Gillean Callaig/Hogmanay lads

Scotland has so many interesting, local folk traditions surrounding Hogmanay, which is a particularly special time for us compared to neighbouring countries for historical reasons. Some of these have fallen out of use over the years, but others have continued on in one form or another. In this wee post I’d like to look at one such custom and how it has changed to adapt to modern times 🗓

To introduce it, here’s a quote from Beating the Skin by Raghnall Mac Ille Dhuibh – originally published in the West Highland Free Press in 1988 & archived online on the wonderful The Quern-Dust Calendar website:

“There are a number of interesting aspects to the traditional
celebration of oidhche Challainn
(Hogmanay) in Gaelic Scotland,
but I would like to concentrate
here the one of the best remembered of them and ask - WHY?
At the centre of it, down to 1919
or so in Lewis was the dried skin of a bull or cow, in earlier limes a goat, or more recently a sheep. A party of gillean Callaig or balaich Callainn (Hogmanay lads - oidhche Challainn, unlike Hallowe’en, being strictly for the boys only) would go from house to house while others beat at the skin and the walls with sticks and clubs, chanting
a rhyme…”

➡️ Tap/click to read the rest of the article

Here’s an additional rhyme collected by folklorist John Gregorson Campbell in the mid-1800s – this relates to the above article from almost a century later mentioning the figure represented by the person wearing the skin sometimes being characterised as a Cailleach (old woman/hag):

“A Challainn a' bhuilg bhuidhe bhoicinn,
Buail an craiceann (air an tobhta) -
Cailleach sa chill,
Cailleach sa chùil,
Cailleach eile ‘n cùil an teine,
Bior 'na dà shùil,
Bior 'na goile
A' Challainn seo:
Leig a-staigh mi.”

“The Callainn of the yellow bag of hide,
Strike the skin (upon the wall) -
An old wife in the graveyard,
An old wife in the corner,
Another old wife beside the fire,
A pointed stick in her two eyes,
A pointed stick in her stomach
This Callainn:
Let me in, open this.”

📚 These – quite sinister! – quotes were taken from The Gaelic Otherworld by John Gregorson Campbell, edited by Robert Black. Just one of the many situations where the Scottish Gaelic title “Cailleach ” pops up throughout the year. This book of course has loads more info about Hogmanay customs and other Scottish Gaelic traditions. If you can’t get a hold of this particular, highly recommended, edition then the 2 books it’s mainly made up of – Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and Witchcraft and the Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands – are often easier to find.

🎧 Tobar An Dualchais also has recordings of people talking about their memories of this tradition so have a search and listen there or through their Facebook page.

🔥 Lastly, I was lucky enough to attend the Winter’s Last (2021) online event at the beginning of the year, and one of the speakers did a presentation on oidhche Challainn (Hogmanay) traditions of Stoneybridge, South Uist, where he grew up. It was great to hear about efforts to keep customs like the above mentioned “Hogmanay boys” going by going round the doors with groups of kids that include anyone who wanted to join, not just boys. It was also fascinating to see a demonstration of the Casein Uchd, also mentioned in Beating the Skin, in action. For anyone interested the speaker’s name was Kenny Beaton, a native Gaelic speaker who has worked on projects such as Tobar an Dualchais, and he can be found on Twitter with @coinneachpeutan.

I hope this post was an enjoyable read and got you thinking about Hogmanay in your area – what did people used to do? What do people still do now? 💭

📸 Featured photo credit: Pexel

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