Writing a festive romance set in
Scotland I was, quite literally, in
my element. My mother’s family hail from the Isle of Lewis, a brooding and
romantic landscape awash with ancient traditions and customs, some of them
pre-dating Christianity. When I was a wee lassie, my maternal grandfather, a
sea captain, filled my head with his stories of selkies and mermaids, sea
sirens and sea ghosts. I was terrified and fascinated in equal parts. It seemed
to me that the high seas were chock full of creatures (mostly women and often
in the form of seals) who spent their days trying to lure poor innocent sailors
to their death.
My Nana, who was a herring girl in her youth, was even more superstitious. It seemed that the wee people, or faeries, had it in for bairns on the islands every bit as much as the sea sirens had it in for sailors. Faeries were always on the lookout for new borns, which they would replace with their own changlings if they got half a chance. During childbirth, mirrors were covered to stop them stealing the baby’s image, and a cross of rowan was laid on the birthing bed to scare them off. When the mother was ‘churched’ after the birth, hot coals and peat were thrown behind the procession to make sure no faery could follow. Making a cradle from sacred woods such as elder, oak or rowan would keep the babe safe, as would the father’s dirk, or dagger, placed under the bairn’s pillow.
|My maternal grandparents, whose stories inspired several of mine|
The fairies my Nana talked about were not, you’ll have gathered, the pretty, playful wee things you see in story books. Many Scottish New Year traditions have at their root this need to keep the mischief-makers, sometimes called Kelpies, out of the house. Take the obsessive cleaning that still goes on, for example. The house must be gleaming, and I mean gleaming, when midnight strikes. Not a dust mote under the beds, not a teaspoon in the sink can there be, for it would mean a dirty home for the rest of the year, and the dirt gave a faery somewhere to hide.
|Clootie dumpling. a Scottish delicacy!|
Rowan brings luck, and hazel wards off evil spirits. Both of these are traditionally hung over the front door on Hogmanay. The door is opened as midnight strikes to let out the old year and let in the new, so the rowan and hazel make sure that no wee people can dive in. Sometimes the old year is literally swept out the door.
An Invitation to Pleasure, my latest ‘Undone’ short story, takes place over Christmas and New Year, and contains a lot of customs, not all of which are
Highland. The stirring of the pudding is
actually a an English tradition which I adopted. Fergus and Susannah, my hero
and heroine, stir a Clootie dumpling, which was my paternal grandmother’s
speciality. Made with suet, treacle and rich with fruit, it is cooked in a
muslin (actually, my Gran used an old pillow case) and can be eaten hot with
cream or custard, or fried up for breakfast. My Gran made me one every year for
my birthday. I loathe dried fruit of any kind, but every year I’d smile happily
and nibble daintily, then pass the whole lot to my mother – who loved it. Gran
put sixpences and thruppences in the pudding for luck. When we went decimal, it
just wasn’t the same.
The bundling board, a huge bit of wood which divides up the bed Susannah and Fergus sleep in, is another real
tradition. Unlike my hero and heroine, the courting couples were, in reality,
fully-clothed, in fact the lass’s legs may even have been tied up in a bolster
cover just to keep her ‘safe’, but bundling was an accepted custom in the days
when courtship was long and drawn-out while the couple saved to marry.
Feet washing is another
custom that I adapted. Traditionally, the groom’s feet are washed by his
friends the night before the wedding. It’s a raucous and by the sounds of it
painful ceremony involving boot-blacking and scrubbing brushes. I thought it
would be much more fun to have the groom wash the bride’s feet though. Fergus
uses wine and not water to bathe Susannah’s feet, and this part of the ceremony
is true to tradition – wine instead of water being used for high-ranking men
such as the laird. The other part of the ceremony, relating to a ring – now
that, I did make up.
|Christmas Day here in Argyll two years ago|
Christmas Day itself in the
used to be much more about the church than celebrating. My mum remembers going
to church three times every Sunday when she holidayed in Lewis. There was no
cooking, no playing on the Sabbath, no reading of anything but the bible. She
was severely chastised for reading a comic once. It is only very recently that
ferries have started running, and some woman have even dared to hang out their
washing, behaviour so scandalous that it was reported in the press. Christmas
Day was definitely not a party day in the Highlands.
Which explains why Hogmanay in Scotland
is one big party.
After the old year has been swept out, the anxious wait begins for the first foot – the first stranger through the door. A red-head is incredibly unlucky, as is a female. Best of all is a dark-haired man, and if he’s carrying a lump of coal then your luck is made. Black bun is the traditional Hogmanay cake, another of those fruit-rich concoctions that my Gran used to make and I cannot abide, though I’m very fond of shortie. And once that’s all over, it’s ceilidh time – though not, of course, on the dreadful days when New Year’s Day fell on the Sabbath, when the fiddles and pipes had to wait an extra day to be aired.
I had fun using a mixture of real and imagined Scottish festive customs and I hope they lend colour and atmosphere to the story. I’d love to know what traditions or customs do you hold dear?
An Invitation to Pleasure is out now in the