of its members call home. Officially, the genealogy of Clan Donald can be traced back to Domhnall mac Raghnaill, a Hebridean noble who lived in the 12th century, the Gaelic term for Clan Donald, Clann Domhnall means Children of Donald. His father, Ragnall mac Somairle, was known as Ranald, Lord of the Isles, and his father before him was Somerled – a Scottish warlord whose origins have been shrouded in mystery.
As this is as far back as the founders lineage can be traced, rumours have abounded– with some even claiming that the legendary Cúchulainn was the forefather of the Donald line! Cúchulainn is a mythical figure, supposed to have lived during the first century AD, in what is now Ireland. A demi-god, Cúchulainn’s mother, a Celtic princess, conceived him by swallowing a mayfly that had flown into her wine, then dreamt that the fly was actually the god Lugh, and that Cúchulainn was his child. Cúchulainn had many great deeds attributed to him, such as single-handedly defeating the army of Connacht, and facing the strange magical challenges set by the troublemaker Bricriu, and was said to be the fiercest warrior that ever lived. The legends surrounding him are mainly centred in Ireland, showing again the way in which the folklore if the Scots tribe originating in Ireland was shared with the Picts and other tribes of Alba when the Scots migrated and made these lands their own.
Another figure from very early history that is claimed to have been the founding father of modern clans is Alpin, father of Kenneth MacAlpin, first King of Scots. Although his life is also slightly mysterious, as is expected for such ancient history, he was undoubtedly a real person, living and dying in the 9th century AD. His son ruled as a Pictish king, not a member of the Scots tribe, but historians claimed that he conquered the Scots and united the tribes into one people as we are today. Later and more accurate evidence suggests this claim might have been just a wee bit exaggerated, and this unification did not fully come about until a few generations after his time, but King Kenneth is an integral part of Scottish history and his name is strongly linked to the fouding of seven major Scottish clans – forever linked to one another as the Siol Alpin!
The Siol Alpin, or Seed of Alpin, is a confederacy of seven Scottish clans, all of whom are still active and well-respected today, though not all still have a chief from an unbroken paternal line. These clans all trace their descent from Alpin, father of Kenneth I of Scots, Clan MacNab through the kings line directly, and MacGregor, Grant, MacAulay, MacQuarrie, MacKinnon and MacFie from his other son Doungallas. Historically, these clans were always linked and showed a good deal of friendliness to one another; Clans Gregor and Grant almost reunited as a single clan at one point, on the strength of their connection through the Siol Alpin, and historical records are rife with examples of these clans exchanging bonds of manrent and friendship, to offer one another aid and arms in any situation (so long as it didn’t require treason!). Additionally, the clan badges (also known as plant badges) of these seven all feature the Scots pine; it has been said that plant badges were used to identify friend from foe among clansmen so it is interesting indeed that the rumoured sons of Alpin all used the same device to identify themselves. Add to this the propensity for clan mottoes referencing royalty among the Siol Alpin and you see the possibilities are endless for research and mining for new knowledge of these old groups, still active to this very day!
Researching your clan histories, and the myths and legends that might go along with them, can be a fascinating and rewarding experience, little do people realise the rich tapestry of history which trails down through the centuries when visiting a simple stall at a Highland Games, or wandering around “yet another” crumbling castle. But for many, this ancient history is still vibrant and alive, in the bonds of brother- and sisterhood shared amongst their clans-folk, and in the activities of clan societies worldwide. We would love to hear from any clan members who have a favourite bit of history or legend to share, or those among us who are just setting out on their journey in tracing their own lineage – good luck – who knows where it will take you!