Christmas and New Year on Lismore
Before the Reformation, celebration of the birth of Christ was an important part of the religious year in the Highlands and Islands. Alexander Carmichael collected surviving Christmas traditions in the Outer Hebrides, including carols, visits by guisers and charitable giving (for example distribution of fish to the poor in S Uist). In Lismore in Alba, Ian Carmichael recorded the remnants of these traditions:
“An old custom which is still observed in the middle of the nineteenth
century obviously had its origin when Christmas was commonly held in
the island as a great festival. All stock were included in the festivities.
Cattle and horses got extra corn in their stalls, sheaves were spread out
in the fields for the sheep. Even the birds of the air were not forgotten
and were included in the distribution of the season’s good cheer. There
is no tradition in Lismore, however, as there is in Breadalbane, that at
midnight on Christmas Eve the cattle went down on their knees”.
The turn of the year had always been important, marking the return of the sun, but New Year’s Day became the more important celebration in recent centuries.
The “saining” or blessing of the home and livestock involved sprinkling water and burning juniper, followed by good measures of whisky. Other surviving traditions, with their roots in pre-Christian rituals, involve major fire ceremonies.
Even though the old-fashioned Julian Calendar was officially superseded in 1752, many communities across Scotland, including Lismore, continued to celebrate the “Old New Year” rather than 1 January (and some do to this day). This is usually taken as 12 January, although the calculation gives 13 January for the 19th century and 14 January today. The main feature of Old New Year on the island was a free-for-all shinty match, probably the North against the South, using any suitable piece of wood as a caman. From the expressions on the faces in the picture from around 1900, this was serious business. No doubt blood was shed.
New Year Shinty Match on Lismore around 1900. Image collected by the late Donald Black.
In her diary for 1868 (see the Object for November 2015), Mary MacGregor notes that there were “boys playing shinty in the field” on 13 January.