Most melancholy night

The garden today, 30 December

As I start to write, the skies are leaden and the hills to the north have been shrouded in mist all day; in mid-afternoon the rain has only just stopped. The Omicron cases have hit a new daily height and yesterday, that hostile hotelier from Lockerbie was allowed to hold forth unchallenged on Radio 4’s You and Yours about how he was not going to be ‘political’, no doubt having been recommended for the job by BBC Scotland. Thankfully another contributor, whose name I didn’t catch, phoned in to assert that Hogmanay has not been “cancelled”; her village in the north of Scotland is holding an outdoor ceilidh, with fire and food, and the local folk will celebrate as safely as they can.

I hope the rain stays off and they have a wonderful time but it’s never been a night for me: I find this annual turning point just too sad as I cannot help but think of those who’re gone, not to mention “the melancholy marching of the years”. However I’ve usually recovered myself by the morning, seeing the possibilities of what’s to come and the impossibility of stopping time.

Two years ago, in an end of year post ( At the back end ), I quoted Sir Richard Maitland’s lines: “In this New Year, I see but weir, nae cause there is tae sing”; I had no idea of course how prophetic that was to be about the year 2020. And re-reading the post recently, I remembered with fondness the day out in Edinburgh with Rama and Duncan Ban when we managed to swerve the excesses of commercialised seasonal celebrating but still enjoy ourselves.

Lesley Riddoch had a very good column in The Herald on 27 December: “Edinburgh has become a hostage to over-tourism“. She begins it with a comment (if that’s the right term) from Twitter: “Edinburgh Hogmanay cancelled. Underbelly now looking at ways to charge folk for staying in the house.” I’ve been hostile to that Underbelly pair ever since I heard that the first time they came to Edinburgh was on a school trip from Eton, and nothing I’ve read since has changed my view. Ms Riddoch tells us that folk used to gather spontaneously at the Tron Kirk but now, it’s £16, thank you very much, to take part in the Torchlight Procession. She’d prefer the “engagement, comfort and connection” that “happens best in folk’s homes and small local venues.” So would I, but I’d still leave at 10 o’clock to go home for a good greet.

Hogmanay, David Murison long ago told us Scots Language students, derives from Old French Aguil’anneuf, which became Hoguigane in Norman French, also seen written as Hoginane and translated roughly as a toast “To the New Year”. So is this special night part of our heritage from the Auld Alliance?

It wouldn’t be Splendid, Bella! without some baking and my old friends can provide it. Theodora Fitzgibbon has a Black Bun recipe in her A Taste of Scotland; she says it was originally eaten on Twelfth Night but it’s been traditional at Hogmanay for a long time – likely since Christmas was banned by the Puritans. Catherine Brown in Broths to Bannocks dates the first printed recipe to 1736, in Mrs McLintock’s Receipts for Cookery and Pastry-Work; the only two original copies left are in Glasgow University Library. Originally, the rich fruit cake was wrapped “in a layer of plain bread dough” but then it became a pastry shell, both intended I think to stop the cake inside from drying out. I made it once, buying the pastry but making my own candied peel, and I used F Marian McNeill’s recipe in The Scots Kitchen, cutting the quantities in half. It was made as a gift and was taken to a Hogmanay party where I believe it was the very dab for soaking up the drink. Robert Louis Stevenson however was not a fan, calling it “a black substance inimical to life”. McNeill also gives us a 1791 recipe by a Mrs Frazer which starts off: “Take half a peck of flour … ” so some poor skivvy had to start manhandling about 7 pounds of flour. The finished cakes could weigh up to 16 lbs and were dispatched to relatives all over the country.

Florence McNeill tells us that the Hogmanay shortbread, baked for first-footers, derived from the more ancient Yule Bread – “a thin bannock of oatmeal”, baked before daybreak on Christmas morning “in honour of the Virgin’s delivery” – which was round in shape and “the edge pinched in points to symbolise the sun’s rays”, therefore “a relic of sun worship”. Likewise, the shortbread was large and round and “notched round the edge”. At first she says it was a luxury item but as white flour became more widely available, modern shortbread evolved and superseded the old oat bannocks for festive occasions.

Still on the subject of shortbread, I love Lady Grisell Baillie’s instructions to her housekeeper, as recounted by Annette |Hope in A Caledonian Feast: “For best shortbread, 8 lb flour to 3 lb butter”. There was also a slightly inferior “second shortbread” which needed only “2 lb butter to the 8 lb flour”. Can you imagine doing all that rubbing in? Lady G seems to have been quite a character, living from 1665 to 1746 and keeping household accounts from 1692 until she died, age 81; these accounts ran to more than 1,000 pages and social historians have pored over them. She also wrote songs. I must find out more.

I can see why our distant ancestors were into worship of the sun but we now know that it will return and bring our long summer nights to compensate for these months of gloom from mid-afternoon. On the other hand, I’ve always liked pulling the curtains and shutting out the world, wrapping up in a scarf and hunting for both of my gloves, making another cup of tea and looking through my festive recipes. There are laughs to be had in the supermarket too: the man with the one item he’d been sent out to get, a boxed Christmas cake, whom I let go ahead of me in the long queue who then worried about his wife telling him it wasn’t big enough when he got home although it was the only size available. I pointed out he should have made his own in October and that raised a smile. This morning, a bloke carrying a basket breenged past all the trolleys in an aisle and muttered as he passed me: “Where is he? I’m gonnae kill him”. I worried he was referring to a child who’d strayed but I saw him a few minutes later with his dear old Dad. So just a touch of seasonal stress, then.

There may be bare branches but snowdrops are on their way. There are other points of light: Barbados is now a republic and Gabriel Boric has been elected President of Chile. I came across for the first time this quote from the end of Samuel Beckett’s “The Unnameable“, written after World War II when Europe was “exhausted, uprooted”, and felt, yes, that’s me; that’s all of us:

“You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Also today, a hellebore which has come through the fallen leaves and the moss

One thought on “Most melancholy night

  1. Pingback: Passing on – Splendid, Bella!

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